Spaghetti Western Festival in Calgary
I’m very late in writing about this, but wanted to put something up so that people in Calgary know to attend next August.
The third annual Spaghetti Western Festival happened in late August at Olympic Plaza in downtown Calgary. It is a free day-long alt-country festival that showcases both local and touring acts for people strolling along pedestrian-only Stephen Avenue Walk. Run by local cowboy singer Matt Masters and a collection of volunteers, and sponsored by local businesses and the city, the SpagWest Fest manages to gather an unlikely collection of listeners that might not normally be found at a country show. I noticed a group of teenage boys bopping along, furtively glancing around to be sure they wouldn’t be caught there by classmates. I bet at least one of them will start playing guitar or digging around for old country recordings in the near future.
Being the dedicated Calgary country music aficionado (or, geek) that I am, and desperate to escape the suffocating heat of Toronto for even just a few days, I planned a last-minute trip that got me into the city shortly after the festival started. As a result, I missed Masters’s opening set, but arrived in time for the second act, Scott MacLeod. With John Lacey on steel guitar, MacLeod zipped through some of his crowd-pleasers, including “Broken Heart,” “Drank the Ocean Dry,” and “This Old Farmhouse,” a song that has been featured in the TV series Castle, though MacLeod wasn’t quite sure of its relationship to the scene where it is featured. Lacey’s playing augmented MacLeod’s direct lyrics nicely, and MacLeod was amiable, with funny commentary between songs.
Up next was singer-songwriter John Rutherford. I was pleasantly surprised, despite my initial urge to run away when he started singing in a growling timbre reminiscent of Tom Waits. (I use the overexposure excuse whenever I wince at Waits or anyone who sounds like him. I once spent an entire summer assisting my dissertation supervisor by painstakingly recording every known television appearance by Waits and editing them together on DVDs.) Rutherford no doubt shifted the mood of the festival with his introspective songs that were coloured with dark subject matter, but his charm and remarkable gift for songwriting held the audience captive. To keep a crowd quiet, listening to every word, is a feat for a mid-afternoon performer at a free downtown festival, and Rutherford managed to do so.
I left for a little while to have dinner with my family, but not before I heard the opening songs of Corin Raymond. I can’t describe Raymond as anything but adorable, with song subjects and stories that further endeared him to the audience. After a winding tale about his constant frustrations with airport security, especially in the US, Raymond sang what I think was called “Planes, Trains, and Buses,” documenting his recent touring. Based in Toronto, Raymond is making a name for himself as a proficient songwriter, tours regularly across Canada, and released his second solo album (There Will Always Be a Small Time) last summer.
Dinner meant missing Emily Jill West’s set, which was too bad, because she seems like a promising artist emerging on the Calgary/southern Alberta scene. She has mellow songs, a sweet voice, and pretty harmonies and would have been a nice contrast to the hard-edged honky tonk act that followed her, Tom Phillips and the Men of Constant Sorrow.
Stories of heartbreak drenched in urban grit is the usual fare for Phillips and his band, but this seemed oddly out of place in the sunlit downtown park. Peering out at the audience, Phillips announced that he wasn’t used to playing outside. Or before it got dark. Or sober. Never mind that, the Men were at their usual high standard, displaying the benefits found in playing together for many years. With Kit Johnson on bass, guitarist and producer Dwight Thompson on lead guitar, and Charlie Veilleux on pedal steel, every song was tight, making it obvious why the band anchors the Calgary country scene.
Dave McCann followed with a solo set, which is a rarity. His band is often present in some configuration, especially with their recent album Dixiebluebird, recorded in Nashville, solidifying the chemistry between McCann and his side players. It was nice to hear him alone, since it highlighted his poetic and poignant lyrics, as well as his versatile voice, which has a fairly wide range. McCann was followed by blues gal Romi Mayes, who despite her self-deprecating remarks, pulled off a fantastic set, featuring songs like “Styx and BTO,” about a breakup with a guy who loves the two bands she most despises. Mayes is a solid guitarist and has surprisingly heart-wrenching lyrics for someone so seemingly young and cheerful. (I should mention, however, that when I went to catch her show at the Dakota in October in Toronto, having been so wowed by her voice, looks, songs, everything…wow…she threatened to beat me up on the sidewalk outside the bar when I left before her set started—it was 12:30 and a work night. I just shrugged and walked away. I could have taken her, though. I think.)
Anyway, go see it next year.