buffy sainte-marie

blue mountains music festival, katoomba, 13-15 march 2015

words and photos by konrad lenz

After listening to Buffy Sainte-Marie on record for the last 25 years, it was a pleasure to finally see her live. In my time, I've seen some great performers on stage, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Archie Roach and Johnny Cash, to name a few but none came close to Buffy. She's incredible. I don't know if she'd be too comfortable with comparisons though, she’s too egalitarian in her approach to art to like such a ranking of talent. Buffy doesn’t seem to view music in competitive terms, but she's still the best I've seen. I went to two gigs and the interview she did with Radio National.

Buffy's one of the best songwriters around. A Cree Indian from Saskatchewan, Canada, she used to be part of the New York Greenwich Village folk scene back in the day, but seeing her onstage wearing her leather jacket and holding her metal frame electric guitar, it’s clear that she's no folkie. She has her own style and vision. Like her song It's My Way suggests, she's following her own path - "I've got my own seeds / I've got my own weeds / I've got my own harvest that I've sown." That song sounded fantastic live. Buffy and her band have re-invented it and made it new. Michel Lee Bruyere’s steady pounding of the drum skins gave it a nice, strong heartbeat. There was a blisteringly good rendition of Generation, one of my favourite Buffy songs and one I didn't expect to hear. A new song, Power in the Blood, was fantastic. It was written in collaboration with the Alabama 3 and is an anti-war song telling us that though there are men in power ruling over us we have our own power - the power in our DNA, in our brains - to free ourselves. It's mesmerising. Other highlights included Blue Sunday, Buffy’s recent rockabilly number, No No Keshagesh, a song about corporate greed for the dollar, and Cripple Creek sung with mouth bow as accompaniment. Starwalker, Buffy’s powwow rock anthem from the mid-70s, was incredible.

I remember when I was young, nobody I knew had heard of Buffy. "You have to listen to this," I'd say and put the needle to the groove. People were always amazed at her sound and songs and wondered why they’d never heard of her. Music tends to happen in cycles, I guess. Thankfully, Buffy seems to be having a bit of resurgence in popularity, she’s on people’s radars again.

Buffy hasn't aged. It's like she pressed pause about 25 - 30 years back and time has stopped. She's around 74 now, but there’s nothing about her that shows it. She doesn't look, act, move or sing like she's in her seventies. At one point, I was three metres away and weak at the knees, she's totally gorgeous. As a performer she's still fresh, young and sounds better than ever. She credits good eating, ballet and never having drunk alcohol for this. Maybe it's also that the world still needs her spirit. Buffy's channelling something deep and she's clear headed enough to be able to articulate what she sees as wrong with the world and how it can be changed. You can learn a lot from listening to Buffy.

Funny thing, some people had religion to help set their moral compass, I had music. Given the hedonistic attitudes and behaviour of some rock stars it could have all ended in tears but you could always tell who was pointing you in the right direction and who wasn't, who was pulling punches and who was straight down the line. Woody Guthrie was a good one. Archie Roach, Gary Shearston and Buffy all helped me see things clearer. It was music that made me start looking at the world around me and it was music that helped teach me about compassion. I don't know if this is an odd way to learn these lessons but I'm glad to have learnt them.

I’d have liked to have met Buffy but missed out. I was staying at a hotel in Mount Victoria and they surprised me after I’d already paid, with a vague curfew after 11:30 pm. If I didn’t get back there in time, I’d be locked out. The first night I had to leave four songs early and take a $60 cab ride, so as not to be stuck outside in the cold all night. The second, I waited around after the show in case Buffy came out, but then literally had to run to get the train. The next day, a woman told me that Buffy came out just five minutes after I’d left. Damn, the perils of cheap hotels…

I went to the Blue Mountains Music Festival solely to see Buffy, but there were many other great acts. Frank Yamma was fantastic and so was Maru Tarang, featuring Jeff Lang and Asin Langa. And Macy Gray and the Whitetop Mountaineers by all accounts were great, although I missed seeing them. But I got to see Buffy onstage with one hell of a great band behind her, so I still left the mountains happy.


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