John McDermott is finally a folkie

Here’s a strange fact: John McDermott had never played a major* folk fest in Canada until Mariposa 2011. What’s with that?

Maybe it’s a branding issue. Sure, McDermott made his name singing “Danny Boy”, a folk song in the truest sense of the term, but some may feel “folk” these days is a little less trad, a little more rootsy. When you think John McDermott, you may think soft-seat theatres, the Irish Tenors, television specials. As for his audience: aren’t they more blue-hair than longhair; more Buick Regency than VW Van? Or so some might suspect.

Whatever the case, perhaps the eagerest of the newcomers at Mariposa’s 51st birthday was seasoned veteran John McDermott. And was he ever glad to be there.

Dressed for the occasion (on mainstage he wore a patchwork tartan jacket that would have frightened Don Cherry), McDermott seemed to revel in the opportunity to bring his brand of folk to an audience of folkies at last.

McDermott was all ease on stage, and no wonder. Backing him was one of the best bands in the country, led by guitar wizard Jason Fowler with George Koller on bass, Gary Craig on drums — masters both — and wunderkind Brian MacMillan on guitars and vocals.

Was it folk? You bet it was — and the folk audience ate up a set list that made perfect sense in front of a sea of festival chairs.

With nods to Bruce Cockburn, John Prine, and hometown hero Gordon Lightfoot, John McDermott proved his stuff is contextual. Yet he didn’t change much: avuncular humour, the classic vocal delivery for which he’s rightly famed, and standout arrangements of great songs make for a great show anywhere. Playing before special guest Ron Sexsmith and headliner Emmylou Harris with her brilliant band, McDermott showed he’s earned his place on the festival mainstage.

Yet he was equally at ease on the side stages, cool and casual for cooperative workshop sets in which he was an enthusiastic participant. In fact, McDermott showed the same class throughout the weekend that he did on mainstage. Not to mention fueling the after-hours jam with a level of energy any twenty-something would envy.

Maybe the soft-seater crowd and the folding-chair crowd are not so far apart after all. It’s worth noting that McDermott is practically a poster child for the independent artist, producing and manufacturing his own product. He also devotes vast time and energy to charities, including McDermott House Canada. In many ways he’s the perfect performer to bridge any perceived gap between demographic groups, as we discovered when we interviewed him in December of 2009.

Accessible, affable, and excited, John McDermott is a newcomer who looks like he’ll be staying. As for the folk festival audience — he wowed them. McDermott’s mainstage encore was genuine, instantaneous and unanimous.

And yes, he did “Danny Boy” – as an encore. What the heck — after all, it’s a folk song!

*McDermott and a previous incarnation of his band played Ingersoll’s Canterbury Folk Festival several years ago. Thanks to Kevin Rivers for that info.

David Newland hosted Mariposa mainstage, and had the pleasure of introducing John McDermott and his band at their festival debut.


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