Wednesday, 10 August 2016


City Magic

We’ve had nothing on the calendar for most of the summer except a wedding down south in Kananaskis Country, a happy obligation which forced Ann and me to miss our favourite Edmonton hot weather music festival, Interstellar Rodeo. Weddings are superior distractions to funerals - those less happy occasions which insist too upon a communion of the tribe. (I must confess the sandwiches served at the reception following the most recent funeral we attended were sublime, to die for, though sadly, a one-off.) But when you don’t make plans the days fill themselves anyway somehow. Consequently we’ve been a little tardy diving into music this summer in the city.

We changed it all up last weekend.

Blues on Whyte is self-explanatory, a juke joint located in the historic Commercial Hotel where you’d be loathe to book a room these days unless you were desperate, armed with a pistol and a habit and on the lam. The passenger trains don’t chug to a stop across the street anymore and they haven’t for a very long time. The performance bar, once a dingy, delightful and edgy stinking dive was recently renovated, gussied up into an attractive and sanitized space with better sightlines, perhaps reflecting the angelic aspirations of crippled and dying baby boomers. Our urban myth has it that the venue is owned and operated by a biker gang and, ergo the safest place to hang out in the provincial capital. The only bikers I’ve ever seen at the Commie wear their leathers on the weekends and Harry Rosen suits the rest of the time.

Boogie Patrol is probably Edmonton’s hottest local band. Think James Brown and Mad Dogs Joe Cocker fused. We caught their free Saturday afternoon set, an intense 60 minutes with few pauses between original numbers, and a prelude to the weekly, welcome all comers blues jam. The headliner would return to the stage later that night for three hours and a modest cover charge. What’s not to like about drinking beer in a dark bar on a sunny day? Rotten Dan is Boogie Patrol’s front man; he’s got the voice, the moves and the mouth harp chops. I approached him after the music ended to purchase the band’s new live album Alive. He was saturated in sweat and smelled as funky as a hockey bench late in a game. A hard working man.

Gallagher Park is a natural amphitheatre that offers a breathtaking view of the downtown skyline from its upper rim. It is the long time home of Edmonton’s Folk Music Festival. Ann and I were on the grounds Sunday anxious to see Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats, the weekend’s closer. They’re a high voltage Stax ensemble, you can hear the influence in the organ and the horns. The group is currently riding the success of the catchiest song ever written about the personal toll of alcoholism: “My head is achin’, my hands is shakin’, bugs is crawling all over me. Son of a bitch! Gimme a drink!”

Once we got our pink wristbands I began to regret our decision to attend. There were six hours to go before the Night Sweats. There were 14,000 other people milling around and gangs of unsupervised children darting about and having the time of their young lives. There was hot August heat. There were rows and rows of revolting portable toilets. The lines for every available service were long. Smoking pariahs had long treks to ashtrays. I descended into a state of despair enhanced by beer garden roulette: How can I enjoy this frothy, delicious, chilly beer if it means I will actually have to use one of those disgusting Handi-Cans?

As much as I dislike being lost in a large crowd and surrounded by people I don’t know, folk fest itself is inherently social. We quickly hooked up with friends and family, invaded their tarp space and co-opted their low slung folding chairs. A day like Sunday reminds you of the ease and convenience digital technology allows users: We’re near the top by this green tent (photo), come join us.

Ann and I arrived too late in the afternoon to catch Calexico and that was my fault because the idea of a full workaday shift on site, what with those toilets, seemed too much to bear. Ultimately, the music won the day, as it will. We were entranced by Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter) and an artist who calls herself LP and who has recently garnered enthusiastic kudos from Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman who compared her voice to Kate Bush’s. Members of our festival family were jacked about seeing Head and Hands.

Our horizon turned a fiery orange, only to be squashed by a descending quilt of navy blue. Across the river the city turned on its lights and preened. Edmonton’s no London or Paris or even Montreal, but she appeared mighty fine from our vantage point. The Night Sweats came on and I couldn’t decide what I wanted to concentrate on; everywhere I looked there was magic in the air.

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