Sweet Music from The Sweet Lowdown

Sweet Lowdown with John ReischmanThis past weekend, we islanders were treated to two nights of dancing and enjoying the beautiful songs of The Sweet Lowdown, a rapidly recognized trio of musicians from Victoria.  Mixing new folk songwriting with traditional old time and bluegrass rhythms and forms, Amanda Blied (guitar), Shanti Bremer (banjo) and Miriam Sonstenes (fiddle) have been gaining momentum since the release of their first EP “Live Off The Floor” in 2008, (when they were still a duo), followed by a self titled full length recording in 2011 (with the addition of Miriam), and most recently, “May”, released in 2012 and boosting them into a nomination for “Vocal Group of the Year” by the Canadian Folk Music Awards presented in Calgary this coming November.  The Sweet Lowdown recorded May after the VIA On-Board Musicians program had them play their way across Canada as the main entertainment in lounge and dining cars, bringing out, no doubt, the essence of their old time sound as the train tracks clicked away the kilometers.May- 2012

“We are definitely rooted in old-time music,” says Amanda.  “But then, we do quite a bit of bluegrass now, too- sort of hard-driving songs, pickers, and instrumentals.  And a lot of originals.”

square dance Friday night, The Sweet Lowdown arrived with a caller, Craig (Young Oldtime Music and Dance Association) and hosted a square dance!  Craig Marcuk directed us all through reels, mixing prominades, and squares while The Sweet Lowdown kept us in time and rhythm with their uplifting oldtime melodies.  Square dancing is one of my families most favorite things to do, and we were overjoyed to have the opportunity to swirl and swing with our friends.

Sweet Lowdown and the Pine SiskinsSaturday was the real concert though, as The Sweet Lowdown were paired with mandolin master John Reischman, and his trio, the Pine Siskins.  John is currently from Salt Spring Island, and has been playing on the top end of the bluegrass/folk music scene since the early 80’s when he was an original member of the Tony Rice Unit.  His list of experience is extensive, and so I will just say that it was an incredible honour to have him appearing at the Pender Community Hall with Eli West on guitar and Steve Charles playing stand up bass.  The Sweet Lowdown played an enchanting set, taking me from a sunny front porch to the outer reaches of the universe.  Their blend of original songwriting with three-part harmonies set into oldtimey instrumental grooves creates a unique and timeless sound that was further enhanced by the use of an outstanding microphone, Louise.  Recently acquired by the trio, this microphone was handmade in Portland, OR by Ear Trumpet Labs,  and demonstrates beauty, quality, and simplicity.  It’s design is a throwback to the 180 degree sound pick up that was used in the early days of recording, allowing the musicians to be cable and monitor free, moving themselves and their instruments around the microphone to control volume and dynamics.  It allowed for a crisp. clean look on stage, framing The Sweet Lowdown with a classic style that gave their music even more ease.  John Reischman used Louise for his own set, and there wasn’t anything more added when all six musicians came on stage for a final set of 5 collaborative songs that saw them all swinging organically and gracefully into and out of the range of the microphone during solos and vocals.

Both of these musical evening were presented by our own Islands’ non-profit group Ptarmigan Music and Theater Society,  a registered BC charity which has been providing educational arts programs for over 20 years.  Ptarmigan’s activities nurture both creative development and healthy relationships within our communities. Utilizing a variety of artistic disciplines, including storytelling, song-writing, animation, music (instrumental & vocal), Kodály music instruction, fiddle group, drumming, dance, pottery, film-making, painting, drawing, paper mâché, murals, music therapy, drama, environmental education, astronomy and local history, Ptarmigan develops its programs to meet the needs and interests of specific audiences such as children, seniors and people with disabilities.

Ptarmigan’s programs, workshops and performances are presented in broad range of accessible community venues, including schools, libraries, hospitals, day care facilities, seniors’ residences, community halls and summer camps. In the true spirit of community building, Ptarmigan collaborates with a broad range of community organizations that share similar interests, including the Gulf Islands School Board, Parks Canada, and the GIFTS centre on Salt Spring Island for special needs youth, amongst many others.

I wish all the best for the musical journey of Amanda, Shanti and Miriam… it has been wonderful to follow their growing talents, skills and expression in the past years.  It is an inspiration to hear, and a great reminder, that the basics of oldtime music can be fulfilling, moving, and fun in any capacity of living room, orchard, or stage.  Listen for The Sweet Lowdown as they continue with tours and festivals around the country and the continent.

(photo credits to Crystal Desharnais)

Jeremy Fisher

Over the past few years, we have been introduced to a great Canadian musician by the name of Jeremy Fisher.  We met Jeremy when he was living in Vancouver, and were instantly immersed in his song writing which moved through super catchy guitar rhythms and springy lyrics to flowing finger picking and thoughtful melodies.  With a harmonica weaving in through his words, he incites reminders of Bob Dylan, but his ability to work beyond any one style of songwriting is strongly evident throughout his variety of albums spanning the past ten years.

To support his 2001 independent album, Back Porch Spirituals, Jeremy spent six months touring from Seattle, across Canada to Halifax, Nova Scotia by bicycle.  The tour, dubbed “One Less Tourbus”, pedaled 7500 kilometres, included 30 performances, and worked with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy to raise funds for promoting access to bicycle transport and education for girls in Africa.  Since then, he has recorded Let It Shine, his first album on a major label (Sony BMG Music Canada), released in 2004, and Goodbye Blue Monday, with fellow Canadian Hawksley Workman, released in 2007 by his new record label, Aquarius Records.   A home-made video for the song “Cigarette” from this album has been viewed over two million times on YouTube, and includes a claymation cigarette filmed with stop animation.  Jeremy has created and filmed many of his own music videos, putting an amazing amount of energy into these works of art, like the Lite Bright animation of his newest release, Come Fly Away, from the album Flood (2010).  At the eighth annual Hamilton Music Awards in November, 2011, Jeremy won album of the year, as well as being named male artist of the year and songwriter of the year.  He also won the award for best music video for a self-produced video he made to promote his song Shine A Little Light.

On stage, Jeremy is a juke box of music.  His stage presence invokes Arlo Guthrie type mid-song dialogue, where he embarks on stories or expresses thoughts while rolling through the music, sometimes getting off track and light-heartedly bringing himself back again, with ease and with a comfortable connection to the audience.  And while his albums are full of layers of instruments that he plays mostly himself and layers in recordings, his stage set-up is simply him, his guitar and a harmonica.  The fullness of each song is strongly present, or at least, for me, the extra instrumentation that I hear in his recordings comes through in my head while listening to the foundation of the songs… but it is really not necessary.  The songs he writes and plays stand alone as whole songs.  We went to listen to him play once again on Salt Spring Island, where he was playing with Aidan Knight as a double bill for raising funds and awareness for Velo Village, a festival and gathering that celebrates rural cycling, bringing diverse cycling communities together to address common challenges, share rural mobility solutions and enjoy cycle-themed art, music, performance and family events.  It is being held June 21-23, on Salt Spring Island, BC-   http://velovillage.ca/.

Recently, Jeremy has undertaken yet more diverse projects: he started his own animated web series, “For Real with Jeremy Fisher,” and has created music videos for artists like Xavier Rudd, Hannah Georgas and Hawksley Workman. He also founded The Malahat Revue; an ensemble that includes fellow Canadian pop masters Said the Whale, Hannah Georgas and Aidan Knight. The collective toured British Columbia on bicycle over summer 2010, keeping in line with Jeremy’s values of living and touring in a low impact way.  Their final destination that summer was to an enthusiastic crowd at the Vancouver Folk Fest.

For more information and music links, take a moment at  http://www.myspace.com/jeremyfisher and enjoy the continuing projects of Jeremy Fisher.

Family Jam Camp!

Building a house certainly requires a lot of dedicated hard work, but it also requires the balancing scale of summertime camping trips and lakeside music jams.  Considering the many years of hard work it will take to actually complete the dreams we have for the property, we would probably exhaust ourselves early if it were not for the times that we take to stretch other parts of our bodies and relax our busy brains- besides, it would be a disservice to our children to get so worn out and stressed with constant attention to the house.

Last July, we had the great opportunity to join the Jam Camp family up at Mabel Lake, BC, started by a young family with whom we met and became friends with on Pender Island some 8 years ago.  Thomas and Celina, with their three children,  together with Celina’s sister Theresa and her family, host Jam Camp as the Jam Camp Society, a registered non-profit organization. Camps have been held primarily in the Mabel Lake Valley, British Columbia since 2003, using the Mabel Lake campground as well as providing camps on the Shuswap River, Bowen Island, Japan, and new this year at Christina Lake.  We took part in the camp designed for families with children under the age of 9.  For 4 days, we camped with the multinational crew of facilitators, and explored music that celebrates life, nature, and cultural diversity. There were  instruction sessions, in which we could sign up to learn to play the fiddle, banjo, guitar, or explore the rhythms of African drums.  We had group sessions in which we explored percussion instruments, shared our voices in song, and made clay whistles.  Each day, we met in smaller groups and focused on writing a song about our groups’ animal that we could share along with an art activity in a final lake side performance.  Colin and I offered to volunteer for some of the instructional times, teaching beginner banjo and fiddle, as well as help the group leaders with song writing and crafting.  Believe it or not, we still spent a few hours everyday swimming, canoeing, walking through the forests, or resting on the beach.  It was during these unstructured times that jams could happen and collaborations would manifest- adding the all important skill of creating music with someone else in the moment of flow.  The role of the facilitators is to create a space where as musicians they can collaborate with the participants in creating new, original and improvised music. During the collaboration process, creativity and expression are emphasized over perfection and precision, bringing a wholesome, integral, and lighthearted approach to music into a world that is steeped in high-profile and competitive music industries.  Where making music is a regular part of family and community life, there is an important value of equal creative contribution upheld for everyone- young, old, beginner, or professional.  It is a gift to be surrounded by a supportive group of musicians extending their skills and passions for sharing such universal expressions of connecting through sound.  The heartwarming embrace of Mabel Lake and the forests of hemlock and cedar give inspiration to the beauty and richness in the simplicity of ancient songs and new melodies.

We will be heading to Mabel Lake again this year in August to deepen friendships, create new ones, and find those places where melodies, harmonies, and rhythms intertwine and overlap in unique expression- sometimes exuberant, sometimes playful, sometimes quiet, but always an authentic step we can bring back with us into the journey of everyday.

To find out more, please take a look at Jam Camp’s website, www.jamcamp.org.  Dates, places, cost, and information about youth camps (we can’t wait to get into these camps in a few more years!).  Biographies of the musicians involved in the camps are worth reading through for a taste of the diversity of styles, skills, backgrounds, passions, and instrumentation.  There are just too many amazing stories and talents for me to go into here!

Oliver Swain- In A Big Machine

Oliver and I first met as teenagers sifting our way through the same high school hallways and social nuances.  We became friends through similar creative expressions, such as art, poetry, and music, shared also by our larger circle of friends.  Oliver picked up the bass while many of us picked up the guitar, and we strummed along to the greatest of three-chord hits.  Since then, Oliver has made music his life path, carrying him around the globe and through histories of culture and rhythm, with experiences and expression accumulating constantly.  Oliver is now a well known name in the North American folk music scene. He’s shone at the forefront of the Western Canada Music Awards nominated group Outlaw Social, held up the bottom end of The Bills, and even completed a one year stint with Louisiana’s popular Red Stick Ramblers.  He’s lived in Winnepeg, touring  with Scruj Macduhk and exploring the Winnepeg folk scene, when he also recorded a sweet little album with Ruth Moody and Jeremy Penner, as Moody, Penner, and Swain.  I especially remember watching his presence with Outlaw Social at the 2008 Vancouver Folk Festival, and feeling ever more in awe of the musical inspiration and journey that has become Oliver’s unique and authentic sound.  He’s won awards, supported many well known Canadian musicians, and spearheaded an effort to bring a folk festival back to his hometown of Victoria.

We have been blessed to have Oliver bring his music to Pender a few times over the past 2 years, accompanied by a rotation of incredible musicians and showcasing an ever evolving take on his original and traditional songs.  The innovation that Oliver has developed with his voice, his upright bass, and his 120 year old goat skin banjo tells tales of the time spent dedicated to the art of his musicality. Recently, Oliver came to Pender on a tour celebrating the recording of his first solo album, In A Big Machine.  Joining Oliver’s voice, bass and banjo stylings onstage and forming “Big Machine” are: Adrian Dolan (fiddle/accordion), Quinn Bachand (guitar), James Whitall (mandolin), Josh Dixon (trap kit), and Emily Braden (vocals).  Hearing the expanded sound of  songs that I have been listening to as solo pieces played now in a 6 piece band, I knew that Oliver’s leap of faith in focusing now on his own musical expression will be widely discovered and appreciated.  His music blends the lines of folk with his own innovations of sound, producing harmonic rhythms and diverse vocals that feel steeped in tradition and culture.  His new album, In A Big Machine, is a beautiful collection of five tracks of Oliver’s original music, coupled with a few heavy hitting traditional numbers, and Oliver’s 120 year old goat skin banjo takes on a Bruce Springsteen classic.  He pushes the boundaries of his bowed upright bass, and keeps the pace through the rest with Oliver’s signature clawhammer banjo style.  In A Big Machine was co-produced by Adrian Dolan (The Bills, Rankin Sisters, Chieftains) with Oliver at Marlborough Studios, and boasts a slew of appearances from his contemporaries such as Jeremy Penner (The Wailin’ Jenny’s), Emma Beaton (Joy Kills Sorrow), Adam Dobres and Emily Braden to name a few.

“IN A BIG MACHINE” will be available commercially in January 2011, pre-orders available at any shows, and Oliver’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE is coming soon!



It was around the time of the meteor showers this past august that we were invited to our friends’ house for an informal house concert.  Two girls from California had been riding their bikes with a support team of friends and their instruments- including a stand up bass in a coffin like box- around the Pacific Northwest, and had agreed to stop on our little island to share their beautiful songs with us.  We gathered in a make shift ampitheater among the trees and gardens, and listened to the sweet sounds of harmonizing voices (including our own) and insightful lyrics of finding peace and joy in the connection to the beauty and perfection of the earth.  The love and wonder that they sang with was contagious,  and as they invited us to join them in their songs, we became less of an audience and more of a choir, lifting up the songs and letting them go into the summer night.  Since then, I have listened and learned more of their songs from the two CD’s (All The Way, and Strange And Wonderful) that MaMuse has recorded, and they have helped lift my spirits as I trundle along on the sometimes staggering slope of our daily lives.  They have helped to remind me of why I am doing what I am doing, and that by trusting in my inspired dreams, support from the universe will be available.  I alos love hearing my 8 year old daughter listen and sing along to such powerful words!  Thank you so much, for giving this gift of your music .

On this bright and healthy morning, I wanna sing my song, let it be sung

As I let it fly out into the world, let it be known, I hear the music in all things today, the dance is on.

I lay down on the ground in the garden, let the earth crawl up into my clothes, stared up at the sky and we fell together- we really are so close.

He whispers hello, hello, hello, and the dance is on.  All the world is conspiring for me,

Everything everywhere nourishes my growth.  Let it be known I can hear the music in all things today, this one’s for me.

I could go on with all the lyrics to their songs, but I can’t type them with the sound of their voices weaving together, so check out their beautiful website-



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