Daniel Lanois' annual Harvest Picnic is entering it's third year, having shaken the terrible twos. I spoke to Lanois, Emmylou Harris and new festival guest Pegi Young about the festival and what makes it special to them.
"There's no glamour in the Hammer / but they sell it at the Big & Tall" starts one of the standout tracks on Whitehorse's most recent (and excellent) album The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss before launching into its refrain of "There's no getting out of this one."
"The Hammer", in this case, is a reference to Hamilton, Ontario. The city of just more than a half million people is about an hour's drive west of Toronto. Home to the first Tim Hortons in the world, the well respected McMaster University and two major steel manufacturers Hamilton enjoys the kind of reputation suburban satellite cities tend to: it's a place Torontonians make fun of, and a place people seem to want to get out of.
It's also home to Daniel Lanois: he grew up just down the road in Ancaster, and he feels like the reputation isn't well deserved. "The Industrial part gets all the attention," he says, "As soon as you get up the hill its the Upper Great Lakes." He's right too: the area is overrun with beautiful rivers, lush farmland and the Niagara Escarpment--one of Canada's most defining geographical features. In 2005 the Ontario government formally established the Greenbelt to permanently protect the valuable agricultural land from encroaching development.
Three years ago Lanois threw the first Greenbelt Harvest Picnic
concert to support the region's local farmers: listen to him talk about his love of the locally grown tomatoes and his passion is obvious. Lanois' mother (he says that "You can safely say she's the brains of the operation"
with an affection that's obvious and adorable) still lives in the area and he and a friend were travelling around the region during harvest season when they hit upon the idea of the festival. "As the supermarkets get bigger,"
Lanois says, "it's nice to be reminded about the local grower."
Who could argue with that?
A few phone calls to friends were made--"It'd be great if we could get Emmylou,"
Lanois said before picking up his phone and calling her--and pretty soon that inaugural edition of the Picnic was set. That's a bit of an oversimplification but it's not as much of one as you might think: Lanois has lots of friends, and he describes the Picnic as "...feeling like a family affair." Emmylou Harris
has played every year and says she loves the fact that the Picnic "…has become a passion of Dan's."
Lanois has helped Emmylou with her Nashville based animal rescue efforts and the Picnic is just one more opportunity for the two friends to "Help each other out making the world a little better."
That first edition of the Picnic did a lot to dispel the myth that there was no glamour in The Hammer, with a tonne of local musicians sharing the stage with Lanois, Harris and the day's closing act Ray LaMontagne
. At the time I called that show the best concert I'd ever attended: with impeccable sound, gorgeous weather and a line up that kept a good sized crowd entertained from morning to night that Picnic set a high standard to follow. A follow up show a year later featured Sarah Harmer
and Gord Downie
for a second time but put Feist into the closing slot.
The Picnic did more than just present a great musical lineup. Staying true to its intended mission, local farmers were invited to attend and sell fresh locally grown produce on the festival grounds. It was a nice change from the commercialized nature of most festivals which offer not much more than fast food as an option. In between musical sets environmental activists and farmers took the stage to address a receptive crowd with their 'eat local' message. It was a message that was made less abstract when accompanied by those produce booths: the abundance of beans, tomatoes, corn and other vegetables was an enticing reminder that much of what we eat could be grown in the area, and that makes the area worth protecting. This activism prompted Emmylou Harris to describe the festival as being "…like a local Farm Aid,"
a reference to the massive and national movement started by Neil Young, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp years ago.
Though most fans think of Lanois as a producer, those first two picnics also provided an opportunity for Lanois to play with some of his friends. For those friends this wasn't a surprise--Pegi Young
says that she "…thinks of Daniel as always playing. Whatever configuration his band is at the time. If he's working in production, he's playing anyway."
Seeing him collaborate on stage with his friends it's readily apparent why they're happy to have him do so: he's easily one of the best guitarists I've ever seen. That's equally true whether he's playing one of his numerous six strings or sitting at the pedal steel--an instrument he's famously called his "church in a suitcase."
These days Lanois seems to be playing live more frequently than he has in the past. When I spoke to him he'd just come back from Japan where, he says, "They love music, like I haven't seen since I was a kid. They have good artists coming out of Japan," he goes on, "but they never had rock and roll." Lanois agrees that he's been playing more frequently and says he feels like he's "…playing better than ever…spending less time behind the console. I enjoy it--in a live setting, you get that fantastic feedback."
It's clear that the live experience is something Lanois relishes and not something he was avoiding. He was just busy for a long time with producing. He describes a feeling of isolation when playing solo. "…A certain kind of voice. On the [pedal] steel guitar the more melancholy side of me has a chance to be exercised," he says, "It puts an artist in a vulnerable state." Lanois' songwriting has always been intensely personal: Acadie opens with Still Water whose fictional Caledonia River runs through the area of the Picnic; Jolie Louise is a loosely autobiographical story of his childhood; songs like Harry from Here Is What Is tell stories of close friends and acquaintances. Lanois writes what he feels, reflecting his view that it's what you feel not what you hear that keeps you coming back to the music you love.
The first Harvest Picnic saw Lanois and Emmylou playing material from their legendary 1996 collaboration Wrecking Ball together for the first time in years. Songs written by Lanois took on an especially personal tone when played to this hometown crowd. That album's Blackhawk speaks to Hamilton directly with its opening lines of "Well I work the double shift / In a bookstore on St. Clair / While he pushed the burning ingots / In Dofasco stinking air." You couldn't ask for a better tribute to the men and women of the town than hearing those notes fade off into a summer sky, leading into its refrain of "A small town hero never dies / He fades a bit and then he slips." That first Picnic was a powerful demonstration of the artist at her most vulnerable, in front on an audience of thousands who weren't just listening to but feeling one of the great pieces of music of the 20th century.
The idea of feeling the music came up again when I asked both Lanois and Emmylou if they had any favourite moments from the first two years of the Harvest Picnic. With such a broad range of talent and music there's a lot to choose from but both said the same thing: last year, when the Rev. Brady Blade Sr. took the stage. Lanois' has played regularly with both of Blade's sons on drums and described the Reverend as a "...roaring gospel singer…" while Emmylou demonstrated her trademark eloquence and said it was "…like the stage lifted up from the Earth." Gospel music is a form that comes almost entirely from the heart. It's an expression of the artist's feeling at it's purist. Nothing quite defines the Harvest Picnic experience as well as that.
It's an ability to consistently deliver musical moments like that which sees the Harvest Picnic heading into its third year. The lineup of talent is as impressive as previous editions. Consistent Lanois collaborators like Rocco DeLucca and Trixie Whitely are on the list. Pegi Young and the Survivors
will be playing a full set of music earlier in the day as well. The show will mark only her second or third visit to Canada as a solo artist. The singer's 2011 release was well reviewed, and the set promises to be a good one.
This year's headliner is a big one though: Lanois' fellow Canadian Neil Young is bringing Crazy Horse to The Hammer. A show like this would normally see Hamiltonians travelling an hour down the road to Toronto's Air Canada Centre to see Crazy Horse, instead of the 20 minute drive to the outskirts of town. It's a testament to Lanois' reputation and the strength of his friendships that Crazy Horse is kicking off the North American leg of what's been described by band members as possibly their last tour
in Hamilton. Lanois said he hasn't really seen Young since they finished recording Le Noise
and he's not the only one looking forward to it: unprompted Emmylou commented that "It's so nice to see Neil & Daniel together. I was glad when they finally made Le Noise together."
Safe to say that's a sentiment shared by a large number of people.
This third Harvest Picnic has the distinct potential to see Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young on stage at the same time and also to be Crazy Horses' last stop ever in Ontario. How's that for glamour? Score: Hamilton - 1; Toronto - 0.
Of course, staying true to another of its original goals the Harvest Picnic has also recruited a healthy dose of local talent. Whitehorse called Hamilton home for a long time and the duo are playing this year's Picnic. When I spoke to Melissa McClelland in Vancouver at the Folk Fest her excitement was obvious: she attended the festival in the audience last year, and was pretty happy to be on the bill this year. Luke Doucet's guitar playing is fantastic and the prospect of seeing him joined on stage by Lanois is something to look forward too.
The young men of Harlan Pepper
will take the stage early in the day as well. The foursome call Hamilton home, and some of them weren't even old enough to order a drink in a bar when their debut album was released. That debut album showed a lot of youthful promise and the banjo led opening track Great Lakes
gained them a solid following on the college radio circuit. They've toured relentlessly over the last year, including an opening slot with Blackie & the Rodeo Kings
. The band's guitar/pedal steel and banjo driven sound shows a musical depth that seems beyond their years, and their sure to find a few new fans who wouldn't normally go to one of the smaller clubs they've been playing in town.
It's refreshing to know that the musicians enjoy these young bands as much as the audience does. "One of the great things about playing these festials," Pegi Young said, "is being exposed to new music. I really do enjoy getting that exposure." The singer's tone made it obvious that as much as she's looking forward to playing her own set, she's also looking forward to seeing the other acts.
Given the depth of Lanois' friendships the Harvest Picnic may offer the best opportunity in the world for fans of music of all kinds to get what they're looking for from an event like this: the sound, engineered by Lanois, is guaranteed to be about the best you've ever heard; Lanois says the Picnic has been "Blessed with terrific weather the first two years" and you can pretty much count on that in Southern Ontario at this time of year; you can go for a swim or fish in the lake in the hot afternoon; the food on site is fresh, mostly organic and locally grown; the line up is rich and diverse and features something that's guaranteed to make everybody in the audience happy. There really is something for everyone.
When I asked Lanois about how he feels playing the pedal steel he paused for a minute to collect his thoughts. "The nice thing about those limited instruments,"
he said, "you operate within a limited form and there's something grounded about that. It's like a human voice. It's the instrument I go to to remind myself that I'm still just a human."
It's a beautiful sentiment, and it reminds me of the feeling of watching Lanois sit down at his pedal steel for that first Harvest Picnic show, that very human voice reaching towards a starry, cloudless Hamilton sky. One man, isolated for a moment on stage but surrounded by his friends and family--sharing that beautiful, pure moment of melancholy joy with the audience in a grassy field accompanied only by the wind and the crickets and the night.
Whoever said there was no glamour in The Hammer just needs to listen a bit more closely, because there'll be plenty to go around at this Picnic.
The 3rd Annual Greenbelt Harvest Picnic is on August 31, 2013 at Chrstie Lake Conservation Area in Dundas, Ontario--just west of Hamilton. and features Rocco DeLuca, Trixie Whitely, Harlan Pepper, Pegi Young & the Survivors, Daniel Lanois, Emmylou Harris and Neil Young & Crazy Horse. You'll find photos from the 2011 edition on my site and my review is elsewhere on No Depression. Tickets for his year's show can be ordered at the Harvest Picnic web site.