On Saturday, the Canadian producer, seeker and songwriter Daniel Lanois hosted his annual Greenbelt Harvest Picnic, a festival held beside a lake in Dundas, Ont. The event of music, awareness-raising and locally produced food featured a full day of songs, including some from Ron Sexsmith, Sarah Harmer, Gord Downie, Lanois himself and Bruce Cockburn. Here's a recap of what went down.
'There's a rhythm under the song, and it beats for the old and the young…'
It was 2:30 in the afternoon and overcast when Ron Sexsmith and his band took to the stage. If the skies threatened, the easy-going, sad-faced balladeer did too. "We may rock," he said. "We'll let you know if that happens." The rocking never came to pass, and neither did the rain, though Sexsmith's melodic musings and graceful singer-songwriter croon had a plaintive air about them. He sang about the occasional shadows that fell across his mind, a strawberry-blond schoolgirl from the past and an indifferent sky that held no spiritual advice. But he also poured Brandy Alexander, a tune and cocktail that "goes down easy," and he suggested There's a Rhythm, about a beat that unites. In his gentle-souled way, warning or not, Sexmith rocked.
'We don't want to be another sacrifice for the tar sands zone'
After Sexsmith's set, an emcee said a few passing things, among them that Pond No. 3 was stocked with rainbow trout. Some in the crowd clapped, while others simply rattled their lures and, after a set break on the mainstage, Sarah Harmer arrived. She's a Juno-winning singer who is as locally raised as the produce in the festival's bustling farmers' market. She's also an activist, having co-founded the community group Protecting Escarpment Rural Land nearly a decade ago. During her willowy folk-rocked appearance, she spoke a bit about land and the risks of industrial intent. After mentioning a perilous pipeline project which she opposes – the contentious oil-flow reversal of Enbridge's Line 9 – she offered (in a chipper, Partonesque lope) her Escarpment Blues. "If they blow a hole in my backyard, everyone is going to run away," she sang. "The creeks won't flow to the Great Lake below – will the water in the wells still be okay?" And somewhere Pete Seeger smiled.
'Drive it like we stole it / Through the snowflakes, into the cold of the sun'
At dinner hour, Gord Downie and the Sadies (a worthwhile thunder-lightning alliance) toured through a set of roaring, cosmic ideas in garage-Americana music. Downie, an artist of unique energy and off-beat flair known for his fronting of the Can-rock heroes the Tragically Hip, has been involved with the filthy-twanging Sadies for a number of years, having formed as part of a CBC Radio-prompted collaboration that involved cover tunes. At Greenbelt, they touched on that history with a surprise version of the Who deep cut, So Sad About Us. Otherwise they presented the material of their long-in-coming debut album Gord Downie, the Sadies, and the Conquering Sun. To paraphrase one of his lyrics, Downie drove the Sadies like he had stolen them, fish-tailing a muscle car through a desert chase. Some seven years in the making, the band has become one of Canada's top live acts overnight.
'Looks like the rain gods listened to our prayers'
Daniel Lanois is a confident, strong-willed guy, but as host of his picnic he sublimated himself elegantly. Appearing with a drummer and bassist/keyboardist, his set-opening work on the pedal steel was an electric communion that led into an extended jam of The Maker. Next came a festival highlight, just as the clouds finally cleared: A preview of his newest explorations, from his forthcoming album Flesh and Machine. The music was experimental – "bringing the studio to the stage" – and moved in rumbling, deep-electro waves. It lulled, intrigued, promised and served as a palate cleanser and peaceful mind-blower between sets by the happy East Los Angeles La Bamba-avoiding Chicano band Los Lobos and the silver troubadour Bruce Cockburn. On a grey day that never did see rain, Lanois's quiet storm was sublime.
'Sun's up, uh huh, looks okay, the world survives into another day'
Appearing at dusk, before a closing set by the American soul-folk songster Ray LaMontagne, Bruce Cockburn performed with inspired accompaniment by drummer Gary Craig and fiddler Jenny Scheinman, both of whom added new musical ideas to valuable songs that have been around a while. And so Night Train had a new engine, a Rocket Launcher was reloaded and there was freshness to Lovers in a Dangerous Time, a song from 1984 that still rings true as a state of affairs. It was late when Cockburn sang about kicking at the darkness until it bled daylight. And it's getting later. The songwriting activist is 69 now; his kind are becoming more rare. At Greenbelt he buoyantly wondered where the lions are, but others might question with less hope. Are there new Cockburns on the horizon? One must wonder where the young lions are.