Dispatches from the Mariposa Folk Festival nightime stages day two (Saturday)
Having stayed up late writing about Friday night, we got up late Saturday and scurried off to the Barnfield Stage.
What a treat to see three generations of the McGarrigle-Wainwright family clan, as Martha Wainwright, Lucy Wainwright Roche, and several of their children joined surviving matriarch Anna McGarrigle (Kate passed away a few years ago) and longtime musical colleague Chaim Tannenbaum in a warm, comfortable set. Their repertoire ranged from classic songs of the south (like “Dark as a Dungeon” and “Shenandoah”) to French-Canadian folk songs (like “Entre La Jeunesse et La Sagesse,” which loosely translates as “between youth and wisdom”) to originals that were every bit their equal. After the six voices onstage broke down to just Anna, Martha, and Chaim, they harmonized on a gorgeous, moving version of the tender-hearted “(Talk to Me of) Mendocino.” Like everything the McGarrigle sisters ever did, the set was casual, winsome, and loving.
Frequent Mariposa performer Danny Michel was up next, and what a masterful, supremely engaging storyteller he is — before, after, and even during his songs. There’s the one about how he lovingly “stole” his pal and fellow singer-songwriter Steve Poltz’s song “A Brief History of My Life,” changing just enough details to make it his own, including the omnipresent Schneider’s sign on the 401, not far from Guelph (and he shouted out our mutual hometown of Kitchener, and even Oktoberfest, which I appreciated); the one about all the dated references in his song ”Two Hearts,” including his favourite rhyme, “no beepers or pagers” with “Farrah Fawcett, Lee Majors”; the one about how he hated the reference to a griddle in his song “Tennessee Tobacco,” ended up buying a stove with a griddle, and now loves both the actual object and the occurrence of the word in his song; and the hilarious, over-the-top one about how his environmental warning song “Feather, Fur, and Fin” led to him being introduced to leading global chimp researcher Jane Goodall, which ended up with them first in a chimpanzee hug, then drinking a scotch together (with many other people present) on her hotel room bed. Danny led audience singalongs, played tasty licks on his electric guitar, skillfully responded to everything in the moment (like a brief, sudden power outage), greeted attendees from as far away as Chicago, Calgary, and even Germany, and was a beacon of authentic joy and love for humankind. He and Steve (who watched most of the set from beside the stage) are touring central and Eastern Canada together in November, so buy your tickets now. You can thank me later.
Mariposa first-timers Les Fireflies – a trio of women from New Brunswick, proudly repping their Acadian culture — opened with all three playing fiddles on a traditional tune, to the beat of a well-stomped cowboy-boot heel. Their originals were captivating as well, and “Where You Gonna Sleep When You Get Home?” was a highlight, featuring their lovely three-part harmonies, and an audience singalong.
Then I was off to the Ruth Stage to catch the tail end of Clerel, who acknowledged his African roots with a bright two-piece clothing ensemble. He showed off a fairly stunning falsetto and called out the number of breakdown beats to his band, as James Brown did (“Gimme three! Gimme eight!”), but more gently. His positive, upbeat vibe was entertaining, and he easily got the crowd clapping along.
Nunavut-based Inuit sister duo PIQSIQ followed, and managed to blow a capacity crowd away with nothing but their two throat-singing voices and a looper. Their hypnotic soundscapes are huge and rich (a wall of sound, at times) for just two people, and it would be tempting to call them “otherworldly” – if their music didn’t feel so vividly connected to nature in our very own world. “We take inspiration from the world, like our ancestors,” they said. Their voices created the sounds of barking dogs, wind, birds, storms and animals, in music that was sometimes ethereal, and sometimes downright spooky. No lyrics, and everything is improvised in the moment, cued from a feeling, or to tell a story, with only sound. As they put it, “This concert won’t happen again.” It was a beautiful sharing of their culture, as they explained how one of their songs was the kind that’s sung to children as a blessing, casting a spell of protection, and another was meant to share the feeling of seeing the sun return, reflecting so brightly off the snow, after months of winter darkness in the far North.
After a break to give my listening ears a rest and get some food, I arrived at the Main Stage to see some of The Rural Alberta Advantage in their Mariposa debut. The trio, from Toronto, balance singer Nils Edenloff’s hard-strummed acoustic guitar and reedy-but-tough voice; Amy Cole’s melodic keyboards and sparkling harmonies, and Paul Banwatt’s hard-pounding drums. In fact, it’s the rhythm that drives the band; several times, both Paul and Amy were pounding away at tom-toms to magnify the big beat, and at one point they even cracked two sets of drumsticks against each other. Not to mention Edenloff whanging away on his axe to add another layer. Ironically, they spoke to the crowd quite quietly, but perhaps they aren’t used to such a large crowd, or maybe they just wanted to have the music speak loudest.
Carsie Blanton did a short pop-up set (formerly known as “tweeners”) between the scheduled acts, and she was an interesting cross between an acoustic version of political punk icons The Clash (never more so than in her excellent song “Rich People”), the playfulness of ‘60s folksinger Melanie, and the guitar-chord structures of David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust period. It’s hard to work a crowd that’s stuck in the rain, as you play in between sets, when you’re only armed with a single acoustic guitar and your electric bassist. But Carsie has a lot of moxie, her songs are good, and I look forward to seeing her again under better circumstances.
Tegan and Sara played Mariposa once before, in 2001, as a young duo of queer, indie-rock, twin-sister kids from Calgary; 20-odd years later, they took to the mainstage as full-fledged pop stars and LGBTQ2S+ icons, with their own charitable foundation, arriving on the heels of writing a bestselling book about their high school years, which has now been turned into a successful TV series. So it was wonderful to see them playing music again, and re-visiting so many of the well-written and compelling songs from throughout their career. “Back in your Head,” much more muscular than the recorded version, was a very welcome presence. Acknowledging the reality of playing a folk festival, they broke it down to playing just as an acoustic duo, and did stunningly beautiful, two-part harmony versions of “Fool For Love” and “Boyfriend.” Nobody warned them about the notorious Mariposa Main Stage annual nighttime bug-fest, so they were taken aback by the swarm of flies, mosquitos, moths, and the like. Sara put on a pair of sunglasses to try and cope, and in the end they asked for the bright stage lights to be dimmed so as to attract fewer of the little creatures. (Which worked enough to reduce the problem somewhat.) Tegan was so impressed with the warm, loving vibe of people at the festival, that she offered to stay in someone’s tent for the night instead of her hotel room. It might have been a joke, but it seemed a real enough comment at the time.
I briefly left the Main Stage to wander over to the Pub Stage, and I definitely came at the right time. The Trews Acoustic were rocking out, singing a call-and-response “I wanna play, I wanna celebrate” to a packed-like-sardines crowd. As a longtime rock band originally from Newfoundland, led by brothers Colin and John-Angus Macdonald, they know how to work a crowd, even when playing acoustic guitars, accompanied by an accordion. “We were at this songwriter award event one time,” Colin told the audience, “and we met Gordon Lightfoot. He said our songs were good. That’s one of the greatest compliemts we’ve ever had. So we’re gonna play a Gordon Lightfoot song.” And so they did, acknowledging the local Orillia hero and constant presence at Mariposa with a strong, country-ish take on “Steel Rail Blues.” It was a pretty awesome moment, in a day full of them.