A FAN’S NOTES
‘The sun machine is coming down and we’re going to have a party.’ Outdoor music festivals are never quite the idylls of the hippie Eden in David Bowie’s cracked imagination. There’s the hassle of funneled access to the grounds. The weather’s always a crapshoot. Concession prices are a rip-off. There’s the fetid misery of portable toilets and the hell of other people. But when they come off in spite of everything, like Edmonton’s just concluded third annual Interstellar Rodeo, wow.
The festival is the brainchild of Six Shooter Records (Motto: Life’s too short to listen to shitty music). The Heritage Amphitheatre in the river valley’s Hawrelak Park has 1200 permanent seats beneath a great white canopy which is anchored by steel cables as thick as a human wrist. The grassy slopes of the upper bowl accommodate another 1800 or so souls with their blankets and lawn chairs. You can track down a friend on site with minimal texting. Billed musicians mingle with the crowd either unrecognized or politely ignored; some are well known while others are fresh mysteries waiting to be heard and seen. Each performer is whimsically paired with a suggested wine although there’s a reputable beer sponsor, thank God. There are food trucks and picnic tables. The scale of Interstellar Rodeo is incredibly and delightfully human.
As a music fan and a member of the greater community, I dearly hope that Interstellar Rodeo becomes an established midsummer ritual here in Edmonton. Selfishly, I wish it only limited success down the road. This year’s edition did not get off to a good start. Last Friday’s launch was postponed to the following Monday due to marching sheets of rain propelled by winds of a high and scary velocity. The amphitheatre’s canopy did not blow away like an empty plastic shopping bag, much to the relief of city officials and the insurance adjuster. However, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, my current beautiful obsession, had to pull out of the chute as two thirds of the ad hoc group had solo scheduling conflicts beyond their Friday night slot.
Saturday was worse although the weather was decent. Dave Bidini may qualify as the most interesting man in Canadian pop culture. The author, Saturday National Post columnist and former Rheostatics (what a great name for a band) guitarist brought his new Bidiniband combo to town to kick off the brand new day. Meanwhile Ann and I were attending a memorial service, followed by the weird family dynamics that manifest with death at a mournful gathering. Earth Mother and Sky Father both agree there are some peculiar cults around; the pastor’s heart exploded, staining the stained glass. The triangular white bread sandwich morsels contained Spam. Maybe Spork. And selfishly I thought it’s good to be alive and we could and should be having a lot more fun. We missed Lee Fields and the Expressions too. We finally arrived at the festival in a funereal funk. Feist in Hydra? Whatever. Eight bucks for a beer!? Oh, they’re big tins. Still… What a lovely setting. The toilets don’t smell too, too bad.
Sunday belonged to the 22nd state to join the union south of 49. Two acts from Alabama won the day in back-to-back sets. St. Paul and the Broken Bones write letters not to the Corinthians but to Stax Records in Memphis. Front man Paul Janeway in a purple suit and white shoes moves like John Belushi in full manic Blues Brothers mode. It was almost comical but good God, y’all, the man’s voice is as big as his band’s sound. If these guys ever come to your town, pay the cover charge and stay out late on a school night.
Reformed Drive-By Trucker Jason Isbell took the stage with gremlins. A couple of technical glitches during the set prompted a wry, ‘I know it might not seem like it, but we have played concerts in the past.’ No drama. No histrionics. Twenty-thirteen’s Southeastern is now a must purchase. The pre-crash Skynyrd, Stonesy hurricane of ‘Super 8’ (‘I don’t wanna die in a Super 8 motel’) is mysterious in that it’s not massive; the song by all rights should be a career-defining artistic albatross, the war horse that must be played night after night. ‘Super 8’ should be blasting through the open windows of every muscle car prowling the main streets and back roads of North America.
Monday night was Friday night cobbled together and re-imagined. Tom Wilson of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and Lee Harvey Osmond and formerly of Junkhouse played a fantastic, vibrant solo acoustic set. Afterward we joined a short line near the merchandise kiosk to get our new Kings of Love double CD signed by the sweating and still wired performer.
meGeoff: ‘I hope you have a Sharpie because I don’t!’ Oh the wit! Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward are giggling with green envy.
Tom Wilson: (Blank stare. Signs CD sleeve. Proffers hand to shake.)
meGeoff: (Shakes Tom’s hand. It is huge.) ‘Erm, anyway, great set and thanks for sticking around.’
Tom Wilson: (Makes eye contact, but not in a cheery Oprah or Dr. Phil kind of way.) I am reminded of Canadian literary icon Mordecai Richler eyeing me with contempt for having said ‘Hello’ to him at a reading and signing in the Calgary Public Library promoting Barney’s Version. Then I remember legendary Montreal rocker Michel Pagliaro yelling ‘Fuck off!’ at me between nightclub sets. He was drunk, but I think he meant it. I remember my late, big brother telling me I had the kind of smug face people want to punch. I remember an annual performance review at an ad agency I once worked at where my facial expressions in meetings had become a grave internal concern. My three ex-wives nurtured similar complaints. Naturally I blame my parents. Obviously I’m not an ace poker player. In my empty little head I am James Garner in the guise of either Brett Maverick or Jim Rockford.
meGeoff: ‘Ah, right. Um. (To Ann:) ‘I guess we’ll go to the beer tent now.’