hello Emmylou, goodbye Robyn

Damn you, Emmylou!

I had it all planned out for Friday. Sort of. To be sure, it was inconvenient for Folkfest to schedule the great pairing of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell opposite the great solo act that is Robyn Hitchcock. But Emmylou was given a 30-minute headstart. Simple, then: watch 25 minutes or so of Emmylou and Rodney, then high-tail it to the nearest stage to catch the Soft Boy himself, telling tales and singing of fish and reptiles.

At 8:15 p.m., Harris, Crowell and their hot band sauntered onto the stage and launched into a disarming version of Return of the Grievous Angel, the two old friends harmonizing to make Gram proud. Next up was a lovely version of the Burritos’ Wheels. Third song: Emmylou’s evocative arrangement of Townes Van Zandt’s classic story-song Pancho and Lefty.

It’s hardly playing fair, is it? But that’s Emmylou Harris for you: never a thought for others. Needless to say, I saw none of Mr. Hitchcock’s set. Instead, I basked in the beauty of a performance by a pair of country pros, complete with a smokin’ Luxury Liner and a number of dandy tracks from their long-overdue collaborative album.

At one point, Emmylou stood alone onstage, to croon her exquisite tribute to the late Kate McGarrigle. Again, I had to feel for Robyn Hitchcock. Especially given that this is me she’s singing to. The performance of Darlin’ Kate certainly brought back a torrent of memories — memories of the many times I saw Kate and Anna, but in particular of Kate and Anna’s Bluesfest performance of many years ago. That set, at LeBreton Flats, was notable in that it was at times in danger of being drowned out by a rockin’ performance from the festival’s nearby main stage. At times Friday, that experience was brought to mind all too clearly, with gentle, acoustic-based songs competing for our attention with Shad’s considerably louder performance from the main stage. By the time Emmylou and Rodney attempted to share with us a nearly inaudible rendition of Back When We Were Beautiful, I was ready to grab the nearest ax and go all Pete Seeger on the offending stage’s PA.

(Pacifist Pete Seeger, see, is alleged to have been sufficiently outraged by the rocking and rolling onstage to have grabbed an ax at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival during Bob Dylan and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s scandalous ‘electric’ set and attempted to cut the cables. It’s a charge Seeger has always denied, and while the story has passed into legend, it does seem highly unlikely. Worse, Seeger has not been considerate enough to bring an ax to any of Bob’s shows in recent years. And by recent, I mean just about any Dylan live performance since 1981.)

The significant interference from another stage had been remarked upon earlier in the evening by Beth Orton, who — while not exactly Little Richard at Bluesfest, or Daniel Lanois at, uh, Bluesfest — politely but firmly expressed her displeasure with having to fight to be heard over the din. (Unlike Emmylou, Beth Orton did not have a full band to try to overpower the competition.) She was not, the veteran performer stressed, “‘avin’ a pop” at Shad as a person, or hiphop as a thing, or whatever it is. On the contrary, she rightfully acknowledged the value of having hiphop represented at a folk festival. Rather, she was “‘avin’ a pop” at organizers that would position a considerably louder and more insistent stage so it was pointed right at her and her acoustic guitar. Once Folkfest organizers figure out what ‘avin’ a pop is, one hopes they will look into the matter.

(Orton, incidentally, gave some indication of how fondly she recalls her sold-out Barrymore’s performance of a decade or so ago, by happily informing us that this is her first visit to Ottawa.)

Two days ago, I may have opined that nothing would top Patti Smith’s Folkfest performance. I thank Emmylou and Rodney for making a solid case against such premature judgments.

I only hope someone caught Robyn Hitchcock’s set. I like and support Robyn in all he does. Even if Emmylou obviously doesn’t.

Then again, if the sound bleeding into Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell’s intimate gathering had been Hitchcock’s set it could well have been win-win — a sublime duo turned into an unlikely trio.

It’s something for Folkfest organizers to consider when booking next year’s battle of the bands.

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