Wherever Wolf Willow plays, the band attracts an enthusiastic audience – whether entertaining a local crowd or taking its popular Wolf Willow Radio Show on the road to neighbouring communities.
A recent road trip took the musicians to the Ness Creek Festival, near the town of Big River in northern Saskatchewan. The annual showcase has earned its reputation as one of the province’s finest outdoor summer festivals. Groups from across Canada are envious for a spot in the lineup.
The Wolf Willow Radio Hour was featured as part of the afternoon entertainment on Saturday, July 16. The band was invited to perform on Ness Creek’s workshop stage where, like in any workshop, new ideas or inventions are hatched and some take flight, while others are discarded to the bottom of an abandoned well.
The group seized the opportunity to collaborate with multiple JUNO-nominated artist Danny Michel and merge the exotic flavours of his lyrics and melodies with the Wolf Willow sounds.
How do you approach a musician as established as Michel and propose alternate renditions of his tunes? “We followed Danny closely on the Internet and kept emailing him until he agreed,” answered Wolf Willow pedal steel guitar player, Moose. “We assured him that we could perform tasteful variations of his songs in both styles of music – country and western, and told him to show up at our campsite one hour before the workshop. He seemed a little apprehensive, but once he heard the mariachi horns embellish his song inspired by David Bowie, he was blown away.”
The numbers performed with Danny Michel were hits, as were those with guest performers Maureen and Maurice Cheeseman, from Millard. Maureen has appeared on the Wolf Willow Radio Show numerous times in the past, while Maurice is a regular in the audience but has never been invited onstage. It was treat to hear what the talented, deeply sensitive musician had to offer. The numbers with Maureen and Maurice were in characteristic Wolf Willow style with toe-tapping rhythms and lyrics that invoke local legends and the intricacies of life in the Rural Municipality of Slippery Butte.
“Rich, cream-filled poetry” and “tunes that stroke the heart strings” are not overstatements of the band’s expressive lyrics and tender melodies. Hits like Honk if You Like Herefords, What Would Buck Do? and If You’re Leaving received thunderous applause from the Ness Creek crowd. It was obvious that the audience relished the experience. But how was it for the band?
A usually chatty Mitsy Muller refused an interview after the show, although she stopped briefly to talk to fans and give out relationship advice. There are several theories behind her quick departure. Rumours of a surprise encounter, rekindled romance and Mitsy’s own relationship scandal began circulating before the festival ended.
On the other hand, an unsettling moment during the performance may have accounted for her behaviour. Mitsy was clearly shaken when bandmate Stone-Faced Stanley made a bold, unrehearsed manoeuvre during his guitar solo. To everyone’s astonishment, Stan took advantage of two-bar break to shed an article of clothing. The sight of him flinging his smartly tailored jacket to the stage floor caused one excited audience member to scream, “He’s hot!”
Unsurprisingly, Stone-Faced had little to say and could not explain his impulsive action. The hint of a devilish smile appeared on the face of this normally deadpan character when asked if the spectacle might become a regular part of the show’s routine.
Trumpeter Shirley Sure-Hand spoke on behalf of the horn section, comprised of her and saxophonist Herbert L’Flic, who quickly slipped away after the performance. His only comment was that the growing conditions of the boreal forest were not to his fancy. Shirley had great things to say about the festival, noting the “structural soundness of the stage structures” and the solid bracing that could withstand the “hippies and all who gathered ‘round.”
“Hell on earth,” was heard uttered by drummer Sleek Steve after the show, although he clarified that he was referring to an encounter with leeches earlier in the day. Blame bass player Marv Ptlosky for coaxing several band members and a number of fans into the crystal-clear water of Ness Creek and leading them a quarter-mile upstream before setting them back on the path to the festival grounds.
Interestingly, Marv had a delicious swagger and unexpected confidence about him during the entire festival. At one point, he declared “Wolf Willow is bigger than J.C.” Clearly, he meant Jerry Cauldor, popular reeve for the R.M. of Slippery Butte, whose contrary position on pasture management has triggered an outcry from Marv’s temperamental acid reflux on more than one occasion. No such discomfort this time. In fact, nothing seemed to rattle the musician, jubilant in his understanding that “Ness Creek is not a place – it’s a state of mind.”
Was the Ness Creek Festival Wolf Willow’s “lost weekend” or did it mark a rite of passage for the group and the beginning of some new, experimental sounds? Fans may find out when the band next plays on September 17 opening for the Andino Sons at the Exchange in Regina