Published Nov 06, 2011The first edition of Toronto's Sleepwalk Guitar Festival featured concerts, workshops and interviews with top Canadian and American guitar slingers from a wide range of genres. Presented by Six Shooter Records, the fest was curated by one of Canada's very best, Luke Doucet, such a guitar lover he named his band the White Falcon after his beloved axe. They headlined the first evening, preceded by a solo set from J Mascis.
The Dinosaur Jr. main man mixed tunes from his latest solo acoustic album Several Shades of Why with earlier material, while his cover of Edie Brickell's "Circle of Friends" was a high point. Mascis's vocal croak and angst-ridden introspective songs would quickly have got tiresome but for his serious prowess as a guitarist, making it no surprise that his extended instrumental breaks drew the most applause. Remaining seated, he created some thunderous sounds, using feedback and distortion to telling effect.
In Luke Doucet and the White Falcon's 90-minute set, they showed to better effect the ways in which strong guitar technique and well-crafted songwriting make a killer combination. This was largely a "best-of" retrospective look at Doucet's catalogue, with his 2008 album Blood's Too Rich better represented than last year's Steel City Trawler. The former's tunes "Cleveland," "Long Haul Driver" and "Blood's Too Rich" were amongst the highlights.
Abetted by a strong rhythm section and the vocal and guitar accompaniment of Melissa McClelland, the black-clad Doucet was in typically fine form, that resonant twang of his filling the room nicely and his solos painting vivid soundscapes. The extended and revamped version of "Mitzi's" (a tune set in this 'hood) did dilute the purity of the original version, a rare misstep. McClelland took centrestage on her "Passenger 24," and it deservedly earned a rousing response. The set was closed out with an extended take on Lightfoot classic "Sundown," featuring tasty licks from guest Graham Young, the 15-year-old awarded Sleepwalk's first guitar scholarship.
Kicking Saturday off was a workshop fittingly entitled "Beautiful Noise." With nary an onstage word spoken, it's better to describe the event as an all-star kick-out-the-jams session, with the pillar of the six-piece grouping being American guitar god Richard Lloyd, of Television fame. A formidable figure, even when seated, his muscular yet subtle playing clearly inspired his Canadian comrades. They comprised Ian Blurton and Tricky Woo's Andrew Dickson, backed by bassist Eric Larock and powerhouse drummers Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo) and Derek Downham (the Beauties). Yes, two percussionists were needed to anchor the glorious washes of guitar from the three principals.
Five all-instrumental jams encompassed the workshop's 90 minutes, moving from a psychedelic space rock opener through Glenn Branca-style workouts, hard rock and bluesy riffs. No self-indulgent wankery here, just fiery and articulate playing from artists at the top of their game. This set alone justified Sleepwalk's existence.
Next up was a more basic but equally exciting "Rock 'n Roll Revue" workshop/performance led by the Sadies. The ever-versatile band were joined by Teenage Head guitarist Gord Lewis and Andre Ethier (Deadly Snakes), and a good chunk of the set comprised fiery covers of Teenage Head and Deadly Snakes songs. The version of Mekons fave "Rock 'n' Roll" was a treat, and Ian Blurton added to the wall of guitar sound on Hawkwind classic "Hurry on Sundown."
This was followed by a workshop featuring four top Canadian singer-songwriters, each performing one of their songs twice but with different guitarists. A novel idea, it showcased the importance of the instrument in shaping the feel and mood of a song. Andy Maize, Melissa McClelland, Justin Rutledge and Danny Michel were the songsmiths, with ace local players Kurt Swinghammer, Christine Bougie, Afie Jurvanen and James Robertson the accompanists.
Sleepwalk closed out on Sunday with a star-studded blues jam, featuring Amos Garrett, Jay Nowicki (the Perpetrators), Colin James, Luke Doucet and American great Duke Robillard. Each player got to pick a tune that then featured accompaniment from the others. James's original instrumental "Speechless" and a slow blues from Robillard were amongst the highlights.
As the festival wound down, Duke commented, "This is fun. We should do this on a regular basis," no doubt leaving many to hope this superb celebration of the guitar becomes an annual event.