“I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but whoever you vote for please make sure to hold them to it.” – Buffy Sainte-Marie
It’s easy just to admire Buffy Sainte-Marie for the long list of accomplishments she has pulled off over some six decades in the music business. It’s not surprising that such an icon inspires a standing ovation just for walking out on stage as she did Friday at the Winspear, sporting a red sequined jacket.
Then she does her thing.
Ninety minutes and 18 songs later you’re left revelling at what a vibrant performer she still is, trying to fathom how she can possibly be 78. Does it come from living in Hawaii, yoga, or what?
Sure, there were a few moments of rusty vibrato. It was also occasionally frustrating when rumbles from the bass and drums sometimes overshadowed her vocals in the mix, because she writes songs with words that matter. But there was no lack of vocal power or burning passion in this woman, who moves with the agility of someone half her age.
She’s was also pretty handy with guitars, two beautiful cutaway models with tasty acoustics, and the small synth keyboard she used to get a bigger sound. Her expert band –- drummer Michel Bruyere, bassist Mark Olexon and guitarist Anthony King –- put in exceptional work often filling out the chorus of many songs, adding volume to her Indigenous chants.
Given the chance to stretch out Sainte-Marie’s set really ran the gamut. She began with the signature tune of her 1964 debut album It’s My Way, later throwing in her own expanded version of a campfire song she attributed to California and the hippie era, Cripple Creek.
Of course there were those requisite pop hits like Up Where We Belong, the 1981 song covered by Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes that makes her (still) the only Indigenous songwriter to win an Oscar. And later, weary of “the folk police,” she made a joke of her own guilt in penning the much-covered tune Until It’s Time.
There was a lovely short ballad for cancer victims and their caregivers (written for her mother) called Easy Snow, and even a tune she recalled from her five years with Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street, Little Kids. Add a fascinating demonstration of the mouth bow. But best of all, there were those deadly powwow rock protest songs drawn from several decades, mostly tied to the 2017 release Medicine Songs.
When it comes to themes of social justice, climate change and the plight of the Indigenous, Sainte-Marie probably knows that she’s preaching to the converted but she’s still respectful of other views. Early on she acknowledged Edmonton’s role as a centre for the resource industry and thanked anyone who was taking time to re-educate themselves to work with renewable resources.
Later on she told the audience, “I’m not going to tell you how to vote, but whoever you vote for please make sure to hold them to it,” just before she launched into Carry It On, her anthemic challenge to take care of the planet with lines like “we’re only here by the skin of our teeth as it is.”
Sainte-Marie told a poignant story of her chance encounters in a San Francisco airport with scared young men returning from the Vietnam war to introduce her 1967 song Universal Soldier, made all the more powerful for her lone solo guitar rendition. And you can tell she takes pride in the fact that she wound up on two White House enemies lists (Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon) for expressing her points of view back in that tumultuous era.
If there’s another protest song as pointed or damning as Sainte-Marie’s scorching indictment of the military industrial complex, The War Racket, then I haven’t heard it, and her potent delivery of that number won an especially positive reception from the audience. Power In The Blood delivered an equally fine take on one word, bridging the dichotomy between political power blocks and the power within each person.
Keshagesh, Priests, and the entrancing spell of Spin added to the highlights with a raucous version of Starwalker for the encore. Then the sound of a traditional powwow took over as Sainte-Marie and the band danced off stage hand in hand. Throughout the show a lone red dress was hung next to the band, a symbol for missing or murdered Indigenous women.
There were just under 1,000 people at the show, mostly of a middle-aged demographic, which leads me to wonder again about the relevance of contemporary music and what protest songs mean to the next generation. Is there another, younger Buffy Sainte-Marie out there? Are they listening? In truth, every generation finds its own voices and influences and icons.
The job of opening the show fell to another, younger Indigenous singer, Winnipeg’s Sebastian Gaskin, who came out all alone with his hollow-body electric guitar to serenade everyone for a half-hour. His dreamy, sultry love ballads were pleasant enough but only one number hinted at the r’n’b grooves that he gets into on his full band recordings.
No judgments here. Buffy Sainte-Marie is a tall act to introduce and quite an act to follow.
Guest: Sebastian Gaskin
Where: Winspear Centre