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Music in Yosemite

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Doe, a deerThree years after first being asked to play the Strawberry Music Festival in northern California, I finally was able to go. I had been anticipating this festival for so long it had become built up in my expectations, and, as an Ansel Adams fan, I was thrilled to be playing in Yosemite National Park that he loved and photographed so much.

Chris and I boarded the plane to San Francisco at the end of PEI’s month of rain. It was lovely to be walking around this hilly city with the clear blue sky bursting through. We had one gig in the city of flowers and fog and then we were off on the beautiful drive through the golden hills of California rising higher and higher in elevation on switchback mountain roads until we were among the giant pines and cedars of the outskirts of Yosemite.

The Strawberry Music Festival has been running for thirty years at Camp Mather (just at the edge of the national park) and is famous for it’s amazing acts and family atmosphere. Everyone was jamming and cooking up food and there were radios throughout the campground that played the music from the mainstage so everyone was connected to the heart of this festival, no matter where you were on the site. There really was a feeling of togetherness at Strawberry that makes it so unique.

Within a few hours of our arrival we ran into our good friend, Old Man Luedecke, who then became our constant companion during the weekend. I definitely felt like I was at camp, where instant bonds are made with strangers and old friends are found roaming the woods.

Friday morning Chris and I played our first set to a welcoming crowd, looking out on a vista of pure beauty. The main stage is set up in a meadow surrounded by trees and the beauty of the mountains in the distance. It actually brought tears to my eyes as I looked out upon the scene. Our set was an hour long, and having the privilege of so much time on stage we were able to relax and enjoy every moment of it, stretching out musically into the ease of the day.

On Saturday, with not much to do, Chris and I took the drive from Camp Mather deeper into the heart of Yosemite. It was Memorial Day weekend in the U.S. so the natural beauty of the drive was a bit marred by the endless lines of motorists meandering their way through the park. Despite that, the park was just stunning. We drove around the winding roads, looking out onto sights that I had only ever seen pictures of—giant waterfalls running fast from the last of the snow, the massive granite formations of El Capitan and Half Dome, and the tunnel view of the valley carved out by the Merced River.

Sunday morning we woke early to play at the gospel show, a kind of non-religious church service for festival goers. I played a few of my dad’s tunes and various other songs that I could squeeze into the “gospel” category. It was a nice ending to the festival for us. We headed out after that for the five hour drive back to San Francisco where we would fly out the next day. Luedecke followed us an hour or so later and we shared a great meal in a little Italian restaurant with enough red wine and pasta to celebrate the end of a great weekend.

The Strawberry Music Festival marked the beginning of another summer season of festivals. I’ll be heading to the Stan Fest, Cavendish, Newfoundland, Calgary, Ottawa and various other places throughout the summer. These events such a great way to experience music, people and the beauty of our earth—I’m looking forward to a summer of fun.

In with the New

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Ron Hynes in performance at the Harbourfront Theatre (photo: pixbylorne)As I write this, I am trying to ignore the endless gray and wet weather outside, and just get on with life. Apparently, there are endless things I can do inside. Like taxes, songwriting, cleaning and garden research. For the moment, I will put all that aside while I play a few shows with the legendary songwriter Ron Hynes.

Last night we played Truro (city of lights, city of magic), in their lovely little theatre, The Marigold. It was the first show in about a month that Chris and I had played not in someone’s living room: a welcome change. I was trying to recall the last time I had played in Truro, perhaps four or more years ago in a tiny cafe with David Myles—a story for another time, I suppose.

Ron Hynes is such an amazing performer, a real bard. He has such powerful stage presence that he could probably just stand there for a while saying and doing nothing before people got bored. Chris and I snuck up to the back of the theatre to watch him, intending to just catch a few songs from the audience and then head backstage again to hide. As soon as we sat down, though, we were entranced. The brilliance of his songs, the lyrics and melodies and the simple but honest way he threw them out at us, it was stunning.

I got to know Ron fairly well on our trip to Ireland over this past winter, and my enthusiasm for his songs never diminish. I hope that someday, given time and experience, I can be half as good a writer as he is.

Catherine MacLellan in performance at the Harbourfront Theatre (photo: pixbylorne)For some reason, I think we tend to take our local heros for granted. Where are the young songwriters who should be soaking this up? I guess they are mostly all too broke or busy to get to these shows, but we all have a lot to learn from the songwriting skills of Ron Hynes.

With my new record coming out in July, I have got a lot of traveling in front of me. By the time anyone will be reading this, Chris and I will have returned from San Francisco and Yosemite. I’m actually taking most of June to be on the Island here, performing for the Festival of Small Halls and other things, but then I’ll be heading to Boulder, Colorado, New Orleans, Calgary, Ottawa, and a few other stops before the end of summer.

I’m looking forward to our California trip the most. I have been waiting for this for probably a year, when we were asked to play the Strawberry Music Festival. This year’s spring lineup includes the likes of Jimmie Dale Gilmour, Aaron Neville, Butch Hancock, Tim O’Brien and my good friend Old Man Luedecke. They’ll be putting us up in a cabin on a lake for four days of music, fun, good food and the beauty of Yosemite National Park. It is these kind of events that make me feel truly blessed to be doing what I’m doing.

Until then, I’ll be planting the rest of my garden, hunting for fiddleheads by the river and playing my guitar. It really must be spring, because my optimism and energy for life are in abundance. This is the time of year when I can really get things done and my biggest goal is to clean out the old and usher in the new. I mean that spiritually and literally: my house is getting an overhaul as well as my inner-self. It is time to sweep out the dust.

Sweet Home Manitoba

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Chris Gauthier and Home Routes host Sharon from Glenora, ManitobaManitoba, a province that goes on forever. Bordering on North Dakota and Minnesota in the south, the northern end reaching Hudson Bay and Nunavut, and in between, the land of a million lakes, flooding rivers, modest mountains and endless prairie sky.

As Chris and I were landing in Winnipeg, we looked down upon the city and the big fields stretching out to the horizon, the last rays of sunshine hitting down, shimmering off the still half frozen lakes and snaking rivers.

This was the beginning of our Home Routes tour, playing a series of thirteen house concerts across southern Manitoba. The whole idea of a house concert tour had me a little worried. Staying in a different house each night and playing without amplification in living rooms had me thinking the worst, but we felt up for the challenge so we took it on, albeit, with a feeling of dread.

Show number one, in Winnipeg, relieved some of my concerns, just for the sheer fun of it. Our lovely host Darlene stayed up with us after the show playing cribbage and talking fishing. We set out on Tuesday morning for Selkirk, hosted by one of Manitoba’s great fiddlers and then travelled south to Altona and the heart of Mennonite country.

From Altona to Neepawa, following the overflowing rivers and fields to the tulip capital of Manitoba. Here we played at Wilson’s Place where Val is famous for her pies. We were given seven varieties to try and they certainly lived up to the hype!

From Neepawa we took the scenic route through Riding Mountain National Park to Dauphin and around to Inglis, home of a group of historic grain elevators. We stayed with the lovely Jackson family in Inglis and roamed among their cattle to visit the sweet new calves. We even stopped in to Russell to watch their youngest daughter compete in the Ukrainian dances.

To Brandon and then Boissevain, where we stayed in one of the most beautiful spots I’ve ever been, to a sheep farm B&B in Crystal City and an amazing log home in Glenora. Our hosts, Glen and Sharon, in Glenora were the most Dixon Road-like people we met in Manitoba. Their hand-built house, their hardworking but quality life, and their live-and-let-live attitude was a nice contrast to the conservatism found throughout much of the province.

From Glenora to Holland (more tulips) where we played the Tiger Hills Art Gallery and to Portage La Prairie where we entered another era, a Hollywood style house with a cast of characters that I can’t even begin to describe. These lovely and interesting folks kept me plied with wine and chatting until five in the morning. With tired bodies and fuzzy brains we made it to La Broquerie where we were treated to great conversations and stone massage—much needed after Portage and two weeks of traveling.

Our final show, back in Winnipeg, found us a little weary but amazed that this trip had been so fun. We have made friends all over Manitoba and discovered things about our country that we may never have learned otherwise. Would I do the Home Routes tour again? Probably not, but it was an unforgettable experience. It is amazing how these house concerts really bring a community together and allow musicians to a part of it as well.

Home Routes now has tours for musicians right across the country and has supported many of my friends: John Connolly, Meaghan Blanchard, Dennis Ellsworth, Thom Swift…the list goes on. There is even now a Home Routes tour in the Maritimes. It is a great chance to see world class musicians in the intimacy of your living room and an opportunity for musicians to get to know the less traveled rural areas in a very deep way.


Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Ron Hynes, Catherine, Dave Gunning in IrelandI have just returned from one of my longest stretches away from home and have found two-thirds of the snow gone, my house a disaster and my cats ridiculously happy to see me. Home. I am always thankful to get home and I usually look around at the PEI beauty that surrounds me with gratitude, wondering, “How did I get so lucky?”

Now, upon listening to my songs, one might not think I have a shred of gratitude in my bones, but my home in Prince Edward Island is like shelter from the storm, a hideaway, a place of solace, silence and calm. My first morning home is usually the same routine: wake up slowly, wake my daughter, cuddle with the cats, send Isabel to school, make coffee, sit and stare at the outside world, listen to the birds. I love home.

I suppose I should tell you a bit about where I have been for so long. The last month has been filled with amazing trips and shows. I did a series of concerts in Quebec with Tanya Davis and from there I hopped across the ocean to meet up with fellow Maritimers in Ireland. Rose Cousins, Dave Gunning and Ron Hynes were all on the emerald isle, a place that felt so much like home it was incredibly calming. The people we met there were so friendly and grounded, people who have lived through such hard times and yet remain vibrant.

Perhaps one of the sweetest things about Ireland is the Irish talent for turning tragedy and heartache into beautiful songs and understated tales. Our driver Larry was telling stories about “The Troubles,” like times when he had to hide from open gunfire in the street, as if it was just an everyday event. Though, I suppose at the time it really was an all too common occurrence. Even just the fact that the Irish call that era of terror and violence “The Troubles” is amazing. That term may be the understatement of the century.

From Dublin, Rose flew to Boston for a recording session, Dave and Ron flew to Toronto for shows (where I would meet up with Dave at Hugh’s Room) and I flew to Charlottetown for one day at home. Chris and I made the long trek to Toronto where we dragged ourselves around Ontario for a short tour of some pretty special shows and then made our way back to PEI through a major Quebec snowstorm.

Again, I had just one day at home before leaving for a few Nova Scotia dates. This time I was able to bring along my daughter for the week, mostly due to my very generous friend Holly coming to hang out with us and to watch Isabel while I performed.  My body was continuing to turn against me from tiredness, poor road habits and the stress of being away. In my exhaustion and longing for home, having Isabel along for the ride made this last bunch of shows possible.

Isabel loved being on the road. The hotels, the ride on the Vinyl Cafe tour bus with it’s satellite TV and bunk beds, the Halifax cupcake experience: it was all a little girl’s dream and we really had a great time together. Upon arrival, however, we both admitted how glad we were to be back on the Island.

As much as I love playing and traveling around this amazing world, there is nothing I really love more than getting home to my own bed, my own shower, my coffee routine, my cats and most importantly, my daughter. I feel like I’ve been twirling and whirling around for so long and now, for a time, I get to unwind and try to catch up on all the things left undone at home.

Take a Break

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Loma de la CruzI recently went on my first true vacation. Slightly unbelievable that I could make such a thing a reality or that I would even want to travel on my time off, but I did. My dear friend, Tanya Davis, and I went to Cuba to celebrate our friendship of twenty years.

Coming from a family that constantly moved around, I never thought that I could sustain a friendship as long as Tanya and I have. It was really sweet, planning and imagining us going to some far off place, adventuring and, hopefully, relaxing. Our only criteria, at first, was that we wanted to go to an island. As we considered when we might go away, we figured that adding “warm” to our criteria might also be important and, eventually, as reality hit us two broke musicians, “inexpensive” became key as well.

That is how we decided upon Cuba. Warm all year round, inexpensive once you are there, and an island among islands. Perfect.

We almost missed our first flight and then stayed overnight in Toronto where I was supposed to sing a final vocal track for my new album. Unfortunately, I was so sick I had to cancel the recording session until my return from Cuba. So, the vacation started a little precariously but we continued on, Tanya and I both hoping I would get better and be able to do all the things we had planned.

When we arrived at the Holguin airport and we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac, we were embraced by the Caribbean weather. A friend had urged Tanya to be aware of the rush of hot air that would greet us when the doors of the plane opened, and it really was a special moment. Going from minus 30 to plus 30 in a matter of a few hours was incredible. Tanya and I just looked at each other, trying to grasp the reality that suddenly we were in Cuba.

We were picked up at the airport by our host Daniel, who runs a casa particular (like a B&B) in the city of Holguin. With a friendly smile and broken English, he ushered us into the private taxi that would take us to his house. I quickly realized that seat belts were not a necessity, nor were they usually an option in these ancient cars that filled the roads of Cuba. It was like stepping back in time, seeing all these 50 and 60 year old vehicles being kept alive out of sheer willpower and inventiveness. We passed from dusty roads to the congested streets of Holguin to the casa that was to be our home for a few days.

I proceeded to get increasingly sick, until finally Daniel sent for his brother, a paramedic, who checked me out, sent a test to the lab and came back with antibiotics for me. I was grateful to him and his family for taking care of me, and relieved that Cuba has such an amazing medical system.

I stayed in bed for half of the trip, and Tanya would go off on little adventures on her own. Eventually, I was well enough to take an overnight bus ride to the city of Trinidad. When we got there, again, I mostly stayed in bed, but we ended up going out for an amazing meal, some great live Cuban music and a walk through the vibrant cobblestone streets.

With me in better health, we took the eight-hour bus ride back to Holguin, climbed the 458 steps to the top of Loma de la Cruz, and explored more of the city. A week after leaving Canada, we got back on the plane refreshed but ready to be back home, with a little more endurance for the rest of a cold and snowy winter.

First Toronto Pie-Off

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

A pie (photo: Catherine MacLellean)In the midst of the holiday season, when our bellies (if we were fortunate enough) were filled with big festive dinners and far too many sweets, I decided we needed one more excessive food event to top off the season. I’m talking about the magic of the “Pie-Off and Musical Extravaganza.”

It all started over 2 years ago when Justin Rutledge sent me a text message saying he could bake me under the table. As an emerging baker of pies, I felt challenged to my core and blissfully ignorant of the absolute reality that I could lose to him. Justin had been baking pies for the Dakota Tavern that were the talk of Toronto. I was not afraid, though, for I had in my hands the recipe for Foolproof Flaky Pie Crust—known to certain friends as Vodka Pie (check out the America’s Test Kitchen recipe if you’re afraid of making your own crust).

So I decided to have a pie baking competition in Toronto that would include music that was to take place just days after Christmas. As soon as my friend and neighbour, Hal, heard about this event, he challenged that PEI would be an even better location for such a thing, and he was right.

The first Toronto pie-off was a success, with six pies, friends playing music and the joyful feeling of friendly competition. A week and a half later, down the sweet old Dixon Road, twenty-five pies showed up, and twice as many people. With each successive year (we’ve now had the 3rd annual pie-off in both Toronto and PEI) the crowd has grown, as have the techniques for pie-judging and presentation.

This year, at the Dunk in PEI, Meaghan Blanchard and Katie McGarry played with me and a whole new crew of people showed up that had never been to a pie party before. I think I scared several boys with my insistence that they help carry the pies for the “Pie Parade,” transferring the thirty-odd pies from the holding room to the kitchen where the feeding frenzy would begin. And I do mean feeding frenzy. The musicians took a break, the pies were laid out and people dug in. It was amazing to watch and it lasted for quite some time. Children and adults alike trying to taste as much pie as possible.

Now, this all may seem a little silly to some, but to me pie has become a symbol for togetherness. These events have turned into true community builders and I’ve been able to bring a little east coast, down home goodness to my growing group of friends in Toronto. Pie is something everyone can love. It is something you never make without plans of sharing it (okay, never say never…). This friendly but fierce competition brings out some sides of people that we don’t ordinarily get to see—some wallflowers jump into conversation, some seemingly undomesticated hipsters turn out to have been taught by their mothers how to roll out pastry, and sometimes total strangers help to judge the baked goods.

Three years later, Justin still hasn’t baked me under the table. Mind you, I’ve never won a pie-off, but he’s never even been a part of the competition. The first year, I claim, he was too afraid of losing to me and never even entered. The second year, his pie was disqualified due to him not actually being present (that pie was very delicious and could’ve been a contender! Sorry, Justin.) This year, it must have been out of vengeance for being disqualified that he again refused to submit a pie and instead left town. Will Justin ever beat me in a pie-off? Perhaps we’ll never know.

Northern Tales Part 2

Notes from the Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Here is the rest of the tale of my northwestern adventure with Kim Barlow and Raghu Lokanathan, continued from the December Buzz.

The second part of our trip, from Whitehorse to Vancouver, started out with a bang—literally. An explosion to be exact. I’ve always imagined the worst happening on airplanes, since I was a kid and I would close my eyes and pray for dear life. This time something actually happened as we were lifting off the tarmac—the engine I was sitting next to exploded and caught fire. Thankfully it happened while we were still on the ground, but nonetheless we were all a bit shaken up.

They towed our plane back to the terminal while we texted and tweeted our ordeal to the world, and they sent us inside to wait for our next plane, a much scarier looking version of the first one. While we waited, Kim pulled out her travel Scrabble set and eventually took a gigantic lead with a triple letter score on “copulate.”

As we walked down the aisle of our second plane, faith was not exactly restored in the passengers as parts of the cabin interior fell down upon us. The pilots swiftly and smartly ordered us all a free drink, strangely welcome at ten in the morning.

Our safe arrival in Vancouver was a very happy event, and just as welcome was the green grass and the t-shirt wearing citizens of the lovely coastal city. Kim, Raghu and I picked up our rental car that was to be our home for the next ten days and began the ritual of packing the trunk with all our gear.

After our Vancouver show, I split up briefly from our little family to play a gig in Armstrong with my PEI comrade, John Connolly. He was heading slowly home from his tour in northern B.C. and had been away from the East for over a month at this point. It was really nice to share a show with John, both of us so far from home. To show up in a totally unfamiliar place and find a good friend waiting with a beer in hand is a very sweet thing.

The next morning, after a brief visit to the Armstrong cheese factory, I waved goodbye to John and headed to the town of Ashcroft. There, on the outskirts of town, I found Kim and Raghu at a beautiful ranch house where we would be spending the night. After that, we began traveling even farther north, and it seemed we were going as far as the road would take us, through snow and ice but always ending each day in an interesting town with fine folks and a show to play.

Once we hit Smithers, we started coming down again, back through Prince George, towards Calgary and Edmonton. I’ve been through the mountains many times now, but they never cease to amaze me, and this time from Valemount to Calgary, we were forced to drive through the mountain pass in the midst of a snowstorm. It seemed like endless hours passed before we made it to level ground and clear roads.

The bitter cold of Calgary and Edmonton at the end of November was shocking, but there’s something in that kind of cold that brings things into focus, as well as making you move swiftly through the icy streets. This was the end of a tour that was unlike any I had been on before. Playing bass and singing on Kim and Raghu’s songs, being part of a family with these people I had barely known before—it’s something I’ll never forget. Now Raghu is settling in with his wife Sophia and their newborn baby, Kim is hiding herself away in the darkness of the Whitehorse winter and I am waiting, as always, for the next thing.

Great White North

Notes From The Road
by Catherine MacLellan

Catherine’s wise and weathered tour with Kim Barlow and Raghu LokanathanI sent Isabel off to Toronto with her dad, and I hopped an airplane, and then another, and then another, and finally found myself in the great white north. My first trip to Whitehorse and my first tour with songwriters Kim Barlow (Whitehorse) and Raghu Lokanathan (Valemount, B.C.)

It was one in the morning when I arrived, exhausted and excited to be here. Having never been to the territories before, I had imagined so many things it would be. On some accounts I was right—it is cold here, there is snow on the ground, and the people are wonderful. There are also many things I didn’t imagine. For starters, I didn’t think Whitehorse would be so big, 22,000 people or so, with a somewhat trendy downtown and all the things you would find in a southern town like big box stores and Tim Horton’s. As I sit here writing today, though, with the snow falling outside the window and a fire roaring inside the cabin, I am thinking of the wonders of our great land. The mountains, the sky, the northern lights, the extremes in weather, the toughness and generosity of people who live in such extremes. There is wilderness just out the back door of Kim’s cabin, where we are taking up residency for a few days. Ravens, magpies and dogs play around the compost pile and only a five minute walk from here you can hike to a high ridge that borders the Yukon River.

We went skating yesterday on a lake in hopes of getting there while you could still see the fish and muskrats darting about beneath the crystal clear ice. The sound of us skating on this big lake was like that of a giant drum, and that was the only sound, apart from our laughter. This, I thought, is very Canadian.

The first few days here in Kim’s cabin we spent learning and rehearsing 24 of each other’s songs, getting ready for our first show. I don’t think I have ever worked so hard for a show, and never before have I stretched so much as a musician, learning both Kim and Raghu’s quirky and beautiful songs on the bass and singing harmonies. It has felt a little like cramming for an exam, writing notes, going over things again and again. Finally, last night at our first show, it seemed all of our hard work was paying off. We played a vulnerable and sweet show to a sold out house and a very receptive audience.

One interesting task that Kim gave us was for each of us to create a short instrumental song to play in our shows. It is so interesting what we all came up with, from soft and sweet to rowdy to strangely beautiful. I had never created a piece specifically for a show before, and I felt a bit insecure with my little one-minute ditty without words, but I gave into the challenge of it and it wasn’t really so hard. I’m learning that I love challenges. I used to shy away from them, but it really is fun to just be brave and face them head on.

Tomorrow we will be flying south to Vancouver and then making our way around the interior of B.C. and then finally to Calgary and Edmonton. There is so much of this country to see, and although I’ve played in the West a number of times now, most of these shows will be in small towns I have never been too. Smithers, Prince George, Valemount, Williams Lake... I’m so lucky to be able to drift through these places, drive around the mountains, walk on a Vancouver beach, and then find myself back home in PEI in time for our own winter to start.

With that thought, it is time to throw another frozen log onto the fire.

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