Featuring some of the most respected musicians in island trad, Kelly Russell & The Planks are gearing up for a return to live performance in the summer of 2017. Russell sat down with The Herald to talk trad lineage, the addition of an exciting new member and Newfoundland music across the world.
The Planks have been tapped to close out the 2017 Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival on August 6th. Excited?
Absolutely, it’s a real honour. The band has come and gone over the years. The album that we did Smash Hits in 1996 or 1997, even today it is touted by other musicians as being a landmark album. I feel we had a fairly big impact musically and musicians tend to appreciate other musicians sometimes and we got lots of praise from that recording.
We have kind of lasted a long time but we’ve come and gone over that time and we haven’t always been gigging. Everyone in the band has other projects and other things we’ve gone on to do, but we always seem to want to come back together and do this again. We know that the music is great and the combination of the fiddle with the unique rock sound and now the addition of the accordion back in the band, it’s really hard to stay away from it.
The group currently consists of yourself, Sean Panting, Chris Batstone, Adam Staple and now Bob Hallett. Take me through the addition of Hallett to the lineup?
Chris had kind of been nagging us all for the past couple of years, ‘By’s we should get back together, do a few gigs, what’s on the go?’ Sean had a conversation with Bob Hallett one night who expressed a desire to play music, not necessarily being in a big touring band out on the road, but just to keep his hand in playing occasionally. We said that there might be a little revival of The Planks and we asked him if he’d be interested in playing with us and he said he certainly would be. Bob is now a full-fledged member of the group. We are now a five-piece.
Who do you see as being the true innovators or pioneers of that trad rock style here at home?
Really the band that forged the path of trad rock of all kinds is Figgy Duff. They are the band that really started that here in Newfoundland. I was an original member of Figgy Duff. We started out in 1975. Although they didn’t meet with great success, but as far as reputation, name and accolades, we got a lot of that … a lot of these bands that came later attributed and sort of praised Figgy Duff for being the ones to open that door in the beginning and cut the path so the other bands could get through.
Something like the Folk Festival has been a tremendous vessel for the betterment of local folk and trad music, certainly within the young community. What’s your take?
Something like the Folk Festival makes this music accessible and makes the stage accessible to the younger players. Outside of the festival setting and maybe one or two other events, people and musicians under 19 do not have access to a stage to perform, because all of this music happens in the bars. That’s a criticism that I’ve always had about the music scene here, it’s bars and late nights. Even for people of age going in the bars some stuff doesn’t start until 11:30-12 at night. We really need to revisit that and have more venue like the Folk Festival where the young people have an opportunity to perform.
You’ve always been a huge advocate and spokesperson for Newfoundland music, especially abroad. What would be some things you hear when you travel outside of the island?
I’ll go into schools and do presentations on Newfoundland music and Newfoundland culture and I try to emphasis to my students and open their eyes to the fact that Newfoundland music is not just for Newfoundlanders and not just popular here in Newfoundland. Whether you take this music on stages around the world people take notice. They recognize it as being similar to Irish but also recognize it has aspects to it that are very unique. It’s always fun, exciting and upbeat and Newfoundland musicians are popular everywhere and Newfoundland musicians are being recognized worldwide.
Have there been discussions for more touring, more dates or potential new Planks material?
I think it’s starting to happen. We’re talking about doing another recording and certainly talking about doing more gigs. Everybody does have other projects and we’re all quite busy, but this is something we’d love to do as a sideline. If we were able to get out and do a little two week tour in the summer or even off the island, we’d certainly be open to that and definitely local gigs.
Kelly Russell and The Planks perform at the Folk Festival in St. John’s and the Outer Cove Folk Festival on Aug. 13th. For more information visit kellyrussell.ca or nlfolk.com