It started with a battle cry, and ended with a gentle love song.
For her first Ohio appearance in some 50 years, Buffy Sainte-Marie began by screening a couple of high-energy video clips. First was a straight-on music video, showcasing her highly charged stage presence and her hard-driving band in concert; the second was more of a rockumentary, spotlighting protests against fracking, uranium mining, pesticides and GMOs. Both featured her power-packed voice over heavy rock rhythms, layered with piercing Native American chanting and drumming. The picture was clear: here is a fully-energized, deep-rocking artist, and a highly principled musical dynamo.
So when a petite woman with bangs stepped out onto the Kent Stage with a smile and a soft-spoken “Hello, we’re going to have some fun tonight,” it was also a picture of contrast. And what emerged during the course of her 70-minute solo set was not so much contrast as range.
Drawing on the full breadth of her songwriting career, Sainte-Marie delivered a polished and engaging review of a lifetime in music. There were the early folk songs, like “Cripple Creek,” played on the traditional mouth bow. There were the romantic ballads, like “You’re Not the Lovin’ Kind.” There were the Nashville-inspired numbers, including “I’m Gonna Be a Country Girl Again” from 1971, and “Blue Sunday” from 2008. And there were the early protest songs, the middle protest songs and the new protest songs.
Her voice too cuts a wide swath, from breathy vulnerability to fierce urgency, and it’s lost little of its power over the years. Her signature deep, pulsing tremolo is less prevalent today, but there is so much else in her vocal kit bag, it was hardly missed.
“Let’s go down into my basement, to my studio,” she said, introducing “The War Racket.” “I’m going to play you a new one. It’s the songwriter version, not the way it comes out on a record.” Then, over a synthesized, trance-inducing soundscape, she spat fire with the same conviction that she sang “The Universal Soldier” on her first album, back in 1964. She laid down an intense, hypnotic version of that curse on addiction, “Cod’ine.” To call her a shaman would be to overstate things, but the effect of her passion and poetry can be mesmerizing.
Moving seamlessly between two high-tech electric guitars, plus a single keyboard synthesizer and the mouth bow, Sainte-Marie introduced each number with a story, a memory, a dream or a prayer. She rapped one song a capella, accompanied only by the insistent tapping of one finger on the microphone, bringing it alive as a drum. Another number was delivered as a driving slam poem, or a disembodied rap track. Dressed simply in black jeans and boots, you could have almost mistaken her for a Chrissy Hynde or a Joan Jett, but for the massive native art necklaces that draped to her waist.
Born in Canada and raised in New England, she has always been a patriot, but her allegiance is to the country that was here long before the United States of America. Her advocacy for Native American issues is well-known, and her sensibility embraces earthly integrity and human rights as well as the deepest yearnings of the spirit.
She spoke of the “blacklist years,” when two presidential administrations effectively shut down the Red Power movement and kept her off of network television. So she became a regular on Sesame Street, performing her songs with Miss Piggy, and teaching children to count to ten in Northern Cree. She explained how her love of country music began at age 11 when she discovered Carl Perkins and Bill Black’s Combo on the radio. (In 2009 she was inducted into Canada’s Country Music Hall of Fame).
“When I was coming into the music business, in the ’60s, you could hear real folk songs and all other kinds of fascinating things on the radio,” she said, “before they shut that all down. But back then, nobody told me I couldn’t do everything.”
Surely she has covered more musical territory than most listeners, even most musicians, are accustomed to. Her tunes have been covered by dozens of major artists, from Donovan and Quicksilver Messenger Service to Neil Diamond, Joe Cocker and Courtney Love. Her song “Lazarus” was sampled by Kanye West. She acknowledged and thanked those who have recorded her songs, and for the ensuing royalties, “which allowed me to stay in show business. It’s expensive!”
Despite the treasure trove of stories and reminiscences, it was the music which carried the night. Buffy Sainte-Marie has the voice and style of a woman half her age, delivered with the all of the conviction and wisdom of an elder. And she can still rock as hard as anyone, as her recent albums and videos attest. But in the cozy confines of the Kent Stage, she presented an intimate, candid evening, almost as if we were, as she said, in her basement. At the after-show autograph signing she was approachable and genuine, and still not looking back. “See if you can have me back sometime,” she said, “and I’ll bring the band!”[Review by Jordan Davis]