Worth Going Out on a School Night: Eaglesmith at the Finlandia

Story by Marlene Wandel, Photos by Dave Koski

A Fred Eaglesmith show is the place to be on a school night. It’s just past eight o’clock, and already Tiff Ginn is up on stage with the band, and that voice of hers that fills every nook and cranny of the Finlandia Hall, and possibly forces some of the cracks a bit wider. The stage is three parts women in sparkly dresses and impossible hair, making music with with Matty Simpson on guitar and banjo.  Leaning on a pillar at the back of the hall, in a watch cap and requisite half-scowl is Fred, looking for all the world like someone wandering in off the street checking out the music for the first time.

Minutes later, decked out in his signature top hat and black jacket, Fred Eaglesmith joins his band on stage, and launches immediately into his schtick. Seasoned Fredheads know to expect that Fred will work hard to offend everyone in the audience just a little bit. Fred is generous with his music, playing a solid 90-minute set every show; the interludes between the songs are what bond him to his audience. There’s a camaraderie in the crowd; together, we love that we are mocked, chided and gently ridiculed. There is a fine line between irreverent and obnoxious, and tonight, like so many nights, Fred is skating along it with fearless panache.

There are a few Fred standards we can expect to hear every show, especially those covered by other artists. “Freight Train” makes its usual appearance, and we also hear “30 Years of Farming” dusted off, and featured in a Fred Eaglesmith musical, “Dear Johnny Deere.”  At 57, Fred’s touring energy is undiminished.  With over 30 years of music to play from, the set list has the potential for great variety.  Once a band with a mandolin and a guitar, the Fred Eaglesmith tour of recent years includes a banjo, accordion, keyboard flute, and rumours of a glockenspiel somewhere on a recording.  Fred trots out an old standby, “we never used to have a banjo and an accordion at all, but one day someone broke into the bus and left them there.”  The venue prompts the perennial Finn jokes, like the Finnish man who loved his wife so much he almost told her.

A good chunk of this crowd are repeat offenders. The group of young adults, who look younger than at least half of Fred’s music, while a bit rambunctious for this crowd of Fredheads, are clearly ardent fans; they know every song and shout out requests.  The requests are quickly quashed, “You want a truck song?  I just played a truck song!  An 18-wheeler is a fine truck. You should’ve paid attention!”  Scattered throughout are newly minted fans. For the uninitiated, Wednesday’s show was a great hook, the first hit that will keep them coming back. For those who come back for their annual dose of real music and rants that include such unlikely gems as “reverse osmosis takeover protest,” this show was a strong reminder that Fred Eaglesmith continues to stay the course, and is worth going out on a school night.