Worshipful fans savour Seeger moments

Worshipful fans savour Seeger moments

TheStar.com July 07, 2008

The noisy hum of excitement and anticipation last night at Hugh’s Room, a good hour before the evening’s star performer took the stage, might have signalled the arrival of some hot new band on the roots music trail, not an 89-year-old folk singer who hit his prime four decades ago.

Yet when Pete Seeger walked through the packed concert room, accompanied by his grandson and protégé, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, and blues artist/raconteur Guy Davis, the audience – including a legion of Toronto folk musicians – erupted with wild applause and a standing ovation that lasted a good five minutes.

No one expected to see this veteran in these parts again. Four years ago, when he was here for a performance with the briefly reunited folk/pop band The Weavers at the Toronto International Film Festival, Seeger said he’d given up the concert trail for good and would likely never leave his Hudson River Valley home again.

Yet there he was in the flesh (the “Seeger Family Show” has a second sold-out appearance at the same venue tonight, then travels to Kingston and Ottawa on an ad hoc Canadian minitour, benefiting the USC’s grassroots organic farming projects in northern India to the tune of $65,000), looking frail yet determined as he mounted the stage with his trademark five-string banjo and launched into a rousing version of one of his many signature pieces, “Midnight Special.”

With his head thrown back, and his features blissfully illuminated when the 300-strong crowd joined in the choruses, Seeger for a moment resembled the monumental figure who roused a generation to great feats of moral courage with his potent songs back in the 1960s.

It happened again a few songs later, when he launched into “the slowest version you’ve ever heard” of the traditional English hymn “Amazing Grace,” and in his collaboration with American poet Malvina Reynolds, “We’ll Try,” during which he acted as a conductor marvelling with unbridled joy at the luminous harmonies rising from the spontaneous choir assembled before him. When he asked Sylvia Tyson, who was in the audience, to add her voice to his most famous composition, the rallying cry of the anti-Vietnam war movement, “If I Had A Hammer,” the crowded room seemed to levitate.

But those moments were few. For the most part, Seeger seemed content to let his grandson and Davis, the son of actor/civil-rights worker the late Ossie Davis, take the spotlight. The aging folk icon sat back during their offerings – high points were a rhythmic Cuban cowboy ballad by Rodriguez-Seeger and a rambling narrative by Davis featuring his dynamic, Sonny Terry-inspired harmonica work – and occasionally joined in on banjo, 12-string guitar and vocals.

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