Nouveau Country

Music festivals are a great way to enjoy the special gift that is the Canadian summer. Get outside and stay there ALL DAY!

Music festivals are no longer the domain of those who came of age in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Festivals have evolved. The range of music is broad and the talent and level of musicianship varies, which makes for a rich and engaging experience.

I attended the Trout Forest Music Festival last weekend. It’s held each summer in early August in Ear Falls in northwestern Ontario. This was only my third time going, so I am very much a newbie despite being in the same demographic as festival veterans, many of whom will count on one hand, invariably with misty eyes, the few years they missed.

An image of 4 people on stage playing 2 guitars, banjo and stand up bass
Joel Rohs, Jake Vaadeland, Stephen Williams and Jaxon Lalonde play Trout Forest Music Festival on Sunday, August 13, 2023.


The highlight of the 2023 Trout Forest festival for me was a young fella from Saskatchewan, Jake Vaadeland, and his group, the Sturgeon River Boys, all superb bluegrass musicians. Coming on stage on the last day, they redeemed what had been up to that point for me a middling event, interesting enough but lacking a certain Je ne sait quoi. (It didn’t hurt either that the sun finally came out and things started to dry out.)

Vaadeland is what you might call a “high concept” artist. He and his group play a very traditional style of finger picking with the kind of perfection that makes you think of Bill Munroe, his successor Marty Stewart, and other foundational players of the Grand Ole Opry. Vaadeland dresses the part too, sporting suit and string tie, hair slicked back, and with a sonorous voice that brings it all together and makes the act entirely convincing.

Vaadeland writes his own material and it’s classic country in style, but with often strikingly contemporary lyrics. His “Town of the Blues” talks about conformity that suppresses difference, isolating and alienating:

“’cause in this lonesome town, you don’t get around, ’cause we all do just what we’re told. Where they greet you with a frown, and judge you up and down. Welcome to the town of the blues.”

I call Vaadeland  “high concept” not just because of the get up and retro/traditional musical styling. He’s very aware of who he is and what he’s doing. In fact, he wrote a song  about it called Retro Man. One feels that he is  trying to sort out what it means to be not just different but his particular kind of different, to belong to a particular genre and a different era.

At one point Vaadeland even did a radio-type commercial, the kind that was part and parcel of early broadcasts of country music. Introducing the spot ironically as “a message from some folks from whom I have yet to see a dime,” Vaadeland crooned the virtues of Diet Pepsi into a vintage looking stage mic. It was a wonderful piece of spoken word/appropriation/performance art.

There is a sincerity to Vaadeland that transcends parody. His friendly-funny stage patter rounds out the act but underlying the faux goofiness there seems to be a genuine desire to get back to the simple values and musical craft of another era.

They say country music is “three chords and the truth.” That seems to fit  Vaadeland who is honest about who he is, the vintage cloth he’s somewhat inexplicably cut from, and his dream to be as good a person and player as he can be to the end of his days.

Vaadeland mentioned that the group would be heading down to Nashville this September, where, he said, We’ll be sure to let them know exactly what we think of them.” (He has song that is as critical a take on Nashville as you’re be likely to hear from any of the neo-traditionalists, as they were called in the 80s-90s). I’m not sure Nashville is where Vaadeland needs to be but we wish him all the best on his journey, with a prayer that he can stick to his vintage guns.

Vaadeland reminds me of the early days of another Canadian who was  determined to carve her own path, K.D. Lang, who emerged in the 80s with  blend of cowgirl boots and punk. Once her talent got recognized, Lang gravitated toward her idols of more traditional country, Patsy Cline in particular. It seems like she followed her heart down the path of traditional country but then got caught up in country’s search for broader pop-rock audiences. One can’t help wondering what pressures might have been put on her to make a more “commercially viable” product and whether Vaadeland will face the same pressures.

If Vaadeland is something of a unicorn, it’s not as if he’s alone, there’s a whole herd of them out there, a generation of traditionalists taking the stage now. An interesting assortment of them can be found here:

I think this new generation deserves their own name because it isn’t just country’s 30-year descent into  pop and stadium rock they are bucking. They are infusing country music’s bedrock with their own sense of contemporary values and concerns. I’m calling it “Nouveau Country.” You heard it here first.

Vaadeland’s website.

An excellent primer on the origins and evolution of country decade by decade through the 20th C, check out Ken Burns’ 16 hour, 8 part documentary Country Music.


The highlight of the previous year’s 2022 Trout Forest festival for me was another ‘high concept’ act, the Winnipeg metal group Trampoline. Their inclusion spoke to the diversity that now characterizes music festivals. Gone are the days of acoustic folk or hippie rock. The group really stood out for their blend of intense, imaginative dystopian lyrics (referencing Doris Lessing), sterling guitar playing that evoked the brilliant eccentricity of  Frank Zappa, and relentlessly pounding percussion and bass.

Three players in the band Trampoline sitting on the grounds of a former monastery in St. Norbert, Manitoba
Steve Martens, Michelle Lecnik and Joey Penner of the band Trampoline at the ruins of a former monastery in St. Norbert, Manitoba

Trampoline the band on Facebook.

Everything is broken is the new normal

We all feel it every day in myriad ways. But there’s a lot of “everything is fine” denial going on, perhaps because there’s no obvious way to fix anything.

I’ve been trying to make a list of everything that’s broken for ages now and then Tara Henley posted this on her substack “Lean Out,” so succinct it’s worth quoting at length:

“We know that luggage will get lost and flights will get delayed. That public transportation will be slow, and crowded, and possibly unsafe. That city construction projects will not stick to schedule. That calling a bank, or a cell phone provider, or a cable company, or the government will mean spending an entire morning on hold.

We know that medical appointments will be hard to secure and apartments difficult to rent, and that we will have to wait in long lines for the privilege of paying plenty of our hard-earned cash to multinational mega-corporations, in exchange for unhealthy food or poorly-made clothing (and we may even have to check ourselves out and bag our own goods, too).

We know that everything is scarce — from daycare spots to parking, from jobs to money, from friendship to potential mates, from time with family to the mental health care we all increasingly need to treat our distress.

We know, too, that there is no reasonable amount of income that will entirely insulate us from this avalanche of stress. From the relentless parade of frustrations, large and small.”

I pay $7/mo. to subscribe to Henley’s substack. That’s a lot to pay for basically one article by one writer per week, certainly when compared to what we used to pay for newspapers, but Henley’s a pro, publishing one interesting interview consistently week in week out (plus a weekend bonus opinion piece). It’s the most refreshing critical take on the creeping myopia and authoritarianism around us you are likely to find.

Check it out:

Transcripts of interviews are free a few days after they are posted as a podcast, but if you subscribe you get to comment on her posts, which makes for some pretty lively exchanges. To this particular post, I commented that I believe there to be no fixes and that, contrary to all reason or intuition, this brokenness is sustainable, at least it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Welcome to the new normal.

17 April 2023 – a new thread, being 71, orgasm, peeing

Mornings are productive for me. My head is at its best, most creative. The ideas pour forth but are rarely written down and mostly forgotten within minutes. One could argue, if forgotten, not important. But then one could also argue not important at all anyway, ever. So that goes nowhere.

I am thinking maybe 10 mins of writing each morning to try to capture what’s going on, which is kind of remarkable, this, what’s the word? efflorescence? a bubbling up, bursting forth, condensation.

Today: You know you are 70 when a sustained pee is pretty much the same as an orgasm. In fact, one tries to hold it as long as possible in order to build up the effect.

An old, related thought: everyone’s orgasm is exactly the same. And we think we are so different from each other.


The Idea of God

God is something that is a quality of all things, we invent all kinds of ways of naming things which in itself has something to do with their ineffable, divine character.

– conversation with J.B., 25 Mar 2023








Michael Snow (December 10, 1929 – January 5, 2023)

Snow is perhaps Canada’s most famous and most important unknown artist. Canadians really don’t know their artists until long after they’ve died and, even then, not unless their work has been turned into posters, greeting cards and umbrellas.

Snow travelled Europe in the 50s and moved to New York in the 60s, which gave him the kind of exposure that leads to recognition. His cool, intellectual, philosophical or analytic approach to art making earned great respect while also placing him in a category relatively unto himself, certainly in Canada but also in terms of Western art.

You could say Snow was a part of conceptualism insofar as he employed strategies for making things. His ‘walking women” of the 60s are fundamentally an exercise in framing, a methodology further developed in my favourite of his works, the self-referential (a work that refers to itself by revealing the process or steps of its making) self-portrait of 1969.

Black and white photographs and cloth tape on mirror in metal frame by Michael Snow, 1969 (courtesy National Gallery of Canada/Musée des Beaux-Arts du Canada, Ottawa). Copied here from The Canadian Encyclopedia, link below.

A lot of what you read about Snow says it is hard to categorize his work. I think that is  because of a few public artworks that are difficult to read. Snow’s geese in Toronto’s Eaton Centre may be familiar to many people but few would know that, while the forms are sculpted fibreglass,  the surfaces are actual photographs of a goose (Flight Stop, 1982). The parody sculpture on Toronto’s skydome (The Audience, 1989) seemed at the time, to me, to be purposively throwing people off the scent, or perhaps it was a raspberry like the ones depicted by the characters directed at the art world that had by then devolved into a dismaying anything goes sort of anti-intellectualism then called “postmodernism”.

I think of Snow’s work as fundamentally post-structuralist. He matured as an artist just as Barthes and Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard and others’ ideas about semiotics (language theory) and deconstruction (cultural, ideological critique) began to reach North America.

Snow worked adeptly in all media, painting, sculpture but also film and music. He brought his unique sensibility and thoughtfulness to all of it.

I also  have thought (mistakenly) that there is a text artwork by Snow called “Reason over Passion.” In fact, that work was made around the same time as the self-portrait above by his partner, Joyce Weiland, no doubt a poke at  her so serious and more famous husband. Still I love the idea and think of it as very Canadian, to put reason over passion. If only we could more of that now.

Joyce Wieland, Reason over Passion, 1968
Quilted cotton, 256.5 x 302.3 x 8 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Copied here from:

There’s a lot of material about Michael Snow online, including this:

Look him up. He was a great person, thinker and artist.

Dave Chappelle: Toronto January 1, 2023

A warm roar enveloped Dave Chappelle as he took the stage in Toronto on New Year’s Day. These people clearly adore Dave Chappelle.

It’s not hard to see why. Chappelle is a gifted raconteur, speaking with a casual aplomb  while weaving interesting stories laced with gags and insight. He moves effortlessly between topics, often circling back to twist an earlier joke in a way that ties the whole thing together. It’s classic comedy and he’s a master.

I can’t recall a lot of the show (should’a taken notes) but a few things stick out:

Digital tickets on your phone were scanned at the door, but then the phones went into a sealed sack, so they had people giving out post-its so you could remember your seat no. So sophisticated, so real 🙂

DC opened with a stab at the taboo on handicapped jokes, feigning a gimpy arm. It was tasteless, provocative but gentle somehow. DC is able to simultaneously express compassion and kindness while also poking fun. Few comedians today are able to do that and increasingly, few are willing to risk a scolding by the righteousness signallers. A good example was a rant later in the show in which pretty much everybody, of every stripe and colour, got referred to with the  nword. Spread it around liberally enough with a generous intention and a word like that loses the hate in it.

Another classic topic for comedy is the personal relationship. The secret to a successful marriage, DC asked? “I cheat.” For which he gave no real evidence but did deliver some funny scenarios, like unlocking his wife’s phone, and she doing the same to him, by mimicking the others facial features, she Asian, him Black. Her lack of jealousy despite the evidence and his jealousy/suspicion despite the lack of evidence of any cheating on her part was totally endearing.

In response to his wife’s concern about their family’s future if something were to happen to DC, he told his wife about a safety deposit box that will “take care of everything.” She checked it out and found only a notebook. “Tell those jokes just the way I wrote them and you’ll be fine,” he said.

There was some audience interaction, the usual making fun of ethnicity/nationality, generations X, Y (millennials), and Z, or just how people look. As a boomer, I felt a bit left out, but then, we were a small minority of the audience. It was a very mixed, balanced crowd I’d say, and a gay friend of mine said some of his friends went.

A long bit about Chuck Berry’s sexual exploits, as seen by DC on “Pornhub”, while masturbating, was designed to shock because there was hardly a funny line in it.  It went on an on, just getting more and more gross until finally it ended, with a fart. A fart joke? Really Dave? Are we 12?

As the show wore on, DC prowled the stage, rambling around, hunched over like he was about to fall down from being so amused by his own jokes. It’s great when comedians laugh at their own jokes, it breaks the fourth wall between them and the audience but for DC it seemed a bit rehearsed.

I like fashion and tend to notice things like the suit DC was wearing. Pretty suave but for the pants that he kept having to pull up. Expensive looking, like what Armani might do with sweats, one draw string hanging out below the precisely tailored jacket.  DC should’a just done the ties up, and saved us all some anxiety about whether his pants were going to fall down.

The highlight of the evening for me was a very small aside, lightly thrown off towards the end of the show. “Don’t get me wrong,” DC said, apropos of nothing in particular, “I love gay people. I just think they’re gross.”

If the reason we seek out comedy is because it releases some of the tension we feel about how to be in the world, we need it to touch on truths, to rub up against them, test them. One such thorny uncomfortable truth about the hetero/gayness thing is that nobody chooses to be either; we are wired for attraction and the opposite of attraction is, whether we like it or not, repulsion. This is not ideology or acculturation but a visceral, physical feeling. Gay people feel repulsed by  hetero sex the same way hetero people feel repulsed by gay sex. As one of the guys I went to the show with said afterwards, “That’s fine, just keep it away from me.” (He was talking about the new brand of moralizing scolds masquerading as comedians, but no matter, I love that expression and it fits this issue well I think.)

Then DC circled back to the gimpy arm that started the show, mimicking that person smiling with glee that the show is okay now that he’s making fun of the gays. Classic.  Human nature was ever thus.

Last thought. I dunno, is DC the GOAT? He’s definitely a polished presenter, a good writer with great timing. And he’s a legend; it felt special to be in the same room with him, sharing the experience with 18,000 of my closest friends, as he put it. But did the show blow the roof off? Maybe it’s time for DC to reach into that notebook in the safety deposit box.

One beef I have to mention: stadium sounds systems are totally inadequate to the spoken word. It was loud and garbled, like a Raptor’s announcer. Truly terrible. A lot of lines were missed by a lot of people. We can do better. Similarly, the big screens over DC’s head were a distraction, hard not to watch when the image is so big compared to the little body far away on stage. (And we had pretty good seats.) Maybe subtitles?

I should have said something about the warm up acts. There were three,  each a bit better than the one before. Perhaps I’ll add something about them later.

A question that came up after the show, also for another time: Is comedy the same as comics, as in the drawn kind? Are the funny papers funny the same way comedy is funny?


Wither the Internet?

Who remembers when the internet was free?

It might be argued that the internet is ruining everything; accelerating civilization’s rush to the abyss of extinction. It, and cell phones. Never has so much ignorance spread so far so fast.

It didn’t need to happen this way. The internet was a scholarly not for profit project in the beginning. Just ask Wikipedia, which is still fighting for that cause:

I remember clearly the day it was announced on the radio that the Internet consortium had decided to permit advertising. Out loud I cried, “Oh no!”

This article about ad blocking is about as naïvely charming as those early twinking banner ads:

Today’s internet is a pain to surf. Social media, in their gambit to become the primary interface for users, so manipulative that one wants to hide.


Claes Oldenburg (January 28, 1929 – July 18, 2022)

It was Claes Oldenburg’s sense of humour I most enjoyed, and the general lightness of his work. Pop art with a European sensibility. (Which is bit ironic given Oldenburg, though born in Sweden, grew up in the USA.)

If comedy is the highest form of art (because it perforce operates on a meta level: playing on what we already know), as Alva Noë says in his book Strange Tools, Oldenburg is a kind of meta-artist, an artists’ artist, but then perhaps the best art is always about art before it is about anything else.

Christmas 2022

this year’s Christmas card found Santa a little tied up

also a shortage of elves left him uncoloured so the card shipped with a red pencil

recipients were invited to send a pic of their colourized versions

hope to post some of those here