On September 12th, 2019 I was pleasantly surprised to find myself at Ottawa’s CityFolk Festival, courtesy of a last-minute pair of tickets gifted to me by a friend as an early wedding present. Following a summer that saw me shun each and every music festival that came my way* I was happy for the opportunity to stand in a field with an overpriced beer in my hand and a creeping cloak of disinterest clouding my soul.
And that – after walking a mile from home-to-venue – is exactly what I did.
And I wasn’t alone either. Well, m’lady was with me, and upon arrival we found a gaggle of friends to stand with, but that’s not what I’m referring to. No, when I say I wasn’t alone, what I mean is that the star of the show – the wonderfully talented Lucinda Williams – seemed every bit as ennui-d as I.
Now I’ve seen Lucinda several times and I respect her greatly, and while I’ll admit that I’ve never had her completely knock me out live I will simultaneously concede that I am always happy to hear her sing anything from her Car Wheels on a Gravel Road album; the material is so strong and every track shows off her incredible voice so well. But I tell you, on this pleasant evening Lucinda was hitting nothing but foul balls.
She was boring and unenergetic and – gasp! – she was reading the lyrics for every song out of a binder set on a music stand next to her microphone. I couldn’t believe it…she was even reading the lyrics to her own big hits! How is that possible?
(After a lifetime of campfire and kitchen party jams I’ll admit I have a huge, longstanding beef with musicians playing songs that they are reading out of binders. It boils down to this: if you gotta follow along with a piece of paper it means you’re playing a song that you don’t know how to play, and why would you do that?!?! Geez.**)
The utter lack of oomph coming from the stage was loud and clear, and as Lucinda’s set started to wind down the already-thin crowd got even thinner as mildly-interested festival pass holders made their way indoors to the secondary stage where the stellar acoustic duo Larkin Poe was playing to a crowd so big that when I walked over after Lucinda’s last song I couldn’t get my nose in the door.
But I huddled outside well within earshot for several numbers and it sounded like they were killing it in there.
A week later I heard that Lucinda’s bus had broken down in Philly the night before and the band had to scramble their way to Ottawa, only arriving a couple of hours before the start of their set, a scramble that clearly knocked the band off kilter. Which just goes to show just how many factors there are that can influence a performance.
That still doesn’t explain why Lucinda needed a lyric sheet to sing Drunken Angel or Changed the Locks. You’d think by now she could sing those in her sleep.
*This was my last summer living in Ottawa and through a combination of frugality, general disinterest, and festival fatigue I had skipped both the jazz fest and the blues fest in their entireties – a first for me – and was ready to skip CityFolk too, with the exception of buying a ticket for the final day, which featured Robert Plant. Ennui is one thing, but Led Zeppelin is quite another.
**Jazz and classical pieces are a bit of a different thing – being more visual mediums than audio – but even then you’ll find that most players do know the music they are playing. The music in front of most jazz and classical players is more talisman than script.