Exclaim!

Sleepwalk Guitar Festival featuring James Burton, Albert Lee, Nels Cline, Luke Doucet

Great Hall, Toronto, ON, November 2-4

Sleepwalk Guitar Festival featuring James Burton, Albert Lee, Nels Cline, Luke Doucet
Named after the dreamy Santo & Johnny instrumental, Sleepwalk is all about the guitar. For its second edition, curator and self-confessed guitar geek Luke Doucet assembled another eclectic cast of top-notch American, English and Canadian players.

Heading that list were two masters of country-rock stylings, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Burton (Elvis Presley, Elvis Costello, Gram Parsons) and equally acclaimed Brit Albert Lee (Eric Clapton, Emmylou Harris). Other U.S. imports included steel guitar wizard Cindy Cashdollar, maverick honky-tonker Junior Brown and the ever-adventurous Nels Cline, while the notable Canadian contingent included Colin Linden, Colin Cripps, Kevin Breit and Doucet himself.

Sleepwalk kicked off with its most avant-garde and left-field performers, the duo of Nels Cline and Zeena Parkins. Now best known as a key member of Wilco, Cline has long been active in the new music/free improvisation scene in New York City. He was joined by harpist Parkins, another mainstay of that scene (she has worked with Björk, John Zorn and Fred Frith). Their hour long set comprised two pieces of improvisation, one acoustic, one electric and electronic. The former worked best, with plenty of sonic ebbs and flows. The theatrical Parkins both caressed and assaulted the huge harp, occasionally using shiny paper to rub up and down the strings, while a more restrained Cline played fluently. Parkins switched to a weird-looking electric harp next, while Cline used different electronic gizmos. Together they created squawks, squeaks and squalls of sounds befitting a horror movie soundtrack.

Things became more pleasingly conventional when Doucet took the stage with his band the White Falcon. The rapid rise of Whitehorse, Doucet's duo project with Melissa McClelland, has made White Falcon sightings rare, but this set showed their strengths. Such favourites as "Emily" and "Broken" (now turned into more of a duet with McClelland) shone, while the country-rock instrumental "100 Years at Memphis International Airport" showcased Doucet's always formidable fret skills.

Doucet and Cline were back in action the next afternoon, sharing the fest's first workshop, "Pushing the Boundaries," with Colin Linden and Paul Pigat. Their freewheeling hour-long set included everything from rockabilly, blues, rock and a Tom Waits cover to some more avant-garde stylings via Cline. All four axemen shone, but it was the contrast between the deep Delta grit of Linden's slide work and the trebly atmospherics of Cline that was most thrilling.

Next up was a steel guitar workshop, "Steel Away," featuring Bob Taillefer, Cashdollar, Burke Carroll (Justin Rutledge) and Don Rooke (the Henrys), plus guitarist Steve Briggs and the able rhythm section of Derek Downham and John Dymond (this duo was kept busy all weekend). This showed the versatility of the instrument, with Taillefer laying down funky grooves, Rooke conjuring his signature sunny vibes, and Cashdollar and Carroll favouring country terrain.

The "Northern South" workshop featured Lee, Burton, Cashdollar, Doucet and Junior Brown, trading licks on material that encompassed blues, country, swing and rock'n'roll. Their different playing styles meshed nicely, and Brown on acoustic, not his signature guit-steel, often impressed. The most sublime moment of the set (and possibly the festival) was James Burton's instrumental take on "Somewhere over the Rainbow."

The final Sleepwalk event was a concert entitled "James Burton & Friends." This featured a stellar group of Canadian vocalists covering songs on which Burton had played, including classics from Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Emmylou Harris and even the Monkees. The quality was high, with standout guests including Shakura S'Aida, Pete Elkas, Melissa McClelland, Andy Kim and Andy Maize. Most of the crowd's attention was rightfully focused on the 73-year-old Burton's fretwork, and he didn't disappoint, delivering the goods with subtle elegance. Having Doucet and Lee on hand to further flesh out the sound didn't hurt either. All the guests joined in on a couple of finale songs, with a version of Gram Parsons' "In My Hour of Darkness" standing out.

With attendance significantly up for year two and the participating artists all clearly enjoying themselves, prospects for a third Sleepwalk are most definitely positive.
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