Atlin’s Ian Fest

The second best thing about a 68-year-old writer listening to an 81-year-old singer at the 2015 Atlin Arts and Music Festival was feeling young again.

Ian Tyson
Legendary Canadian troubadour Ian Tyson and friend on his ranch in southern Alberta

The first was admiration, knowing the “Ol’ Cowboy” still has what it takes to captivate a younger audience.

Ian Tyson gave me new hope that I will still be able to write a comprehensive simple declarative sentence 13 years from now, instead of stumbling around in a fog of dementia trying to find the diaper pail.

And I couldn’t help imagining what the many 20-year-olds in the audience must have been thinking ahead to 2076 when they, too, will be 81.

To Canadians generally but westerners specifically, Tyson has long been the iconic minstrel of life in the West and North from his early days with Sylvia through the loss and recovery of his voice and his current status as the ultimate cowboy survivor and author of two timeless Canadian anthems, “Navajo Rug” and “Summer Wages.”

He played two sets in between flying in and out on his first-ever visit to Atlin, saying, “I don’t know how I missed THIS place on my travels.”

The first was a workshop session on the main stage with The Carper Family called, “Old Corrals and Sagebrush” which turned into a mutual vibe fest, mainly between Tyson and upright bassist Melissa Carper who plays like a combination of Stompin’ Tom on beer and Mother Maybelle on moonshine.

At one point Tyson stopped strumming his guitar to applaud the ladies, saying, “Now THAT is the way country music is supposed to be played.” And when the Texan “family”, who aren’t really sisters, accompanied Tyson’s signature hit from the ‘70s, “Summer Wages”, guitarist Jenn Miori said to him on mic, “I grew up loving that song but I haven’t played it for so long I almost forgot how. Thank you for writing it.”

When Tyson and The Carpers harmonized on “Cool, Clear Water”, it was the cleanest and most beautiful rendition of that old cowboy standard I’ve ever heard. Melissa carried it and Ian smiled all the way through, joining in for the chorus. His evening set alone with his own backups was more sedate, more easy listening and laid back in front of a full house with a lot of crowd recognition on the intro chords, probably motivated by nostalgia.

Tyson’s been making memories for listeners for well over half a century. He may not have been familiar with Atlin, but Atlin was familiar with his music. It wasn’t an exciting set, but it was certainly touching.

The rest of the music part of the festival was a potpourri of varied sounds from around the world, from foot-stomping rock to African love ballads. It was all good, but you never knew what you were getting until you got there.

The second top billing, James Keelaghan, came on stage looking like an eastern banker tasked with telling you the loan has been denied, then shortly had every little kid in the tent dancing, laughing and running around to his tunes, like Raffi without the happy face.

It was an interesting weekend of music and making new contact with old friends but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I should have. The event was so kid-centric I quickly realized I made a huge mistake and will never again attend an Atlin Music Festival without my grandchildren along to bug me for more godawful cotton candy and slurpies.

They were in Victoria summer-visiting their grandmother on the other side, and I spent the whole weekend enviously watching other grandpas having all the fun. Talking about feeling lonesome in a crowd; that made me grumpy.

And I couldn’t even compensate by reliving my childhood, because there were too many grim-faced Mounties in town wearing bulletproof vests, as if the rabbits and squirrels might turn into jihadi suicide bombers.

The Taku Kwann dancers (People of the Taku) opened the fest with a traditional rain dance intended to assist firefighters battling blazes all over B.C. and the North, but it rained all weekend on the festival instead. Maybe someone gave the drummer the wrong area code. It’s the thought that counts.

The organizing committee did a wonderful job, with one glaring exception. Whoever came up with the bright idea of putting an 81-year-old entertainer on the same bill as a band called Death, needs to sign up for more intense sensitivity training.

I boycotted Death in Atlin, not because I don’t like good Mo-town rock, but because I don’t like really dumb, attention-grabbing names for bands. And I’ve made it a lifelong habit to steer clear of death, Viet Nam being the sole exception.

Or, as Ian Tyson might have written it: “Life’s a gamble then gone like summer wages.”

It takes good luck, lots of it, to live for eight decades.

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