by Scott Roos
pics by Deanna Roos
It’s now been about a week since The Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp and Festival wrapped up. The camp ran from Monday, August 15th through Friday, August 19th with the festival running the 19th through the 21st.
The camp was a constant bustle of activity. For starters, there were classes that campers could take in playing the mandolin, guitar, banjo, stand-up bass and fiddle. There was also a class in songwriting and vocal harmony. All the classes were taught by world class instructors that included members of the visiting Five Mile Mountain Road (Virginia) and The Price Sisters (Kentucky) bands.
There were dances, jam sessions, workshops, songwriters circles, and the instructor’s band scramble. I’m probably forgetting something… Because, at camp, there was pretty much always something going on. Basically, if you wanted to keep yourself busy, and immersed in the culture of the camp itself, you just had to go out and do stuff. Essentially, the overall culture, and way of life at camp, was just as much about learning as it was about the social element of the music itself.
Executive Director of the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society Tanya Wagner, in a quick chat during the festival told me that, for many people in the province of Saskatchewan, the type of music learned at camp and experienced at camp is the music that many of the campers themselves grew up hearing. She said that it’s an inclusive type of music meant to stave off the harsh environmental extremes that go hand in hand with living on the Canadian Prairies. It’s music that has a rich tradition of inclusion and accessibility.
“It’s not just a matter of passively sitting there and watching somebody playing music. You got a guitar? Come! Play! It’s very inclusive. It’s very welcoming. It doesn’t matter if you just picked it up or you’ve been playing for thirty years. it’s intergenerational and it’s part of being in this Bluegrass and Old Tyme family,” Wagner said.
At this point, another full disclosure moment: I wasn’t born and raised on the prairies and while I do currently reside in Prince Albert where I’m a teacher, much of my career has been spent outside of the province. I have no frame of reference as to how far the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Society has come as an organization, the grunt work they’ve done to promote the genre or any struggles they’ve been through to start up and keep the camp and festival running. What I do know is that several prominent figures in the current Saskatchewan music landscape are products of the camp. Ellen Froese , Jake Vaadeland (Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys), Kasia Thorlakson (Chesterfield) and Jaxon Lalonde (Jake Vaadeland and the Sturgeon River Boys plus The Local Group) are names that come to mind.
With Lalonde, in particular, his quirky personality and penchant for writing oddball, “out of the box”, yet charming tunes have enabled The Local Group to become scene stalwarts not just within the Bluegrass community but in the Sask music scene as a whole. They call themselves “alternative Bluegrass” and I can’t think of a better way of describing what the Local Group does sonically.
All of this aside, as mentioned, Lalonde grew up at the camp. He's been going since he was just a little fella. His parents are both really committed to the society as a whole. Norm, Jaxon’s dad, is, as one camper put it, is “always around”. He enjoys just hanging out with everybody - a social butterfly to be sure. Although, the last few events that I’ve been at Norm has schlepped merch for the society and the bands. So he’s definitely in it to win it when it comes to helping out.
Mom Tracy was the camp coordinator this year and very active in a lot of the events that went down at camp including the jams. So it’s evident that Lalonde has the culture of the camp and its music embedded into his DNA from a very young age and it shows.
“It’s weird. I don’t think I have any particular affinity towards the preservation of bluegrass or doing it because it’s different or doing it because it’s old or something I’m trying to revive,” recounts Lalonde in a moment of clarity.
During the festival I was invited backstage to spend a few minutes interviewing The Local Group. They were trying to get in tune and settle on a setlist. They were about thirty minutes out from playing their second set at the Northern Lights Bluegrass Festival and it was hot as blazes out, the mosquitos were sucking the blood out of me (and probably them as well) and the stress in the air was palpable.
I was trying to get some interview content and we were all in hurry up mode. It seemed to be the ideal situation to get some rare honesty. Usually groups flip a subliminal switch when the recording starts and we all go into “business” mode. Groups become guarded and apprehensive in how they phrase things in interviews. This didn't feel like one of those times. Everything is short and to the point on this night because the guys want to get their music sorted for the performance and I was digging in my heels to try to get some juicy words out of the guys but also respect the timing of the whole thing.
“I think of it as music.," conceded Lalonde, "I’ve been around it so long it’s just music to me. It’s my music.”
I think this is about the purist statement you can make when it comes to the embodiment of what the camp and, by extension, the festival is trying to accomplish. The Local Group is not a group that tries to rehash the same old sound and style from days gone by. Don’t get me wrong, I love and appreciate that aspect of the genre as well. But, the guys in the Local Group are trying to do something more than that. They can play at blazingly fast tempi and create a wall of sound when they play bluegrass standards that are unmatched in this neck of the woods. More importantly, The Local Group also can mix up their sets with a dash of Celtic and Francophone numbers and they also serve up a heaping portion of original tunes too that prove to be folksy and accessible to those that may be not as familiar with Bluegrass. In short, they deliver an exciting, fresh and exuberant take on the genre that has crossover appeal. Through the camp and festival and the opportunities both entities provide, The Local Group has been able, centimeter by centimeter, to move the genre forward in their own unique way and that's bloody admirable if you ask me.
“Bluegrass is hip music. It’s music for people to get down to. It’s fast. It’s slow. It’s sad. It’s happy music. It’s everything you could ever want,” chimed in Local Group guitarist Elliot Dillabough. If Ethan with his silky voice and smooth sentimentality is the McCartney and Lalonde, with his hard edged experimental songs, is the Lennon of the Local Group, Dillabough is Harrison. He’s the glue that is holding things together. He’s a straightforward kind of guy whose dry wit on stage is glorious to behold in person. His southpaw guitar playing is in the pocket and “by the book”. His soloing is savory but not overly risky. At the same time, if Dillabough was not in the band, The Local Group just would not be the same. I suppose you could say that about any one member of the band, really. Shame on me for writing such a stock statement.
so, I suppose if Ethan is Paul, Jaxon is John and Elliot is George that makes mandolin player Justin Vilchez Ringo? I’ve probably taken this Beatles metaphor way further than it needed to be already but if it makes sense to you, dear reader, then fill your boots. And, by all means, if Vilchez is the Ringo of The Local Group I’d love to hear you explain it to me. Haha!!!
Vilchez moved here from Australia a few years back. He was a part of the very small, tight knit and lively bluegrass scene in his home country. He moved to Canada to get a more immersive experience in the playing of what he calls “North American Music”. He’s a talented guy. He’s shy to a point but you can tell that he’s enjoying himself immensely when on stage as he always seems to have a sly grin on his face when The Local Group kicks into their full-on schtick. He’s also not afraid to jump in with a lot of bands. He sat in with several during the camp and festival. He’s extremely versatile as are all The Local Group members.
“The entry level (of Bluegrass music) is very simple. You can do a lot with it. It’s not hard to get started but you can take it places. It can get very complex. (I like) the playful melodies. The main thing is melody. It’s all about the melody and the attitude,” explains Vilchez of his affinity for the genre.
So, at the end of the day, what’s all this fuss about The Local Group really mean? Well, to put it succinctly, they have worked hard to develop a sound and style uniquely their own through the opportunities the society has afforded them (although the opportunities are by no means exclusive to the society). And, for the camp and festival week, their talent not just as musicians but also instructors was on full display (Ethan taught stand up bass and Jaxon co-lead the vocal harmony class with Ellen Froese). Dillabough is a society board member. And Vilchez, well he hops into any band at a moment's notice. In short, to the camp and the festival, the Local Group, at least this year, were an essential part of the daily goings on and deserve special mention here. They are inspirational in how hard they've worked and how far they've come.