Watching the river flow
Winnipeg duo paddles their way from gig to gig on the tributaries of North America
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 02/07/2016 (2276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
‘Me and the missus we go, oh down the river now oh down the river now.” Walkabout (The Sacramento River Song) — Twin
Dave Fort, one-half of the Winnipeg alt-folk duo Twin, is seated in a Los Angeles coffee shop, speaking on the phone about a performance that took place earlier in the week at Swabbie’s on the River, situated, as its name implies, on the banks of the Sacramento River, in Sacramento, Calif.
Calling it “the biggest show of the tour, so far,” Fort mentions it was also the most convenient, given he and Brooklyn Samson (a.k.a. Mooneyesun) — his partner on stage and off — were able to paddle their canoe to the popular watering hole’s dock, unload their instruments and step up to the mike. No fuss, no muss.
“We played in the afternoon for over 200 people and because we were done by 6 (p.m.), we were able to get back in the boat after the show and put in a few more miles before finding a place to camp for the night,” Fort says, accepting congratulations from a scribe who, thanks to Twin’s Facebook page, noticed the singer-songwriter’s 38th birthday coincided with his and Mooneyesun’s appearance in the Golden State’s capital.
“The next day was a bit of a challenge, mind you. The tides were up in the morning and there were a lot of massive yachts throwing up big wakes. So we’re still a bit sore and stiff (from paddling) but otherwise, it’s all good.”
In case you hadn’t figured it out, Twin’s approach to music might best be described as rock and row.
In 2010, Fort, along with then-bandmates David Enns and Lesley Brown, staged the first Assiniboine River Music Armada, a 12-day paddling/camping excursion from Brandon to Winnipeg that was punctuated by a string of live concerts in locales such as Spruce Woods Provincial Park, Long Plain First Nation and Portage la Prairie’s Island Park Bandstand.
Between songs, Fort engaged the audience about issues he feels strongly about, including the plight of global waterways, seed-sharing and organic gardening.
Not only did the Assiniboine River trip become an annual event — the latest journey culminated with a May 27 show in the Exchange District that toasted the release of Twin’s new album, Mooneyesun. Fort (guitar) and Mooneyesun (violin), who had never set foot in a canoe before she joined Twin in 2012, have since added a network of other North American rivers to their repertoire.
This summer, the pair’s undertaking is the most ambitious tributary tour yet. With the Assiniboine and Sacramento rivers already under their belts, Fort and Mooneyesun are turning their attention to the Hudson, Cuyahoga, Greenbrier and Mississippi rivers — sections of which they will paddle — and play — before hopping in their vehicle and driving back to Winnipeg in mid-October. (The couple has navigated the mighty Mississippi each of the last four summers but this year, they intend to spend a full month on Big Muddy, beginning Aug. 20 in Grand Rapids, Minn.)
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“I’m going to give you a careful no,” Fort says, when asked if he is aware of any other acts on the planet that do what Twin does for a living.
“Obviously, going back in time, indigenous people carried music in their boats as they headed from place to place but in the modern context, no, I haven’t come across anybody else touring in the same manner.”
Fort was born in Brainerd, Minn. His parents moved to Flin Flon when he was five. It was there where he first fell in love with the notion of discovering the world around him, one stroke at a time.
“I started paddling when I was really young and when I got older, I began teaching (canoeing) and taking groups out on canoe trips in northern Saskatchewan,” he says, adjusting his chair in a Wolseley Avenue café where he and Mooneyesun sat down with a reporter in May, a week before they embarked on their 2016 adventure.
“As I got more and more involved in music — prior to Twin I was with Absent Sound — I kind of took a break from paddling. But about 10 years ago, I started thinking about ways to combine my two interests and that’s when I came up with the idea of the Assiniboine River trip,” he says, citing Bob Marley and Sonic Youth as two of his musical influences.
Sure, it hasn’t always been clear sailing, they conceded.
In February 2011, when Fort and his companions were on the Los Angeles River, they were “pulled over” by a police helicopter near Studio City, Calif., and arrested for loitering and trespassing — charges that were eventually dropped after a lengthy court battle. On another occasion, workers at a nuclear plant in Monticello, Minn., kept a watchful eye on Fort and Mooneyesun, warning them if they were thinking about stopping near their facility, they’d be wise to change their minds.
“We usually budget for weather,” Mooneyesun says, noting all their on-board gear, including instruments, clothing and maps, is stored in heavy-duty, waterproof drybags. (A good indication a tour is going well is when the container reserved for the band’s CDs and promo T-shirts keeps getting lighter and lighter, she says with a chuckle.)
“If we’re on a 10-day trip, for example, we’ll only book ourselves in five places along the way, in case we get held up by a thunderstorm or tornado warning,” Fort says. “We’ve done as many as 53 miles (85 kilometres) in a day, but that was because the water was high and we couldn’t find a place to land. Twenty-five to 30 (miles) is doable but 15 is a nice day, we find, because it affords us a bit of time to have a look around visit with people in wherever it is we’re playing that night.”
Twin will pull into major centres on occasion — Fort shook his head when he recalled a show in Minneapolis that required them to conceal their canoe and belongings in an abandoned factory, climb over a rusty, metal fence and catch a cab to the downtown venue they were scheduled at — but they prefer to concentrate on the tiny, personable communities that dot the banks of the rivers they’re traversing.
“You can go to Chicago or Toronto but just because there are seven million people living there, it doesn’t mean of any of them are going to come to your show,” he says. “But take a place like Riverton (Minn.), which is on the Mississippi just before Brainerd. Total population is probably 150 but whenever we’ve gone there, we’ve absolutely packed the town hall. Even the mayor comes out to watch.”
Twin’s sets consist of original compositions culled from the group’s five albums. They only deviated from that approach one time, Fort says, at the tail-end of an engagement at the Trempealeau Hotel, in Trempealeau, Wis. Like a scene out of a Valdy song, a few old-timers seated at the bar started shouting out requests when they learned the musicians at the front of the room were from the Great White North.
“They were yelling, ‘Play some Gordon Lightfoot,’ so finally, at the end of the night I said, ‘All right, here’s one for you,’ and did The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
(You’re right if you think the rhythm associated with paddling is conducive to song-writing; Mooneyesun says she has to force herself not to drop her oar every 15 minutes or so to jot down lyrics that hit her, seemingly out of nowhere.)
Although Fort appreciates the “creature comforts” of home when he returns to Winnipeg every fall, he starts getting the itch to get back on the water “about a week later,” he says.
“It’s a funny thing cause when we’re out there, freezing cold and soaking wet after three straight days of rain, you think to yourself, ‘That couch or bed would feel pretty good right about now.’
“But ever since I was a kid I’ve had this fascination with rivers — with wanting to know what’s around the next bend. That sense of discovery still blows my mind and is what’s going to keep this project going, for as long as we’re able to do it.”