Ox Plays the Calgary Folk Festival
Running on a tight schedule and abiding by a strict rule implemented by the city to finish on time means there’s no such thing as an encore for performers at the Calgary Folk Festival. So what’s a band to do when they’re up next and the audience is demanding Ian Tyson return for another song?
Give up the set.
That’s what Ox did when they were scheduled for a “tweener” set on the mainstage of the CFF Saturday night. Tweeners provide a little distraction for the audience in between acts as the stage is rapidly transformed for the next artist; performers usually play a song or two and supplement that with a story. “The other two guys [Ian Tyson’s band] stayed onstage expecting an encore, and the audience is going crazy for him and I said, you know what? Give him his encore. We don’t need to do our tweener set,” said Mark Browning, the lead singer of Ox. “So he went back out there, which was great because I got to hear ‘Four Strong Winds.’”
With six sessions scheduled over the weekend, Ox was hardly suffering from a lack of activity. Aside from their own concert, the band tweaked their unique “stoner, trippy, late night” brand of alt-country for workshops with artists like Corb Lund, Romantica, Honeybear, and Axis of Conversation. As a naturally shy artist, Browning was initially reticent about jumping into the collaborative nature of the workshops: “I’m not used to sessions…putting me in a session, and putting me as the host is a really strange thing. I think it takes a musician out of their comfort zone. I definitely did some new versions of songs that I hadn’t done before.”
Browning has become the progenitor of a flourishing indie scene in his hometown, Sudbury, Ontario. Sudbury isn’t necessarily the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of burgeoning scenes, but Browning’s tireless work is ensuring that young bands don’t immediately head to Toronto in an effort to escape. After living in different cities and several UK tours, where the band has garnered a significant following, he decided Sudbury was an affordable place for a working musician. Moreover, its proximity to the Ontario touring circuit would provide the best of all worlds. Browning bought a house, turning part of it into a new-vinyl-only record store that showcases Canadian bands and has a venue in the basement. He also built a guitar store and recording studio, which features a 24-track console that he shipped from Vancouver. “A music scene is only as good as the people that believe in it and are willing to build. Being there and doing the studio and the record store has started to build a really great music scene there. So now we’re going to start a label and bring up some of these awesome bands that are in Sudbury.”
Ox is a collective, which means that Browning works with particular artists for a period of time until it is no longer feasible, depending on members’ personal lives and where they reside. Does this approach signify a new orientation to the music industry that young bands now face? “Real music is mostly being made underground,” said Browning. “You can’t really make a living doing it. I guess it’s the ultimate culmination of capitalism applied to the arts, where you’ve got this music being created as product, as commodity, and that’s something that everybody is exposed to. They buy it and they don’t really know any better. It’s like processed cheese. Sometimes there’s quality and it breaks through, but it’s corporate interest deciding what they’re going to sell to the market…if you’re making music you really really love, you have to be okay with doing it for no money and suffering a little bit and that’s just part of the lifestyle. And if all the artists that you’re playing with know that, then you’re all going to have a really good time. But you can’t necessarily commit to that forever.”
Ox has two new records on the horizon. The first, a Christmas album, is an outgrowth of their annual Oxmas show, for which Browning dresses up as Santa, distributes found objects as gifts, and the band plays a unique set; last year’s was all Black Sabbath songs. They’ll be taking Oxmas on the road through Ontario this winter, and are releasing the following Ox album next spring.
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