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With Tuttle, Valerie June, Neilson, Aysanabee on hand, quality pervades Edmonton Folk Fest

Gallagher Park, Edmonton, Canada, August 12, 2023

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

Going 13 hours, the third day of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival is no sprint. All must pace themselves as best they can. If you festival goers ran out of steam before the two headliners (Teskey Brothers and Old Crow Medicine Show), there was the rest of the day. Stellar in all range of matters.

The grounds crew had apparently been busy overnight, dumping and spreading tons of sand over the soggy, high traffic areas, to the comfort of all.

Additionally, all encountered acts ran on time until Valerie June's main stage changeover went a bit long. Sound was great, even as the breezes picked up.

After more than 40 years, the EFMF has things down to a near science.

But this is no impersonal, sterile event. Joy and inclusion with love for music and people comes through at every turn, from the first volunteers encountered (over 2,500 of them) to the final acquaintance made.

Several artists, Molly Tuttle among them, commented on their appreciation for the side stage sessions occurring throughout the day. Encouraging collaboration between often disparate artists, one-time, unforeseen magic often occurs.

Such was the result at The Spirit Sings session. Featuring American bands QUITAPENAS and Darlingside as well as Cuba's La Dame Blanche and Sandy Lake First Nation's Aysanabee, no one 'sat back' as the 17 participants kept things moving.

Aysanabee, a 2023 Polaris Music Prize "Short List" artist for his album "Watin," impressed from the start with "We Were Here," one of his signature numbers. Capturing what he coined "fading memories," his lyrics about his community, colonialism and the harm down to Indigenous people and nations echoed:

They say that we can reconcile this,
Put it in the past.
They say that we can reconcile this,
What if I can't?

Remarkable to know that Aysanabee only started on his current journey during the pandemic. Performing the newly released "Somebody Else" reveals this heartfelt singer and songwriter's well-earned confidence.

QUITAPENAS (all caps, all claps!) wasted no time becoming fast fan favorites. Building from their session of Friday evening, this group of first-generation sons of Guatemalan and Mexican immigrants cannot be contained. They played along with everyone, encouraging their colleagues to embrace the spontaneity of the occasion. Their irresistible dance rhythms brought the tropics to the sun-drenched festival site.

Their concert set later in the day was as engaging.

Similarly, La Dame Blanche, a daughter of Cuban musical royalty (Buena Vista Social Club orchestra bandleader Jesus 'Aguaje' Ramos is her father,) charmed with her Latin, hip-hop and cumbia-influenced songs. She and her band added Latin flair to even Darlingside's harmony-rich, folk-pop songs.

A songwriter in-the-round session was next on the list. If the opening numbers from Shoulders (a bare bones rendering of Tom O'Neal's Starday-era single "Blue Endless Highway") and Drayton Farley (his own "I'll Be Home") didn't provide sufficient evidence of what the next hour was to bring, Bella White's "stream of consciousness nonsense" "Losing Sleep, Trying to Forgive" (which may not be the title of the recently created song) removed all doubt: we were going to spend an hour in the Broken Heart of Country.

Giving each other room to share their songs, the three individuals impressed at the Mercy Now Session. Shoulders (from Arkansas' Ozarks) and Farley (from Alabama) brought the American, rural south to listeners, while Alberta's own White (and Rounder recording artist) shared additional insight into her Virginia roots.

Mid-set, Shoulder's 'give a damn' song "Miss'ippi" ("I will not die in Louisian...," Farley's inspirational "Wasted Youth" and White's "The Way I Oughta Go" provided connection between what Farley described as "the where you are and the where you want to be."

Surrounding these were a variety of songs and memories, from Farley's vengeful, murder ballad "Lucinda," to White's spontaneous rendering of Lucinda Williams' "Concrete and Barbed Wire" ("My favorite song when I was six," she quipped,) and Farley's "Too Old to Dream." Shoulders' "All Bad" — "every hometown is a well-built cage" — was yet another standout. Already familiar with White's talent, Farley and Shoulders were welcome discoveries.

The afternoon main stage slot is sometimes undesirable, as folks mill about and visit while eating lunch. Tami Neilson brought fire and rhinestone to her set, giving the sun-baskers on the hill something to clap and think along to.

Not one to give truck (not even of the '10-ton' variety) to convention, New Zealand's favorite Canadian led her two-piece band through a dozen songs from her extensive catalog.

"Could the king of country music be the daughter not the sun?" she asks, evoking memories of Kitty Wells. A "Careless Woman" if there ever was one, Neilson calls her own shots, bringing sons Charlie and Sam on to sing Willie Nelson's parts on "Beyond the Stars," assuring one ever needs to be taken advantage of ("Baby, You're A Gun") and warning, "Mama's Talkin'."

Several favored songs could not be accommodated in this too-quick, hour slot, but Neilson did dust off Albertan k.d. lang's "Big Boned Gal" to great effect. Without doubt, the set of the fest.

International Bluegrass Music Association two-time Guitarist of the Year and Grammy winner Tuttle brought genuine 'grass to the EFMF with her band Golden Highway. With reigning and two-time IBMA Fiddler of the Year Bronwyn Keith-Haynes in the band, Tuttle is able to deliver a set punctuated by sizzling breaks and complementary, backups. Banjoist Kyle Tuttle (no relation) and bassist Shelby Meins complete the quintet with mandolinist Dominick Leslie.

Highlights included an extended "Castilleja" and an ideally-placed, "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie;" John Hartford's jam-friendly "Aereo-Plane" masterpiece was warmly played with Kyle Tuttle taking lead vocals.

"Over the Line" — "I've got one too many ties to you, one too many tries for you," — the mountain 'shine ode "Dooley's Farm" — with lots of mandolin from Leslie, — and "El Dorado" were memorable.

By the time Tuttle brought out Old Crow Medicine Show's Ketch Secor and White to guest on Neil Young's "Helpless," she had made a whole lot of new friends. The hits kept coming with IBMA Song of the Year Nominee "Crooked Tree" ("They're left to grow wild and free") and "Take the Journey" closing an impressive outing.

Finally, the EFMF was treated to the beautiful and engaging music of Valerie June, an artist bringing a rare blend of Memphis soul, rock, and country sounds and influences. The latter was prevalent in obvious ways including readings of Dolly Parton, Hank Williams and Freddie Hart songs, but also more subtly in "Workin' Woman's Blues" and the incredible "If And":

One thing for sure,
One thing that's real,
If and you ain't lovin' your woman,
Then someone else will.

No hesitation was heard in the set, with songs tumbling out of this powerhouse one after another, "Man Done Wrong," "Call Me a Fool" and "Worried Man Blues" among them with "Shakedown" further raising the bar for the acts to follow.

As expected, Saturday provided a lot of quality country and roots music for discriminating and adventurous patrons of the Edmonton Folk Music Festival.

©Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •
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