Daniel Lanois’ Harvest Picnic Comes of Age
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.
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.