Burnaby Roots + Blues Festival crowd soaks up a shockingly good show on a spectacular day
At Deer Lake Park on Saturday, August 13
Art and passion overcame pain at the Burnaby Roots and Blues Festival on Saturday. Despite having cracked a bone in her ankle a short while earlier, Irish singer Imelda May hobbled on-stage with a bandaged leg to perch on a stool, and deliver a hot and stylish set of new rockabilly songs from her punningly titled current album Mayhem. Her character and professionalism shone through in a difficult situation.
“You’ve got to love to do it,” she said, and she obviously did.
Backed by a tight and agile band May performed with flair. She sang in a strong, warm voice with humour and a touch of Dublin swagger, and spoke in a brogue so thick you could cut it into slices and serve it up with pints of porter. One number was about how when you’re madly in love with someone, you can be in love with strange parts of them, and included the ghoulish line: “I love your nails, even your entrails”.
Playing a vintage white and gold instrument, May's husband, lead guitarist Darrel Higham, pinned back listeners' ears with twangy, tremolo-rich, and reverberant solos. On “Psycho”, a hit single from Mayhem, he added some thrash. Dave Priserman gave the songs punch and texture with his atmospheric trumpet-playing. But the show belonged to May who provided the most striking look of the day, sporting a tight yellow and black striped dress and a swirling monocurl of her hair, like an ice-cream cone of bleached-blond hair on a dark-brown background.
For the last song, “Johnny Got a Boom Boom”, from her 2008 album Love Tattoo, May picked up a bodhran—a traditional Irish frame-drum—and walloped out a rhythm before launching into song. And for the encore she and the band performed a muscular interpretation Soft Cell’s early-'80s dance hit “Tainted Love”. The audience stood and cheered afterward as May shuffled off, supported by Higham, saying she the bandages would have to do until she got to the hospital. She also asked the crowd to applaud the festival's emergency-services staff.
May was not the only discovery at the 12th edition of the festival, which drew a record audience this year. Earlier, Matt Andersen wowed the crowd with a peerless performance of contemporary acoustic blues. The New Brunswick guitarist held nothing back as he poured out music.
Everything about Andersen was big: big frame, big shirt, big hair, big voice, and above all big talent as a bluesman. He played soaring solos, galloped his fingers all over the fretboard, and sometimes yelled out the words of his beautifully crafted songs that tap the pulse of the blues. Sometimes, he hid behind a veil of his long wavy locks, only to throw back his head and let rip in the next moment with his foghorn voice midway between Robert Plant and Blind Lemon Jefferson.
Andersen’s performance was the perfect opener for the Lake Stage on the south end of the park on a sun-drenched afternoon. Proceedings on the Garden Stage on the west side opened with a fine set of twangy alt country from Ben Rogers and the Black Oats, with one song that ended with the immortal line: "My dog took a shit and I went to pick it up."
They were followed by Victoria’s Current Swell, who spiced its rock with bluesy harmonica and a touch of trombone. The voices of the Secret Sisters duo from Alabama were like intertwining vines. Their gorgeous harmonies drew comparison with the Everly Brothers, and the sisters—Laura and Lydia Rogers—duly obliged with a version of the classic “Devoted to You”. They stretched in time and continent to cover the traditional Irish song “Do You Love an Apple?”, and their only accompaniment was an acoustic guitar.
It was a very different kind of axe that Rocky Athas wielded in British blues godfather John Mayall’s band. The Texan was standing in the shoes once worn by the likes of Eric Clapton and Mick Taylor, and the fit was good. He played hard and loud solos, in classic late '60s style, on such vintage John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers songs as “Have You Heard About My Baby”, and “Hide Away”. Athas is scorchingly good, and if he ever leaves music, he could get a starring role in a biopic on Attila the Hun.
Mayall was in remarkably good voice for a septuagenarian rocker, and played keyboards and, of course, his hallmark wailing harmonica, backed by guitar, jazzy electric bass, and punchy drums. He wrung every note from the harp on his signature tune, “Room To Move”, and got into some fun scatting, though the long number outstayed its welcome.
K.d. lang worked the audience cleverly in her set to close the festival. The tireless Alberta-born singer ranged the stage and romped through a collection of her greatest hits, like “Constant Craving” and “Miss Chatelaine”. The biggest cheers were for classic songs by two fellow Canadian songwriters. Lang’s delivery of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”, which she performed for the 2010 Olympics opening ceremony, was faultless, both intimate and expansive. Her version of Neil Young’s classic “Helpless” was spacey and filled with yearning.
The musicians of Lang’s six-piece Siss Boom Bang, put together a year ago, hung on every word and played nimbly as they shifted from folk and country to straight-ahead rock. At, times the band sounded like the Band—Bob Dylan’s erstwhile cohorts. Lang sang her heart out. Near the end she announced, “Friends, you may feel a pulling sensation towards the stage—especially those of female persuasion.” The lesbian icon, slickly dressed in black pants and shirt with a red scarf, strutted her stuff, and received as tribute several pairs of panties and bras flung in her direction. It was Dionysiac stuff, and Lang’s energy and concert savvy never flagged in the course of 90 minutes.
To top everything off, as the audience was leaving after a matchless day of music and sun, a full moon rose through the trees of Deer Lake Park.