A fit­ting trib­ute to one of our great po­ets, Al Purdy

Waterloo Region Record - - Arts & Life - MICHAEL BAR­CLAY ra­diofreecanuck­istan.blogspot.ca


“When a poet dies a lul­laby still whis­pers faintly in the room,” sings Sarah Harmer on a song she adapted from an Al Purdy poem for this project.

Those words were cer­tainly true in 2016, when we lost both Leonard Co­hen and Gord Downie. But at the same time, the work of an­other great Cana­dian poet, who died in 2000, was echo­ing with a new res­o­nance, thanks to the 2015 film “Al Purdy Was Here,” the di­rec­to­rial de­but from for­mer Ma­clean’s film critic Brian D. John­son.

That film was a tri­umph on sev­eral lev­els: as vi­tal Cana­dian cul­tural his­tory, as a vis­ually gor­geous film, as a doc­u­men­tary with a sur­pris­ing twist, and, fi­nally, as a cat­a­lyst for some of this coun­try’s great­est mu­si­cians to en­gage with Purdy’s work. John­son had al­ways in­tended mu­sic to be a huge part of his film, and for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons it took three years for this sound­track of sorts to come to fruition. But it’s fi­nally here, and it’s fab­u­lous.

It opens with Bruce Cock­burn, whom John­son coaxed out of semi-re­tire­ment to write and record “3 Al Pur­dys” — which in turn be­came an an­chor track on Cock­burn’s most re­cent al­bum, “Bone to Bone.” It also fea­tures one of the last things Leonard Co­hen ever recorded: a recita­tion of “Necropsy of Love.” The pa­rade of leg­ends doesn’t stop there: Mar­garet At­wood re­cites “Wilder­ness Gothic,” Greg Keelor adapts Purdy’s poem “Woman” into “Un­prov­able” (“As un­prov­able as the sun on the other side of the world”), and Gord Downie ap­pears not once, but twice with his highly un­der­rated 2010 song “The East Wind,” which lifts lightly from Purdy, and a recita­tion of “At the Quinte Ho­tel,” which is a poem that “a sen­si­tive man” such as Downie was born to read: it’s about bar fights in cen­tury-old ho­tels — some­thing The Trag­i­cally Hip are more than fa­mil­iar with — and about how po­etry will buy you nei­ther beer nor re­spect. Downie also does a strik­ing Purdy im­pres­sion at one point in the poem.

The best track here, how­ever, goes to Downie dis­ci­ple and friend Sarah Harmer, whose “Just Get Here” is not only per­haps the best melody she’s writ­ten in al­most 20 years, but it sum­ma­rizes the spirit of Purdy’s A-frame in Amelias­burg, Ont., in Prince Ed­ward County, which func­tioned as a gath­er­ing place for gen­er­a­tions of Cana­dian po­ets — and con­tin­ues to do so, hav­ing been re­stored for artist res­i­den­cies. (A fundrais­ing cam­paign to make that pos­si­ble was the cat­a­lyst for John­son’s in­ter­est in mak­ing this film.) On top of all that, her vo­cal and pi­ano per­for­mance is dev­as­tat­ing. While Harmer fans con­tinue to hold out for new ma­te­rial (which is ac­tu­ally com­ing, though long de­layed), this alone com­pen­sates for the eight-year wait.

Also ap­pear­ing: Doug Pais­ley, Snow­blink, Ja­son Col­lett, Felic­ity Wil­liams and Bi­dini­band — Dave Bi­dini, of course, like Downie, an enor­mous Purdy fan, who sam­pled Purdy’s voice on a 1994 Rheo­stat­ics song. If there’s any com­plaint with the choice of con­trib­u­tors, it’s that they all hail from an easy driv­ing dis­tance to Al’s A-frame; Purdy’s in­flu­ence was felt far and wide across the Great White North, not just On­tario.

Trib­ute al­bums to mu­si­cians are of­ten a hit-and-miss af­fair; this trib­ute to a poet, how­ever, in which mu­si­cians were free to edit the orig­i­nal text to their own uses, works bril­liantly. Whether or not the name Al Purdy means any­thing to you, see the film, lis­ten to the mu­sic and, by all means, go back to the orig­i­nal texts. And say the names.

Stream: “Just Get Here” by Sarah Harmer, “Tran­sient” by Doug Pais­ley, “At the Quinte Ho­tel” by Gord Downie


Toronto’s Doug Pais­ley was one of the most promis­ing new song­writ­ers of this decade, with 2010s Con­stant Com­pan­ion hailed (by me, but also many oth­ers) as an in­stant clas­sic, the kind of al­bum that ac­tu­ally war­ranted com­par­isons to greats like Gor­don Light­foot. Th­ese were songs of nei­ther a young man nor an old man; th­ese were songs that sounded like they’ve al­ways ex­isted. “Starter Home” is only his sec­ond al­bum since then, how­ever; he spent the last four years on pa­ter­nity leave, and this new col­lec­tion finds him firmly rooted in midlife, ques­tion­ing his sur­round­ings, his fu­ture — and other light sub­jects. The ar­range­ments are gen­tle and unas­sum­ing, never dis­tract­ing from Pais­ley’s deft acous­tic gui­tar work or his warm-sweater voice and sto­ry­telling. Blue Rodeo’s Bazil Dono­van shows up on bass, as does Pais­ley’s go-to choice for har­monies, Jen­nifer Cas­tle. Doug Pais­ley will never be the type to be hyped, but his records are the ones you’ll put on at the end of a long week, the songs echo­ing con­ver­sa­tions with old friends.

Stream: “No Way to Know,” “Easy Money,” “Wait­ing”

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