It was one song into their set and I realized that my union card stating I was a member of the American Federation of Musicians was invalid. Me? A musician? After watching the Slocan Ramblers lay down some unbelievable bluegrass on Thursday night, I concluded the ‘Musician’ part of the equation be left for guys like this. They rambled through a set of such high caliber material, I was left drooling like some slack-jawed yokel – just the way a bluegrass outfit wants it. Welded to the couch in the back of this tiny dimly lit hotel suite, I sat with a radio DJ friend and we witnessed history: maybe not the making of history per se, but the reimagining of a musical genre, which suddenly sounded fresh again.
To watch these folks pick and grin with such precision, one could wrongly assume mathematicians were in the house. Had they over-polished their scales to the point of glossy refinement? No rough edges? No heart or humanity? You see, when done right, this traditional country jazz can be transcendent. Bill Munroe recordings still resonate in Japan (but then again so did Chilliwack so what does that really mean?) Bluegrass when performed wrong falls apart horribly. So often, it’s too mechanical and lifeless as the plethora of trust fund Berkley wannabee kids attempt to be the next Doc Watson. Some ultimately get the luxury of dismissing requests for Wagon Wheel as they progress beyond covers and into new artistic territory, while the majority go back to carpentry and meet in Tottenham once a year to play around their respective campfires. But hey, that’s just one guys opinion of how things work.
These guys breathed real life into every note. Now, maybe it was the whiskey speaking but they sure connected. Remember this name – The Slocan Ramblers. Much like their contemporaries, New Country Rehab, they’ll all be playing for larger crowds somewhere down the line – many years after the dust has settled. But that’s just one of thousands of moments shared by hundreds of us at The Delta Chelsea in Toronto this past weekend.
It was four days of the International Folk Alliance, usually held in the good ol’ USofA, and Toronto was awarded the grand prize this year. Folkies from around the world descended on this hotel like homegrown to a Zig-Zag, and sang, danced, fiddled, picked, plucked, talked, listened, imbibed, inhaled, wrote, read, attended lectures, jammed in stairwells until daybreak…you name it. You want to know where the musical zeitgeist of the here and now exists? I truly believe a lot of it was on display at this conference. Now, I ain’t no ethnomusicologist and I’d never want to be accused of embellishing tales as I’m want to do, but we all know there is likely a tribal ritual happening in the Congo – right now – which would alter our perception what real folk music is! I can hear the drums and see the dance, and something tells me they didn’t graduate from Humber. For the purposes of this discussion, however, we are talking a little bit about where art meets commerce, so it brings in immediate questions about intent and authenticity. Ya dig?
My good friend suggested I volunteer this year as I navigate my way through the maze that is this monolithic structure of the conference.(and save about $360 in conference registration fees – ok DONE) I arrived on Monday to help put up banners and move furniture along with some other volunteers. Part of that day’s volunteering duty was to alphabetize every name badge of every conference delegate for the registration desk. A team of eight of us worked in a circle, and suddenly I realized two things: the male brain does not work well at such tasks, and after an hour of sorting through the C’s, I looked up to see the girl-team well ahead. Luckily I was called away to shuffle around some empty boxes so I was relieved of this inhumanity. The second point: There were approximately two-thousand delegates attending! Two-thousand? I was seeing how tiny and potentially irrelevant my middle-aged one man troubadour narrative story telling dog and pony show actually IS in the whole scheme of things.
Then I thought about the undiscovered musicians and how they must feel. Then I thought about the other side of things with the bookers and management companies etc…the folks here to gauge the talent. So much of it? Where to start? How can an artist truly capture a ‘moment’ in a four song thirty minute set? How is it possible for this to resonate with anyone in this setting? For my money, it doesn’t work too well. I realize people do their best with what they’ve got but it feels like a broken system that is beyond repair. Why? Because there has yet to be an adequate solution to the main issue: Festival bookers, presenters, club owners etc….do not want to book artists sight unseen and would like to see them in some capacity – quickly and efficiently.
The artists can perform to the AD’s one at a time and a bingo! Problem solved. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way. It’s music. It’s like someone asking you to retell that joke. “Hey come on Aymar, tell everyone that story about that one time at band camp. You know, you had everyone in stitches when you told it last time!” The statement “it had everyone in stitches before” just killed the retelling of the story. Expectations are now high and the listener is guarded. You know it yourself when someone asks you do repeat something you’re good at. It feels like a setup and nine times out of ten, it backfires. Musical moments unfold over an evening. I know when I’m performing, I often don’t hit stride until about four songs in…like finding the wave…you gotta paddle out for a while, swim with the tide, wait for the moment then find your balance. Once you’re cruising, there’s no feeling like it and everyone can feel it with you. So with the structure of a thirty minute pitch set, coupled with preconceived expectations, the whole thing becomes a tough one. The idea for these Official Showcases, is that the bookers can see top quality artists in a controlled environment.
PART TWO – Unofficial Showcases
The artists who don’t get an official showcase can pay money to get involved with unofficial showcases. Three floors of the hotel are converted by willing participants (usually artists / or small management teams) into tiny makeshift stages: the idea being that everyone will have the opportunity to perform to the AD’s if the artists are willing to find and pay for a private showcase. The individual rooms on these floors are all converted into stages with a few chair strewn about. A trip to Dollarama – a few White Christmas lights, some banners, flyers galore – spam, door posters, cards, CD’s… shrapnel! (Where’s Holmes Hook reciting ‘Plant a Tree” when you need him!) The three floors take on a carnavelesque feel. I don’t think they do much to get the artist hired. (Maybe the occasional booking comes from them.) They likely make a few bucks for the conference organizers which is good for the bottom line of the conference I guess. It’s really about the party.
Tell me what did you see my blue eyed son:
I saw a guy with a top hat playing a flattop
I saw a girl with an accordion accompanying her sister
I saw a guy running around with a hockey stick banjo
I saw a million old friends made a million new ones
I went to some lectures and learned about touring
I wrote a good song at four in the morning
I had my first bottle of new coffee vodka
I learned to appreciate hard working assistants
I found a new Scottish friend living in south France
I broke down and ate some two-day-old pizza
And I landed some gigs outta this crazy weekend
And it’s a hard, hard rain…
Oh…you know the drill.
So there I was, yet again, lost in the three floor madness of it all. “It was late in the evening….and we stepped outside to smoke ourselves a jay”.
Anyway, I left my room to go on a walkabout through the Big Top and then…woosh…it hit me hard. It was all I could do to prop myself up against a door and look inside and watch some a cool band that for the life of me I cannot remember. As I stood there, I noticed a beautiful short brunette girl standing beside me writing in her note pad. Yep, Mr. Charming decided it was time to lay down some questions and do some ice breaking. (We stepped into the hall so we wouldn’t upset the performance underway.) As we chatted, I deduced she was of European decent judging from her accent. Thanks Columbo! (The following is from shoddy memory so forgive me but it’s all I can piece together):
“So are you a journalist?” I asked.
“No, I am just writing down random thoughts!”
“Wow, my kind of girl.” I responded.
“Why is that?” she said.
“Oh, because I’m a songwriter first, musician second. Writers intrigue me the most!”
And then I did something I never do. I went on to tell her I’d just busted up with my girlfriend and wondered if she’d be up for a coffee in the morning? Usually I’m never this aggressive but that damn giggle-stick gave me some strange paranoid game. Lol
To my inebriated amazement she said “Yes, but on one condition!”
“Sure, what’s that?” I responded.
“You tell me my name right now. Come on now, I just told you a minute ago.” Laughing as she said it.
I made the awkward conference gesture of having to look down at a woman’s chest to read her lanyard name badge to notice she had it turned it around. I was stumped. I threw out “Mary” for some reason and she laughed, complimenting me on the effort.
“I must go to bed, but I’ll be down in the lobby having a Starbucks tomorrow at 10:30am”. A quick hug and off she wandered into the sea of minstrels. It may have been the sweetest brush off of Aymar infamy (likely) OR she was a serious writer who trusted that deep down I was authentic too.
Things got a little blurry from there but the next three hours were filled with some amazing musical moments of jamming ecstasy. One by one, we played songs for each other – accompanied each other and dug deep.
This is where it’s at for me. Always has been. (100% better to be clean when it’s going down but often LIFE doesn’t let it happen without that fuel – just the way it is). Finally, the jam was over and the banjo player looked at me and said “Brother – I can tell you believe in peace. That’s cool!” For some reason I remember that!
I woke up the next morning…er…afternoon at 1pm and made my way back to the hallway and the room I was hanging in for the week. I was speaking with my friends about the day ahead and just across the way, I noticed her familiar face.
“Oh God. Aymar, you promised to meet her at 10:30. You idiot! She’s cute too!”
I waved in her direction. She waved back.
“Good sign” I thought to myself.
I walked over and just spilled the beans.
“Hey I’m really sorry about not making it this morning. I was a little intoxicated last night and I know we said we’d meet for coffee at 10:30 but I slept in.”
She looked at me with her beautiful green eyes, auburn hair, and spoke said with her delicate little Irish accent: “Pardon me? I don’t think I know you? You must have me confused with someone else?”
Flummoxed and red-faced I apologized and thought ‘hmmm…now what Aymar?’
I looked at her straight faced and said, “That’s too bad, because you seem like a great girl and I really need a coffee!” She quietly, discreetly pointed to a room door which her boyfriend was exiting and winked. I smiled and whispered ‘oops..thanks’. Again, it was either another sweet brush-off or it was truly her boyfriend walking our way. In both cases, I’ve convinced myself that these two women wished to run away with me for my next tour, however, it was just bad timing! Lol
Volunteering duties awaited me until I could finally go home and collapse. My commitment to the conference was a full five days. Monday morning to Friday night. I spent Saturday decompressing in my bed finishing Keith Richard’s autobiography LIFE. It made me feel a lot better about myself.
So, now back to the reality of existing on a folk troubadour’s wage. Two rehearsals this week followed by five shows over the next ten days. A fiddle, upright bass, guitar, vocals, songs, stories…what more does one soul need? I ask you?
On that note I’ll leave you with this one from Kris Kristofferson. (TO BEAT THE DEVIL)
“If you waste your time a-talkin’ to the people who don’t listen,
“To the things that you are sayin’, who do you think’s gonna hear.
“And if you should die explainin’ how the things that they complain about,
“Are things they could be changin’, who do you think’s gonna care?”
There were other lonely singers in a world turned deaf and blind,
Who were crucified for what they tried to show.
And their voices have been scattered by the swirling winds of time.
‘Cos the truth remains that no-one wants to know.