Every once in a while, I find myself attending a concert or performance that resonates so strongly, I can’t help but think that there is no other place on the planet I’d rather be at that particular moment in time.
There were at least three performances this past summer that prompted such a response. One was Bill Frisell’s concert at the Citadel’s MacLab Theatre where any sense of time simply evaporated amidst a swirling sonic attack of breathtaking improvisation. Another was the Jesse Winchester concert in the Haven Social Club, the most intimate of spaces, where the modern day Stephen Foster rolled out a set of perfectly cut musical gems in front of a packed and cramped house. As a punctuation mark on the night, Winchester’s songs were cast into a space where the humidity made us feel like we were transported to a sweat-soaked Memphis night.
A few weeks later it was a main stage appearance at the Edmonton Folk Music Festival where Levon Helm, the famed drummer, vocalist from The Band presented, with considerable help from a large and gifted cast, a set that dispensed, with complete authority, all of the key elements of American roots music and rolled them into a joyful celebration of sound.
Unraveling the equation that presents these special windows hasn’t been a priority for this observer, but when I experienced two consecutive evenings of joy-filled artistic expression last week, I couldn’t help but examine what the common denominators were between these performances. One performance took place on Friday October 15 at the University of Alberta’s Convocation Hall and the other on October 16 in the Margaret Greenham Theatre at the Banff Centre.
Friday night found fiddle/violin master Matt Glaser
working in fairly spontaneous format with a cross-section of Alberta-based musicians for a concert sponsored by folkwaysAlive!
Glaser had arrived in town from Boston, where he teaches at the Berklee School of Music, and his mission was two-fold. One, inspire students on the U of A campus. Remind them that the world offers an infinite stream of sounds to wade in, while encouraging them to pursue their goals in a fearless yet reverent manner.
Secondly, this educator, bandleader, session musician, and fountain of knowledge also desired to get a taste of what makes this music community tick on at least one or two levels. On his first evening in town he found himself in Pleasantview Hall listening to a group of musicians share fiddle, folk and country songs in a weekly circle setting presented by the Northern Bluegrass Circle. He was thrilled by the sense of community, the wide range of experience, and the generous interaction he witnessed in the hall.
Witness him in concert, and one understands that this is an artist who lives in, and for, the moment.
That was the case on Friday night in Convocation Hall, where he led some fine homegrown musicians through a program that bounced from the blues of Bessie Smith to the hot chops of Stephane Grappelli to the swing of Bob Wills to Scottish fiddle reels.
The cast included a team of fiddlers, the great Calvin Vollrath, father and son fiddle team of Alfie and Byron Myhre, and young Daniel Gervais. Clint Pelletier held down the guitar chair, the brilliant jazz pianist Wayne Feschuk was at the grand piano next to upright bassist Travis Switzer, while blues chanteuse Kat Danser slipped in and out of the ensemble.
Glaser was introduced to these musicians just four hours before the concert hall doors opened. This guest host proved to be something of a musical alchemist as he steered and stirred the musicians, in various combinations, through performances built on both a deep understanding of particular genres and a considerable amount of spontaneity.
Glaser’s love affair with music is undeniably contagious. His physical reaction to inspired solos from Vollrath or Feschuk, or hearing his fellow fiddlers sail through a particular passage in unison, was worth the price of admission as this master musician stutter stepped his way across the apron of the stage like a marionette who had a couple of his strings snipped.
For those who have never stepped into one of Glaser’s worlds, the perfect place to start is with the Shifting Sands of Time recording by Glaser’s Wayfaring Strangers. This was a session where the instrumentalist put a number of adventurous spins on traditional material with a cast that included Tony Trischka, Tim O’Brien, Andy Statman and Lucy Kaplansky, and like Glaser’s work for filmmaker Ken Burns, Shifting Sands of Time will have a long, long shelf-life.
The inquisitiveness that partially drives Glaser was also one of the pronounced personality traits of Canadian novelist and musician Paul Quarrington
, who sadly passed away last January at the age of 56.
The Torontonian created an award-winning body of work that included King Leary, Whale Music, and The Ravine, and when he wasn’t pounding out a new literary gem, or casting a line into a trout filled stream, Quarrington could be found at centre stage as a member of the pop-roots ensemble The Pork Belly Futures.
Quarrington’s bandmates from Pork Belly Futures, along with a number of friends and associates, trotted out stories, songs and anecdotes at Banff Centre’s Margaret Greenham Theatre on Saturday October 16 before an audience of Quarrington fans and admirers. The celebration was a key event in the Anne Green-produced Wordfest.
While a much more tightly directed presentation than the Glaser concert, the celebration of Quarrington’s life as artist, friend, associate, and collaborator drove home the point that his successes were possible because he was willing to challenge himself, that he was driven, and disciplined, well at least when it came to setting himself down to write a fresh chapter or compose a new song. He loved his pursuits.
Like Glaser, Quarrington drew inspiration from his ever-expanding world. This was no solitary loner, locked in a room with a keyboard, as the world awaited his next work. Glaser borrows liberally from those who came before him or from whom he comes in contact with today, as did Quarrington. Guests at the Banff celebration offered up their share of humorous anecdotes concerning Quarrington, including journalist/playwright Drew Hayden Taylor. His was the story of Quarrington cleverly extracting information from him about life on First Nation reserves in the twenty first century, all gleaned for Quarrington’s need for material while writing treatments and scripts for a television show he had signed on with.
We were reminded that Quarrington’s work will continue to make an impact and find new audiences as the years slip by. For that matter the recent release of his solo album The Songs
, a new Pork Belly Futures disc titled The Crooked Road
, that includes a handful of songs he co-wrote, and his bittersweet memoirs recently published under the banner Cigar Box Banjo
, almost create the illusion that he is just around the corner adding to his substantial body of work.
Two shows celebrating the love of life, art, and community, and both shining the spotlight on two ridiculously gifted individuals, who have made very unique contributions to the world of culture and art, one still with us and one who has passed on. Two very special events that will not be replicated, as the set lists have been burned, and the odds of these two casts coming together again are more than remote.
You just have to love what this world serves up from time to time.