By John Swartz
If there was one word to describe Saturday’s Mariposa Folk Festival events it’s miracles because there were a few which happened. One was spiritual in nature, and two others -one more so than the other – that saved the day/night.
It’s difficult to say whether Mavis Staple’s performance or the Strumbellas is the bigger story, so the telling will be in order.
Is I waited in the pit in front of the stage to take photos, I noticed the throng of people standing on the other side of the barrier. It was a much older and much bigger crowd than the night before. I couldn’t really tell where the back of the mob was and it stretched left and right well past the stage.
Then Mavis Staples band came out, started to play and the air changed. It’s trite to say there was electricity surging from the crowd toward the stage, with me and the other photographers caught in the middle. Then Mavis stepped on stage and if the voltage jumped only a few digits higher there would have been arcs of electricity to dodge. The crowd roared and cheered and clapped. This happened only one other time; the first time Gordon Lightfoot showed up to play a few songs between sets after he almost died was the other.
Something magical was happening and unlike my usual routine of getting some pics, listening to a few tunes, and heading off to the other stage to do the same, I decided to stay because I was sure this was going to be a moment I would regret missing.
It turned out to be 45 minutes of beauty, majesty, and great grooves. Mavis’s command of the stage and the audience was visceral. The power of her singing and performance was among the top 1% I have witnessed, and I have lead a charmed life being present for so many concerts by so many heavyweights. Each tune she began got cheers of approval from the audience, who I think were as moved as I was. The guitar solos by her long-time band member, Rick Holmstrom, were not the most technically flashy, but the construction of them, the simplicity and the fact one couldn’t imagine solos taking any other shape was textbook exquisite.
After a few tunes she addressed the audience, and her words echoed those reported from yesterday’s festival events.
“I am so happy to be here with you today, so much joy, so much beauty. I’m in the right place now,” she said. She said this to a crowd in the concert bowl that appeared from the get go to be as large the previous evening’s when the last set happened.
I mentioned yesterday the crowd looked to be 8 or 9 thousand strong. Apparently the SUNonline/Orillia crowdometer has a bug in it because festival chair, Pam Carter, said it was over 10 thousand on Friday night.
The power of Mavis Staples on people was evidenced by dozens of other festival performers standing in the wings of the photography pit. It was like a magnet was drawing them in because as the set progressed more singers and members of other bands were trying to find a spot and not be visual blocks to those behind.
When it was evident the Mavis was going to do her last song, a few people were making predictions what it would be, several thought she would do The Weight. I would have won the pool because she did I’ll Take You There, “She won’t get out of this park if she doesn’t do that song,” I said. The validation for that comment came when the bass line intro was played and the crowd went nuts.
Mavis sat down to sing for part of the song and through the extended bridge. When she got back up she said she gets to do that because, “I’m almost 83.” In fact today is her birthday and she is now 83 years old (but looking and acting mid 60s).
The she was gone and everyone was starting to feel the energy draining. It was a little hotter than Friday and I think many, like me, never really recovered energy after that performance.
I was in the park mid afternoon because I am part of the stage announcer crew and had three assignments. Up in the pub I was quickly pressed into service to take the mic and give the act on stage their final due, which I had not planned to be doing. I did OK, for the most part, except I butchered the name of one of the performers, Youngtree and the Blooms. I blame hastily made notes and crappy handwriting, but the band said I was not the first to make my particular mistake. Nevertheless, it happened I was also the announcer for their evening appearance in the pub and got mild applause from the band when I didn’t blow it. They are good people, between sets we even had dinner together.
The band is from Newfoundland and on a hunch I asked if their music could be described as Kitchen Party songs. I got a – well, not really, maybe – kind of response. Wouldn’t you know the first tune they played was exactly the kind of thing I would call a Kitchen Party tune, quick-paced and busy I’m glad I got to meet them and hear some of their music.
Backing up to the first pub function in the afternoon. I was disappointed when I saw the list of stage announcer assignments, because I had asked to do them for Kayla Mahomed and I didn’t get one. It turned out her name got left off a the workshop I was to announce (playing with Tami Neilson, Rup Loops and This Way North), so this was my personal miracle.
The set started with Tami’s powerful singing and continued with an equally powerful rendition of Kayla’s It Must Be Nice. The pub was full and the one two punch opening the set was enthusiastically received.
Back to the evening timeline: just prior to the redemptive pub announcing gig, at the main stage Murray McLauchlan was being inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. I don’t know the award has ever been given outside of Toronto where turning it into a media event is easy, so this was a big affair to have happen at the festival.
Backstage was busy with Gordon Lightfoot, his wife Kim and staff, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Murray’s wife, and one Mariposa performer after another showing up to offer congratulations.
Meanwhile Aysanabee, who is from Sandy Lake, which is very far north in Ontario near the Manitoba border, was doing a short, between the main acts, set at the side of the stage. He was captivating, with a great voice and a unique style of guitar playing that combines tapping and finger picking styles. He drew a group of the other performers to come and watch. In fact Denise Donlan, Murray McLaughlin’s wife and former head of Much Music and Sony Music Canada, was drawn away from the back stage shenanigans to come to the pit and take some photos with her phone and listen to Aysanabee. This is the kind of chance happening that could turn into a miracle career booster.
After Aysanabee was done, the award ceremony took over focus. Gord did the introduction.
“We had wine, we had songwriting, music and got a chance to chase the women with our departed friend Ronnie Hawkins,” Gord said of their long friendship. “It’s my great pleasure to present this to Murray.”
“It’s great that Gord would deign to appear here and do this honour to me. I’m very appreciative of his being here. Thank you Gordon very much,” Murray said.
“It’s a real honour to be able to do something for your whole life that hopefully, when it’s all done, makes the world just a tiny bit better than it used to be.”
“You don’t really want to hear people talking, you want to hear some music, so let’s bring out Blackie and the Rodeo Kings,” Murray said.
Murray picked up a harp and Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing bounced onto the stage like a bunch of kids heading out to recess, strapped up and launched into Down By The Henry Moore. The guys looked like they were having the time of their life playing that song at that moment.
Later in the BARK set they did a cover of Gord’s Summer Side of Life. I had wandered away from the stage but could still hear the show well – and the crowd’s approval when they launched into the tune.
Irish Mythen was supposed to do a short set at the side of the stage after BARK, but she was trapped in Europe because of missed connecting flights, and I understand her guitar was broken by baggage handlers. I hope it’s repairable.
So the next miracle of the evening needed to happen. If Irish Mythen, who is from the East Coast, couldn’t be there, why not have a singer from Ireland, Susan O’Neill, fill in?
I think many in the audience were familiar with Irish Mythen and what she can do with 20 minutes of music to create enthusiastic pandemonium, but O’Neill put those thoughts out of mind. She sings very well – and plays trumpet, which she used for a couple tunes near the end of her set.
It never occurred to me you can loop a trumpet. We’ve all seen scores of musicians do looping with guitars, building layers of sound to compensate for not having an orchestra on hand. Let me tell you how awesome, when done right, it can be with a trumpet. O’Neill built a three part harmony line, and played a melody over the built tracks the first time she whipped the effect on the audience. The bridge built in volume and chromatically to a climax and she came back in with her voice. The effect was magical and the ohhs & aahhs and applause from the audience was too. O’Neill has a great and smooth tone and excellent dynamic control of her trumpet playing
Meanwhile, back stage there was a controlled panic happening. As I made my way to the pit when O’Neill was starting her set, I heard the headliners, The Strumbellas, weren’t in even in the park – and they were up next
I am piecing this bit together from accounts from several people. Chris Hazel, who runs the Mariposa office downtown, said the band flew in from a gig out west; Saskatoon or Winnipeg he thought, but wasn’t sure which.
The next bit of the story is they missed a connection, got to Pearson very late and no one from the airline or at the airport would help them with their gear. They rented several cars, packed up and ‘raced,’ so I’m told, up the highway.
At some point about when I first started hearing all this, one of the band members called to say they were on their way. This was after several unanswered calls from Mariposa folks to the band to find out where they were.
They arrived in the park in a cloud of dust, and it was all hands on deck to unload the cars and rush the gear to the stage. O’Neill was still doing her 20 minute set at this point.
On top of that there was a technical issue because I noticed the stage crew running a new audio snake, which carries wiring for many – usually 16 or 24 – microphones or instrument inputs.
Now you’d think the crowd would be getting unruly with the delay at this point, which for this timeline is only about half an hour, but, Mariposa had the incredibly good fortune to have Mike McCormick and Trevor Strong of the Arrogant Worms as stage announcers for the evening.
Those guys found a guitar and proceeded to sing their comedic material (all their hit, and other familiar tunes) and basically keep the audience in good cheer throughout the ordeal. I didn’t do a time check, so I don’t know how long they pacified the audience, but they did at least ten tunes and used an equal amount of time with humourous running commentary.
Then the Stumbellas were ready, and they started with a song that is as in your face as it can get and the audience went nuts, once again.
That was the last miracle of the night. I’m sure the stage crew will be talking about this for years to come – and they are to be congratulated for keeping things under control and getting the job done. The band needs to be congratulated too for making their appearance at the festival a mission of high importance.
(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia) Main: Headline performers, The Stumbellas, at Saturday night’s Mariposa Folk Festival.