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Halifax Urban Folk Festival is a boutique festival that celebrates songwriters and the songs they create. At least, that's what the Facebook page says. In truth, it's an event where Mike Campbell gathers the artists he wants to see, and we can go watch too! This works because Mike has good taste, excellent connections, and supportive sponsors. This year, HUFF pulled off a near coup: they got Art Bergmann to the East Coast. Art doesn't tour much anymore, and mostly does shows in Alberta and BC.
Art has bad arthritis. His body is nearly welded into the position of a seated guitarist. He gets about now with the aid of a thighbone-shaped stick (just the thing for clobbering youngsters!) But don't make the mistake of thinking him frail. Just like Yoda, you can't judge Art by his body. He is a commanding presence on stage, even seated. When the music compelled him to rise, Art becomes a deity. (He also twice waded into the front of the crowd to watch the punk band that followed him, so never think he is weak!)
Art Bergmann played The Seahorse Tavern, backed by The Halifax All-Stars session band. The energy and power emanating from Art was incredible. Very much the master, Art made it look easy, while simultaneously challenging those others to ever greater efforts. Art was all attitude, skill, and master of music.
The Halifax All Stars were highly skilled professionals. It was hard to believe that they had only met Art a couple of days before; they gave every appearance of having backed him for years. They were also very tight. Drummer Matt Thauvette shone on "Drones of Democracy" and "Bound for Vegas," with Brodie Peterson’s bass always on side. Guitarists Dave Casey and Zach Maclean — for all they were on opposite ends of the stage — swapped riffs like they were one person.
In keeping with Art’s more recent music direction, much of the lead-lines and solos were handed to violinist Rosanna Burrill. Burrill’s performance was simply breathtaking. In a region that breeds fiddle-players, she stands out for both her technical ability and her presence on the stage. Burrill repeatedly exceeded Art’s musical challenges, especially with "Baby Needs Oil" and "Dirge No.1." She led "A Town Called Mean" like it was her own. She also skillfully provided backing vocals on "Faithlessly Yours" and "Bound for Vegas."
Art is more than a musician and master songsmith. He’s also an educator. The stage is his platform to teach about subjects from criminal capitalism, to geo-politics. Art challenges his audience to verify his claims, saying “look it up!” Punk music has traditionally sought to educate. Art Bergmann is the popular professor who won’t quit.
The show finale was "Empty House," which goes back to Art’s solo demos in the 80s. This tale of poverty-driven despair, loss, and ultimate violence still resonates in this land of seasonal work and perpetual recession.
The crowd was small, but loud, and kept applauding until Art caved — seriously, both Art and the Band had left the stage, Mike Campbell tried to MC, but we weren’t giving in.
The encore was "Dirge No. 1" — the frightening drug epic from Sexual Roulette. And boy did they deliver. Twelve full minutes of mood, drones, pounding rhythm, solos, and Art recounting living with a junkie roommate… declaring himself to be “restitution for everyone who died along the way having fun!”
The following night, Art was part of a songwriter’s circle at The Carleton (Mike Campbell’s restaurant-bar; excellent food!) Slated for three songs, Art managed to sneak in two more. If the Seahorse was a lecture in Advanced Applied Punk, The Carlton show was a masters’ songwriting seminar.
Art performed his recent work, showcasing the masterful songsmith he has become. But he wasn’t just performing. Yet again, he was educating: referencing books and events, directing the audience to seek out information, challenging us. Not that Art was dull; his sense of humour glittered throughout. At one point, when told to play something, Art refused...then broke into "Talent Show" by the Replacements! Where Art dominated the previous night, he was intimate here. Art had us rapt; the power flying out of him holds your attention.
This was even more evident with "The Legend of Bobby Bird." Bobby Bird froze to death fleeing a residential school, his remains not found for four decades. Art’s matter-of-fact description of the event, and his rage that we would treat children so badly that thousands ran, affected us all. Bobby’s story, and those of all the others, are horrific. Art’s song pays a beautiful tribute to them all. It’s masterful song writing. Bobby’s story doesn’t need embellishment, so Art doesn’t. The story shames Canada, and Professor Bergmann, by simply telling the tale, drives home what we did to the First Peoples. Most of us were choked up, and there were many tears.
After that emotional drain and increased awareness, Master Bergmann embarked on "Sin City" — the Gram Parsons tune Art covered on Design Flaw. Tift Merritt sang duet. Their passionate performance showed that cover songs can also be moving, when sung by masters.
Art may not perform much any more, but he hasn’t declined. He still commands a crowd. A true artist, he also continues to improve his skills. Art Bergmann is a national treasure.