Volume 94, Issue 85

Friday, March 2, 2001


Folkie James Keelaghan sings a historic tale

Opera, anyone? Student show shines

Folkie James Keelaghan sings a historic tale

Gazette File Photo
LOOKS LIKE WRESTLER JAKE "THE SNAKE" ROBERTS HAS BECOME A FOLKIE. Singer/songwriter James Keelaghan pummels the folk competition when he appears tonight at the Aeolian Hall.

By Zach Peterson
Gazette Staff

"I do largely what the hell I want."

Canadian folk troubadour James Keelaghan has no complaints about the direction his musical career has taken.

His latest recording, Road, was his first to receive wide distribution in the United States. My Skies, his 1993 release, won the Juno Award for best roots/traditional album.

Apparently, he has some famous fans. The folk supergroup Cry, Cry, Cry, consisting of Dar Williams, Lucy Kaplansky and Richard Shindell covered Keelaghan's "Cold Missouri Waters" on their 1998 release. The song tells the historically-based story of a firefighter who survived fighting the Mann Gulch fire in Montana in 1949.

"I really like the cover. I always thought the song should be sung with an American accent," Keelaghan laughs.

A few weeks ago, Keelaghan had the opportunity to play a show at a Gothic church in New Jersey with Kaplansky and Shindell. Keelaghan said he enjoyed the experience. "It is so great to perform with Richard and Lucy. They are completely different people, but both very talented. Being backstage with them is like being on Seinfeld."

Keelaghan is known for his historical narrative songs like "Cold Missouri Waters." He studied history at the University of Calgary, leaving school a few credits short of a degree. In regards to the history classes influencing his songwriting, he muses, "I'm trying to unlearn everything [my history professors] taught me.

"Sometimes you have to go beyond the facts to the human element," he adds. "I suppose I did learn how to spot a good story, though." His interest in history remains very active. "I like gossipy history – I want all the dirt," he states. At the moment, he is reading an unauthorized biography of J. Edgar Hoover, as well as Barbara Tuchman's Distant Mirror, a historical narrative about a French nobleman in the tumultuous 14th Century.

In fact, books are very important to Keelaghan, especially while he is on the road. Keelaghan plays upwards of 300 concerts a year and finds reading to be a great way to remove himself from the potential redundancy and tedium of constant touring. "On the road you have to know when to remove yourself from certain situations and go back to the hotel room and relax," he stresses.

Keelaghan plays a wide variety of venues from churches to folk festivals across North America, Europe and Australia each year. He cites the Australian National Festival, the Winnipeg Folk Festival and the Owen Sound Folk Festival, as some of his annual favourites. Keelaghan fills his live shows with great storytelling, a sense of humour and excellent renditions of his songs.

Currently, Keelaghan is playing dates across Ontario and a few in the Northern United States, and plans to record a new album sometime this year. The album will be stripped down in comparison to Keelaghan's last few albums, which featured heavy (by folk standards) production. "I want to pull the songs in and record them the way they sound in the kitchen," he says.

Keelaghan describes his recent concerts as a mix of old and new material. "I have a couple of songs picked out beforehand as bookends, but other than that, the shows are what the audience makes of them." He jokes, "The shows right now are 'Keelaghan karaoke'."

James Keelaghan plays at the Aeolian Hall at 795 Dundas Street tonight with special guest Terry Tufts. Cover is $20 at the door.

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