Thursday, September 08, 2016

A Music Legend Visits the North Country

Buffy Sainte-Marie in Minnesota and Wisconsin – August 2016

A definite highlight of my summer was seeing singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie twice in concert. She and her band performed in Minneapolis, MN and Bayfield, WI at the end of last month, and although I hadn't planned on attending both concerts, that's what I ended up doing.

An original and important voice

Right: Buffy in the 1960s. (Photographer unknown)

I'm thinking most people reading this will already be familiar with Buffy Sainte-Marie and her music. But if not, what's important to know is that Buffy, born in 1941 on the Piapot Plains Cree First Nation Reserve in the Qu'Appelle Valley of Saskatchewan, Canada, is a unique and iconic singer-songwriter who for over 50 years has been writing and recording a wide range of material – from love songs ("Until It's Time for You to Go") to social-justice anthems ("Universal Soldier"), from a groundbreaking electronic album (1969's Illuminations) to an Oscar-winning ballad ("Up Where We Belong").

Left: "Self Portrait" by Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Buffy's also very much a "pathfinder" in both the visual arts and music worlds. In the 1980s, she pioneered digital art; in 1969, the aforementioned Illuminations was the first quadrophonic vocal album ever made, while the recording of her 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories was the first documented use of the internet to deliver a music CD via modem. (The album was digitally recorded at her home in Hawaii and then delivered from there to Chrysalis Records’ studio in London where overdubs were later added.) These and other contributions and achievements have ensured that Buffy Sainte-Marie continues to be celebrated as one of the most original and important voices of our time. Indeed, many consider her most recent album, 2015's Power in the Blood, to be the defining record of our time.

Buffy first emerged as an artist within the folk scene of New York City's Greenwich Village in the 1960s, alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Richie Havens. Her overall musical output, however, defies categorization, as evidenced by the diverse range of artists who have covered her songs – Bobby Darin, Janis Joplin, Gram Parsons, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond, and Courtney Love, to name just a few.

What's also noteworthy is that throughout her 50+ year career, Buffy has been equal parts activist, educator, songwriter, performer and visual artist. In the 1970s, her activism led to the suppression of her music by elements within the U.S. government. She creatively responded by accepting an invitation to be a regular cast member on Sesame Street, where from 1976 to 1981 she highlighted topics such as sibling rivalry, breastfeeding, music, and First Nations culture. In a myriad of ways she's been and continues to be a source of inspiration to many – myself included.

Above (left to right): Muhammad Ali, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Harold Smith, Stevie Wonder, Marlon Brando, Max Gail, Dick Gregory, Richie Havens, and David Amram at a concert at the end of the Longest Walk, 1978. The Longest Walk saw several hundred American Indian activists and supporters march for five months from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to protest threats to tribal lands and water rights. (Image: Photographer unknown)

Songs of experience, hope and empowerment

Regular readers of this blog would know that I've long admired Buffy Sainte-Marie as an artist, activist, and educator. My introduction to her and her music took place when I was still living in Australia, just before my relocation to the U.S. in 1994. At that time I was living and teaching in Goulburn, and was somewhat of a follow of the music scene. In 1992 I came across a review of Buffy's then-latest album, Coincidence and Likely Stories, in a British music magazine. I remember being definitely intrigued by what I read, and soon acquired a CD copy of the album through a local record store. Almost twenty-five years later, it remains one of my all-time favorite albums.

Right: A still from the music video for "The Big Ones Get Away" (1992).

At the time of its release, one reviewer remarked on Coincidence and Likely Stories' "classy and discreet treatments [and] bitter lyrics," a reference to songs such as "The Big Ones Get Away," "Fallen Angels," "Priests of the Golden Bull," and "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee." Yet the album also contains lyrics of hope — as evidenced on one of my favorite tracks, "Getting Started." For along with acknowledging the loneliness and isolation experienced by those forced to the edges of society, Buffy also sings of the possibility of something "wild and unique" – a journey of human consciousness where "love's the magic number," and where, together, "we're only getting started." I have to say that hearing those lyrics for the first time as a young closeted gay man gave me tremendous courage and hope.

Years later, when I was living in the States and had assumed leadership of the Twins Cities-based Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM), I again found hope and empowerment in the life and music of Buffy Sainte-Marie. I well remember how during the summer of 2003, as I worked to steer CPCSM in a more activist direction, I would listen to and be inspired by Buffy's music. And not only by the tracks on Coincidence and Likely Stories, but also by songs from earlier in Buffy's career, songs that I discovered were both prophetic and mystic . . . "Keeper of the Fire," "It's My Way," "Suffer the Little Children," "Sweet September Morning," "Jeremiah," "Lay It Down," and "God is Alive, Magic is Afoot" (which inspired this 2007 Wild Reed post.)

Left: The cover of Blair Stonechild's 2012 biography of Buffy.

And it wasn't just Buffy's music that I found (and continue to find) inspiring but also her willingness to be, as Ann Powers astutely observes, "a risk-taker, always chasing new sounds, and a plain talker when it comes to love and politics."

I also appreciate what Maynard Solomon once wrote of Buffy and her music:

There are roads visible and invisible. We have our orators of the open road, our hitch-hikers on Route 66, balladeers of the box-car, singers of the city streets, explorers of the dusty dirt-roads and hot pavements of American life. But there are highways not charted on our roadmaps – though they may twist and writhe like the blue and red lines – for they are located not in space but within, located in silence and conscience, in the often lonely atlas of a single human mind. Buffy Sainte-Marie's accomplishment is that she has traveled these roads, without benefit of compass, and returned to tell us what she found.

I have to say that a big inspiration for how I try to live my life – including why I began and continue to maintain the creative endeavor that is The Wild Reed – is the desire and hope to embody in my own way that type of accomplishment that Maynard Solomon sees in the life and creative endeavors of Buffy Sainte-Marie. And related to this is my aspiration to live a life that can be described as one reviewer described Buffy's groundbreaking 1969 album Illuminations – as "genuinely mysterious . . . subversive and strange."

Such a life bears witness, I believe, to the transforming power of the sacred, and is always worth aspiring to. I'm thankful for the example and inspiration given by people like Buffy Sainte-Marie who so resolutely and beautifully embody the sacred in and through their lives and creative endeavors.

I should say at this point that prior to last month's concerts I'd previously seen Buffy in concert and, on one of these two occasions, had the honor of briefly meeting and speaking with her. I snapped the photo at left during her May 15, 1999 concert at Mystic Lake Casino in Minnesota. And, yes, even Buffy remarked on the incongruousness of this plush setting to the venues she was used to playing, many of which were on reservations. If I recall correctly, the casino, which is owned by the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, was hosting a Native American music festival, one which Buffy was headlining.

Right: Another photograph of Buffy Sainte-Marie in concert that I took in 1999.

At that time I was very much involved in the local justice and peace community. In fact, part of the reason my friend Mary Ellen and I were whisked backstage to met with Buffy was to invite her to be part of the "Committing to Peace: Generation to Generation" conference that we and others were planning. As it turned out, Buffy wasn't able to be part of this event due to her touring schedule. But I remember how interested she was in what we were doing and how friendly and gracious she was to us.

But like I said, this was all almost 20 years ago. Here then, without further ado, are some of my images of the two wonderful performances I experienced of Buffy and her band much more recently – just last month, actually. . . . Enjoy!


The Dakota Jazz Club, Minneapolis
– Friday, August 26, 2016

I was in Australia visiting family and friends when tickets for Buffy's August 26 performance at the Dakota Jazz Club and Restaurant in downtown Minneapolis went on sale in May. The Dakota has an intimate cabaret setting and is a perfect venue for seeing a favorite artist as, no matter where you're sitting, you're in relatively close proximity to the stage and thus guaranteed a good view of the show.

Since I decided to make a real night of it and get "premium dinner tickets," I had to call the box office during business hours. This meant calling from Australia at around 3:00 in the morning, something I accomplished (quietly) while staying at the home of my good friends Jeremiah and Kristy and their two young children in Townsville, Queensland.

Contrary to its name, the Dakota Jazz Club serves as a venue for a range of local and visiting musicians. Recent acts, for instance, have included "soul/R&B royalty" Bettye LaVette, "high energy Celtic rock" group Scythian, and "soulful gospel blues" singer Ruthie Foster. Buffy was billed as music's "powerful folk-rock priestess, revered for her pioneering spirit. [A woman who] sings straight from the heart, straight to the soul."

Right: Brent and I enjoying our pre-concert dinner at the Dakota.

I have to say that everything about our night out was wonderful – the music (of course), the atmosphere, the service, and the food.

I must admit that I was a little concerned that Buffy's music might not be to Brent's liking. After all, he tends to go for more pop-oriented artists like Kylie Minogue, Róisín Murphy and Rick Astley (whom he recently saw in concert in Los Angeles). I'm happy to report that he thoroughly enjoyed Buffy's performance at the Dakota! He even had a favorite song from the night's set: "Farm in the Middle of Nowhere," a track from Power in the Blood.

Buffy began her set with "It's My Way," the opening track from her latest album, the award-winning Power in the Blood.

Writer Jacob Blickenstaff notes that "It's My Way" is a "reinterpretation of the title track from [Buffy's] very first album [released in 1964] . . . a reaffirmation of her core principals, a circling back and a step forward: I'm cutting my own way / through my own day / and all I dare say is / It's my own."

In a society that often demands unquestioning obedience and rigid conformity, "It's My Way," writes Sue Zalokar, has "inspired generations of people to carve out their own paths in this world."

And Buffy herself has said the following about this particular song:

Some people who have never heard it before, get it mixed up with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way.” He puts the emphasis on “my,” but no. For me, it’s about the path. . . . [The song's] talking about me but actually it's talking to you. Each one of us has our own path.

It's been somewhat of a tradition for me to share on my birthday a song or prayer or reflection that I find particularly meaningful. Last year when I turned 50 I shared "It's My Way."

Above: Buffy and her band at the Dakota Jazz Club – Friday, August 26, 2016. From left: Mark Olexson (bass), Buffy, Anthony King (guitar), and Michel Lee Bruyere (drums).

Above: Buffy and her band performing the title track of Power in the Blood.

When interviewed last year by Joe Lynch of Billboard, Buffy said the following about this song.

[T]here are a lot of songs called "Power in the Blood" – it goes back to Gospel songs – but when I heard [British rock/electronic band Alabama 3's "Power In the Blood"], I just loved the energy of it. I found out last year they were huge fans of mine, and I'm a huge fan of theirs, so I told them, "This will make a great peace song." They laughed, but I changed the words around [Their line "I will be ready for war" becomes "I will say no, no, no to war"]. My version is a laundry list of contemporary issues that are challenging everyone right now. It's the age old racketeering problem that's been going on since before the Old Testament. The Roman Empire, the Inquisition – the whole notion of rackets, where a few guys make a fortune and everyone else is exploited. And it's everything – it's in the banks, it's in the tanks, in the military, the food supply, the college of business. . . . The business model at the moment is kind of a fraud: Take as much as you can get and give back the least you can. It's a big, huge racket that everyone is seeing with new eyes now. "Power In the Blood" is a double entendre. On one end, it's the power of the feudal system to hurt and exploit us. The other power is the power in our brains to survive and evolve beyond this. To balance that with what we need – common sense and respect for nature and each other.

Left: Meeting Buffy after the show.

Shortly after their performance, Buffy and the members of her band gathered in the foyer of the Dakota for a "meet and greet." I greatly appreciated this as I got the chance to thank Buffy for the many ways she has inspired me in my life as an activist, an educator . . . and simply as a human being.

Buffy was happy to hear that I was an educator, and inquired about that. I briefly shared with her about my time as a teacher in Australia, and about how now, in many different ways – including through my writing and day-to-day interactions with others, I continue to inform, educate, and (hopefully) inspire others about the things that really matter.

Afterwards, I thought more about our brief exchange and realized that in doing what I said I do, I'm not teaching in the traditional sense and (hopefully) certainly not pontificating or preaching, but rather simply seeking to engage everyone I encounter in ways that are genuine and compassionate. In doing so, I trust that I'm making a positive difference in the world; that I'm contributing in my own unique way to humanity's collective endeavor of evolving (or "ripening," as Buffy likes to say) to a new level of consciousness and a deeper experience of engagement with each other, with creation, and thus with the Sacred Presence within all things.


Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, WI
– Saturday, August 27, 2016

The day after seeing Buffy at the Dakota I (glowingly) described the show to my friend Kyle. He asked when and where Buffy was performing next and I told him tonight in Bayfield, Wisconsin, about four hours northeast of the Twin Cities. He suggested we drive up there, catch the show, and spend the next day in beautiful Bayfield. He said it would be his treat, as he was keen to get out of the Cities for a while and had long wanted to see a show at the venue where Buffy was performing – the 950 seat all-canvas tent theater known as Big Top Chautauqua. I happily and gratefully agreed!

Above and right: Clearly happy and excited to be seeing Buffy in concert again. . . . This time at the Big Top Chautauqua, just outside of Bayfield, WI. And, yes, it was a very different venue (and energy) from Friday night's show at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis.

The crowd in Minneapolis the previous night had been older and, though clearly appreciative of Buffy and her performance, rather subdued. It was a much more lively and diverse crowd at the Big Top. There where people of all ages, and many of those present where from the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Also present was author and activist Winona LaDuke, known for her work on tribal land claims and preservation, as well as sustainable environmental development.

Annie Humphrey, an Ojibwe singer/songwriter from the Leech Lake Reservation in Northern Minnesota and the winner of two Native American Music Awards, opened for Buffy, while Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Larry Long welcomed and introduced her to the 400 or so people gathered under the Big Top.

Following is how Big Top Chautauqua described Buffy in its promotional material.

Buffy Sainte-Marie‘s bold new album, Power in the Blood, won the 2015 Polaris Prize and two Juno Awards (Canadian Grammys), one for Aboriginal Album of the Year and another for Contemporary Roots Album of the Year. The album's message, about the road to self-identity and the conviction to be oneself, still resonates with the Cree singer-songwriter, activist, educator, visual artist, and winner of countless awards. Perhaps you know Sainte-Marie from her 1960s' protest anthems, her open-hearted love songs, her incendiary pow-wow rock music, or the juggernaut pop hit “Up Where We Belong,” which she co-wrote for the soundtrack to An Officer and a Gentleman. Sainte-Marie is a fearless songwriter who is committed to the indigenous people of the Americas and to telling the people’s history that has been left out of history books. Five decades on, Sainte-Marie can still inspire you to rise up and take action, but she can just as easily melt your heart with a tender ballad.

Big Top Chautauqua has a 30-year history of hosting a diverse range of artists. This summer, for instance, acts have included Brandi Carlile, Michael Franti and Spearhead, BoDeans, Chris Isaak, Emmylou Harris, John Fullbright, Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle, The Okee Dokee Brothers, Kris Kristofferson, Jonny Lang, and Marty Stuart.

Right: Michel Lee Bruyere, Buffy's talented and spirited drummer.

Notes Michel's official bio:

Known for his heavy-handed beats, Michel Bruyere uses his experience in rock, funk rock, country and blues to create his distinct sound. Based in Vancouver, the informally trained Ojibwe drummer kicked-off his music career in the early 90’s as a session player and performer. Michel has played with major acts such as Eagle & Hawk, C-Weed Band, and Keith Secola in the USA. Passionate about bringing spirituality into everything he does, Michel is currently touring with Bruthers of Different Muthers and Buffy Sainte-Marie.

Above: Buffy performs "When I Had You," a bluesy jazz number from her eclectic 2008 album Running for the Drum.

Another track from Running for the Drum that Buffy and her band performed was "No No Keshagesh."

Keshagesh is a Cree word that means "greedy guts." "It’s what you call a little puppy who eats his own and then wants everybody else’s,” says Buffy. In "No No Keshagesh" the term is used as a metaphor for corporate greed, and the song is about opposing such greed and its destructive impact on the environment. Mister Greed, I think your time has come / We're gonna sing it and pray it and live it and say it / Singing: No, No Keshagesh you can’t do that no more . . .

Buffy dedicated her performance of "No No Keshagesh" to all who are gathered at Standing Rock to oppose the Dakota Access pipeline.

As with her show the night before in Minneapolis, Buffy, prior to her encore, ended her set with "Carry It On," the closing track on Power in the Blood and a song that's actually a reworked version of her 1976 recording "Look At the Facts."

About "Carry It On," Buffy said the following in a July 2015 interview:

[In my song "Carry It On"] I’m just pointing out that we live in this incredible world and yet, because of human boneheadedness, we are under threat of shooting ourselves in the foot. It’s not something to be afraid of. It’s something just to step up to. You know, it’s like doing the dishes; you’ve got to do it all the time or it piles up on you. I know that it's down home and folksy, but that’s kind of my attitude to the world. I’m not a combatant, at all. I’m really into alternative ways of looking at things. It comes naturally to me to do so and then to try to pass that on to people who are being advertised to death and conned in every which way. Buy this, buy that. Life is simpler than that. . . . It isn’t money that makes the world go around. I really believe that. That is the corporate hallucination by which we are controlled. It’s not as if we have to get up in arms and go and fight the world. No. You don’t. No, no. Stay calm and decolonize.

Above and below: Buffy and the band take their bows after their encore performance of "Starwalker," one of Buffy's personal favorites.

It's hard seeing people hurt, says Buffy. But people can change, and "Starwalker" is a tribute to that. It's a song "for all generations past and yet to come," said Buffy in a an interview from 1999. "So many people have seen the reality of [transformation] in their lives."

Starwalker he's a friend of mine
You've seen him looking fine
He's a straight talker,
He's a Starwalker, don't drink no wine
Ay way hey o heya

Wolf Rider she's a friend of yours
You've seen her opening doors
She's a history turner,
She's a sweet grass burner and a dog soldier
Ay hey way hey way heya

Above: With Buffy and Michel after the show.

Following in the set list for both the Minneapolis and Bayfield shows:
It's My Way | Cho Cho Fire | Farm in the Middle of Nowhere | No No Keshagesh | Cripple Creek | Blue Sunday | Still This Love Goes On | Power in the Blood | We Are Circling | When I Had You | The Universal Soldier | Generation | Little Wheel Spin and Spin | The War Racket | Until It's Time for You to Go | Darling Don't Cry | Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee | Carry It On | Starwalker (encore)

For The Wild Reed's special series of posts leading-up to the May 12, 2015 release of Buffy's most recent album, Power in the Blood, see:
Buffy Sainte-Marie and That "Human-Being Magic"
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Lesson from the Cutting Edge: "Go Where You Must to Grow"
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "Sometimes You Have to Be Content to Plant Good Seeds and Be Patient"
Buffy Sainte-Marie's Power in the Blood

For more of Buffy at The Wild Reed, see:
Congratulations, Buffy
Happy Birthday, Buffy!
Actually, There's No Question About It
Buffy Sainte-Marie Wins 2015 Polaris Music Prize
For Buffy Sainte-Marie, a Well-Deserved Honor
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Singing It and Praying It; Living It and Saying It
Buffy Sainte-Marie: Still Singing with Spirit, Joy, and Passion
Something Special for Indigenous Peoples Day
Buffy Sainte-Marie: "The Big Ones Get Away"

Concert images: Michael J. Bayly.


Franco Manni said...

I read your long article. I have never heard of Buffy Sainte-Marie (unsurprisingly, since I am both Italian and - somehow - a non musical person) but the article made me willing to listen to her songs, at least those ones you mentioned...

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi, Franco!

Glad I was able to introduce you to Buffy and her music. I hope you liked what you heard.