A palpable sense of expectation continues to build right across Central and Eastern Canada as folks gear up for this year's Evolve Festival in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. So where to start? For one thing Antigonish (pronounced Anigonish) is a lovely small rural town surrounded by natural beauty. It is also the home of St. Francis Xavier University, a progressive jazz program and is the unofficial capital of Nova Scotia hippy land. I've heard it said that in the 'Nish if you hear Gin and Juice on a car stereo you've got about 50/50 odds that it's Phish's version and that sounds about right. The festival is the brainchild of Jimmy Dorey, one of the better known Canadian heads and certainly a go-to guy in Nova Scotia, and is intended as a "non-corporate sponsored, grassroots and community based celebration of life." The feel of the fest (now in it's second year) draws from this social commitment. Without major sponsorship or backing the organizers have done an excellent job of drawing the full range of Canadian talent and for the first time they've added an American band The Slip. Concert goers can expect an extremely peaceful and laid back setting with camping on site, bands through the day and DJ's all night, plus a swimming hole nearby.
If I were to put my finger to the wind (as I often do), I would say that the most anticipation surrounds The Slip, Burt Neilson Band, Grand Theft Bus, Nero, Caution Jam and the Aaron Macdonald Band. Since all you Yanks are all so knowledgeable about les affaires du tete (the affairs of the head), I'll leave mention of The Slip for a post-show wrap up. The only pre-Slip words coming from this mouth will be that anticipation is high and that Saturday's The Slip and Friends (featuring the best of our Canadian talent) should be unstoppable.
The Canadian bands we've mentioned here are worth a little looking into though as you may be hearing from them soon. The Burt Neilson Band, originally formed in Thunder Bay Ontario cum Montreal Quebec cum Canmore Alberta, are without a doubt the premier Canadian jamband. That honour should probably also be reserved for the Nude Eel except that they've got a publicist to do that now. In all sincerity though, the honour rightly belongs to the Burt boys for touring Canada intensively and extensively for years and continuing to grow as artists. In particular as of late, the boys seem to have really gelled as an ensemble and are improvising passages that I would put on a par with anyone in the American market today. Also their songwriting (lacking on their Orange Shag Carpet release) has clearly been infused with a dedication to produce well-crafted songs on a par with anything happening in the non-jam world. Every time out audiences are surprised at the growth they are seeing with this band, which might have to do with the fact that you could drive from Nova Scotia to France sooner than British Columbia. So the long and short of it is that I don't think anyone knows what to anticipate from Burt Neilson (not the name of a member of the band by the way) except that they will cook. Hope likely abounds that they will at least kick out a few classy covers since they are known for not wanting to be Phishy as it were.
Another band of Burt Neilson's ilk is Grand Theft Bus (one of their early shows was reviewed for the 'Base). In fact, this fledgling outfit has already developed a stable of songs that I would say rival Burt's in terms of craftsmanship as songs. Also the Bus boys, featuring the vocals of Tim and Graham Walker, have truly beautiful voices that bring life to everything they touch. Standouts of the GTB repertoire include "Streetsleeper" and "Weight of Circumstance" which would have pretty much any head whistling the melody for days. The Bus jamming style comes out of the MMW/Scofield camp in that it is clean, plaintive, inspired and highly danceable. Many of their jams, to both their benefit and detriment, revolve around a cyclic feel which we have become familiar with through a band from Vermont. Fans of the Bus are also amazed at the leaps the band is making everytime out with some shows just laying on the funk and others smoothly running the course. Not much anticipation is being held out for them to cover anything as they have adopted, at least to the minute, an informal and questionable no-covers policy. It has been this reviewers feeling that some material by The Band, The Who (Eminence Front!) or the Talking Heads would be well suited to this ensemble. So if they're reading take heed because the Hellfire Society for Better Covers is out for blood.
Nero is another real phenom Canadian band hailing from our nation's capital Toronto - just kidding, Ottawa's the capital. For a trio (bass, drums, guitar) they manage, presumably through the use of loops, to evoke the sound of a keyboard (not unlike MMW and the guitar) within their mix. This band plays a full repertoire of their own non-vocal material accented by a few covers including "Chameleon" and a smoking "First Tube." From the sounds of it, a lot of heads are trying to head out from the Ottawa area to catch their faves (who by the way recently played their 50th show this year). The limitations, if any, of a three piece band without keyboards or vocals should be interesting to experience first hand. The Hellfire Society (which by the way is accepting select members) has also been on their ass about covering some sick shit like "Tube" not just "First Tube." It should be said that bands like Nero, Burt and the Bus deserve commendation for their efforts to play all their own material. What is perhaps a bit laughable is that these bands seem to steer clear of the covers as if to throw people off the scent that they're inspired by Phish. Considering that these bandmates must own thousands of hours of tape combined it seems suspect that there wasn't one tune that really struck them to be presented in a unique way. It will be interesting as the weight of the Phish departure comes to bear more fully upon us how bands will react. Bands such as the Tom Tom Club, Little Feat and Lake Trout have all managed to cover Phish material in a way that feels consistent with their own artistic integrity and hopefully other bands will too (which is not to say the big P is the beginning and end of music anyways).
Caution Jam, along with the Fat Cats, are the big Daddies of the Canadian jam scene. While primarily a Dead-cover band they manage to ride that knife's edge in such a way that this extremely skeptical head is always bobbing. Part of this may be owing to the fact that the band is just so tight from over a decade of playing together that it wouldn't matter if they were an Elvis Costello cover band (well it would but you get my point). The band's original material is also very engaging and doesn't strike as particularly Dead-ish. Fortunately their jamming style has infused the intricacies of the Dead interplay with the Big-band (not Big Band) dynamics of Phish et. al. With a repertoire of over 300 songs to choose from (gleaned from playing in a variety of bar ensembles in the TO area such as the Blue Budz) fans will likely be seen far and wide doing that whirly dance that the patchouli girls and bearded boys seem to love.
And finally hometown favourites the Aaron Macdonald Band. You'd kind of have to be from Nova Scotia to appreciate this but I'll try. Well Spock, Aaron's nickname, made his name in the 'Nish and as I've mentioned the 'Nish is heady. So if you're heady in Nova Scotia or the 'Nish you go and see Aaron and the Band play - especially if you're a girl. With his boyish charm and dapper good looks Aaron fronts a great band that delivers just real plain listenable and danceable music. Unfortunately one of the only ways to adequitely describe the band to an outsider would be to compare to Dave Matthews. That's what I thought at first but I knew there was some reason my buddy Jay-man (Jay Cleary also of AMB) kept insisting this guy really had something unique. And he does, he writes great songs, has a great voice, is heartfelt in his delivery and the band shares openly in this joy. Noteworthy also is the unique mix that Neil, the AMB's percussionist (of St. FX's jazz percussion program), brings to the ensemble. Attendees of the Evolve Fest this weekend will no doubt greet the AMB's peaceful easy rhythyms with nothing short of mirth and glee.
By way of closing the whole line-up for the festival is solid and promises a great, cheap time to be had by all. Other noteworthies on the bill (all of whom deserve more time and attention) include the Jimmy Swift Band, Jazz Pharmacy, Hunoo, Downtime and Amelia Curran/Sense Amelia Project (who reminds me a bit of Ani Difranco but then again I think every female singer/songwriter with a guitar sounds like Ani). Oh and on Saturday morning, after the DJ's have wiped the dew off their EQ's, a fantastic band called Kojo from Sudan, Africa will be playing traditional music based around the thumb piano (let's just say David Byrne would be proud and leave it at that).
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