Vancouver Island Musicfest
why we love festivals so much...
As always, tour dates listed with links to info below post
Every musician I can think of in my orbit, be they older or younger, in any style or genre, wants to play festivals. They are a blast. When the festival is pro, and/or established, you are treated with the respect you’ve always thought you deserved as an artist (everyone deserves that respect), complete with world class sound and crews, a captive audience that is there to see and hear music and find new artists to become fans of, as well as good-to-great pay and accommodations. For as long as I have been playing music for a living (essentially my whole life besides a summer of data entry and waiting tables after my freshman year of college to pay for my sophomore year) I have enjoyed playing them. From Rotterdam (w/Ray Wylie Hubbard) to Bengaluru (w/Bobby Whitlock & Coco Carmel), to Edmonton (w/Ruthie foster and again w/Joe Ely another year), to Vancouver (w/Eliza Gilkyson), to Ottowa (w/Bob Schneider), to countless others over the years with various artists who had hired me during my 15 year side-person career in Texas. In 2016 I went solo, and with my +6 year-old career growing fast (despite almost 2 of those years in lockdown) I now am starting to play the festivals under my own name.
And man, it’s humbling. It’s exciting too.
Case in point: Vancouver Island Musicfest this last weekend.
I met Doug Cox, the artistic director and music director of the festival, many years ago in Austin when he was performing with my friend and someone else who hired me for many a side-person gig, BettySoo. Kindred spirits in that we both play Dobro and lap-steel guitars as well as a slew of other instruments (some better than others in my case), we immediately felt a bit of a brotherhood. Doug is a Juno-award winning artist and producer, involved in so many aspects of Canadian music as well as around the world I could not begin to name them all.
Doug and I have also been playing a duo-acoustic gig here and there on occasion, and now that I am playing more on Vancouver Island, with his help and the help of other promoters, musicians, fans, family, and friends, I’m on my way to having 2 really great “hubs” to perform and play out of; Van Isle and Texas. It’s pretty spectacular.
“It’s who you know”
Haven’t we all heard that? Is it bad to tell you that if I didn’t know Doug and I solicited this festival through my booking agent or on my own I might never have been chosen to come and play? I’ve been getting booked on some other great festivals, but sometimes the truth is that’s “who you know” is how it happens. You know somebody, and they think you can do a great job.
Doug was specific in that he wanted Rick May and Phil Wipper, who have been playing gigs with me around the island for 6 months or so, to be playing with me on the “workshops” (or song swaps as we call them in the states) so that they could back up the other musicians. It’s entirely possible that played into my getting the gig as well. He didn’t just get me, he got me plus 2 stellar session and gig musicians who could back up anyone on the spot, with no rehearsal!
I was invited to this festival to play in two workshops on Saturday, and to play a one hour band set of my own on a smaller stage on Sunday. Here are some highlights…
“Great Guitars” (workshop #1)
The first workshop, “Great Guitars,” was a guitar picking enthusiasts dream. Folk, blues, rock, and soul were all showcased by 4 main artists, myself included, who all had sets in other bands or on their own throughout the festival. I showed up around 9:15am with the aforementioned bass player and drummer, and was greeted backstage by a large and very professional sound crew. One of the stage managers saw the name on my badge laniard around my neck, introduced themselves to me, and showed me to where I would be on stage. Far stage left. This is often a dreaded, but in my opinion the best spot to get. Generally a song swap or workshop goes from left to right if you are facing the stage, and right to left if you are on it. That almost always makes you the closer. Bring it on.
I introduced myself to the host, a great blues guitarist, quiet and unassuming. That was it. Hello. Nothing more. We all had to get our gear set up in a hurry. Showtime was 10am and by now I was halfway setup and it was 9:45. I had also managed to spill coffee all over my only gig shirt and right down my pants. Oh well.
There were two auxiliary guitarists behind the front row of featured performers, one electric and one acoustic. One was a seasoned electric player and a gem who really knew how to listen and add despite all those guitars on stage, and one who played a solo version of “Classical Gas” that knocked everyone’s socks off. On top of all that, there was a pedal steel player stage right in the back, the bass player I was lucky enough to have on the gigs (Rick May) behind me, and two drummers on risers behind us. Two drummers.
Can you believe that professional, and kind and helpful crew, got ALL THAT set up checked, and sounding fantastic and we started right on time at 10am sharp?
So at the point of departure on the first tune, I don’t know anyone besides the drummer and bass player who came with me. Not one of them. And no one really has time to be cordial. This is business, we’ll all surely hang later, right? The answer is yes, and it’s also one of the many other great things about festivals.
The featured performer stage right was a female acoustic guitarist and vocalist named Meredith Axelrod, who I might label (correctly I hope) as folk. Brilliant, also unassuming, and funny. Commanding and inspiring, she led her two tunes. I found out later she had sent me a message on Facebook sort of cautiously inviting me to play with her. I was sad to get this message too late. She was fantastic.
The host, also featured, was next to her, and led two blues tunes. I think he mentioned he played with Son House, so we played one of his tunes, and something else.
Then next to me was Melody Angel, who apparently played the main stage the night before with an all-star all female blues collaboration put together just for this festival called, “Her Majesty.”. Meldoy was a force to be reckoned with, and played fiercely on both of her tunes. I had to follow her. What do you do?
“Don’t try to out-do, switch gears completely”
What are you gonna do if you are last in line, and the person beside you just knocks everyone’s socks off and gets a standing ovation? Switch gears completely. I pulled out “Walking In The Sun” a soul cover tune from my SoulSlide album, gave every single player on stage a solo who wanted one, and got the crowd to sing along at the end.
What are you going to do if Melody says, “who’s gonna play first?” on her next tune, a Jimi Hendrix cover and then looks around and you are the only one brave enough? You lead in with everything you got.
What are you going to do if Melody’s version of “Hey Joe” gets another standing “O” and you have to close the whole workshop following her. Take a deep humble breath, and play a gospel-inspired road song (Homecoming) of your own, that everyone can play on, get the crowd laughing and clapping, get every single person on stage to play (make it easy for them to shine if at all possible), and kick the crap out of that full barn full of a couple hundred music fans.
If you would like to see a couple grainy video snippets of the above workshop and what transpired head over to my instagram.
“Songs From A Hat” (workshop #2)
I was pretty nervous about this one. Here’s the premise—get the audience members to put a bunch of popular and not-so-popular songs on little slips of paper in a hat, and then get a bunch of musicians to try to play at least one verse and chorus of them together - on the spot, no rehearsal. Secretly they may even “spike the hat” with a few tunes we know.
Check out the picture of us setting up above. I had to fight for my position (that they put me in) on stage because the other artists wouldn’t give me enough room to be in the front row! A band of 2 stage left, a band of 3 next to them, 2 incredible female gospel vocalists to my right, little ole me, and some sort of weird kick drum out of a suitcase while I play guitar acoustic duo to my right. Again with Rick and Phil on bass and drums, and another drummer, female and fierce from the same band as Melody named Tam Tam. It—was—chaos.
At least setting up was. For this crowd of hundreds, this was one of their favorite workshops. It apparently happens every year.
Before the show, whilst setting up, I noticed how incredibly jam packed the stage was to be. The stage manager noted that I had a piano/keyboard in my setup for my main gig. I said, “skip the piano I probably won’t need it.” They did set up a piano/keyboard station on the other side of the stage for another band performer.
The very first song out of the hat, after everything began, was “I’m Still Standing” by Elton John. This was one of my “I know it if they call it” tunes, and I had been doing a funky version of it at The Resentments shows in Austin and even once at my birthday bash in April, but I only knew it on piano. So I waited a moment, everyone else said they didn’t know it. I stood up and said, “I know it if I can use the piano.” I ran across the stage to a stand up keyboard and played basically with my fists through a verse and chorus, with the entire stage singing on the chorus words “I’m Still Standing” and what felt like the entire audience singing, “yeah, yeah, yeah!”
It was a wonderful start that set me up to have a great set, laughing and playing with a full stage of people I didn’t know and had never met before. Audience members sang with the band (one of them donning a “Plank” trucker hat from my merchandise collection) and even little kids got up and sand a verse and a chorus a cappella if no one on stage knew the tune! It was full of mistakes, full of wonder and joy, and just beautiful. Two shows down, one to go.
“The Main Show”
Sunday comes, and all I can think is I am so lucky to be here. But somehow, from the few fans and friends I had peppered in the crowd, word of mouth from my performances at the workshops, and who knows maybe “the festival gods” shined down on me and I saw a VERY ample crowd congregating before my set on one of the smaller side stages.
Where did all these people come from? Why are they coming to my show? Is now rthe best time for my “impostor syndrome” to rear it’s ugly head? I put my head down, think of the job at hand. But first, here’s a little backstory on the group of stellar musicians I am playing with.
Doug had only hired me as a trio, but my thought was to put my best foot forward at this festival, hoping it would lead to more things, so I asked him a month or so before if I could bring a backup vocalist and a rhythm guitarist just for the showcasing of my set (I would of course, not ask for more money and pay them out of my own pocket). I wanted people to see the big show. Even if my set was to be at 1:45pm on a side stage. He graciously, said yes. It took a little convincing, but he gave them both passes and credentials to be there.
These wonderful, new to me, Canadian musicians all asked while I was in Texas touring, “are we going to rehearse?” I was flabbergasted. They all live in different cities on Vancouver Island, and offered to drive (with today’s price of gas) long distances to practise and to make the show really great, and asked for no compensation.
I found a time (Wednesday before the festival) and a venue to rehearse (the Duncan Showroom - farthest from where I live, but centrally located for all of them) and we got together and ran through the set. the rehearsal was a breeze, quite a lot of fun, and we laughed liked mad at ourselves and each other. I was feeling really good after that rehearsal. I slid the club owner and each of them a modest bit of that colourful Canadian cash for gas and their time, to which they all thanked me. Best I could do.
At this point I have now spent every penny I’m getting paid for this festival before I have even arrived (and the festival pays pretty darn well). I know I’m going to go in the hole for this one, but I’m hoping it’s worth it. Back to the setup for the gig…
I’ve already told you how professional and accommodating the sound crews were on the other stages I played on, and for my show it was no different. The band before me was an acoustic guitar vocalist and a drummer, with loops and effects. The performer after me was solo and a very famous Canadian songwriter who lives in Nashville. These sound technicians and roadies and stage managers and shuttlers and everyone else handle it with ease.
I have recently been adding piano songs to my set. It breaks up the show. I think it provides a little breather from all the slide and guitar-heavy numbers. Believe you me - I am a functional piano player at best (remember I often play with my fists), and this is quite literally the fourth gig under my name I plan to play piano on.
As I am bringing my three guitars (slide, electric, and acoustic) on stage along with my pedalboard, cables, stands and setlists, I see they have the piano set up in just the right place, and it is a nice, weighted-keys keyboard that looks and plays about as close to a real piano as you can get.
Now mind you, they only have 15 minutes to get the other band off stage and get my five piece on. I’ve successfully checked all three guitars and two vocals (one for each of my stations). They setup 4 mics, brought 3 backline amps on stage, moved the drum set to the other side of the stage, and have procured me said keyboard. Like I said, professionals. But they don’t have a piano stool. Somehow it got missed.
The rest of the band is checking their own instruments and setting up. I’m ready to be a “team player” at this point—shit happens, just roll with it. In lieu of a proper stool, first they offer up a chair and I sit behind the keyboard with my hands at eye-level like I’m at “the kids table” at Thanksgiving dinner. No can do. Then they offer a road case for a bass guitar amp that is roughly the same height as a piano stool. Success! I’m ready to go with that and sit down to check the piano quickly. And wouldn’t you know it, the damper pedal (essential) for the keyboard is not working. No matter, I tell the band and the crew, skip the piano, it’s only for a couple tunes.
By now, the audience is jam packed. From side to side, backing up to “the barn” where I played the first workshop, with all the bleachers full, and hippies standing on front and on the sides ready to hippie dance away (which I love and look forward to), I’m so ready to just get going.
Stage manager taps me on the shoulder, “piano is working!” And they have somehow procured a stool from another stage in what seemed like a minute. Then another stage hand comes over to me because the setup has run five minutes into my set. “Would you mind shortening your set by 5 minutes or do you want to play the full hour?”
Well of course I want to play the full hour.
“No that’s fine we’ll cut a couple songs,” I say to him.
First two songs on slide guitar, go off without a hitch. The band is smoking hot. All of them doing their jobs fantastically. Audience seems into it. Head-bobbing, clapping along, and in general, I’m feeling like we are connecting. So for the third song I sit down at the piano to play “Juggling Sand” a song that I have only put out on my patreon page, that’s not available on any albums (yet).
The damper pedal still doesn’t work. So I quickly get up, apologize to the audience, tell the band we are skipping two more tunes. While I continue to play, now on electric guitar, two stage hands are at my feet, in front of the keyboard working to fix the damper pedal situation—not at all distracting, right? But I’m grateful they give a shit.
After 2 more songs they say, “we got it working!” I’m wondering if I should risk this again, but I begrudgingly sit down to a fully functional piano/keyboard. We play “Juggling Sand,” and I can’t really hear the piano because we didn’t get to properly check it so I keep turning it up and essentially do what I like to call “playing music by braille.” That means I can’t hear anything with any clarity but I plug along as if I sound incredible. The audience seemingly digs the tune a lot, and I even get asked about it lyrically and musically afterwards, but I don’t want to press my luck. I skip “Holy Lighting” (the other planned piano number in my set) even though Cara on vocals is more than ready to cover the Patty Griffin harmony from my album.
I move to acoustic guitar. I play another new song that has been going over great in Texas (also only available on my patreon page), and then I play “Love Is Love” and break out the old “face piano” a.k.a. melodica for the solo. I get the “ten minutes” sign from the side of the stage, retune my slide guitar while introducing the band again, then play “Trouble Find Me” and “Maybe It’s Not Too Late” to close. Complete with audience claps, sing-along, and the “Boogie Chillun’” bit I do during the middle for as few laughs. We end up getting off stage 1 minute over. This is bad form on my part! Man I hate that. It’s a big “no-no” to leave the stage later than your time, no matter what happens.
As I’m thanking the crowd as fast as I can and tell them I will be over by the mainstage at the merch tent in 45 minutes for a cd signing and meet and greet, the sound person accidentally cuts my mic mid-sentence. He assures me later this is a mistake he is very sorry about. I’m very inclined to believe it was by no means on purpose.
So not everything, but a lot of things, that could have gone wrong, actually did. But my years of playing with Texas legends taught me to be a warrior of song and performance. I had an absolute blast despite all these setbacks and left turns and curve balls. And the professional crew took these things that could happen to any act, and made it so very few audience members even knew they were happening!
Also, that crew was PRO. Top to bottom. Things happen, especially at a festival with multiple stages and tens of performers and acts being shuffled around from stage to stage. They could have at any point before, during, or after the show just said, “screw it” and let me play on. They wanted to make me comfortable. They wanted me to play what I came to play. They were professional, and I got to do what I came there to do.
Here’s the best part, I was greeted 45 minutes later at the merch tent with a very long line of new fans asking for signatures and did the meet and greet thing for about a half hour. About 40 folks came with cds of mine they had bought, and missed out on whatever else music was going on at that time, to talk to me. The merch sales from the festival were substantial enough to take me out of the red and into the black. Another sweet victory.
“Take the win.”
Years ago, I was up on the island for a summer month or two, back before the pandemic when Donyne and I lived primarily in Austin, TX and I got a call from Sam Baker to come and play with him on the main stage at this very festival. I had only played with Sam once before, but he knew my side-person reputation and felt I could pull it off, sans rehearsal. He didn’t even send me the songs. It was joyous as always playing a festival, and playing with Sam. Even though I had a fantastic time, I didn’t see one iota of what this festival had to offer. I was a “hired gun” and in and out in a hurry, moving onto whatever was next on my agenda.
I feel like every bit of luck or help that I get along this path, I need to be grateful for. I’m not saying I’m not talented (I mean I love doing this so I must think I’m pretty good), I’m not saying I don’t work hard (those who know me know about my work ethic). What I’m saying is that these “leg-ups” that happen once in a while turn into amazing experiences. So it took connections, hard work, luck, and seasoning from years of playing with great artists to land this gig and to make it what I consider a great success.
Whether or not I get one more gig, one more festival, or any other opportunity out of this weekend - well that’s all gravy to me. That is of course the hope, but forcing anything like that is futile at best. Pro-active is good but it’s exceedingly easy to slide into being greedy or having unreasonable expectations after a modicum of success. I try to just take the win. The only bad part of the festival, and this whole weekend, is how few names I got! Everything moves so fast. I try to make a list of all the artists to look up later in the program and try to find or reach out to, but it’s not always that easy. Some that I played with, and some that I got to hear and fall in love with. Many of them I won’t see until we end up somewhere else, smashed together again on a stage to try to create something new and exciting for an audience.
This is probably the longest newsletter/blog I have ever written. But these are the experiences that you just don’t want to forget as you move along and hopefully upward in your career or path in life. This weekend was so much fun. I made a ton of new fans and new friends that would have most likely never heard of me before this weekend.
I didn’t get to tell you about half of what I got to do or who I met or who I listened to. It was a stellar lineup to say the least. But that would be a whole another blog. I love playing festivals, hope to play a lot more, and I’m so lucky to do what I do. Thank you all for that.
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Love to all,
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