Archive for category Great music

Do-it-yourself folk fest, part IV

So the “do-it-yourself” folk music festival of my imagination has been going smashingly well (see here for editions one, two and three).  And below are a few more additions to this summer’s line-up (so many more to bring along but there’s always next year).

Yet there is something missing.  One of my favourite things about going to folk music festivals is the surprise factor, connecting with a band you never heard before or never expected to like but their music grabbed you and made you come alive in a new way.  I’m missing that from this folk festival … and that’s where you come in.  Bring the surprise factor and help me find a few bands to add to my playlist.  Who would you suggest to add to this folk fest line-up?

Neil Young – hey, I can dream can’t I?

The Milk Carton Kids – these guys feel like Simon and Garfunkle reincarnated.

The Be Good Tanyas – these Tanyas are really good.

The Decemberists – and this version of “Down by the Water” includes the huge bonus of Gillian Welch

Michael Bernard Fitzgerald – Calgary boy who does a superb job on Heroes (I love how this video must’ve been shot on his back deck complete with snow covered dishwasher and dryer in the background)

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Build my own folk fest, ed. III

So I’m putting together my own Folk Fest (I still need a good name for it, but you can see the bands I’ve already lined up in part 1 and part 2).  What’s a summer without a really good folk fest?  Since I can’t get to one this year, I’m making one up.

And in my imagination, it’s happening right at our home.  I’m planning the front steps and porch as the main stage, our driveway decked out with tables full of good food and ice chests of drinks, the city will have closed off the street so its only foot traffic, with everyone pulling up a chair or sitting on the curb and a whole lot of dancing in the street.  Can’t you picture that goodness?

So with that scene in mind, here are a few more bands I’ve lined up for my folk fest:

The Waifs – a fine Aussie folk band.  And they have to pull off this great rendition of Crazy Train below, with Vikki Thorn playing some crazy good harmonica – because what is a folk fest without some harmonica.

Great Lake Swimmers – hey, we’re a short walk for a dip in Lake Ontario.  And they’d have to sing Parkdale Blues too.

La Bottine Souriante – a fabulous Quebecois band that will get you clapping and dancing in no time.  Fiddles, horns, piano, accordion, foot stomping – pure musical joy that needs no translation.

Eddie Vedder with his ukelele – that’ll do.



Build my own folk fest, part II

In the absence of going to a folk music festival this summer, I’m putting together my own folk festival right here at Squinch.  Here’s my first post.

Next up on the stage of my imagination are The Most Loyal.  An indie folk/rock band from Toronto, I’ve gotten to know a few of the fine folks in this band during my short time in Toronto.  They listen to me preach and I return the favour and enjoy their music (I think I’m getting the better end of that deal).  Great musicians and even better people.

And Toronto friends, The Most Loyal are having a CD release party this Thursday night June 13.  I can’t be there so do me a favour – head out to Clintons (693 Bloor St. W, Toronto) and cheer them on.  And you can check them out below.  And you can buy their CD here.


Build my own folk fest

I’m growing sad about not getting my folk fest fix this summer.  I did snag tickets to Mumford and Sons’ Gentlemen of the Road stop in Ontario, but beyond that I’m dry. Oh, wait – there is the 3rd Annual Fast Folk Fest at Knox Presbyterian in Toronto (details soon to follow).

But in the absence of my previous annual enjoyment of the Calgary Folk Music Festival, I figured I’d put together my own folk fest line up right here at Squinch.  So, pull up a festival chair, feel the grass in your feet and enjoy a few of the bands that I’d love to see line-up my own personal folk festival.  And while you’re enjoying the music, tell me about the bands you would put on stage.

And first up are Joy Kills Sorrow.  Won over by their name, I was kept close by their music.  Vancouver friends – they play Sunday June 9 in your gorgeous city.  But everyone can check them out below.


My musical memento mori

Eugene Peterson tells of a time he was staying at a monastery and being shown around the grounds when he noticed an open grave.  He asked his host if one of the brothers died recently.  The monk giving him the tour casually responded: “No.  That’s for the next one of us.”  The open grave served as a reminder of their own mortality, a memento mori.

Think that’s macabre?  That’s most of us these days.  We live in the most death denying culture in history (for the implications of this see Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death).  We talk all around the edges of death in hushed, taboo tones, like Voldemort’s name in Harry Potter, “the one who shall not be named.”

Although it seems so contrarian, in truth we live best when we have a clear sense of our own demise – it teaches you to “live the life you’re given.”  Biblically speaking, it’s probably the healthiest thing for someone to linger for a while on your mortality; it scrubs away any frothy spirituality, pointing you to the real life held in our daily living.  So in the face of a culture largely dodging it (but trust me: I’ve done the research on this one and the statistics show a consistent 100% mortality rate), we need helpful friends who can help us live with the reality of our dying.

Poets and artists are good starts, and books like Ecclesiastes are even better.  In the past few years, I’ve found Ecclesiastes-like friends in the music of the Avett Brothers.  I was introduced to their music a few years ago and was hooked immediately (when the first lyrics I heard were “shame, boatloads of shame, day after day, more of the same” and I knew I’d like these guys).  Fabulous live performers who bring it; raw energy; amazing banjo picking; Joe Kwon’s cello regularly thrashing into the mix; music that switches gears in a heartbeat from a soft melody to a frenetic, rave-like romp; a fusion of sadness and soul and joy; and the heft of their lyrics.

But with the release of their latest album, The Carpenter, I figured out something more – these guys are my musical memento mori.  There is an unflinching focus on death that surfaces throughout their music (Die, die, die, Murder in the City … even the cover art for I and Love and You hints at the traditional memento mori image).  And this latest album of theirs has the reality of our statistically-secured mortality layered throughout (Once and Future Carpenter, Live and Die, Through my prayers – this last one so emotionally packed with that yearning to communicate just once more with a lost loved one – “My dream of all dreams and my hope of all hopes, is only to tell you and make sure you know, how much I love you and how much I always did,”), yet woven into tracks so richly beautiful and lovely and infectious you’ll want to smile and dance and cry all the while.  A lot of the tenderness with which they handle it emerges from the real life experience of bassist Bob Crawford whose two year old daughter had brain cancer.  The end result is that their music is like a walk through a cemetery on a gorgeous spring day with a blue-bird sky and dewy green grass, birds singing and flowers blooming – the beauty of all that life helps and heals.

That’s the strange and lovely paradox, the blessed affliction of facing your mortality – it brings a heightened appreciation for life it brings, a clarified vision for embracing life.  That is why the ancient wisdom was to remember your death, why Benedictines will dig a grave for the next one – to live and die well.  Or as the Avett’s sing it: “If I live the life I’m given, I won’t be scared to die.”

Here’s a cut from their recent album …

… and one from a recent Jimmy Kimmel show, where they played with the Brooklyn Philharmonic.



The book of love – 25 years in

25 years today.  I can hardly believe it.

The wedding pictures show what looks like two kids shining with sweat, standing in front of their community and making a gift of their life to one another, too young to fully comprehend what they were really doing, recklessly making promises to be faithful until death – that’s a long time when you’re that young.

I could hardly have imagined then what it would call out from me and demand from me, how deeply this covenant would forge the me I am today.  My marriage to Betty has become the most formative, influential part of my life.  Which is not to say it’s been without its share of pain because you know that’s always the way we are formed.

It began remembered as the “wedding from hell” (it was about 42 C with humidity off the charts that day in Chicago).  But the story that’s unfolded has been far different, something rather magical and hard and baffling and tender and life-giving and messy and elegant and subtle and beautiful, sometimes all at once.

Entering into marriage you become a witness to another life, you give the gift of attention to the particularity of a person, taking note of the holy, peculiar beauty in that one life.  This might sound lovely, maybe even romantic, but the trouble with a witness is that they see you on both your good days and your bad ones (and if you’re at all like me, you give plenty of evidence for the bent and broken side of yourself).  You allow another person in close and there they see your cracked heart and all the shawdowy junk we mostly like to hide and photoshop out.

Chick-lit author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert gets at that reality:

People always fall in love with the most perfect aspects of each other’s personalities. Who wouldn’t? Anybody can love the most wonderful parts of another person. But that’s not the clever trick. The really clever trick is this: Can you accept the flaws? Can you look at your partner’s faults honestly and say, ‘I can work around that. I can make something out of it.’? Because the good stuff is always going to be there, and it’s always going to pretty and sparkly, but the crap underneath can ruin you.

The most remarkable grace in marriage is to be loved in all your incompleteness, accepted even in the face of all the crap that is our condition (after all, there is no other type of person to marry than someone who will disappoint you and let you down and probably hurt you along the way).

For 25 years, I’ve been given that stunning gift.  Thank you for saying yes to the adventure, Betty, for calling out the good stuff in me; and thank you for saying yes everyday since, for writing a book of love and grace with me, despite all the crap you’ve witnessed in me.

I can’t think of a better song for this day than Peter Gabriel singing the perfectly serious and silly, quirky and beautiful “The book of love.”

Do me a favour – find four minutes and someone you love (your spouse, your roommate, your child, your cat), pour yourself a glass of the best wine you can find in the house, imagine yourself at a summer garden party with us celebrating our anniversary.  Feel the grass in your bare feet, see the candles reflected in friends’ faces and white lights in the evening dusk.  Now, join us for a dance to this song.


On Folk Festivals

I love folk music; ergo I love folk music festivals.  Nothing sings summer like lounging on a lawn and taking in fabulous music.  For years, the Calgary Folk Music Festival was my late July summer staple.  It’s a unique musical event that wonderfully stretches the term “folk” (where do you get to hear Yiddish hip-hop, Corb Lund and the Hurtin’ Albertans, Michael Franti, The Avett Brothers, Bruce Cockburn and the Decemberists together).  Four days and nights of great music, people watching, and just plain fun – which is why I’m going to miss it so much.

But here’s my great consolation – I’m part of a church that puts on a Folk Festival!  How fabulous is that?  As part of the Harbord Street Festival in Toronto, Knox Presbyterian hosts the Fast Folk Festival (fast, as in, brief, of short duration, or “wow, that went by way too fast”).  And I can’t wait to get my inner folkie on and hang out for the afternoon.

If you’re in Toronto, it’s happening next Saturday, July 21, starting at 4:00 p.m.  I caught an early preview of one of the bands headlining our Fast Folk Festival, The Most Loyals (check out their website and some photos).  Loved their music and so glad Sarah and Andrew are part of the Knox community.

And for everyone in Calgary, keep an eye out for The Most Loyals because you’ll be enjoying this group on stage at the Calgary Folk Festival one day real soon.

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Summer soundtrack

It’s smokin’ hot out there.  Summertime and I am loving it.  Time to lose the shoes, roll down the windows, feel the wind in your face (or through your hair if you’ve got it), and cue the summer tunes.

Trouble is, I’m stuck inside writing a paper to wrap up a doctoral course.  (Yes, I’m dodging the deadline in front of me right now – apologies to Dr. Jimmy Dunn but the paper will come in on time).  I needed a little musical reminder of summer while I’m cloistered away in libraries and studies during my spare summer moments.  So here are a few of the songs that will populate some of my summer playlist.

Why these?  Summer music shouldn’t be complicated or overly intense; just simple and with a lilt of joy.  For me, there’s a bunch of different criterion for good summer soundtrack music.  Does it get me moving or swaying, tapping my feet or pumping my hands in the air?  Can I doze asleep to it on a lazy summer day or lounge with it on a hot summers night?  Does it sound fun?  How will it play with the windows down and roof open barrelling down the road?  How does it mix with the sound of waves or loons or a crackling fire in the background?  Does it make me smile?  If it can meet any one of those criterion, it’ll find its way on my playlist.

In no order, here’s a few of my favourites

  • King of the road – the Proclaimers (sung with a thick Scottish brogue, this is the perfect road tune.  Get your kilt on, open up the sunroof and enjoy the ride)
  • Sink or Swim – the Waifs (a little piece from this Aussie band has finger snapping and great harmonica. Besides, I’m thinking summer Folk Fest here.  No better summer memories than the many years of the Calgary Folk Music Festival on Prince’s Island Park.  Get the full four day pass and lounge on a blanket for fabulous days of music, sunshine and great people watching)
  • The heart of Saturday night – Shawn Colvin (Shawn Colvin singing Tom Waits – too good.  It’s a pitch-perfect evocation of summer evening cruising in the car, no matter where your main drag is)
  • Ants Marching – Dave Matthews (I love how this song gets my body moving – strong drums, great violin rhythms, soaring sax.  This song is what summer does – an invitation to stop the rushing around and break out of your routine)
  • Soak up the sun – Sheryl Crowe (to me, this beats The Beach Boys for a sense of California beach music)
  • Love Shack – The B-52’s (this was my daughter Lily’s immediate pick when I asked about songs for a summer soundtrack.  And don’t the B-52’s scream dance party?)
  • These are the days – 10,000 maniacs (because Natalie Merchant is magic and a good reminder to simply be present to all that is today)
  • Pump it up – Elvis Costello (this is musical Red Bull)
  • Say hey (I love you) – Michael Franti and Spearhead (Ok, go ahead and add Franti’s “Sound of Sunshine” but I think this is the better summer tune.  He had everyone up on our feet dancing the night away when we saw him a few years ago)
  • Ten Thousand Words – The Avett Brothers (play this on a warm night on the back deck or front porch, and you could almost imagine Seth and Scott with you, picking their guitars and you picking up the harmonies.  Cannot wait to see them later this September)
  • Mysterious Ways – U2 (a superb guitar hook, conga rhythms, this is U2 at its funkiest)
  • It’s the end of the world – Great Big Sea (these Newfies throw one big kitchen party wherever they go and just keeping up with this song is half the fun)
  • Have a little fun with me – Glen Phillips (captures the playful heart of summer.  Go ahead and grow a little younger this summer)
  • Dancing in the street – Martha Reeves (classic)
  • Boogie Shoes – KC and the Sunshine band (in our house, this song means instant “dance party.”  We put down whatever we’re doing and put on our boogie shoes)
  • The ghost of rockschool - Belle and Sebastian (love this song and this band.  That’s all)
  • Police on my back – The Clash (just a little reminder to keep it safe people)
  • Winter Song – The Head and the Heart (you know its coming, sooner or later, so stop complaining about the heat already!  And what’s not to love about The Head and the Heart)

So what’s on your summer playlist?


The Perfect Space

Entering into a new place and finding my way into a new community is providing an instant refresher course on the in’s-and-out’s of forming and living in community.  You’d think I’d have learned this by now and so it feels a little like remedial breathing lessons.  Call it “Belonging 101.”  Probably better titled “How I can’t do it alone but why is it so hard to do it together.”

Although we are so deeply discipled in the way of individualism (the demon is in so deep we have no idea how misshapen we’ve become because of it), there’s still a longing for something more than “not doing things alone.”  We struggle to live it, sometimes don’t want it, chafe against what it demands of us, but mostly yearn to be part of a living, breathing, interdependent, covenant community that shares life together and is devoted to one another’s shalom.

As I try to find myself in that sort of community, here are a few things I’m being freshly reminded of lately:

While I wish I had a “belonging” button I could easily press, community doesn’t spontaneously happen.  It is desired, sought out, intentionally formed, vulnerably entered, and patiently worked out.

While I’d prefer friendships to be at no cost to me, in fact, the gift of community requires costly investments of myself, giving some of my most precious resources, like time.  You can’t microwave community; it’s a “slow-movement” type of thing where bonds of trust and companionship are formed through shared life over time.  Which means community and friendships make demands on my time and availability.  Am I willing to allow others to place such obligations on me?

One of the crazy ironies of a community that is “natural and safe” is that it requires risk and vulnerability. In the communities I’ve entered, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve invited people over, taking the risk of seeking relationship and not had it reciprocated.  It’s a hard, vulnerable thing, isn’t it, that unrequited desire for friendship.  But it will happen along the way; get used to it.

Which means that the gift of community and friendship will likely be extended by some wonderfully unpredicted people.  So get ready to be surprised who actually ends up being part of your long-term community – it probably won’t be the usual suspects.

But to be open to that, I need to let go of my idol of the perfect community.  Filed somewhere in the back of my heart is this notion of the ideal community – all the cool kids who hit the right cafes, are well connected, know how to pronounce Goethe, dress well, engage in meaningful conversations (but never press their opinions too hard), are relationally low maintenance and yet gladly put up with – even enjoy – my flaws, love me unconditionally but don’t expect too much from me, and practice good hygiene.  Isn’t that the temptation, to yearn for some ideal community that no reality will ever measure up to?

Which is why church can be so hard for many because we come expecting an experience of distilled divinity but instead find raw and uncooked humanity.  I get to hear a variety of people lament their disillusionment with church, talking about people who have hurt and disappointed them.  But what other sort of people are there?  Isn’t part of the difficult gift of community directly related to the challenge of differences?

Another one of the quirky paradoxes of community is that the very dynamics that provide a deep sense of belonging are the same that can exclude others.  The power of the inner circle almost seems to be equal and opposite to the energy to include; its like trying to simultaneously balance both centripetal and centrifugal forces.  So if you’re newly entering a community, be gentle with people there and realize that many are likely blind to the fact that they may be excluding you; and yet if you do enjoy a rich experience of community, understand that unless you intentionally take steps to decisively include others, know that you’ll be giving off an elitist, exclusionary vibe.

All this reminds me of the gorgeously beautiful song by the Avett brothers, The Perfect Space (you can listen to it below).  They sing my heart: “I want to have friends that I can trust, that love me for the man I’ve become not the man I was … I want to fit in to the perfect space, feel natural and safe in a volatile place.

We get tastes of that perfect space here and now but all the friendship and community we enjoy will always be a partial wholeness, a trailer for life in the new heavens and new earth.  But that hope of a perfect space gives me the grace to receive the lovely imperfect gifts of community today.


An anthem for Black Friday – reprise

Just had this piece posted on the CRC Network site so figured I’d repost an edited version of it here today.

Today is Black Friday south of the 49th, the biggest consumer bender known to humanity.  Called black because merchants’ books finally crossover from the red into the black, it’s an apt adjective for other reasons.  And it would be so easy to watch the spree and smugly gloat, believing I’m free from that, above it all.  Truth is, what separates me from a Black Friday binge is merely opportunity.

In the past year, since stepping down as Sr. Pastor at River Park Church and stepping into a time of pared down living, I’ve spent a fair bit of time simply scraping away the accumulated clutter of life.  I find myself surprised, wondering where all this stuff came from? I’m developing a theory about the reproductive capacities of inert material things, certain that my books, the children’s toys, electronics and clothes are all mating with each other, my desk drawers, filing cabinets and closets their dimly lit breeding grounds, with Barry White playing somewhere in the background.

I’d happily settle for that convenient explanation but the uglier truth hitting home is that for all this stuff, I saw it, I desired it, I justified its importance to my life, I had to have it, I pursued it, and in the end, I bought it.  Here’s an illustrative event, the moment a box of books (my drug) arrives from Amazon (my dealer) – the immediate hit is like a drug entering the bloodstream; I’m flush with excitement, feeling a boosted sense of identity (just having “that” book or clothing item/gadget/outdoor gear/music/artwork/whatever makes me feel smarter and savvy, well-read and in-touch, manly and spiritual).  And yet the same unbelievably boring cycle repeats itself, that in weeks, if not days, the gleam is gone and whatever it was I saw and wanted now becomes what it really is – stuff that clutters my life, needs to be maintained and cared for, and gets stored away somewhere, forgotten, stumbled upon, then hauled off and either sold, recycled or tossed.

I’m struck scared by how deep the demon is in me (the evidence is strewn all about me), how my life has been discipled into this consumer way of living without me really seeing it happen at all.  Consumerism has become an alternative but dominant religion in our world, hawking meaning, identity and purpose for our lives.  Count up all the time, energy, and hope, let alone money, that get invested in researching, ogling, desiring, pursuing, purchasing, enjoying and acquiring stuff – then tell me how free you are from this thing.

Arguably, the problem is not the stuff itself, it’s the wantings.  It’s your heart, my heart sick with desire, the wanting for something that an Ipad, sweater, new house or Chia-pet will never fill.  Something has us and how we need healing.

Which brings me to needed beauty, a shot-to-the-heart song of confession from the Avett Brothers.  If you’ve never heard of them, Seth and Scott Avett are two Jesus looking dudes with raw, beautiful music that heals and brings life.  They blew me away two summers ago in a fantastic festival show, and now they’re on repeat in our Ipod at home.  And I can’t think of a better anthem for Black Friday than Ill with Want.



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