Artist Blog: Chumbawamba

Posted by on 18 August 2007

Canada, 2007

Canada, 2007

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.

Five 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 sleep.

Calgary Folk Music Festival takes place on an island on the River Bow in Calgary, called Prince’s Island Park. It’s a ten-minute walk from ‘downtown’ and the skyscrapers are a constant and incongruous presence in the background wherever you are at the festival. It’s 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. It’s 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. What’s 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. He’s 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 you’re 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 you’ll 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 don’t 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 can’t report any sightings, although we did encounter some ‘bear scat’ (as it’s 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, it’s 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’ we’re working on is ticking along quite nicely and we’re 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 there’s 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 it’s not raining any more – well not all the time, anyway. In fact, it’s lovely to be back, sharing our experiences and our holiday snaps with you all.