CityFolk IV – Wet Sheepdogs

I love The Sheepdogs. I hate the Sheepdogs. I’m ambivalent about The Sheepdogs. I can’t make up my mind.

The Sheepdogs, if you are not aware, are a rock band from Saskatchewan that first came to prominence in their attempts to win a contest for independent bands, with the prize being a spot on the cover (and a story inside of course) of Rolling Stone magazine. They won. Cue Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show.

So there I was at Ottawa’s CityFolk 2015, in a gentle rain, waiting for The Sheepdogs to take the stage. These guys are closer to heavy metal than folk music. They really don’t belong here musically, but they’ve been here before. Their presence draws a younger demographic, something important to festival organizers. I guess they figure that older folk music fans like me will be dying off shortly and younger people don’t like acoustic music. I should be thankful. Unlike Bluesfest there appears to be no hip-hop on the bill.

The Sheepdogs are very good at what they do. I think this is the fourth time I have seen them live. Their brand of rock and roll is guitar-driven, earthy and emotional laid over a blues base. It’s the sort of stuff I like – except, when I listen to this band I feel like I’m caught in a time warp. And I’m not sure I like that.

If this were 1973 The Sheepdogs would be just another southern rock band, one of hundreds with a similar sound. They even look early 1970s scruffy; some of these dogs could use a haircut. It’s not 1973 though, which makes them sound somewhat derivative to me, a band without its own identity. They sound like the Allman Brothers, like Grinderswitch, like Lynyrd Skynyrd a little bit like Little Feet and Canned Heat. It is swamp rock but there are no swamps in Saskatoon, ther hometown, or at least I don’t remember any from when I lived there.

So I am torn. The Sheepdogs remind me of so many different bands I have difficulty thinking of them as anything but copycats. Yet they at the same time sound original, successfully synthesizing all their influences. They are fun to see in concert.

The first time I saw them was at a private party just after their first major-label album came out. It was a 250 seat room, much smaller than they were used to. I was in the front row, close enough that, had I wanted, I could have reached over to strum the guitars.

After the show one of the guitarists spotted me at the buffet table and came over to talk. “You were in the front row, right?” “Yes.” “Were we too loud?” “I didn’t think so.”

But as I said that I reached into my pocket and pulled out my earplugs. I work in the music industry, I know when to come prepared. He laughed.

No need for earplugs at CityFolk this year. That is one of the nice things about an outdoor festival – you can find your comfort level by just moving back. The Sheepdogs delivered a great set under trying conditions. The gentle rain that was falling when they took the stage picked up, as did the wind. Not only were most people in the crowd soaked, the band got drenched too. That’s what happens when the wind blows the rain directly onto the stage; the roof isn’t much use.

The field was packed and people stayed put. Rain or no rain, too much fun was being had by everyone, musicians and audience alike, for anyone to consider leaving.

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