Great Expectations – Halo High Water

Concerts with a message, either to draw awareness to a cause, or, in the case of this event, to raise money for a cause, are often fraught with problems: who to invite and where to place these invited artists in the show’s sequence without ruffling feathers; how to maintain a level of excitement and energy while maintaining a strong focus on the message; how to run a seamless show while coordinating a disparate and complex group of artists and presenters?

“Halo High Water,” the brainchild of Tom and Alison Jackson, walked the fine line of these issues in perfect form with their benefit concert which was both entertaining and emotional without being an infomercial or a maudlin reminder of the audience’s collective pain.

From the start it was quickly apparent that this was Jackson’s show. The opening piece of “Water, Wind and Fire,” with its projected images of rain and lightning, and the sounds of wolves howling and aboriginal drummers and singers, supporting Jackson’s half spoken half sung lyrics set the rhythm and tone for the night. This would not be a concert of disconnection, or a set piece for begging with hands held out, but an event to bring reflection; to consider what happened, how we reacted, and what we still need to do. As Jackson sang, water, wind and fire have the power to “purify the soul.”

Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium, Calgary | August 4, 2013
Photography by: Charles Hope

Jackson, along with actor Graham Greene, emceed the show and provided comic moments that worked as gentle interludes to keep the show’s pacing quick and directed. Along with the music performances were video vignettes shown on a screen to the rear of the stage of the storm, flood, and cleanup that elicited emotion without the dull thud of the hard sell. The vignettes were not narrated and in most cases used the ambient sounds recorded at the same moment. This allowed the images to speak for themselves without a baritone bass voice intoning what was plainly obvious to the audience. And though requests for money for the recovery were made, the asking was never more important than the music or the overall mood of the night.

Crowd favorites were “Alberta Bound” by Paul Brandt and “Til I’m Myself” by Jim Cuddy. Cuddy’s song was punctuated by an intense and passionate fiddle solo by Anne Lindsay who at one point nearly poked Cuddy in the face with her thrusting bow as he coaxed her to dig deeper. Brandt’s song, written by an Albertan who understands the quixotic nature of this strange province struck a heartstring in the audience; how could one not relate to the line, “I’ll be Alberta bound until I die”?

With so many artists on the bill, each was only able to perform one or two songs, but the show flowed well even if the songs occasionally contrasted with the message. In most cases, the artists performed signatures songs to please the audience rather than attempt perform lesser known pieces that may have had more emotion bite. The other performers were Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Livy Jeanne, Dean Brody, Susan Aglukark, Brett Kissel, George Canyon, Michelle Wright, The Travelling Mabels, Don Amero, the Alberta Youth Choir, and Shawn Johnston (another actor/musician or would that be musician/actor), along with a number of presenters brought the show to just under two hours–a perfect television match.

Laureen Harper, wife of the PM, took to the stage with an honour guard of police, fire, and military personnel which drew the crowd to its feet with loud cheering and whistling, lasting for close to a minute. Deep down we know who our heroes are; we can applaud the artists for their contributions, but we know the people who truly deserve our gratitude.

The penultimate performance was by the Alberta Ballet company dancing to the recording of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.” Though the dance was interesting to watch with the added effect of baseball bats cracking the stage reminded one of lightning strikes, it seemed a bit incongruous. The team element aside, one would have expected a dance from the group’s KD Lang “Balletlujah” staging, but in any event, this contrast was interesting since the song and the dance were far removed from the overall country and western tone of the evening.

Throughout the night images of water played on the rear screen, many of which were time lapse films of ice forming and melting which kept drawing us back to Jackson’s vision of nature and purifier and changer. Sometimes it takes a storm to remind us of the power of nature, and sometimes it takes a recovery to remind us of the power of community, and sometimes it takes a musical event to clarify our memories and allow our emotions to flow. Halo High Water was such an event.

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