ANOTHER GREAT FOLKING FESTIVAL

The line-up was skimpier than past years, Sunday clashed with the final of a riveting, month-long World Cup and the sun was hot enough to boil a monkey’s bum, but once again, the Vancouver Folk Music Festival cast its magic over me and thousands of other attendees with its annual mix of good vibes, a setting to die for and outstanding music. Even at my increasingly creaky and cranky advanced age, I found myself dancing, most notably at a wonderful, spirited workshop jam session involving Little Miss Higgins, Les Poules à Collin and Petunia & the Vipers. Thankfully, there were no cameras in sight, and the young people politely refrained from giggling. There were a few other highlights.

Ry Cooder. The 71-year old guitar and world music legend closed the Festival with an exhilarating set that, for the first time in memory, was allowed to go past the traditional 11 p.m. deadline. In addition to his slow, entrancing slide guitar and langorous vocals that leave you lingering on every word, Cooder’s set reflected his growing anger at what is happening in the United States. After drawing laughs with a derisive mention of their bully president in a song, Cooder told us: “You may laugh at Trump up here, but it’s not funny anymore.” Well known for drawing attention to those dealt a raw deal in life, his songs are developing a harder edge, as he gets older and more enraged. He’s re-worked Woody Guthrie’s classic Vigilante Man to include the fatal shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a security guard in Florida. He’s also uncovered a terrific, finger-wagging song from 90 years ago by Blind Albert Reed, You Must Unload. It reminds “fashion-loving Christians….money-loving Christians….[and] power-loving Christians” that they must “unload” if they want to get to heaven. Called back to the stage for an encore, he did three more songs, including his joyful, rollicking, long-time favourite, Little Sister. Bliss from beginning to end.

Rodney Crowell. The consummate American songwriter, who was married to Rosanne Cash for 13 years, is not as well known as he should be, preferring to write songs that others turn into hits and releasing albums that are beautifully under-stated, rather than showy. But his long set on Saturday night was a treasure. It’s been a while since an acoustic artist was able to hold a late night Festival crowd as Crowell did. But with his straight-ahead, honest lyricism about busted relationships, dusty roads, the beauty of an empty landscape and the never-ending search for meaning, he cast a spell. Adding to the mix were two marvelous young musicians accompanying the master, Irishman Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle and Joe Robinson from Australia on guitar. As the sun set spectacularly over Burrard Inlet, it was all rather magical.

At the Sunday morning gospel hour, my perennially favourite workshop, Vancouver’s formidable soul mistress Dawn Pemberton tore the proverbial (open air) roof off the joint, with her exuberant, soaring version of Testify. She had us all standing and shouting out the chorus, while her own voice might have been heard within the Pearly Gates, themselves. Hallelujah, sister. You’re a true force of nature.

Dhakabrakha had to be seen to be believed. At times, the Ukrainian quartet appeared and sounded more like performers beamed in from outer space than anyone with a regular presence on Planet Earth. In defiance of the early evening heat, the three women in the group wore tall, conical fur hats, along with their flowery “peasant” dresses. As one would expect when suddenly confronted by space aliens, there was initial puzzlement among the masses. No worries. The crowd was quickly captivated by their high-pitched voices, odd sounds, traditional songs from rural Ukraine and a pounding rhythm. At the end, we rose as one to salute them. Wild.

(Lucie McNeill Photo)

Three Women and The Truth. TWATT, as they laughingly decided not to call themselves, were folk festival favourites, Mary Gauthier and Eliza Gulkyson, plus Gretchen Peters, whom I hadn’t heard before. If you feel like having your heart broken (in a good way), give Gauthier’s Mercy Now a listen. All three are accomplished feminist and progressive song-writers. But they also produced one of the best laughs at the festival, besides my “dancing”. Looking out over the large crowd, and the darkening North Shore mountains beyond, silhouetted by the setting sun, Gulkyson mused: “I feel like I’m in an alternate universe.” Responded Peters: “You’re in Canada.”

Why isn’t Alex Cuba more of a star? I mentioned his name to a few of my folkie friends, who gravitated towards the edgy likes of Wallis Bird and Carol Pope (both great, by the way….), and received blank stares in return. Cuba and his musician brother emigrated from Fidel-andia in 1999. Since going solo, the pride of Smithers, where he lives with his wife and three children, has got better and better. His fast-paced mixture of jazz, funk, pop and Latin rhythms has won him a Juno, two Grammy nominations and four Latin Grammys. He seems to enjoy every moment on stage, while maintaining a resolute cool. His hour-long set had us rocking. Late Sunday afternoon, in one of those inspired workshops, he and his band were paired with a lively, traditional Mexican band from Veracruz. With his electric guitar, groovy Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, Cuba seemed light years in hipsterdom from the rural, white-shirted Mexicans. But of course they meshed with obvious delight, highlighted by Cuba trading electric guitar licks with the cool cat playing the upright bass (!) for Son de Madera. An impromptu festival moment. Olé!

(Folk Music Festival photo)

Vancouver underground legend Art Bergmann was there. Now old enough to qualify for concession bus fares, Bergmann showed he still had bite. At shady Stage 2, expertly managed by the venerable Les Hatfield, he did We’re All Whores At the Company Store, a savage rewriting of Merle Travis’s famous Sixteen Tons. We joined in on the catchy chorus. Nothing like warbling criminals of capitalism” on a hot Sunday afternoon. When Just Duets concluded the “Change is Gonna Come” workship with a lovely cover of Steve Earle’s Christmas in Washington, Bergmann yelled out “Winnipeg General Strike 1919!”. Yo, bro.

There I was, sitting in the sun when a large shadow suddenly loomed over me. Turned out that my space was being intruded upon by an actual expert on space, the redoubtable president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada. Yes, it was my longtime friend Chris Gainor, making his annual Folk Festival appearance. No longer wearing his “Beer Not Bombs” button or T-shirt reading “As a matter of fact, I am a rocket scientist”, his outer space eminence was his usual jolly self, regaling me with tales of early Soviet cosmonaut Konstantin Petrovich Feoktistov…

Neko Case! ‘nuff said. Oh yeah, and a guy dancing with an IPad on his head. Perfectly normal.

And now a word from our sponsor. I’ve attended most of Vancouver’s 41 Folk Music Festivals, and never failed to have a wonderful time. Those who pooh-pooh or scorn the Festival don’t know what they’re missing. But, like most attendees, I’ve been a bit of a free rider. I haven’t always been a member and rarely made a donation. To be blunt,, I have not been paying my Folk Festival dues. But the Festival doesn’t appear each year by magic, and this year, with matters a bit more tenuous, I made a special offering to the Folk Festival gods. Because the board has lined up a number of people pledging to match all donations, my donation was then doubled. I invite everyone to do the same. It’s the least we can do, lest our beloved Festival fade off into the sunset.

 

 

 

 

 

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LADNER’S JAMES PAXTON, AKA “BIG MAPLE”: HIS HISTORIC NO-HITTER AND MORE

When James Paxton came out for the bottom of the ninth against the hometown Toronto Blue Jays, he was pumped. Three outs away from an historic no-hitter, the steely hurler from Ladner, BC was not going to lose it by nibbling around the edges of the plate with sliders and curve balls. He came right at the Blue Jay hitters with fast balls. Despite having already thrown 92 pitches and never having pitched a complete game in his six-year, injury-plagued career, they were his fastest of the night. One broke the 100 mph barrier (160 kilometres per hour in Ladner). All seven were strikes. Anthony Alford fouled out on the first pitch. Hot-hitting Teoscar Hernandez went down swinging on three blazing fastballs. And dangerous Josh Donaldson lashed the ball hard, but straight at the Seattle Mariners’ smooth-fielding third baseman Kyle Seager. He threw carefully over to first, and that was that. Game, set, match. James Paxton was in the record books with a no-hitter, only the second thrown by a Canadian in the major leagues since the dawn of time.** And of course, it was also the first by a Canadian pitcher on his home and native land.

As Paxton’s team-mates mobbed him on the mound, Blue Jay fans stood and cheered their fellow Canadian. Before leaving the field, he acknowledged the crowd by gesturing towards them with the big maple leaf tattooed on his non-throwing right arm.

Canadian players are no longer a rarity in the big leagues. But some, once they get caught up in “America’s Pastime”, tend to downplay their Canadian heritage. (Hello there, Joey Votto. https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/mariners/fellow-canadian-joey-votto-apologizes-after-dissing-james-paxtons-no-hitter/) Not James Paxton. He has remained true to his hometown roots in bucolic Ladner. “Games in Toronto are the only ones they see us play, so it’s awesome that it was on TV in Ladner,” he told a post-game interviewer.

His parents Barb and Ted, uncle Lindsay and aunt Lisa had gathered at the family home in Ladner to watch the game. As the innings rolled by, they nervously abided by baseball’s deeply held superstition that no-hitters are never mentioned until the final out, lest they be jinxed. But when Seager’s throw disappeared into first baseman Ryon Healy’s glove, the emotional lid blew off. “We were all out of our seats with tears in our eyes,” Ted told Bob Elliott of the Canadian Baseball Network. “There was a lot of hooting and hollering going on.” Not long afterwards, James’ younger brother Tom walked in the back door, after finishing his construction shift, eyes agog. “He was in the same bewildered state as the rest of us,” said Pops Paxton, who reminded Elliott that last week’s gem against the Jays was not his son’s first no-hitter. He tossed one against Ridge Meadows when he was 12 and still has the baseball at his home in Seattle.

Back at the Rogers Centre in Toronto, as low-key, modest and Canadian as possible under the circumstances, Paxton paid tribute to his team-mates for making his no-hitter possible with several outstanding fielding plays. Then he explained his heartfelt wave to the fans, despite all their Blue Jay jerseys: “I wanted to show my respect to the Canadian crowd, to show them I had heard them and I appreciated that…I’m just so honoured to be Canadian and throw our country’s second no-hitter. And to have it happen in Canada…I mean, what are the odds? This is very special.” He noted, ruefully, that the first time he pitched for the Mariners in Toronto he’d been clobbered for nine runs.

Paxton’s Canadian pride and purposeful maple leaf tattoo have led his Seattle team-mates to tag him with an actual nickname, beyond adding a lame “sy” to his name. He’s Big Maple. In the middle of the tattoo, as a further nod to his upbringing, there is a depiction of Bowyer Island, a wee isle five kilometres north of Horseshoe Bay, where his family had a cabin. “I’ve been living out of Canada for 10 years now, and it reminds me of my family and home.”

Canada has been a tad late to embrace the James Paxton story, perhaps because he plays for Seattle out on the west coast, far from the home of the Jays and the self-proclaimed “centre of the Canadian baseball universe”. Also diminishing his profile has been a frustrating series of injuries that have put him on the disabled list year after year. Until last year’s dozen victories, he had never managed more than six wins or better than 121 innings in a season. So the height of his pre-no-hitter fame may have been early this April, when a befuddled bald eagle lit down on Paxton’s right shoulder during the American national anthem. Video of the bizarre incident and the pitcher’s remarkable sangfroid were a huge hit on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hxnx_VbN2A8 Some have suggested the eagle may have been channeling the spirit of his grandfather Lawrie, who died the morning of his grandson’s first major league start.

As it happened, I was there for that memorable game in the fall of 2013. Not by design, but thanks to tickets bought months earlier to complement a planned trip Seattle by taking in nine innings at beloved Safeco Field, a ballpark I never tire of. Expecting little from a routine contest between the mediocre Mariners and anonymous Tampa Bay Rays, I’d been pleased to learn that a pitcher from the Fraser Valley would be making his first appearance in “the show” that night. Even though I hadn’t heard much about James Paxton it was something to look forward to. And a fellow I met in the washroom before the game, one of many rooters who’d made the trip down from Ladner, assured me that Paxton was the real deal, despite his indifferent 8-11 record at Triple A Tacoma. “He’s hot. You watch him tonight.” The urinal guy was right. Showing no sign of nerves, Paxton pitched like a veteran and won the game. The memorable evening was made even better by running into his brother and uncle at the game.

You can read what I wrote here:

https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/kid-from-ladner-hits-the-big-time/

I’ve followed his career closely ever since. I even have an autographed James Paxton baseball jersey. He donated it to a fund-raiser for local recovery houses, and there was no way I was going to be outbid! Savvy investor that I am, it’s surely now gone up in value.

The no-hitter and all the ensuing attention could not have happened to a more deserving guy. For those who think professional athletes are little more than pampered zillionaires, Paxton’s life and times in baseball are a testament to perseverance and sheer, hard work. Nothing has come easily. He inched his way up the ladder, with time in North Delta, the University of Kentucky and Alaska, before moving on to the illustrious Grande Prairie HairHogs, Clinton LumberKings, Jackson Generals, and finally to Tacoma, hometown of Neko Case. Gradually, he learned the craft of pitching, beyond simply throwing. Then, just when he finally made the bigs, he was stricken by injury after injury. Only 13 starts in each of 2014 and 2015. In 2016, he was sent back down to Tacoma, before being recalled. Last year, after not yielding an earned run in three starts, he was on the disabled list once more. In July he was 6-0, when, right on cue, a “left pectoral muscle strain” sidelined him yet again. Talk about being star crossed.

But “quit” isn’t in Paxton’s vocabulary. He’s come back more times than that pesky skunk under the neighbour’s porch. And lately, something has seemed to click. The game before his no-hitter, he struck out 16 batters on a mere 105 pitches, a major league record. Is the young man from Lander at last on the verge of showing the baseball world what having an “Eh game” is all about.

 

** (The first hitless game by a Canadian in the majors was tossed by Dick Fowler agains the old St. Louis Browns, while pitching for 82-year old Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics on Sept. 9, 1945. Even more remarkable was the fact that Fowler’s feat came on his first start after spending three years in the Canadian army. There’s nothing quite like baseball.)

 

 

 

 

THE NIGHT WE STOLE OLD JESSE’S BEER

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Jesse Winchester, who passed away Thursday after a brief, renewed bout with cancer, was well loved by many Canadians, including me, not only for his immaculate musicianship and songwriting, but for his unique status amid the turbulent generational clashes of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Refusing to be drafted to fight in Vietnam, he left the States in 1967, drifting across the border to Montreal. “I didn’t see going to a war I didn’t believe was just, or dying for it,” he told an interviewer many years later.

It was there he cut his musical teeth, playing in coffee houses around the city and producing his wonderful, self-titled first album, produced by The Band’s Robbie Robertson. It contains some great songs, including one of my favourites, The Brand New Tennessee Waltz. Yankee Lady was another song many admired, though I never cared much for the title. I’m also a fan of  That’s a Touch I Like  and Snow (welcome to Canada, Jesse!). That’s my well-worn, vinyl edition of the album at the top of this blog.

Winchester was not one of those draft dodgers who pined to be back in his native land. He embraced Canada and Montreal, becoming a Canadian citizen in 1973. I loved the stamp he put on his new country with the title of his second album, Third Down and 110 To Go, a whimsical reference to Canadian football, as opposed to the four downs and 100-yard field that prevail in the United States. If memory serves, since my copy of the album is not readily at hand, it has some folksy shots of his sparse Montreal apartment, plus touching liner notes penned by the city’s dominant rock critic, Juan Rodriguez, who concludes with something like “…and the Habs are at the Forum tonight.” It was all very homespun, in keeping with Winchester’s own pared down, mostly acoustic approach.

He further underscored his devotion to Canada for taking him in, with a delightful song on his third album that plays off an old gospel tune extolling Franklin D. Roosevelt. It’s surely the only song ever written in praise of Lester B. Pearson, who, as Prime Minister, defied the might of America by refusing to return draft dodgers and deserters from their safe haven in Canada. It was one of the best decisions a Canadian prime minister ever made, and we have reaped the benefit of all those bright, committed newcomers ever since. The song is great fun. Give it a listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XtGCmDP2qh0

And now, my Jesse Winchester story. It was the winter of 1973. I was in Edmonton working for the Journal, when I noticed that he would be in town for a gig at some pub or other at the University of Alberta, just a few blocks from our “hippie house “on 80th Avenue. I’d been raving about Winchester to my friends, so I persuaded a bunch of them to go. Sadly, my hero gave a disengaged, disappointing performance. He spent a lot of time playing the flute with his band, perhaps because his voice was a little hoarse. The show was also quite short. He seemed to want to be anywhere but Edmonton on this freezing, February evening. While my friends wondered what I saw in this lacklustre guy, I felt ripped off.

Grousing and grumbling, we headed out a fire exit beside the bandstand. And there, on the landing, was a case of beer, just sitting there in the snow. I felt sure the brewskies were being kept cold for Jesse and the boys in the band. Aha, thought I, payback time. We grabbed the case, and had a fine old time drinking Jesse’s brew for the rest of the night. I’m not sure beer ever tasted better, or more deserved. Revenge was sweet. Sorry, Jesse. Rest In Peace. I do hope that the place where folksingers go when their time on earth has passed has a couple of cold ones for you. You’re a fine tunesmith, a fine musician and an especially fine man.

images-1Meantime, we’ll always have this. Not everyone can transfix both a teary Neko Case and Elvis Costello with just  a ‘simple’ song: ‘https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5uKGWpqnS8E