One of the folk music highlights of the year

Concert review: Pete Seeger

One of the folk music highlights of the year.

Patrick Langston, The Ottawa Citizen
Published: Thursday, July 10, 2008

Folk music legend Pete Seeger – accompanied by his grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger of folk-rockers the Mammals and acoustic bluesman Guy Davis – was leading an audience sing-along of She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain in the Library and Archives Canada auditorium Wednesday night. We thought we were doing fine until, with a look of mock sternness, he abruptly admonished us, “Some of you are sitting there preserving your academic objectivity.” Gesturing for us to join back in, but this time with some soul, please, he resumed the song. It was like a floodgate had burst: what had been enthusiastic audience participation turned suddenly into a barn-burner as almost 400 voices roared out the lyrics, accompanying them with vigorous gestures of reining in horses and other motions that are part of the song.

To an outsider, we might have looked bizarre – grey heads belting out a kids’ song. To us, it felt great. And for the 89-year-old, banjo-picking Seeger, it was bliss, leaving him beaming as he does whenever an audience gives back as good as they get.

What we got Wednesday night was one of the folk music highlights of the year, a two-hour show featuring Seeger, his grandson and Davis telling stories and singing everything from the rousing opener Midnight Special to the iconic anti-war song Where Have All the Flowers Gone? that left more than one audience member wiping away tears. Songs about equality, justice and social issues like capital punishment held special sway, as you’d expect in any concert involving Seeger, a lifelong social activist.

An Ottawa Folk Festival presentation, the show was the last concert in a sold-out mini-tour that saw the threesome play five small-venue concerts in five nights, including Toronto twice, Montreal and Kingston. The tour – arranged at the last minute and, if Ottawa was any example, sparkling with spontaneity as a result – was a benefit for the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, with proceeds earmarked to assist farmers in developing countries.

“I told grandpa we were going to do this,” Tao said Wednesday, “and he said, ‘But I can’t sing anymore.'” True, Seeger, who now rarely performs, can’t sing as he did when he was the toast of the 1950s and ’60s folk music revival. But his voice still burns with conviction and when he throws his head back in that classic Seeger pose, you realize that music, especially the sing-along variety, is this man’s lifeblood. He might have been expected to fade as Wednesday’s concert stretched on; instead, his voice actually strengthened, his body seemed to grow looser and stronger.

Seeger, of course, was the star, but both his grandson and Davis gave excellent performances as well, often with Seeger playing banjo or singing harmony. And if they watched over him a little protectively, he returned their attention by observing their performances with a mix of grandfatherly fondness and professional evaluation.

There’s little chance Seeger will ever again play Ottawa. He, his grandson and Davis made sure we won’t forget the last time he did.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008

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