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Hayseeds, Wolf Willows and Karaoke Bars

Photos by Aaron Brown

Words by Christopher James Vasseur

It occurs to me that I have not been to a Bassment show in about a year. This is probably the best venue in Saskatoon in my humble opinion. It’s intimate, it sounds amazing and it’s literally in a basement. Basements are cool. I find a seat near the back in the glow of all the neon lights. The house lights will be going down soon to enhance this groovy aura.

The band is setting up and the odd guitar bleep comes from the stage. Bassment head and super talented musician in his own right, Don Griffith, gets on stage to open the show. He shouts out his sound guy, Troy. One of the best sound guys in the country. He also talks of the great deal that is the Bassment membership, especially if you go to a lot of shows.

The Red Hot Hayseeds start the show and immediately I’m entranced. I quickly pick out their guitar player Tyler Allen who I talked to last week in a group call with him and Stoneface Stanley of Wolf Willow. We nerded out about guitars.

There are six people on stage with Allen who has switched to lap steel after the first song. The room is transported to the 1940’s and 50’s as this band from Calgary plays their cowboy songs.

They’ve got two guitars, two singers, saxophone player, upright bassist and drummer. Allen told me last week that this is the smallest touring lineup they currently have. Wolf Willow has 12 tonight, not that it’s a contest.

Allen is dressed in a light blue cowboy suit and addresses it with, “no cowboy would actually wear this shit,” to a round of laughter. They play a song called “I Ain’t No Cowpoke (I just like the Hats)”. It’s so tongue in cheek and a bang on take on all the old school get ups almost all western style bands are clad in these days. Myself included, I'm wearing my best western shirt and a stylish CBC bolo but I couldn't tell a horse from a different kind of horse.

I feel like what the Stampede looks like. But in a cooler more old feller chic kind of way.

The two cow gals sway back and forth with sweet melodic harmonies, sometimes taking the lead vocals from time to time.

”Are we having a sassy Saturday in Saskatoon?” Allen asks the enthusiastic crowd. They rip into a guitar heavy bluesy number called “Bay City Blues" and in it contained an epic sax solo. What I’m seeing on stage sounds like a dirty old blues band and looks like they came right off Howdy Doody in the 1950’s. I love every second of it and it’s clear the crowd does too.

I finally get to meet fellow NSMZer, the talented Aaron Brown, and he’s up and off like all the photogs I’ve met so far. It’s always nice to meet people in person that you feel like you already know. He's much handsomer in person than his profile pic (Randy from South Park).

I sneak out for a bathroom break and intentionally take a detour past the poster on the wall that I signed with my band last time we were here opening for the incredible Whiskey Jerks. I love this place.

Back at my table I again notice how crisp but warm and dialled in the sound is. They go into a Jimmie Rodgers-esque sing along campfire song about coyotes howling and western skies and the lonely prairie. This is the type of music that moulded the minds of young musicians like Willie Nelson back when he was a child, 80 plus years ago.

They say everything goes in cycles and everything old is new again. This new trend of old style western roots music has me yodeling and whistling along with glee.

Allen is once again ripping it up on his Telecaster. His second favorite guitar, I'm told. Once again that sweet sax sound fills the room that was made for it. It trades off with the telecaster as another sweet guitar rip comes blasting through on “Sweet City Sue”. This band is a guitar lover's dream and I can see how they fit in with the Wolf Willow crew.

My grandmother would have loved this show. She was responsible for much of my early musical education and I can’t help but smile at the thought.

Allen is animated and fun to watch on stage, glad I got to chat with him a bit. Really loving this band from my old haunting grounds.

They finish up with some more energetic sax solos, amazing harmonies and a great energy. I bet these guys are a popular stampede act.

The Wolf Willow crew starts to take the stage. All 12 of them. I pass the green room on the way in and see Old Stoneface tuning up his geetar.

I see singer Mitsy Mueller at the bar getting a fancy drink, at least I think that's her? I’ve been a pretty big fan of this band for a while and saw them right here with The Garrys a few years back. What a great show that was.

They have a new EP this time around that is so great. Marv and Stoneface Sing is the name of the new two song sampler. “Hey Bruce” is a new personal favorite.

I still can’t believe they got 12 people on the small Bassment stage but I’m looking at it so it must be true.

I see Gil and Wil near the bar but can’t help but wonder if they didn’t end up playing or I just missed it?

They start strong and Stoneface himself sings the first number. Another one of the best musicians in the province, Stoneface dips into the instrumental “Lovers Lane” from the last record, Old Guitars and Shooting Stars. A regular spinner on my turntable.

The singer rotation starts as the bass player Marv steps up to croon one out. I love this band so much. They’ve got strings, they’ve got horns, good tunes and such a great presence. Stoneface takes a stab at one usually sung by Mitsy and it’s great… at the time I still wasn't getting it. I like bands who can switch it up like that. With this band it comes off as easy. With each member seeming to be more talented than the last.

Marv and Stanley croon “Does the Sun Know” next, another one usually sung by Mueller? She is killing it on the fiddle though. At least I think that’s her? I don't recall her playing the fiddle before? It’s hard to keep track of these Wolf Willow folk.

I guess the show fits the bill as it occurs to me that Stoneface Stanely and Marv have been handling most of the vocals. Marv and Stoneface sing, yes they do. And well.

They sing and they smile, even Stoneface who is usually…. stone faced. The band is clearly having fun up there as all of them are dancing. It’s funny, I’m not sure Stoneface sang more than one last show, this time he’s got a bigger spotlight and he takes advantage. Showcasing his great pipes along with his exquisite guitar playing. Damn these guys are tight.

Next one is written by Moose the pedal player. Great name, same as my dog. Immediately I approve.

It can be hard enough to learn one other musician's musical language, let alone twelve. It’s impressive how all of the Wolf Willowers read each other so well and the result is a feast for the ears. Perfectly planned and executed.

A person with the voice of an angel appears from the back by the horn section and busts out a sweet little tune reminiscent of the early 1960's birds and turtles music. “Well Have You Heard?” becomes a sing-along near the end with the angelic JJ sharing the mic with Stoneface.

Next comes a song for the poker players,another nice little instrumental stoplight. This is where this group shines, the band has every toe tapping. I hear someone close by ask, ”can we dance?”. Only if you want to, I think. It's safe.

Everything comes together as Stoneface calls up Saskatoon’s own Gil and Wil. So that explains that. They rock out the classic standard Hank Williams track, “You’re Cheating Heart”. I’ve felt like a passing ship in the night with this duo, having shared a number of festival stages with them over the summer.

14 people singing a Hank Williams classic at the best little basement jazz club north of New Orleans is a great way to spend a Saturday night in October. Next up is the church of country and western and we’re all praying to saint Johnny Cash. This is a real treat.

Saskatoon and Regina coming together in music on stage. What a great show of comradery that laughs in the face of the so-called silly provincial rivalry that the media always amplifies and shoves down our throats. Bet it was better here than in Regina though.

And to be fair, Wolf Willow is from the RM of Slippery Butte, not Regina specifically. Just jokes, you know I love you Queen City.

Gil and Wil end up playing three songs with the Wolf Willow crew and it’s so great, glad I finally got to see these two great singers after hearing about them all summer. Not disappointed at all, I’ll be seeking them out in the future.

They leave the stage and Marv sings another, half the band is gone now and they are rocking out as a standard four piece. The rest of the group comes back on stage for an old “country cover”.

“Just One Look” comes out of old Stoneface. I’m glad he’s taken the reins of the band, he’s a great player and a great representative of the province's amazing music scene.

The crowd erupts. Yet another display of the band's musical prowess.

They dive into a jam with each section seemingly giving a little taste of what they can do.

The great new one, “Hey Bruce” is next and it’s announced as the last but that's a fib. I’m singing along as are a number of other patrons. This is a great tune and a banger as the kids say. The strings and horns play the hook of the chorus perfectly and Stoneface walks in with another great guitar run. The drummer AND the bongo player are bouncing. Damn this band is tight.

A crazy good harp solo starts off the last jam of the night. The entire band is in top form as they say their goodbyes. The bongos and horns and harp are playing in a bouncy groove as Stoneface says their thank yous.

The crowd refuses to let them go as I hear one man scream, ”ten more songs”!

They play another. Stoneface once again handles the lead. They could fit in well anywhere from 1970 to now and they remain near the top of my very favourite Sasky acts. And we have literally a ton.

Man this is a great venue. Great Show. Now off to the karaoke bar?

The end?

As it turns out, no. We head on over to the karaoke bar to meet some friends for an after show sing along. Unbeknownst to yours truly, this is also where all the bands were headed after the show.

I do a feeble attempt at Dolly Parton's “9 to 5”. As I'm up singing, in come Gil and Wil. Our table magically triples in size and the people keep pouring into this tiny bar which was empty upon our arrival (we were here first obvs).

Shortly after, every member of The Red Hot Hayseeds walk/strut/dance in.

Then all the Wolf Willow crew. I’m able to have a few great little one on one chats with some of western Canada's finest country and western musicians and it's pretty damned cool. But I’m oldish and tired so we let the young musicians have their fun. As I near the exit, members from all three bands have combined on the dance floor to do a very choreographed line dance. What a fun crew.

On my way out Stoneface explains that former singer, Mitsy Mueller has left the band thus the need for himself and old Marv to step up to the mic and everything makes sense now. I meet the violinist I mistook for the former singer shortly after. Up close they look nothing alike, oops. But she’s very graceful at the mistake and was such a talent up on that stage earlier. Damn I love this band.

What a great cap to an even better night of music. Before I leave I look around at the large table and I feel extremely lucky and blessed to be living this life, music truly does possess a strange kind of magic.

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