Artist Blog: Chumbawamba
Last summer in Canada we
came, we played, we went home again, and all before we had a chance to
get over our initial jet lag. This summer, we vowed to return but do it
differently. So ... three festivals over two weekends and a few days
off in between to have a bit of a holiday. Nice work if you can get it.
First stop, Guelph, Ontario, and Hillside Festival a celebration of music and community. To be honest, our appearance there was so fleeting, that I remember little about it, except it was very friendly, fantastically well-organised in terms of recycling (yet another nation that puts the UK to shame on that front), it rained before we played and then miraculously stopped just before we took the stage, and we saw a really good emcee and rapper called Shad.
thirty the following morning saw us en route for the airport for our
flight to Calgary. By 8:00 am we were airborne and weeping with
laughter at the in-flight movie, Blades of Glory. Okay so it was a
one-joke film, but I swear, the whole plane was laughing at that one
joke. Anyway, our critical faculties were hardly engaged on four hours
Calgary Folk Music Festival takes place on an island on the River Bow in Calgary, called Princes Island Park. Its a ten-minute walk from downtown and the skyscrapers are a constant and incongruous presence in the background wherever you are at the festival. Its the usual Canadian festival format (for which we were somewhat better-prepared than last year in Edmonton) of small-stage workshops and a main-stage concert. The workshops adhere to the following format: throw three or four artists onstage together, give the workshop a title that vaguely links them, elect one of the performers to host the show, step well back and see what transpires. Its like one of those bizarre daytime cooking shows where the chefs are given a tin of pineapple, a loaf of bread, some asparagus, a packet of bacon and a bag of chocolate buttons and told to make a meal from it. Sometimes something wonderful emerges which blends all the ingredients in an unexpected yet beautiful way (think a haunting Tuvan throat-singing solo behind an alt-country ballad thanks to Chirgilchin and Nathan for that one). Sometimes you get a big sloppy mess that tastes fine, but gets a bit monotonous (think every song descending into a blues workout). And sometimes you just get all the separate ingredients beautifully presented on individual plates.
Our experience encompassed all of these, and rather than bore you all
with exhaustive detail, let me pick out the highlights. By far the
wittiest, most politically astute, and entertaining performer (not to
mention best-dressed) we had the privilege to share a stage with was Geoff Berner
a klezmer punk warrior from Vancouver. He plays accordion, and sings
songs that are, in his words, full of drinking, politics and sex.
Whats more, he remains eloquent to the very last drink, despite barely
being able to stand. Inexplicably, he seemed as excited to make our
acquaintance as we were his, and several drunken promises were made to
collaborate at some unspecified point in the future.
Equally politically aware and no less passionate, was David Francey,
who we shared a workshop stage with at the Canmore Folk festival. Hes
a Scotsman who has lived a long time in Canada and who writes and sings
(beautifully) impassioned and searching songs about the world we find
ourselves living in. Not a million miles away from Dick Gaughan, if
youre looking for a musical and political comparison. We loved the
ease with which he engaged the audience and the intensity of his
delivery, and he loved our witty pop take on serious matters. More
mutual admiration. Our Calgary workshop with Nathan,
a Winnipeg-based band fronted by two of the most petite and frankly,
cutest women youll ever encounter, and whose instrumentation includes
banjo, accordion and theremin, and Chirgilchin, a troupe of
throat-singers from Tuva a rugged and mountainous autonomous west of
Mongolia, looked on paper like it was going to be the most tortuous
hour of our lives (or should I add, in deference to Homer Simpson, of
our lives so far?). How wrong we were. It was a wholly charming and
magical session. The Tuvans were rightly the stars. Throat-singing is
so unutterably alien to us that everyone was mesmerised by it
audience and performers alike. If you want to experience some, I
suggest you head to YouTube and type in Chigilchin to see them in
action, because I dont have the words in my lexicon to describe it
properly. All I can say is it sounds like it must hurt.
In Calgary high-rise buildings formed the backdrop to the festival; in
Canmore it was the Rockies. They were everywhere you looked, rising up
majestically on every side. And full of bears. We received frequent
warnings about being in bear country. We cant report any sightings,
although we did encounter some bear scat (as its quaintly called in
the leaflet just before the paragraph about what to do in the event
of an attack by a grizzly: lie down on your front with your hands
clasped behind your back and your legs spread, apparently) on a trail,
and it was enough to make us turn back.
As you have no doubt heard before, its a hard life being in a band, but we try not to complain. We made the most of our three days off in Canmore: hiking, mountain biking, jogging, pottering, sleeping, eating nice food, admiring the breathtaking scenery, and rehearsing. Yes, rehearsing. So ingrained is our protestant work ethic, that rather than yield completely to the demons of sloth and lotus-eating we set aside a portion of each day to run through new songs. The fabled new album were working on is ticking along quite nicely and were at a point where we thought we should seize the opportunity to test out some of the more polished songs on an unsuspecting Canadian audience. And a very worthwhile exercise it proved to be. Several songs changed key; structures were re-arranged; one went from acappella to full hoedown instrumentation and they were all improved by the process. And, most importantly, they went down very well with the crowd. So, if you were there: thank you for your sympathetic response; and your patience when we forgot the words; and for laughing in the right places. Obviously theres a downside to all this idyllic Canadian life. We all got a bit too used to the politeness and friendliness, and the cars all stopping anytime we were anywhere near a zebra crossing I nearly came a cropper on Armley Town Street when I got back, I can tell you. And as for Heathrow - it was like being catapulted straight from Paradise to the fifth circle of hell. Our luggage spent three days on a carousel in limbo. But at least its not raining any more well not all the time, anyway. In fact, its lovely to be back, sharing our experiences and our holiday snaps with you all.