The Living Tradition
Having a Tanglefoot
Canadian folk group woos the U.K. with full throated abandon
"Awkward Donald ripped his trousers chasing home the brindled cow. The pleasure of Jack The Green: it's cracking skulls and beating brains. Wesley never bit the apple cause his game was on the Bruce. And of course Paddy's finger will scarce be missed."
If any of this makes sense to you, there are only two possibilities: You've once again forgotten to refill your prescription, or you've got a Tanglefoot fetish. (Note: If it's the latter, the former is even more conceivable.) At the end of April and through May, for the fifth time in three years, Canada's hottest folk export since Gordon Lightfoot (Lightfoot, Tanglefoot What's with Canadian folk music and the "foot"?) will once again play and sing their way around the U.K. And if the buzz from the band's previous visits is any indication, folk fans in England and Wales can definitely count on two things from the Borealis Recording artists: tight, energetic and sincere renditions of their original, tradition-influenced songs and a lot of hair.
"Pour out the whiskey, pour out the rum
Fifty cents to Davey Godfrey so the government work gets done
It's a five dollar secret, the sailors gladly pay
They've come to Pictou Harbour for another pouring day."
In the early 80's, singer-songwriter, fiddler and guitarist Joe Grant formed Tanglefoot with two fellow musicians. Now, twenty years later, Grant's original partners have long since moved on, or as current Tanglefoot lead guitarist and sometimes lead singer Steve Ritchie likes to put it, "Joe used to play with two of his best friends and now he plays with us." The "us" also includes Steve's younger brother Rob, the keyboardist and sometimes vocalist; Al Parrish who plays (some say attacks) his stand-up bass along with handling the vocal duties on some songs; and newcomer Terry Young who alternates between mandolin, banjo, guitar and - you guessed it - lead vocals.
Clearly versatility is one of the strengths of the band as is the diversity of their songwriting. Tempos change as often as the lead vocal, and the sophisticated mix of wit, wisdom, whimsy and poignancy in their lyrics is at the heart of their success. The fans, or "footheads" to those in the know, can be found singing along to a lot of the band's repertoire such as 'Jack The Green' (he of cracking skulls and beating brains fame - see above) and 'Seven A Side' - a quintessential Canadian tale of a 1921 regional hockey championship on the Bruce Peninsula (from where the band hails), which can be found on the band's breakthrough record, Full Throated Abandon, the first for The Borealis Recording Co., released in late 1999.
"The defensemen were steady, the wings they played out wide.
They charged as one into the fray to battle seven a side.
In desperation they pressed on for more,
They wanted to show them the boys from the Bruce knew the score."
Now, any band that's been around for close to 20 years has had to pay its dues and Tanglefoot is no exception. The first gig the band ever did in England was at the Four Fools Folk Club in Lancashire. It was the first date of a 35-day, 18-show tour. Steve Ritchie explains: "We had just gotten off the plane the day before, were still suffering from a bit of jet-lag and disorientation. Most of us had never been to the UK before. We knew a first tour in another country was going to be a struggle, and we were all prepared for small turnouts, and we still weren't entirely sure how we were going to be received. A grand total of 10 people showed up, including the organizers and the host (Derek Gifford). During the first intermission there was an unspoken but extremely heavy sense that this could indeed be a very, very long month."
Still, like all musical success stories, the band pressed on with the tour, the small crowds enjoyed their shows, word-of-mouth took over and by the time they did the last show of their first sojourn to the U.K., they were playing to a packed hall. "In my entire performing career I've never felt such satisfaction as the way that first English tour went", says Ritchie.
One of the things they recognized when they first started playing full time only four years ago was that you have to make a commitment to the long haul. There's no use touring anywhere only once because you can't build an audience that way. Before they'd even finished the first UK tour, the second one was pretty much booked. As Grant points out, "We know other performers back home who have played over here but then don't come back for three or four years. You can't build an audience that way. It usually takes the third appearance somewhere before you really reap the benefits."
"I hate folk music, but you guys are good!"
-Anonymous fan during Tanglefoot's U.K. Tour, September 2000
In between the U.K. tours, the band made sure to keep in touch with folk festival organizers in North America who began to invite them to play some of the more well-known festivals and clubs a few years ago, and slowly but surely, they managed to get their - if you'll pardon the pun - foot in the door. Over the last four years, the band has become a mainstay at some of the most popular acoustic music venues across the U.S. and Canada and are receiving regular airplay on the select radio stations who cater to the appetites of folk folks.
So, how do the songs of a Canadian band, most of which deal with little snippets of Canadian history, go over with audiences in the United States and the U.K.? "People back home are always amazed when we tell them that we can play in Ottawa, Ontario or Minneapolis, USA, or Bristol, England, and get pretty much identical reactions," says keyboardist and contributing songwriter, Rob Ritchie. "To be honest, we're pretty amazed too." The band believes that even though a number of their songs deal with "fairly obscure Canadiana", the themes and emotions within the music and lyrics are universal. Take for example, the song Buxton, a composition (Rob) Ritchie wrote for the Full Throated Abandon record after visiting the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. He was struck by a single photo of a work-worn old slave holding a rough-hewn, homemade fiddle. From there, Ritchie imagined the man had made it to the final stop on the Underground Railroad in those days, a small town in Southwestern Ontario, Canada called Buxton. The song tells the tale of this particular slave being given a fiddle at a local tavern and playing it with fire and fury as the horrific memories come flooding back.
"Forgive me for my fury.
I'd lose it if I could
But a fiddle string ain't the only thing
I've seen strung up on cherry wood"
The song always draws an emotional reaction from audiences as does Joe Grant's 'Fire and Guns', from 1994's 'Saturday Night At Hardwood Lake', another song about Americans fleeing to Canada, this time during the American Revolution. On stage, the piece is beautifully sung by the newest Tanglefooter, Terry Young, with the band joining in on the poignant but catchy chorus. It captures perfectly the spirit and emotion of that time period in American history when many came North to Canada because they felt they couldn't live in the new republic (perhaps not unlike how many U.S. citizens feel today after November's election debacle). Some left on their own accord but some were driven out.
"Fire and Guns; confusion; New York this my last good-bye
Tonight I left it all behind for Upper Canada
Tonight I left old friends behind
Didn't even say, "Good-bye"
Other Tanglefoot favorites recall equally compelling historical moments: The Ritchie brothers' 'Vimy', which details The Battle of Vimy Ridge of April 9, 1917, the first time in history that Canadian forces fought together under their own command; 'Traighli Bay', bassist Al Parrish's tale of "successful" pirates off the coast of Spain; and the band's signature song, 'Secord's Warning', a tune which finds all five band members singing a cappella, recounting the true story of Laura Secord, a Canadian hero who is credited with saving the country "from Yankee domination" during the U.S.-Canada War of 1812.
But lest you think Tanglefoot is a Canadian history lesson masking as a folk group, think again. In between forays into their country's historical past, there are plenty of lighter and lively numbers sure to inspire some tapping toes, creative jigging and the downing of a pint or two. Not that the more lively numbers don't recount little moments in history as well but the tone is less earnest and more whimsical like 'McCurdy's Boy', the tale of a Nova Scotia daredevil who was known for crashing his car and thus became the perfect candidate to attempt (and complete) the first flight in Canada; or the rollicking Foot favorite, 'Awkward Donald' who, though he was one of the earliest settlers in Cape Breton, was more well-known for his less than smooth romantic adventures.
"Awkward Donald's at the altar, in his pocket there's a hole
Catherine searching for the ring pulls off his boot and out it rolls
Catherine would you do it again, fall in love with an awkward man?"
The phrase "I'm your biggest fan" would certainly apply to Valerie, a long-time Foothead who, according to Al Parrish, "traveled from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada to East Lansing, Michigan for nothing more than a fourth chance to see us do the same old show." Now, she claims that when she heard that someone from Vancouver, B.C. was at a Tanglefoot show in Maryland, she got right on the phone to her travel agent to book a ticket to England.
Bands are known for praising whatever place they happen to be in at the moment but with such dedicated fans in their homeland, you'd think the band would prefer to stay in Canada more often. Steve begs to differ: "As far as British touring goes, there's a sense in which it's easy for us. The distances are so much less compared to touring in western Canada. We had a Canadian tour in February this year where we drove for three days before the first show. On the other hand, driving in the UK requires a higher level of concentration. 3 hours on the M5 is like 8 hours on the Trans-Canada Highway. But England has a pastoral quality that we seem to thrive in, and we've been made to feel extremely welcome wherever we go."
Visits to the band's website, www.tanglefootmusic.com, confirms that many venues in the U.K. are among their favorite places to play. You can also read about other band favorites - Best Yorkshire Pudding (the Rose & Crown Pub on the A629 in Ingbirchworth, West Yorkshire), "the best chocolate cake the world has ever known" (Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York) and Best Hair Conditioner (Helene Curtis Salon Selectives type M) - but at their site, as on stage, the emphasis is where it should be - on the music. The band is passionate about the history in their songs, the sound and quality of venues they play, and of course the people they meet and interact with during and after their performances. Perhaps the spirit of Tanglefoot is best summed up in the lyrics of 'The Last Breakdown', a fan favorite from their Saturday Night At Hardwood Lake CD:
"Don't let the old songs slip away
Remember how we danced when the old folks used to play
Saturday Night in Hardwood Lake,
The fiddle and the old guitar would make
The floorboards bounce, the room go 'round,
One more couple for the Last Breakdown
Don't let that music slip away"
In the world of Tanglefoot, there's certainly no danger of the music slipping away, nor the hair for that matter.
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