If not for a cheap paper lanyard dangling amongst the others in my closet I would have forgotten completely that I had attended the Ottawa Folk Festival in 2003. As it is, I’m not sure exactly what date I might have attended but a little research suggests it might have been August 24th, for it was on that day that Jane Siberry and Trout Fishing in America played and I know I saw Jane Siberry and Trout Fishing in America, though I may have actually seen them when I played the fest in 1999. One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t have gone back to see them a second time. Except for Trout Fishing in America. I’d go back and see Trout Fishing in America again for sure, they’re great!
Anyway, the lanyard forces me to wonder if I played a set or not? I suspect I did, and if so I’m sure it was at the request of my boss for his tiny ‘stage’ in the Ottawa Folklore Centre merch tent. I certainly remember playing in there at least once. I think it was one of my first paid solo gigs; maybe the very first. Regardless, back then I felt like getting paid for making the noises I was making felt like I was stealing. I know it was a paid gig because Arthur would never ask anyone to play music for free, which is one of the dozen or so reasons why I’ve always respected him. Plus he had the foresight to hire such a future powerhouse as yours truly, which makes up most of the other eleven reasons. I also recall sitting in my car with my good friend Doug outside the fest listening to Ween’s White Pepper CD. I’m sure Doug would only have been there to sit in with me for a song or two, so there’s that…
Anyway, it could very well be that my gig in the merch tent was a whole other time (or both I suppose) but either way it’s beside the point. These are supposed to be memories (made up or otherwise) about shows I’ve seen, not gigs I’ve played, though when the two collide I tend to include them here. But I go on and on because I’m actually a bit worried that the memory I have of this show (or gig) was actually from a gig/show I attended/played at folkfest in 1999. It’s a bad, ugly memory; one so horrible that it would be best not repeated. But repeat it I must. Both here in this missive and the other one too, for it is too shameful to only relate once. If you can relate.
Following an excellent set on the mainstage, Trout Fishing in America was scheduled to take part in a song circle with three other artists, among them Jane Siberry. I hustled on over. There were perhaps a hundred or so of us in the big tent when the performers came out and started.
I don’t know if you’ve been to a song circle or not, but it’s probably just as you imagine it. Several musicians take turns leading the rest in a song, around and around so everyone gets a turn. These are jams that by their very nature tend to be rather informal and laid-back, as 3/4’s of the players on the stage are generally playing along with songs that they are hearing for the first time.
So TFIA led the other players in a simple three-chord song from their vast repertoire, and then so did the next musician and then the next, everyone making sure to pick something that would be fun, simple, and easy for the other musicians to follow. And then it was Jane Siberry’s turn.
As I ponder how to describe her contribution to the set I wonder how my mind has altered the reality of what she put we in the audience, the sound crew, and most especially her fellow musicians through. I wonder whether my mind has exaggerated her inane behaviour or if it has warped my memories into just a tiny inkling of the unprofessionalism I recall witnessing on the stage with recoiling horror. Regardless, it’s certainly a coping mechanism.
She had a keyboard, and when her turn to lead came around she started playing what could only be described as an endless sequence of random chords. The other musicians looked back-and-forth among themselves to see if anyone else had a clue…perhaps she was playing some obscure Schoenberg tone row or something else that was deeply and very, very secretly brilliant? And just as soon as one or two of them decided to jump in with a shrug and a guess at a chord she stopped dead in her tracks and started pushing buttons to change the keyboard sound. I was close enough to the stage to hear her mumble disapprovingly, but not so close as to make out what John Cage Tao i Ching piece she was going to launch into if she could just find the right timbre. And so it went, alternating between playing random chords and stopping to change the keyboard patch just as soon as anyone else slid in to join her.
I don’t know, maybe it was performance art. Maybe Jane Siberry is actually Andy Kaufman.
Actually, that is a concept I hadn’t considered before and frankly, it’s probably the most plausible I’ve come up with to explain just how unprofessional, unmusical, uncooperative, and ungood Jane Siberry was in that song circle. Distorted memory or not, it’s a mental stain that just won’t wash out of this brain of mine. Thank ye gawds that I wasn’t one of the musicians forced to be standing next to her during the fiasco; I would probably still be in therapy. I shudder to even contemplate it. But then, she’s opened for Mike Oldfield at Wembley Stadium with the great Bob Wiseman as her backup band, so I’m not nearly good enough to share a shocking embarrassment onstage with her anyhow.
Luckily for me I only had to play with myself, and maybe with Doug a little bit. Like I say, it’s a funny thing to get paid for.