The uniquely Canadian folk tunes of Ontario band Tanglefoot have been heard in some unlikely places — from a 900-year-old English cathedral to the orbiting space shuttle, when astronaut Chris Hadfield took the group’s CD with him into space.
But it was the live, a capella performance of the song Vimy at the 90th-anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in France that was a career highlight for Tanglefoot guitarist Steve Ritchie.
He remembers standing on the wind-swept plain beside the stark war memorial in 2007 and singing about an aging First World War vet and his long-dead comrades.
It was an emotionally charged moment, said Ritchie, who reflected on his band’s colourful history before embarking on a farewell tour that stops at Red Deer’s Elks Lodge on Wednesday.
“You could feel the anguish of the place seeping from the ground,” he recalled, of the battlefield that in 1917 absorbed the blood of 14,200 killed or injured Canadian soldiers.
Ritchie was just as affected after first visiting the Vimy Ridge Memorial in 1995, at his girlfriend’s insistence. “I was more into visiting castles and Roman ruins, but she said, ‘You’re Canadian, you should go to Vimy,’” he recalled. “I spent most of the day there, and was overwhelmed by the emotion of the place. I didn’t expect to feel that way.”
Ritchie later co-wrote the song that has since brought a lump to the throats of many listeners.
But Tanglefoot’s music, described as Stan Rogers meets Van Halen, tends to have a visceral effect — and not just on Canadians, although most of the group’s material, including songs about the Frank Slide, Laura Secord and the War of 1812, is pulled from the pages of our own history books.
Ritchie said the British and Americans have always been huge fans of the band — even of songs they shouldn’t logically connect to.
For instance, Americans love the tune Secord’s Warning, which recounts the thrashing their country took against British Loyalists in the War of 1812.
“That’s probably the most popular song we play in the U.S., yet people at home say, ‘God, do you sing that song in the States?’’” said Ritchie with a laugh.
The tune is so well received, he figures, because folk music fans from any country tend to be a fairly liberal-minded, educated lot, who are in possession of a wide world view.
English fans have also bought into ditties about singular Canadian experiences. The song Radio Man references the Dionne Quintuplets and puns dairy farming in Holstein, Ont., yet it goes over like gangbusters in the U.K., said Ritchie. “It’s really popular over there and I never thought it would be.”
Tanglefoot was formed in the early 1980s by three school teachers, who later went on to other pursuits. Ritchie joined up in 1988, and is now the longest-serving member.
Whenever other musicians have filtered in over the years, they have always brought something special with them, said Ritchie, who credits mandolin/ banjo player Terry Young for “raising the bar and making things, musically, more interesting” when he signed on in 1999.
Bass player Al Parrish joined in 1994 when Tanglefoot grew from a trio to a quartet. Rob Ritchie’s piano playing added a new dimension when he came on board in 1996, and most recent member violin/violaist Sandra Swannell “gave us another step up the ladder” in 2006, said Ritchie.
But now the long-lived band seems to have reached its last rung. Ritchie noted group members have mutually decided to focus on book-writing or solo recording careers. As a result, Tanglefoot has been on a goodbye tour throughout all of 2009.
When the group reaches Alberta, the musicians will bid adieu to a loyal fan base. “Alberta has been very good to us over the years,” said Ritchie.
While he expects to miss the companionship of the other band members, and the “charge” of live performances, Ritchie will always have his unique Tanglefoot memories — such as being asked to perform a noon-hour concert in a “church” in Nottingham, England, and discovering the venue was actually a 900-year-old acoustically magnificent cathedral.
Or the time Tanglefoot was asked to put on an impromptu concert for rocket scientists and engineers during a tour to the NASA Langley Research Centre in Hampton, Virginia. The band also discovered that Canadian astronaut Hadfield was a fan when he opted to take the Music from the Woods CD with him onto the space shuttle in 2001.
Also memorable was when Tanglefoot first played at the Lunenberg Folk Harbour Festival and “the place went mental,” Ritchie laughingly recalled. “We really got the rock star treatment for the rest of our stay — we’d go to a restaurant for dinner, and everybody would stand up and clap.”
Tickets to the 8 p.m. concert, presented by the Central Music Festival Society, are $31.50 from the Black Knight Ticket Centre or Valhalla Pure Outfitters.