Monday, August 29, 2011

Daniel Lanois's Harvest Picnic

Daniel Lanois’s Harvest Picnic

August 27

Christie Lake, Dundas, Ontario

Just as I wasn’t expecting Emmylou Harris’s set to comprise almost entirely of her 1995 classic Wrecking Ball—which was produced by Daniel Lanois, who invited her to play the inaugural incarnation of what he hopes will be an annual festival just outside his hometown of Hamilton—I’m positive Harris didn’t think that material would have such resonance on a day of national mourning and a state funeral.

“I can’t remember if we said goodbye.”

“See what you lost when you left this world, this sweet old world.”

“Where will I be when that trumpet sounds?”

“It don’t matter where they bury me. I’ll be home and I’ll be free.”

She even apologized at one point—how unnecessarily Canadian of her!—before introducing her elegy for the late Kate McGarrigle: “I’m sorry so many of my songs are about death.”

Morbid historical context aside, it was an absolute joy to hear Harris play this material, segueing seamlessly out of Lanois’s own solo set and featuring him and his band (though arguably the biggest name on the bill, Lanois slotted himself third down the bill). She’s done plenty of fine work since Wrecking Ball emancipated her from the confines of country music, but listening to it with fresh ears was a reminder that nothing else in her discography has touched that towering achievement. Its success owes as much to the choice of material (Lucinda Williams, Gillian Welch, Steve Earle, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, Anna McGarrigle) as it does to Harris and Lanois.

The set capped a perfect day that bode well for the future of this festival. The weather was perfect; Christie Lake is an easily accessible, lush and large space for a family-friendly concert; the emphasis on local organic food was a big plus; and the beer and bathroom lines were perfectly manageable.

One of my only quibbles is that set times were not posted; my family arrived at 4.30 p.m. to find Sarah Harmer more than halfway through her set. Which is a shame; after over a year of performing her album Oh Little Fire, her band easily locks into a groove and breathes more life into the material than can be heard on the album.

Harmer was followed by her old friend Gord Downie, with his Country of Miracles band. I’ve seen Downie twice before in the last 12 months; once was a rousing performance at the Hillside Festival, the other a sublime set at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which found him creating evocative water paintings on stage with an overhead projector. Here, he was a bit off his game, seeming like he was jumping on stage right after a summer vacation; he wasn’t his usual compelling self—at times uncharacteristically at a loss for words between songs—and Tragically Hip drummer Johnny Fay was filling in for an absent Dave Clark. It was the more laid-back material (“Trick Rider,” “Chancellor,” “Yellow Days”) that resonated the most in this relaxed atmosphere; no one there was particularly ready to rock, with lawn chairs taking up almost all the space in front of the stage.

Lanois appeared with a new rhythm section unconnected to his current Black Dub project; they covered that band’s “Ring the Alarm,” but otherwise dipped deep into Lanois’s discography, the only “hits” being “The Messenger” and “The Maker.” The trio was in full-on psychedelic blues jam mode—though displaying considerably more subtlety than that descriptor would suggest—with Lanois’s guitar sounding a lot like that of Neil Young’s on the album they made together (2010’s Le Noise). The only misstep was the Brazilian carnival dancers brought onstage to writhe in the least sensuous manner imaginable. There was nothing alluring nor even interesting about the presentation; it was simply tacky.

After Harris’s set, Ray LaMontagne shuffled on stage to close the evening. Never having heard a note of his music before this show, his popularity is a complete mystery to me. There’s dull music that I find easy to ignore, and then there’s dull music that I find offensive; LaMontagne’s limp folk rock is certainly the latter, sounding like little more than third-rate Neil Young leftovers sung in an aching, earnest voice for aging Pearl Jam fans. Harsh? Hey, some of my best friends are rapturous fans of his. But the best thing I can say about his buzzkill set is that it allowed us to skip out early and beat the parking lot rush. Which I’m going to consider an unconscious gift on the part of the organizers, just another small detail they got right in planning what will hopefully be a new Southern Ontario summer tradition.

Lord knows that Lanois has an address book full of people he could haul to his neck of the woods for a good party.