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What's in Fred's Head?: Some new material and lots of old favorites, on display this Saturday night at Kuumbwa

What's in Fred's Head?

On his way to Santa Cruz, Fred Eaglesmith talks about fans, change and singing 'gospel without Jesus'

By Traci Hukill

The first time I heard Fred Eaglesmith, I was making barbecue chicken pizzas at a stand at the Strawberry Music Festival. It was Memorial Day, 1996, and I was a liberal arts degree-toting Gen Xer in the twilight of her slacker years. Back in Santa Cruz, part-time jobs were threatening to turn into full-time. Through the pizza stand window, I heard the crowd going nuts, and Fred Eaglesmith came on over the festival's short-range radio station, and suddenly I wanted to flip the whole damn apple cart over one more time and make a mess and keep on having fun.He played a song all Fredheads know: I'm wilder than her and it drives her out of her mind/ I guess that she just thought she was one of a kind/ She's a summer storm, I'm a hurricane/ One just blows through town, one blows the town away/ I'm wilder than her. It was pure Eaglesmith, the perfect showcase for his devastating songwriting and his hell-bent tenor with its payload of unwavering, Northern-Plains-tough-guy emotion. When Eaglesmith sings, you don't have a choice but to get on board.

That part never changes. Whether Eaglesmith is singing about a farmer confounded by a changing world in "Time to Get a Gun," an old horseman winding out in the retirement home in the song "Rocky" on last year's Milly's Café, or even if he's cracking up the audience with "Big Hair" (When I take her picture, just to get her in/ I turn the camera sideways and use a wide-angled lens ... My baby's got big hair), his songs ring true. But they don't ring the same tone. Like Faulkner, who populated his fictional Yoknapatawpha County with a recognizable cast of characters, Eaglesmith has a "little musical universe" of people who could easily be, like Eaglesmith himself, from a small town in Ontario, their lives buffeted by heartbreak, hard times and inexplicable changes.

"They're definitely there," he says of his characters. "Sometimes they move out. Sometimes I move out. That's what happened in [1997's] Lipstick, Lies and Gasoline. The whole album, I took it closer to town. Before that I'd been really, really rural."The fans don't always like it, he says. It usually takes them four or five years to come around. One radio station wouldn't pay 50 Odd Dollars, his rock-influenced 1999 release, when it first came out; a couple of years ago he learned it's a mainstay. "I just smirked," he says.

Eaglesmith's next CD, due out in March, could be one of those albums. The two cuts I heard have a heavy, driving beat and higher production values, and mark a significant departure from the melodic, mandolin- and dobro-inflected Milly's Café. Most surprisingly, Eaglesmith says the new album is about spirituality.

"Now I went somewhere else again," he says. "This one's about gospel—gospel without Jesus. I think, especially in North America, a lot of us are thinking about spirituality and we'd love to have that, but we can't believe in religion, you know? We can't believe in fundamentalism and not even in the mythology, but at the same time we have this faith, right? So everybody prays, but nobody admits it." "It's affecting the whole world and nobody's dealing with it," he adds.

It's clearly rich territory for Eaglesmith, who escaped a stifling fundamentalist Protestant household on the day he turned 15 and spent the next five years hitchhiking and train hopping throughout western Canada. He went "criminally wild," he says. But running away so young gave him authentic confidence—something he sees as being in short supply."Most people, their issue is confidence," he says. "I always say there's too much self-esteem in this world but no confidence. Self-esteem says, 'I can't wait for that person in front of me at the gas station' and honks the horn. It says, 'I'm worth it.' But confidence says, 'I'm a little late and the people who are waiting for me will deal with it.'"

As he heads to Santa Cruz, Eaglesmith is trailed by some sadness. Willie P. Bennett, who for 25 years anchored Eaglesmith's band like an oak, had a heart attack last May and is finished touring. Longtime fans will miss his high-lonesome backing vocals, liquid mandolin playing and solid stage presence.

There is some consolation for Eaglesmith, though. Santa Cruz is one of his favorite places to play, not only because on his first trip here he filled the venue even though no one had heard of him, but because he can "poke fun at my gay friends and at my hippie friends and they laugh. Not so easy to do in Massachussetts."

FRED EAGLESMITH plays Saturday, Jan. 19, 7 and 9pm, at Kuumbwa, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $22 adv/$25 door; 831.479.9421.

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