Maple woods rather than yucca spikes and Joshua trees? Perth’s annual festival of American roots music, Southern Fried, by its very title suggests a fairly distinct catchment of Americana. To close this year’s tenth festival, however, the organisers have followed their compass northward to Canada, currently celebrating the 150th anniversary of its confederation as a nation, for North Star: Scotland Sings Canada.
At Perth Concert Hall on July 30, the concert will feature such established Scots singer-songwriters as Justin Currie, Karine Polwart, James Grant, Emma Pollock, Kris Drever and Dean Owens, as well as Canadian guests Cyndi Cain and Joey Landreth. The organisers cite such hugely influential Canadian artists as Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, as well as The Band, whom they describe as the very first “Americana” group.
For one of the concert headliners, Glasgow singer-songwriter and former Del Amitri front man Justin Currie, North Star is presenting some interesting challenges: “The problem with Canadian music is that you’ve got these three behemoths towering over the repertoire, so you have to decide how much of Joni, Leonard and Neil you do – or do you not do any of it? The next hurdle is that there are lots of more obscure Canadian artists who would work very well, but you wouldn’t necessarily want to fill a whole programme with them.”
Currie has written a clutch of well-received solo albums such as his recent This is My Kingdom Now, as well as collaborating with folk-orientated artists such as Eddi Reader and Blazin’ Fiddles, and with North Star’s musical director, guitarist Stuart Nisbet. Asked which Canadian song-writers were particularly important for him, he responds: “Neil Young obviously has been a massive influence on anybody who tries to play North-American-influenced music. I was also very fond of a Canadian band called the Tragically Hip who I always thought were tremendously underrated.”
At the time of interview, Currie was still unclear as to exactly what form the show would take, but he’d been asked to contribute three covers of Canadian-written songs, “but I would imagine there will be a bit of collaboration on the day in terms of doing backing vocals and things like that”.
Selecting from the great Canadian songbook, he reckons, the performer is not only spoilt for choice, but bemused by the range of genres to choose from. “I’ve been listening to loads of things and realising that most of Joni Mitchell is completely uncoverable, as is a lot of Cohen. In fact with a lot of these things, if you’re going to do them, you’d end up doing covers of covers… someone else’s version, because they’re pretty hard to build up from scratch.”
He’s putting his trust in Nisbet: “Stuart’s played guitar with me for years and I’ve done a couple of things that he’s curated and they were really successful in the way the repertoire was chosen. Stuart’s got quite a clever way of nudging you in the direction he wants things to go.”
Without giving the game away, Currie says that he’s had one suggested number from Nisbet and is awaiting another, “and I’ll probably pick something on my own. So in a way it’s more Stuart’s gig than anyone else’s”.
“The sooner I know what I’m singing the better,” he adds, laughing, “because I’m a very slow learner.”
Nisbet says of the festival’s northerly tangent: “When we started talking about the idea we were astonished at the richness of Canadian songwriting talent in what we lazily call ‘Americana’. This show will be particularly interesting given the close Scottish connection to Canada and its spirit.”
Other headliners at Southern Fried, which runs from 27 to 30 July, include Nick Lowe, Loudon Wainwright III, Andy Fairweather Low (hosting a tribute to the lately deceased Chuck Berry), while Beth Nielson Chapman has stepped into the breach left by Rodney Crowell, who has had to withdraw owing to ill-health.