© 2006 by Spider Robinson; all rights reserved.
I am so old I saw the Beatles at Shea Stadium; I've attended a lot of music festivals. I just got back from the best one I've ever been to, bar none, no contest.
The Vancouver Island Music Festival just finished its 12th year - and it ain't peaked yet. I performed at the 10th one back in Ought Four, accompanied by Amos Garrett and Greg Carroll, and had the time of my life. This year I had an even better time...because I took it easy, and just mc'd for more talented folks.
In especial particular, for the man after whom I am partly named, Spider John Koerner of Minneapolis...the man who taught Bob Dylan how to play folk music in college....author of such immortal albums as RUNNING, JUMPING, STANDING STILL and MUSIC IS JUST A BUNCH OF NOTES and NOBODY KNOWS THE TROUBLE I'VE BEEN and RAISED BY HUMANS and, most recently, STARGEEZER....one third of the legendary BLUES, RAGS AND HOLLERS ensemble Koerner, Ray and Glover, whose last album was ONE FOOT IN THE GROOVE. Dig his website at http://www.mwt.net/~koerner/.
I've known Spider John since 1971, but my last conversation with him was way too many years ago, in Palmer's Bar in Minneapolis, and it was a solid gasser for me and Jeanne to hang out with him over the weekend and share a meal with him. He played a gorgeous new song for us afterward, something of a departure for him called "Nightbird Eyes" that I hope will be recorded sometime real soon so y'all can hear it. And his set at the Grassy Knoll stage was even better than I was expecting: in the last few years something subtle has changed in John's voice, giving it - unbelievably - even more power and resonance than it's always had.
But Spider John Koerner was the icing on a cake so tasty it almost didn't need any.
Where do I start? How about with Mavis Staples, who scorched the grass with her Friday night set on the main stage? She too has only gained power and authority from the passage of time, and is now a true force of nature.
Then there was the awesome V.M. Bhatt. The George Harrison memorial DVD A Concert For George opens with a piece by Ravi Shankar called "Arpan," performed by maybe 50 Indian musicians and a couple dozen Western musicians - and one of them leaped off the screen at me: Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. Partly because in the midst of his fellow Indians, he was playing, brilliantly, on what I took to be a slide guitar - played on his lap, Jeff Healey style. (I was mistaken: it was his own invention, the mohan veena.) And partly because his face held a magic indescribable quality - also possessed by people like bassist Lee Sklar, guitarist Oscar Castro Neves, and Richie Havens - that tells you with absolute certainty: this is a very good man.
This may possibly help explain why, according to legend, when he and Ry Cooder met, they did not bother with rehearsal. They just looked in each other's eyes....smiled, opened their cases, and spent the next couple of hours winning a Grammy together, for their extraordinary CD Meeting By The River.
It was followed by equally astonishing collaboration CDs with Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, and Taj Mahal. The first in particular, which includes a third collaborator, Jie Bing Chen of China, is just stunning: world peace in action. It was literally the first time in history that an Indian and a Chinese ever recorded together.
But of course the main strength of Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is not his multicultural experiments but Indian classical music: he is, after all, one of the principle disciples of Pandit Ravi Shankar himself. And that is what he gave us at the Musicfest on Sunday night...accompanied not only by his brilliant longtime musical accomplice Ram Kumar Mishra on tablas, but also by his amazing son, Salil Bhatt, who played an instrument of his own invention just as fascinating as his father's, which he calls the satvik veena, made of 100-year-old oak wood with 19 strings. The large crowd had mostly come to hear country, folk, blues and the like....but the Bhatts and Mishra tore ovations from them over and over, building to a peak that brought us all to our feet at the finale.
Check VM Bhatt out at http://www.vishwamohanbhatt.com/.
Then there was Todd Butler - yet another hit of the festival I had the warm pleasure of meeting and of introducing onstage.
I've been a Todd Butler fan ever since the two albums he cut a few years back with Doug Cox (who, by the way, is the Artistic Director and main mojo of the Vancouver Island Musicfest), DOBRO AND GUITAR, and LIVE BLUES. Both CDs are regulars in my iTunes "Working" playlist: the stuff I listen to while I write . As a guitarist, Todd is not just very good and very very fast - as fast as David Bromberg, if that conveys anything to you - he's also outside-the-box: he has a gift for playing licks like nothing you ever heard before in your life, that instantly seem inevitable.
But until now I had not fully grasped just how smart, and how truly funny, the sumbitch is.
What he is, he's our Jake Thackray, I think. Jake was an English songwriter from Yorkshire, who a million years ago used to sing satirical songs about topical events on a TV show called That Was The Week That Was. Among his more famous ditties is "Isobel Makes Love Upon National Monuments, With Style and Enthusiasm, and Anyone At All." Sadly, he died a few Christmases ago. Todd Butler is as smart as Jake, as wise as Jake, as profoundly, gut-bustingly funny as Jake (albeit in a distinctly North American way), and he's a vastly better guitarist.
He's also way more pissed off. But he makes his anger so goddam funny, I think even the people he's mad at would have to laugh. Check out his newest CD, titled IDLE CANADIAN - in particular the song called "Bushed." Or the one for the Dixie Chicks called "It's a Hard Time To Be A Hero." He's at http://www.toddbutler.com/band.html.
Other major musical discoveries from this festival, of whom I have become a bigtime fan:
• John Boutte (http://www.johnboutte.com/main.htm), a singer from New Orleans with a voice so sweet I despair of describing it. Can you imagine a voice that sounds twice as good as Sam Cooke's - no shit? With that much control, and maybe another octave on top? John is the real deal, and he is, in person, as sweet as his voice. We took part in a public humiliation ritual called a "Folk Quiz" together (perpetrated by ace music publicist Richard Flohil and brilliant CD designer Michael Wrycraft), along with Todd Butler and my bowin' Bowen Island neighbor Corbin Keep (the hippest cello player in the universe, who played a splendid Grassy Knoll set of his own; visit http://www.wildcellist.com/ for details), and John's laughter was so infectious it inspired our brilliant losing performance. We parted friends on Sunday.
• Darrell Scott (http://www.darrellscott.com/), whom I met by chance while loitering at the splendid Anco Motel, where the musicians all get put up for the Festival. After most politely listening to me butcher a few tunes on my guitar, Darrell was kind enough to lay a copy of his latest CD THE INVISIBLE MAN on me, and it just blew me away when I heard it. I should have known his name; his 1999 duet with bluegrass stalwart Tim O'Brien included the Grammy-nominated instrumental, "The Second Mouse," and the Grammy-winning song, "Long Time Gone." He was ASCAP's Songwriter of the Year in 2002, and the Nashville Songwriters Association's in 2001 and he has worked as an instrumentalist with people like Steve Earle and Guy Clark. He's now on my buy-on-sight list.
• Alexis Puentes, formerly known as Alex Cuba: a Cuban guitarist of incredible skill and subtlety, and singer of great power and range, now living in Canada, who needs to get a website together under his new identity, soon. His last Alex Cuba Band cd, HUMO DE TABACO, won the Juno Award for world music.
There were several more, but I have to go get some other things done, so I'll have to stop now. Check out Grupo Fantasma, and a lovely young singer named Samantha Schultz, and Chip Taylor and Carrie Rodriguez, and......
...oh yeah, and a guy named Peter Yarrow showed up, too: used to puff on magic dragons once with a group John Lennon called Pizza, Pooh and Magpie. Great as ever after all these years - and needed now more than ever.
It isn't just the superb quality, or even the amazing diversity, of the performers that makes the Vancouver Island Musicfest the best for me - though that sure doesn't hurt. It's the crew that put it on - from Doug Cox right down to the shuttle-van drivers and groundskeepers and the guys who provide the free smoked salmon samples for the performers. I have seldom seen anything so well organized or so well done - or done so cheerfully, by folks so obviously having a great time. Doug himself is a perfect example: in the midst of all the madness, he walks with a serene Buddha smile, absolutely at peace. The solid unpretentious Anco Motel in Courtenay, BC, has the best, most utterly painless internet access I have ever encountered, way better than One King West in Toronto. The festival security is perfectly balanced: no harassment, and no jerks. The food for sale onsite is delicious and varied and plentiful, the merchandise non-cheesey and reasonably priced. Ten minutes in the CD Sales tent could supply your music needs for the next year. The crowd is hip, kind, generous, and happy as pigs in Parliament, because for once they're getting their money's worth, plus lagniappe. Even the portapotties are state of the art.
I'll go back any year I can, without even asking who's playing.