Review: Buffy Sainte-Marie leads by example in powerful concert

Buffy Sainte-Marie. Photo: Matt Barnes

On July 4, 1885, Louis Riel said: “My people will sleep for 100 years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” The poet, politician and prophet wouldn’t have been thinking specifically about Buffy Sainte-Marie, but the Cree singer from Piapot First Nation in southwest Saskatchewan is the kind of artist on whom he must have been pinning his hopes for the future.

After a career in music spanning 50 plus years, the 76 year old singer songwriter is still finding new musical forms to explore and new artists to mentor.

Sainte-Marie performed many songs Monday night from all periods of her musical life Monday night for an enthusiastic audience in Southam Hall.

Pieces such as Universal Soldier and and It’s My Way come from her very first album in 1964. But they are still fresh and powerful in 2017. That timelessness is a rare quality and a true testament to her powerful writing.

The evening was a run-through (not a walk through, she’s got way too much energy for that) of more important songs from her large catalogue; songs such as Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and My Country Tis of Thy People Are Dying.

Sainte-Marie’s career suffered after some breakthrough hits in the 1960s. The Johnson and Nixon administrations put her on a blacklist and radio play was hard to come by for many years. But she kept pumping out albums and persevering.

She played some of the songs from this era Monday including the rocker Sweet Little Vera. And she also performed some powerful songs of protest including one called War Racket which is a stinging indictment of the military industrial complex.

Two songs closed the evening: one was the wonderful song Starwalker from the 1992 album Coincidence and Likely Stories and the other was the anthemic call to arms for the planet Carry It On.

One special guest Monday evening was Randy Bachman, an old friend and musical colleague from back in the day. They joined forces on several tunes including a cover of I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide (ZZ Top) and an energetic version of Takin’ Care of Business.

Sainte-Marie’s career has made her a musical elder and an inspiration for Indigenous performers across the continent. She has encouraged performers such as DJ Shub (Dan General) from Six Nations in Ontario who took a couple of Saimte-Marie tunes (at her request) and gave them his own special spin Monday night. Sainte-Marie also gave a shout out to Tanya Tagaq, who is also a winner of the annual Polaris Prize. (Tagaq won in 2014 for Animism; Sainte-Marie won in 2015 for Power in the Blood).

The evening opened with a strong performance by the Yellowknife singer-songwriter Leela Gilday and her band. Gilday showed her range with one poignant song about love after death, but she also spoke to the issues confronting Indigenous peoples such as poor health care and unsolved cases of missing and murdered women. In many ways she is carrying on Sainte-Marie’s concern for her people.

The artists are indeed leading. Now the rest of us have to follow.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.