Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
It’s a bit of a bold move to ask Andy Maize why Art of Time Ensemble’s last concert of the season is themed on the writings of Steve Earle. As a founding member of Skydiggers, one of Canada’s most cherished bands, he knows a thing or two about compelling lyrics and evocative melodies, which Earle is also renowned for.
“Why the writings of Steve Earle?” he echoes. “What’s not to like about a hopeless romantic who has a way with words, a gift for melody, a political conscience and no fear of commitment?” I am struck by Maize’s considered, economical phrasing. There is much to mine from it: the deep respect of one songwriter for another, an appreciation of the depth and range of Earle’s talents, and a tacit acknowledgement of the sensitive being behind the compositions.
This isn’t the first time that Art of Time Ensemble has presented a Steve Earle composition. They performed a stirring version of “Pilgrim” arranged by Scott MacKinnon as part of What is Sacred in 2013. Doghouse Roses: The Words and Music of Steve Earle is themed entirely on Earle’s works. The concert takes its name from Earle’s first book, a collection of 11 short stories written in 2001, more than 15 years into his career after several marriages (twice to the same woman), a drug addiction, and a 6-month stint in a federal penitentiary. Doghouse Roses features colourful characters – flawed musicians, impoverished drifters, abject outcasts and drug smugglers – born of Earle’s tumultuous life and brilliant mind.
Whether in song or story, Earle’s writing has become synonymous with a resonant narrative voice. Appropriately, this concert will present new arrangements of his songs that highlight his storytelling. Joining Maize will be singers Oh Susanna, Tom Wilson (LeE HARVeY OsMOND, Junkhouse, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings), and Gregory Hoskins, with readings by actor Rick Roberts and author Michael Ondaatje, backed by an ensemble of preeminent musicians.
Earle tours extensively, has written a play, acted in 2 David Simon series, and has just made his off-Broadway theatre debut in Richard Maxwell’s Samara, for which he also composed the score. His abundant catalogue of work, turbulent life experience and outspoken polemicist views yield a wealth of source material: in Maize’s words, “Steve Earle has had such an eclectic and prolific career as a songwriter, performer and writer that I believe Doghouse Roses will resonate with both fans and those new to his work, alike.” (Incidentally, longterm fans include Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, fellow lyric poets and fervent social activists who have interpreted Earle’s music in their concerts, and actor-director Tim Robbins, whose Dead Man Walking soundtrack Earle compiled.)
As anyone who has attended an Art of Time Ensemble concert will attest, their novel approach to their subject matter inevitably stands out. The company’s inventive, multidisciplinary concerts, boldly envisioned by Artistic Director and pianist Andrew Burashko, have earned Art of Time Ensemble a sustained acclaim and staunch following. A glimpse into past programs reveals repeat collaborations by some of the biggest talents in the country. Maize himself is a longstanding collaborator, and notes that “the quality and challenging nature of the work” is what initially drew him to perform with Art of Time Ensemble. “And that,” he offers, “along with the camaraderie of the musicians, has kept me a part of the ‘ensemble’ over the years.”
Doghouse Roses will present the works in Art of Time Ensemble’s signature eclectic and innovative fashion, and should endear Earle to a new legion of fans. For the program, Burashko has curated and “cast” the pieces for Doghouse Roses firsthand. The concert features readings from Doghouse Roses and Earle’s other writings, and the musical selections include “Pilgrim”, “Poison Lovers”, “Goodbye” and “Christmas in Washington” in new arrangements performed by an ensemble of musicians that includes Kevin Turcotte on trumpet, steel guitarist Don Rooke, National Arts Centre Orchestra Principal Cello Rachel Mercer, Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra Concertmaster Stephen Sitarski, bassist Joseph Phillips and guitarist Rob Piltch. Maize is looking forward to performing each of the 3 songs that he has been asked to sing, though he admits, “if I had to single just one out, it would have to be “Poison Lovers,” a beautiful duet that I’ll be singing with the incomparable Oh Susanna.”
Again, I study Maize’s response. I wonder which other 2 songs he will sing, which musical numbers to expect, and what has been curated from Earle’s prolific writings – and why. In our exchange, Maize has been forthright, yet understated, and unfailingly polite. That he hasn’t veered beyond anything that I’ve asked suggests a humility that validates my impression of Skydiggers, a band I grew up with. What does 25-plus years with the band make him think about? “How quickly time passes,” he muses, “and how fortunate I’ve been to be part of a group that has travelled this great big, beautiful country, singing our songs.”
There’s just one niggling thing. Among the questions I didn’t ask is “Who is your favourite Beatle?”. He notes the omission . . . but doesn’t offer the answer. And now I have to know. Which means that Andy Maize and I must talk again. In the meantime, we can look forward to his interpretation of the works of a fellow troubadour with Art of Time Ensemble May 11-13.
News You Can Use
What: Doghouse Roses: The Words and Music of Steve Earle, featuring Andrew Burashko (piano), Gregory Hoskins (singer) Drew Jurecka (violin), Andy Maize (singer), Mark Mariash (drums), Rachel Mercer (cello), Oh Susanna (singer), Michael Ondaatje (reader), Douglas Perry (viola), Joseph Phillips (bass), Rob Piltch (guitar), Rick Roberts (reader), Don Rooke (steel guitar), Stephen Sitarski (violin), Kevin Turcotte (trumpet), Tom Wilson (singer)
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: May 11 – 13, 2017, 8:00 pm
Where: Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queens Quay West, Toronto, ON
Info and tickets: artoftimeensemble.com
© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya