The Eighth Step launches its 44th season with two of its hottest shows this weekend: First Nations troubadour Buffy Sainte-Marie on Friday and the all-star trio Red Horse on Saturday.
When I was at a somewhat insular, uptight Catholic college near Buffalo in 1965 or 1966, Sainte-Marie was booked to play in the gym. A not very welcoming space, it was badly lit and full of echoes. She had aroused considerable scandal in advance by reportedly arriving in town with her boyfriend and staying with him in a motel there. This wasn’t done, evidently, around Catholic colleges then. Naturally, this generated a lot of interest and the place was packed with the prurient and the curious.
Anyway, she killed.
She positively electrified the place, which wasn’t that easy to do then. We were rock ’n’ roll kids, mostly, and folk music with a message seemed, in the abstract and before she started, kinda precious and not entertaining or loud enough. She changed that expectation right quick. High points: She sang “Universal Soldier” and another really passionate protest song decrying the Kinzua Dam, whose then-recent construction had provided hydroelectric power but inundated tribal lands.
Dylan was already out there, and a few other message-powered singer-songwriters, including Phil Ochs. But I think only very few of us had ever heard music so personal, so powerful and so political in person. (Well, there was a New York City guy on campus then who wore all black including a beret and would later write liner notes for a Lovin’ Spoonful album, but he was regarded as odd and exotic by most.)
Fast forward to the mid- or late-1990s, and Sainte-Marie was booked into the University at Albany. It was another concert in a gym and, worse, part of a makeshift ethnic festival that felt like an awkward hodge-podge; way more messy and nondescript than synergistic. How could this possibly work? The other performers were from all over the stylistic and skills spectrum and mostly unknown, though some proved to be pretty good. Sainte-Marie hadn’t really been a star for years, maybe decades; she hadn’t released much in the way of recorded music recently, and certainly nothing like a hit.
There was no stage, just a random-looking cluster of amps and mikes at one end of the floor, with no special lighting and bad sound. It seemed the show had been shoehorned awkwardly in a great hurry into one end of a basketball game. The visitors’ locker room was carved up into makeshift dressing rooms with pipe-and-drape tradeshow booths, as I discovered after the show.
So she came out onto the non-stage, in boots up to here and with hair down to there, with a band that looked like she’d rounded them up at a Plattsburgh Stewart’s that morning — and she killed.
She knocked those kids flat with “Universal Soldier,” her Kinzua Dam song and everything else, because there’s never a shortage of provocation/need for those messages, and no shortage of passion-turned-into-music from her to propel them.
I had phone interviewed her a few weeks before the show, calling her home on Maui at what seemed to me an unlikely early hour to phone a working musician. But she was up and alert and very easily engaged. She was upbeat, optimistic, passionate and surprisingly tech savvy, talking about recording from her home to a producer at a studio in LA over T1 phone lines.
Her email domain name then cited a device that Native American mothers swaddle their babies onto, and carry about on their backs. Isn’t that perfect? Buffy Sainte-Marie has carried generations of fellow folksingers on her back — which I found to be narrow but strong when she hugged me.
Buffy Sainte-Marie sings with her band on Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the Eighth Step at Proctors GE Theatre. Tickets are $28 and $35. Phone 434-1703 or 346-6204 or visit www.eighthstep.org or www.proctors.org.
Harmony and chemistry
Red Horse is (alphabetically) Eliza Gilkyson, John Gorka and Lucy Kaplansky — who is also a member of the similarly-constituted troubadour trio Cry Cry Cry with Richard Shindell and Dar Williams. All the above are familiar folk-venue faces here, and welcome ones as solo performers.
But both Red Horse and Cry Cry Cry are about harmony and chemistry. Cry Cry Cry recorded covers of songs by R.E.M., James Keelaghan, Ron Sexsmith, Buddy Mondlock, Greg Brown, Cliff Eberhardt, the Nields and others on their 1998 self-named album — the fourth most-played album by folk DJs in 1998, the fifth most-played in 1999 and charted in the top 250 through 2002.
However, Red Horse mostly harmonizes on the members’ tunes, with some swapping of lead responsibilities. On their 2006 album, Kaplansky sings a Gilkyson song, Gilkyson sings a Gorka song and Gorka sings a Kaplansky song — and they sing covers and traditional folk classics.
Each has a powerful pedigree, so Red Horse is a union of strong elements.
Austin-based Gilkyson may be the most prolific (19 albums since 1969) and topical of the three, recently mourning Asian tsunami victims and trashing George Bush’s policies in her broadside “Man of God.”
Minnesota resident Gorka announced an intermission from a previous Eighth Step show by explaining he was leaving for a short break, would return to sing more songs, then would leave town for a few months — “think of that as a really long break,” he suggested. The break is over: welcome news for fans of the easy-chair baritone and insightful songs on his 11 albums and witty shows.
Kaplansky, originally from Chicago, now in New York City, is the busiest of the three these days, as if making up for time spent as a clinical psychologist before becoming a full-time musician. She has released six albums since 1996, plus several collaborations, and returns here for solo shows Feb. 26 at the Iron Horse and April 7 at Caffe Lena.
Red Horse perform on Saturday at the Eighth Step at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $28, $26 in advance.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.