The House Concert

by Gillian Turnbull

Gillian Turnbull is the author of the forthcoming book Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town (Eternal Cavalier Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in The Walrus, The National Post, Hazlitt, No Depression, Penguin Eggs, and BC Musician. She teaches music at Ryerson University in Toronto.

Inside, this house is like so many other Calgary homes. Up carpeted steps, on which we discreetly wipe stockinged feet drenched by puddles at the front door. Into the main room, whose sound carries over the barrier of wrought iron slats overlooking the stairs. The room circles around into a kitchen; two separate entries so guests can flow between the drink station on the counter and their chair. I slide into the second-last row, directly beside a kitchen entry. Chairs are mashed together, legs overlapping; a couch in the back row seems comfortable, but it is too low to see the stage. I’m between a woman with a long braid and my companion for the night. We clink beer cans, lean back. I want to cross my legs but there isn’t enough room.

Stifling heat inside, a blizzard outside. I can hear it howling, trying to pass through the balcony doors behind us. One of the hosts dims the lights while the other begins a ritual familiar to the crowd. Our fifth show of the season, she says. So many more in the new year. As always, check our website, still tickets available. Sold out tonight! Get cozy. Chuckles from audience members who are already uncomfortable. Yet it is comfortable: the jostling elbows are different here than in a bar shrieking with drunkenness. So pleased with tonight’s program. My honour to introduce. Playing together for the first time in months. Please welcome.

Ribbons of laughter and encouraging murmurs ride the applause up to the stage, which is just two chairs with guitars beside them. A breath. A song begins.


The house is in a cul-de-sac that threatens homogeneity. Matching front doors, siding in one of six available shades, double-car driveways slanting away from homes containing flat-screen TVs and Instant Pots. Lunches will be laid out on counters the night before work: sliced turkey breast, spot of mayo, larger spot of mustard. They will be pulled out of the fridge in the morning while the Nespresso gurgles and the juicer grinds oranges and kale. One by one, SUVs and pickup trucks will ease out of garages, maybe a sedan here or there if there are no kids to drop off. Everyone will stop by the Christmas light display in Confederation Park. They’ll step out of vehicles and commiserate over the crowds at Chinook Mall while their kids take selfies on borrowed phones.

The music in here disrupts the homogeneity. Maybe the neighbours next door are watching reruns of Law & Order, or maybe they, too, are hosting a house concert. Perhaps the people two doors down dug out their fiddles this evening, or their sarangi or shakuhachi. Or maybe they went out for a drink at the club where the blues band plays every Tuesday night, despite—or because of—the blizzard.


Alberta must have seemed like the end of the earth to the early settlers. Open expanses without so much as a tree, expanses that quickly became treacherous, impassable, if you were migrating in winter. Homesteaders would have shivered under wool blankets while the wind raged at these newcomers, entire families in single-room dwellings. As communities grew, makeshift schools filled with kids. Mothers softened slices of potato to cram between two pieces of bread for lunches—the only food available for months on end—to be carried in a bag bumping against the little legs trudging knee-deep in snow.

In those days space was dangerous. And promising. It might take you half a day to reach your closest neighbour in an emergency, but this also meant you could operate largely unnoticed. Unwatched. Imagine starting over in this setting, no help, no way to reach anyone back home. You could build, conquer, spread, transforming your once meaningless existence through total domination.

In those days space was dangerous. And promising.

Calgary incorporated in 1884. Its population that year was only 506. By 1893, 4,000 people called themselves Calgarians, and they got their city charter, the first urban centre in the area to do so. Urban growth happened faster than rural in Alberta. Hungry for space, the tiny city gobbled up the prairies around it, expanding from 1,600 acres in 1884 to 26,000 by 1912. Americans who had moved up from places like Montana, Wyoming, Texas, probably didn’t find this surprising, as they’d been expanding their ranching empire into Indigenous territory for decades. Land, to these immigrants, was to be conquered, to be owned. But those coming from eastern cities like Montreal or Toronto, where population density was twenty times that of Calgary, must have marvelled at the waste of space.

The cattle boom, a result of meat driving northward from America’s Great Plains, sustained southern Alberta through those hard early years. By 1907 it was over, the industry wrecked by the worst winter recorded to date. Historians have documented tales of emaciated cattle buried in snow drifts, ranchers’ feed supply drying up, and freezing temperatures torturing animals with the slow death of frost bite. But this wasn’t a problem for Calgary, which was in the midst of a separate population explosion caused by the wheat boom. Wheat prices rose, transport costs fell, and the American land frontier period came to an end. The service depot led CPR to boast that Calgary was already a thriving metropolis (even though it wasn’t quite there) in its attempt to generate commercial development.

Then the wheat boom crashed in 1913. Boom, bust, boom bust. Three decades into its existence, this had already become the norm for Calgary. Live it up while it’s hot, cut back and make plans for the next period of glory while it’s not. Already, Calgary was a mystery to the rest of the country, and the city, as Stephanie White says, was tending toward self-absorption, “to the point that things such as recessions, international political events, and federal and provincial changes are taken personally.”


This song, says the singer with a sigh, is about heartbreak. His fiddler muffles a snort. The chuckles in the audience aren’t as discreet, but everyone’s trying to be diplomatic. He looks up in surprise, relents. Yes, all songs are about heartbreak. I suppose there’s nothing special about mine. Another sigh. A nod to the fiddler, and bow touches string. He strums his guitar: down, down-up, down, down-up.

My beer is warming too fast in my hands, each sip becoming more bitter. I am less interested in the song than the reactions of people around me. My companion struggles to keep his knees pressed together on the tiny folding chair, ankles crossed underneath. I’m aware that the woman with the braid is watching my fingers knead dents into the sides of my beer can. Every so often, a sweater lifts over someone’s head, static hair billowing out.

A break. We stretch our backs, roll our necks, but that may be the extent of the movements. As the kitchen fills up, so do glasses. Whoa! No way! I’m embraced by friends I haven’t seen in a year or two. How long are you in town? I love your new record. We should get together while you’re here. I sift through the merchandise stacked up next to the wine bottles, but I already own every album. Maybe a bumper sticker? Nah. I don’t have a car.

Okay, everyone, back to your seats. Lights flip on and off, but the line for the bathroom is still three deep. We crawl back in and adjust and chat, waiting for the lineup of bladders to empty. What do you do? I ask the braided lady. She tells me, her voice warm, friendly. I come to all these shows, she says. She’s one of those people whose eyes light up when she gets going on the subject of her passion.

Onstage, startlingly good-looking singer-songwriters tune while the host shushes us. Again, these two haven’t played together in months. Ever? A few times before. We’re so pleased. Can’t believe they took time out of their schedule, this close to Christmas. They’re trading songs. He’s buttoned down in a long-sleeved shirt and tight jeans, his beard trimmed close to his jaw. She’s wrapped a soft black dress around her; it hugs her waist, her chest. Her red lips part in a stunning smile. Nose crinkles up when she laughs.

No one is quite prepared for the force of her voice, nor his guitar playing. The crowd, shifty and uncomfortable earlier, now seems breathless.


The 2017 Netflix show Godless opened with music we’ve come to understand as Western. Scraping, droning fiddles suggest the unrelenting force of a land resisting human settlement, and the struggle to survive in that environment. The sparse arrangement, only those drones and a bit of percussion, conveying the emptiness of that world. They’re whispering to you, telling you that you are alone.

Other Western soundtracks have done the same thing: Deadwood, Wynonna Earp, the list goes on. You’re reminded, constantly, of the West trying to tell us about our earlier settler selves, to be the place we revisited again and again, and yet could never return to. It brushed up against modernity in myriad, unbecoming ways, and from this collision arose so many contradictions, one of which was captured by roots music a century after the region was settled.

Following the roots revival spurred by the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack release in 2001, artists turned increasingly to the roots music brand as a way to integrate the genres that inspired them. This culminated in the 2011 Mumford and Sons/Avett Brothers performance with Bob Dylan at the Grammys, signifying the sound’s mainstream peak. No one watching the US over the last twenty years would be surprised by roots’ rise and fall. It’s no coincidence the genre grew in popularity in the post-9/11 atmosphere, reassuring listeners that American culture was not just intact, but blossoming. Albums, films, TV shows, books, clothing, and decor doubled down on Americana motifs, bombarding us with opportunities to attach ourselves to a way of being that had been swallowed up in the modern era’s quest for the new.

It’s no coincidence the roots genre grew in popularity in the post-9/11 atmosphere, reassuring listeners that American culture was not just intact, but blossoming.

That old aesthetic permeated 21st-century recordings. But never a genre to be accused of smothering us in nostalgia, Americana also adopted to the postmodern era by integrating a variety of inspirations. Roots has become a catch-all term for any music that even remotely gestures toward sounds at “the root” of contemporary pop and rock, sounds like folk, blues, country, and bluegrass. Other words, like alt-country, Americana, and Canadiana have been tossed around as descriptors for a style that’s hard to pin down, but much like that ephemeral notion of a middle class (the primary audience for roots), it’s better defined by what it’s not.

To me, the sound of roots is the voice. Everything else can match other genres: maybe a fiddle, guitar, and banjo make up the standard roots band, but you also hear those instruments in mainstream country. The subjects of lost love, interior angst, and American history might make it into your average roots song, but they appear in rock and folk songs too. Perhaps it’s the lo-fi, spontaneous sound of some roots recordings that distinguishes it—but that also distinguishes punk. Song structures are formulaic; they use memorable riffs and singalong choruses. So does pop. But nowhere else does a genre rely on a voice that is at once like someone from the past, and also kind of like the person next door. Mainstream country and pop rely on well-trained, virtuosic voices; metal houses a range of guttural vocal sounds; rock’s singing style changes, but mostly is a variant of a raspy strain; folk tends to privilege clear, pure timbres. Sure, these sounds may appear in roots, but the character is recognizable. Relatable.

You know that voice. Johnny Cash. Merle Haggard. George Jones. Neko Case. To employ a voice that has a polished sheen is to reject the populist nature of the genre—it tells an audience that you’re no longer one of them, that you’re seeking stardom. After all, anyone can sing “Ring of Fire.”


The ring of fire in Calgary might be the suburb. Or, suburb upon suburb, layers of wealth expanding outward from the city’s core. Property lines encroaching on empty prairie, growing larger as they inch further away. Rings of aspiration, of fossil fuel extraction, engineering, agriculture, medicine, law, education. Rings of upward mobility, manifest in the 5,500 square-foot home. Downtown, the city’s icy core expands too, pushing ever outward. The homeless shuffle their feet outside office buildings, train stations, condo towers. Move away, they utter under their breath. We’re making your property value drop. A decade-long plan to eliminate homelessness still hasn’t materialized, so the dispossessed are still displaced. A blizzard like this forces them into doorways and shelters. Individual Calgarians may be altruistic, but their governing bodies give the cold shoulder. You can stay here, but only temporarily.

Increasingly, this is a city of migrants. Perhaps it always was. This is rich land. Come here and ye shall prosper, it suggests. It is seductive, alluring. You could work your ass off ten hours a day, five days a week, and then revel in leisure pursuits. Skiing, hiking, road-tripping, drinking, good food, good friends, nice possessions. So people came. They claimed land as their own, displaced the Indigenous population, built, consumed, fell into excess. They reveled. And they paused. Something wasn’t quite right.


“Living downtown is changing and Evolution is Calgary’s hottest new address.”

“Evolution embodies the best of old world charm and modern simplicity.”

— Evolution Condo Development website

The early 2000s. Calgary was booming. Retail stores and Tim Hortons franchises bragged on their roadside signs: “$15/hour starting wage! Benefits! Full-time hours. Apply within.” Newcomers gobbled up real estate, landing much of the existing population on the streets. Recent migrants slept in their cars. There was no space in the city that was limitless. Nobody thought its borders were real. Bulldozers charged through the foothills and the north prairie, sending bunny rabbits and coyotes into yards and downtown. Deer stumbled into new developments, eating strawberries from urban gardens. Oil executives mortgaged million-dollar estates; young labourers brought their Maseratis in for detail jobs weekly. It seemed the party would never end. The suburbs were a dismal site of wrecked prairie and built sameness. But they smelled of money and potential.

Nobody stayed downtown after six.

On their way to the office city planners dodged the homeless, and decided something needed to be done. Something real, this time. They zeroed in on the East Village, a strip of Calgary’s oldest streets where rickety buildings stood and independent businesses shooed away lingering vagrants. Condos. That would work.

“The future of downtown Calgary lies in the East Village; a master planned urban community focused on redefining downtown living,” boasted developers. This wasn’t new. During a previous housing crisis precipitated by the 1970s boom, developers embraced the idea of densification: cramming as many housing units into a small area by building upwards and backwards from the street. In a city where apartment living was the embarrassing liminal space between leaving your parents’ house and settling into a proper single-family home with your spouse, densification wasn’t a priority. But it started up again when complaints about the overflowing drop-in centre forced a reconsideration of the East Village. Long considered a heritage site in a city that jumped at every opportunity to raze the old and make way for the new, the East Village was the first frontier of Calgary’s gentrification. Out with the old. Or, keep enough old to make it pretty.

Out with the old. Or, keep enough old to make it pretty.

Music followed, in the form of the National Music Centre: “The East Village is heartbreaking and dream making and it represents decline and potential all at once. Now, Calgary’s East Village is on the verge of realizing the potential of becoming one of the most innovative communities in Canada,” said planners. Artists are cool for gentrification. They make a neighbourhood trendy, happening, “vital.” Truth is, it’s the only place they can afford to live. Until the luxury condos creep in, followed by the young professionals, and the Starbucks on every corner. Independent music venues struggle to stay open, to pay the rent, but their tables are dotted with young hotshots. The old veterans still come down, their favourite brews still on tap. One beer, a couple of sets, then the long drive back to the suburbs. Sometimes 45 minutes long. Work starts early.


Can you believe … Drove all the way here from … They almost didn’t make it … Just to be with us … The host is flushed, tripping over her words, gushing and slightly tipsy. Oh! Don’t forget to sign up for our mailing list … roster for next two years already booked … cheaper if you get season’s tickets. Okay, I’ll stop talking, here they are! The crowd cheers, also a little tipsy. Exuberant.

It’s hard to believe someone wouldn’t like this music, peppered with jokes and the foreigner’s take on Alberta. But then, I am among people like me. The couple playing are a husband and wife, and their banter is generated mostly from his quirky British jokes, which offend her in the way only a husband can offend a wife. You’ll pay for that later, she warns. Crowd laughs. She shuffles brushes over the surface of a suitcase, makeshift percussion for the space. His fingers pick out a rolling accompaniment on guitar.

They like short phrases, she dipping in to harmonize key lines, voices dancing and weaving over us contented listeners. We’ve given in to the heat by now, the room sinking into a kind of sweaty oblivion. They’re one of those look-alike couples, with matching plastic-framed glasses, stealing glances at each other to match their words. Their performance has the effect of stepping into the most private of spaces, that of the married couple. We are a ring of intimacy around an intimate moment.

This, after all, is what we crave.


Get on a horse and ride, past the edge of the suburbs, where slats of fence give way to bales of hay. Where the meeting point of land and sky seems within reach. Stop.

Stop.

Beneath your feet, wind brushes away the snow, revealing a terrain that never stops changing. Maybe this land wasn’t meant to be settled. It wants to drive you away, the violence of the wind, its refusal to calm down. To the west, an impenetrable wall of mountains, menacing. Forbidding. Why would you stay here? Are beauty and danger always a package deal?

Settlers thought they were imposing order on chaos, pushing back against the land’s resistance. Generations later, they resist that order, strangling as it is with expectations of sameness, of predictability. They refuse to enter into silent homes where doors are shut and connections turned off. Longing to return to the freedom they experienced when they arrived, bound by wild desire, on a land where isolation threatened but community could be forged. How can they find their way back?

It starts here, in a small room, with music.

 


Gillian Turnbull is the author of the forthcoming book Sonic Booms: Making Music in an Oil Town (Eternal Cavalier Press, 2019). Her work has appeared in The Walrus, The National Post, Hazlitt, No Depression, Penguin Eggs, and BC Musician. She teaches music at Ryerson University in Toronto.

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