October 21, 2009

Fair entertainment a great blend of old and new

As published in The Erin Advocate

It is always a pleasure to hear a singer you know perform their greatest hits, but it is even better to discover relatively new talent. It was this dynamic that made the Saturday line-up at the Exhibits Hall so entertaining at this year's Erin Fall Fair.

I first saw Murray McLauchlan more than 30 years ago, and have always enjoyed his edgy lyrics and smooth melodies. He looks a good deal wiser at 61, but he still seems to have the spark to stir things up with bluesy songs and stories about his journeys.

"Canada is so huge," he said. "It is one of the most divided places on earth that actually works."

The hall was packed to hear him sing classics like On the Boulevard and Whispering Rain, plus some fine new compositions, accented by his trademark riffs on the harmonica. Naturally, he finished up with Farmer's Song, which seemed to fit in nicely: giving thanks to farmers, at a Thanksgiving agricultural fair, with the roar of the nearby tractor pull as a backdrop.

It was actually the continuation of a theme from the previous act, the Murray Williams Band. This is Williams' third year at the Erin Fair, with a clean, hard-driving country sound that people seem to really enjoy. He has been in the business since the '80s, and made a name for himself with a debut single called Thank a Farmer.

It was all about farmers' struggles when he sang The Farmin' Life is the Life for Me, he had the feet stompin' with his version of the Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues, and he did a nice rendition of Charley Pride's Crystal Chandeliers.

When he was singing Kenny Chesney's hit, She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy, the outdoor tractors seemed to chime in right on queue.

Much as I enjoyed McLauchlan and Williams, the highlight of the evening for me was The Gnomes, who played first. It is also their third year at the fair, with Amy Campbell on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, and Hillsburgh native Brad McIsaac on bass and backup vocals.

A few years ago, they won the talent contest at the Erin Fair. Now they live in Beaverton and play around the Orillia area. They have been featured on the CBC Radio 2 show Deep Roots.

The music is mellow and upbeat, leaning toward county in some of their own material, like I Do Believe, and more to folk, blues and soul in the tunes they cover, like (Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding and Steve Cropper, and the Aretha Franklin hit (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman, written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin.

The strong voice and energetic stage presence of Amy Campbell made the show something special. She has a light, evocative tone, with the power to soar and improvise when needed.

It often seems that the most passionate performances come from artists who are still early in their careers, still discovering what they can really do. I wish The Gnomes well, and hope their career becomes a long one.

For more information and streaming audio, myspace seems to be the most popular web source:

For a taste of the garden gnome liberation movement, check out: