Contemporary folk songs, at their very best, offer an insight into the hardships, attitudes, and resolve of characters and events that shape our day-to-day lives. You can dress these songs up in inspired arrangements and intricate instrumentation but, at their very essence, the archetypal folk song is all about stories. Stories and people. Something such compelling songwriters as Eric Bogle, Si Kahn, Ewan MacColl, and Stan Rogers … all understood and mined so effectively.
James Keelaghan, too, burrows into that same rich seam with equal ability and comparable conviction. To quote Eric Bibb, the award-winning American acoustic bluesman, after listening to Keelaghan perform: “[You’re] a joy to hear, just beautiful. Reminded me of the best of the best of another time – Liam Clancy, Tom Paxton etcetera.” Less colourful but more succinct, Dave Marsh, the eminent Rolling Stone critic, simply described Keelaghan as “Canada’s finest songwriter.”
Truly, throughout a career that now spans almost four decades, the Juno and Canadian Folk Music Award winner has created a repertoire of incalculable importance – a unique body of work, either inspired by or drawn from the folk tradition. Ten solo albums flush with enduring lyrical relevance. Take the beautiful but heartbreaking ballad, Jenny Bryce, for example. From any point of view, it’s indistinguishable from the numerous traditional tracks covered on his disc A Few Simple Verses.
What’s more, various other originals from the Keelaghan cannon must surely enter the domain of traditional folklore. Most notably, Small Rebellions (highlighting the 1931 slaughter of peaceful striking miners in Bienfait, SK); Hillcrest Mine (a prelude to the worst coal mining disaster in Canadian history); Kiri’s Piano (a triumph over adversity amidst the shameful, racist treatment of Japanese-Canadians during WW II); Cold Missouri Waters (a harrowing portrait of the 1949 Mann Gulch Fire in the mountains of Montana) …
A relentless musical spirit, Keelaghan has surrounded himself with a variety of crackerjack companions down through the years that have largely included the late, innovative, free-spirited fiddler and composer, Oliver Schroer, the exuberant, Chilean, Latino-fusionist guitarist, Oscar Lopez (with whom Keelaghan made two albums under the banner of Compadres), or the ubiquitous, former Spirit of the West anchor and multi-instrumentalist, Hugh MacMillan. Scrupulous audiences from Alberta to Australia bared witness to the sum of these resourceful parts.
There have been several mouth-watering collaborations in the writing department, too. Celebrated names in the folk world such as Karrine Polwart, Jez Lowe, Catherine MacLellan, David Francey, Lynn Miles, Dave Gunning, Cara Luft and J.D. Edwards … all contributed to notable Keelaghan releases.
“I love co-writing,” he says, “it’s the spark that gets me motivated – the fresh approach to a lyric or a different way of forming a melody for a song is so stimulating. Besides, it’s also a great impetus to finish the damn song.”
James Keelaghan grew up in a bungalow in northwest Calgary, AB, with six siblings, an Irish father, and an English mum. His brother Bob would develop into a noteworthy guitarist with the excellent, but now defunct, Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir. From his father, Jim, James developed a love of history. The family record collection provided further inspiration. Traditional folk LPs by the likes of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, Séan Ó Riada, and Harry Belafonte certainly caught young Keelaghan’s ear. He still cites BelafonteAt Carnegie Hall as a recording that changed his life at age six!
Incidentally, Tommy Makem and Liam Clancy would live in Calgary in the mid-‘70s where they recorded a weekly TV show that James and his father routinely attended.
“They were stunning performers,” says James. “I can still hear aspects of Tommy Makem’s sound in my voice. He was a fabulous singer, fabulous.”
And so, another link in a storied musical chain was forged. James Keelaghan, as they say, is “a man you don’t meet every day.”
A chance-meeting at a folk festival almost thirty years ago has led to a musical collaboration between two singer-songwriters, James Keelaghan from Canada and Jez Lowe from England, that has seen them play to audiences around the globe, from North America to Australia and to Europe, and which continues to this day. Every couple of years they each take a break from their busy solo careers to share stages and songs and inspire each other with their voices, their wit and a friendship that lights up each performance. The pair share an Irish heritage that certainly informs their writing and brings with it an enthusiasm for boundary-breaking and story-telling in song that is both infectious and enthralling, timeless and contemporary, unpredictable and yet focused. In other words, they surely and inevitably bring the best out of each other.
Date & Time
Thu., Mar. 14, 2024 8:00 p.m. - 11:00 p.m.
1165 Bank Street Ottawa, Ontario K1S 3X4
Red Bird Live
Red Bird is an intimate, 80 capacity music venue with excellent sound and sight lines from every seat.
We are licensed and have a selection of locally crafted beers and ciders plus a small but fine selections of wine and spirits.
We also carry a selection of non-alcoholic beverages such as locally made sodas and non-alcoholic beers, and a small menu of snack foods such as pressed sandwiches, hot dogs, soft pretzels and pastries.
Unless otherwise noted, all shows are all ages. Everyone must have a ticket, regardless of age.
Doors open one hour ahead of the performance time.
Parking is available at the south end of our building and on side streets (please be respectful of parking restrictions).
Regrettably, our space is not accessible. There are six gradual and wide steps to our front door with railings on each side. Once inside, everything is on one floor including an accessible washroom.
Event end times will vary depending on the artist.
There is no phone number for the venue. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out via social media with inquiries.