Five Shows I Remember
By Richard Flohil.
How important is live music to you? Like most of you, I suspect, it’s a central part of your life — either as a player, a music business person, or as an enthusiastic fan.
When I'm not hide-and-house-bound by COVID, I usually get out to hear live music at least three or four nights a week. And, since the mid-60s, I’ve been to at least 200 festivals in Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.
Given that, choosing five shows that still resonate isn’t easy — but in alphabetical order here’s today’s list. Next week — based on mood and memories — it could be completely different...
Louis Armstrong, Empress Hall, London, 1956
It's hard to imagine, 70 years later, that early American jazz (and the attempts to recreate it by earnest young British players), was the hippest, coolest music in Britain in the ‘50s. And one of the first American artists to come to Britain, after a long and sustained campaign by the UK Musicians’ Union to keep them out, was Louis Armstrong.
Long before “Mack the Knife,” “Hello Dolly” and “What a Wonderful World” made him one of the most popular artists in music history, Armstrong was already revered as the greatest jazz artist in the world. When he came to London, he did ten shows in an 8,000-seat hockey arena, and sold every single seat at a ruinous ticket price.
His show began as the walked from the very back of the arena to the revolving stage set at centre ice, playing unaccompanied. The distinctive sound of his trumpet cut clearly through the roaring applause of the instant standing ovation.
To be honest, I suspect the hour-long performance was workmanlike and (for Armstrong) fairly standard. With his conventional five-piece band, he grinned, played ridiculously daring solos, and sang with that gravel-toned voice that is still instantly recognizable.
But I can remember the occasion perfectly.
God had descended to a dingy venue in north London and changed my life.
Solomon Burke, Edmonton Folk Festival, 2003
They don’t make artists like Solomon Burke any more.
From the classic era of rhythm and blues, he believed in putting on a show. The band is on stage — a four-man horns section, three backup singers, organ and piano players, a concert harpist, a guitarist, and bass and drums. All are dressed soberly in black, except for one horn player with a pink hat and a pink suit. Centre stage, a throne, flanked by silver vases filled with red roses.
The band hits a riff, hard. Eventually, the announcement: “And NOW, the King of Rock and Soul, SOLOMON BURKE...” Slowly, wearing a floor-length red velvet cape with white fur trim, he walks to the centre stage, waiting only for a second as the player in pink takes the cape and spins it offstage like a cartwheel.
Seated on the throne — he weighed well over 450lbs and could not stand for a whole show — he ran through his hits (“Everybody Needs Someone to Love,” “Cry To Me,” “Down in the Valley”), did a medley of Little Richard songs, and led a singalong with a Tom Waits song,”Diamond On Your Mind.”
He went well over the 11 o’clock curfew, but left the audience exhausted.
And the next afternoon, on the festival’s gospel workshop, he married a couple. Oh, I forgot to tell you; he was also a minister with churches in 13 American cities, he owned funeral homes and a limousine service in Los Angeles.
As I said, they don ’t make ‘em like Solomon Burke any more...
Brandi Carlile, Edmonton Folk Festival, 2019
There are times when I like to think I know an awful lot about music and musicians — but I have to admit that far too often artists fly completely under (or over) my radar. I knew Brandi Carlile's name, vaguely, but I’d never heard a song, seen her picture, or watched a video.
She’d played the Edmonton Folk Festival three or four times in the past, but I didn’t even hear her at any of those events.
And I’ve been kicking myself, because when I finally heard her at the end of a summer tour of six different festivals — and the last festival I was at before COVID struck six months later — she totally blew my mind.
I can’t think of a more engaging singer-songwriter: she shares herself unstintingly with her audience (who knew every word of every song she sang), she has a clear distinctive voice, and her songs have interesting lyrics and melodies you can remember. She’s open, she’s brave, she’s humble. And she has a smile to light up this tired world.
This video says it all:
John Prine, Vancouver Island Music Festival
When my dear friend Maria Cockburn bought tickets for us to hear Dolly Parton in Toronto, I thanked her in a note on Twitter. “Fair enough," I wrote, "but I'm taking her to Vancouver Island to hear John Prine.” There was an instant response: “Good idea Flohil, John Prine.”
I’ve been fortunate enough to have heard John at least a dozen times over the years since we met in 1971 — memorable shows included one with Steve Goodman at Convocation Hall in Toronto, and a sterling performance at the Edmonton Folk Festival I watched with my wife Donna from side-stage.
At the Vancouver Island Festival he seemed in particularly good spirits; he mixed a few new songs with the classics that he still made fresh, night after night. To my astonishment, he gave me a shout-out from the stage. Festival director Doug Cox gave him the signal to extend his set, and he played for almost two hours.
Afterwards, Maria and I visited him in his trailer as he ate his post-show meal — it was, alas, a final visit; three years later, he was an early victim of COVID, and he will always be sorely missed.
Sarah Jane Scouten, Salmon Arm Blues & Roots Festival, 2018
There’s a quality about Sarah Jane Scouten that’s hard to define. As a fresh-faced singer-songwriter, she is equally at home singing ballads that seem to come from a distant era with country-tinged original material that fits perfectly into the “Americana” wheelhouse. In performance, she delivers her songs with a winsome joyfulness that entrances her audiences.
At the Salmon Arm Roots & Blues Festival — brilliantly curated by an old friend, Peter North — Sarah Jane did something I’d never seen before. She grabbed the opportunity, and rocked out with an aggressive fire that gave the songs a really sharp edge. Her band, looking a little surprised, threw caution to the winds and gave her the backing she needed and deserved.
I turned the woman standing next to me, right up front. “I've never seen Sarah Jane play like that, “ I said. “Nor have I,’ she replied. “And I'm her mother...”
Postscript: Next week’s list:
Larkin Poe at the Mariposa Folk Festival
Lyle Lovett and his Big Band at Massey Hall
Imelda May at Hillside
Corin Raymond at The Cameron House any Thursday
Paul Reddick any Wednesday at Sauce in Toronto
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