Rankin Family Reunion in Calgary

Last night, we attended what I can only describe as a typical Maritime house/kitchen party. Except without the screech or incomprehensible accents.

Back in the early 1990s, Canada had a brief flirtation with popular Maritime music. While the Maritimes loved the music to begin with, the rest of us uncultured folk had to wait for the CanCon rules to bring it into the public eye.

Along with Leahy (who hit the big scene a couple of years earlier) and Great Big Sea (who rolled in with the tide a couple of years later), The Rankin Family made up a significant portion of the Maritime component of the Canadian airwaves.

I’d heard one or two of their tunes before. Nice, but I didn’t go out of my way to buy an album.

Alex, however, is a big fan of theirs, and has been for ages. In fact, she’d been at a Rankin concert the night before she had a horrific car accident that destroyed her just-purchased Rankin Family t-shirt. While laid up in hospital, a friend of family who knew the manager of the band got them to sign a new one. She’s never worn it.

The band broke up in 1999 as they’d wanted to pursue their own projects. A few short months later, John Morris Rankin was killed in an accident and the band’s future was questionable. Raylene battled breast cancer, and only a couple of weeks ago, Geraldine (one of the founding members) died from a brain aneurysm, which devastated the family yet again.

So when I saw a Ticketmaster alert for The Rankin Family, my first thought was “cover band”. But a bit of digging had me realize that this was actually the The Rankin Family (surviving members, of course). And they were touring, having recorded a new album. Conveniently, Christmas was just around the corner…

Due to an inability to walk the three blocks just prior to the Christmas break, I had to give Alex a printout of the ticket purchase rather than the tickets themselves. But, tickets in hand, we went to the show last night.

I will freely admit that I knew the tune of one Rankins song before going into the concert last night. One. “North Country.” Actually, to be fair, I knew the tune of the chorus. After that, I’m more than a tad rusty.

The opening act was one woman. I honestly don’t remember her name now. But it was just her and her “band” — another guitarist. She started off with a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “A Change Would Do You Good”, skipping from one song to the next without much fanfare or chit-chat.

After a 30-odd minute intermission, The Rankins took stage. My first thought when I saw Jimmy was “he hasn’t changed much”. Cookie and Raylene … well, I hate to say it, but they reminded me of school teachers (which Alex later echoed). And believe me, this is not meant to be in any way derogatory. It is a fact, however, that you do not need to vamp it up like so many of the pop stars — true talent does not depend on the way one looks. And Raylene’s voice can still shake a stadium.

The stage was filled at one point with 12 people playing and singing. The Rankins travel in a troupe that includes a pianist, fiddler/keyboardist, drummer, bassist and guitar/banjoist. And they travel also with a new member of the performing Rankins: John Morris’ daughter, Molly.

Molly doesn’t feature too much in the show, and while she gets centre stage a couple of times (she sings a song, assumedly that she wrote; plays fiddle a couple of times; and stomps a mean clog), she doesn’t factor in very heavily into the show. I think the elder Rankins should include her more, personally. She would be a grand (permanent) addition.

One song stood out for me, but not for the music. “The Orangedale Whistle” is about the Orangedale station in Cape Breton. This stood out for me because I’ve been to the Orangedale Station, and the song is about how the trains ended and the building stands alone and empty. Which is true — the trains are gone (VIA no longer runs its Bras D’or train) and I shudder to think how few people visit the museum anymore.

The last couple of songs (before the encore) had everyone standing — everyone. I swear most of the audience was from the Maritimes, with a significant number seeming to be from Cape Breton. It was … loud. But in a good way.

I was actually sad the concert was over (Alex particularly so, since they didn’t play her favourite song: “Fare Thee Well Love”), as it was great music to listen to. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing the killer acts, like David Bowie, but the small, comfortable bands are worth every penny.