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Wendell and Wheat performing this weekend

Folk and country musical duo return to the Sault this weekend for a special performance at The Loft this Saturday
wendell-and-wheat
'Best of musical pals' Wendell and Wheat will perform at the Algoma Conservatory of Music on Nov. 19

Singer/songwriters Katherine Wheatley and Wendell Ferguson took time out of their busy schedules to record their answers to some pre-written few questions while in their vehicle en route to a show in Ottawa.

Apparently the voice-to-text application made for some humorous responses.

“I did a little editing today, just so it was comprehensible. However, I was tempted to not edit it. The voice recognition came up with very original and sometimes lewd renditions of what we actually had said.”

Ferguson, whose sense of humour is well-known in music circles, makes up one half of the folk duo, Wendell and Wheat.

The two artists, who also record and play independently, have been performing together as a duo for over 25 years.

During that time, they have played in the Sault and area on numerous occasions.

“I’m older than Katherine, so I played in Sault Ste. Marie back in the 70s in my rock band days and then again in the 80s in my country days with Tommy Hunter and a bunch of other country bands,” says Ferguson.

Katherine Wheatley first approached Ferguson to add his guitar talent to her 1995 album Straight Line.

“I dragged Wendell into the folk world in the late 90’s,” says Wheatley.

“He was playing with George Fox at the time and I needed a country guitarist for a song I was recording. I loved his sound, so asked him to join me.”

Ferguson remembers that first song well.

“I recorded on her song, ‘Main Street.’ I guess it was about another two years before she called me for a gig.”

At that time, Wheatley was playing with guitar player Ray Montford, who performed on most of the Straight Line album.

“[Ray] wasn’t a country guitarist which is why we got Wendell for that track.”

As fate would have it, Montford wound up joining The Rankin Family band full time in 1997.

“The [Rankins] were touring a lot, so I needed a guitar player. I remembered that funny guy who played that amazing telecaster on ‘Main Street.’ So I asked him.”

Around that time, Robin MacIntyre, local promoter and co-organizer of Black Fly Jam (with her husband Enn Poldmaa), was Wheatley’s agent.

“When I started my career, Robin was really involved in getting artists up to northern Ontario. She was a point of contact for a lot of us and connected us to presenters in other towns. I would often plan my trips to stay extra days at Robin and Enn’s place,” says Wheatley.

Wheatley notes that her first gig in the Sault with Ferguson was a Black Fly Jam event held in Goulais River.

“There were great fish dinners beforehand,” she laughs.

“I think we played there three or four times.”

The songwriter also notes that she played a number of shows and fundraisers in the Sault organized by Gene Turgeon, and one organized by Turgeon’s brother Ed with students from the Great Lakes International Summer Music Institute.

Like Wheatley, Ferguson always enjoys playing in the Sault and jokingly adds that he believes Buffy Sainte Marie’s younger sister ‘Soo’ lives there too.

The duo will be playing the city’s new state-of-the-art venue, The Loft [at the Algoma Conservatory of Music].

“The nicer the room, the nicer the sound, the nicer the experience for everybody, musicians included” says Ferguson.

The duo is known for a special chemistry when they play live together.

“For me, when we play a show together I get to show more sides of myself as a musician,” says Ferguson.

“With Wheat, half the show, I’m the singer and the comedian guy. When Katherine’s doing a sensitive number, I get to be the side man. I spend a lot of my career being a sideman so Wendell and Wheat sort of showcases everything I do.”

For Wheatley, her style has sometimes been referred to as the “tears” to Ferguson’s “humour.”

“I’m playing country songs. Really fast songs. These are not things I do solo or with my trio Boreal. In other words, it’s been a musical challenge and growth for me to play with Wendell. Also, there is absolutely no pressure leading up to the show. There’s no prep. Nothing. We don’t go up with a setlist. If we do, we never follow it.”

Wheatley notes that time on the road travelling to shows with Ferguson is spent telling stories and laughing.

“We take that mood right onto the stage. It is always in the moment … If technical issues come up for one of us, it’s never a big deal. The other person entertains while things are being sorted. But magical musical moments happen. Mostly, it is so easy to connect with the audience because of how we’ve arrived on the stage: comfortable, happy, present.”

Outside of recording and touring, Wheatley works on a program in schools called, Youthsongs.

The program helps youth to find their creative voice through song.

“I think [it is] the most rewarding work I’ve done,” she says.

“I’d write songs with every classroom in an elementary school. So Kindergartens to Grade 6. They’d choose the subject. I’d ask questions to tease out words and phrases and metaphors and they’d throw out ideas.”

She describes the sessions as noisy and chaotic at first, but winding up magical.

“I’d be scribbling things on the blackboard and suddenly words started to rhyme and verses and choruses formed. Just like the universe, from chaos to planets. Order. Youthsongs took more courage than anything else I’ve done in my career.”

Wheatley was introduced to the concept by Canadian singer-songwriter James Gordon (of Tamarack).

For Ferguson, outside of the duo, he performs solo and is a session player.

“My solo show is made up of my own songs and instrumentals and a few curated cover songs that I like,” he says.

“When I play on sessions or live for someone else, it’s all about their song. I just listen to the song, get into the mood of the song, react to it and try and find a part that works. If it’s moving a lot, I try to stay static and if it’s static, I try to move … you have to be present and there in the moment. Sometimes, I can really do it well, and sometimes I hit the ditch.”

Ferguson’s recording credits are varied, from country artists like Tommy Hunter to folk legend Gordon Lightfoot to new wave/avant garde songwriter Jane Siberry to folk star James Keelaghan.

The duo admires the work that promoters like Robin MacIntyre and Black Fly Jam do.

“We are doing this interview while we’re driving home from an intimate venue we played up near Ottawa, in a small town called Macdonald’s Corners. It’s the fourth time in the last 15 or 20 years we’ve done the show. And they’ve been working hard for at least two decades,” says Wheatley.

“The dedication to get music to the local community is incredible. It is selfless and passionate and community building. Small venues have to work so hard to make it feasible. Food for us. Snacks and CD sales in the intermission. There’s the sound to lug in, set up, sound check, run, tear down, reload into the van. By the way, it’s the sound person who works the hardest in this business. Getting the word out. Booking the musicians. Finding the accommodations. There are the people who put us up in their homes. Fundraising to make it feasible. But it is a place for people to gather and to share a moment together. We all feel the music together. The audience is as big a part of the show as we are. An intimate venue usually means they play a bigger role. That just makes the show better.”

Wendell and Wheat will perform at the Algoma Conservatory of Music on Saturday, November 19 at The Loft.

Doors open at 7 p.m. and show time is at 8 p.m.

The Loft is at the Algoma Conservatory of Music located at 75 Huron Street.

Tickets can be purchased online or by calling (705) 649-2880 to reserve tickets at the door. Seating is limited. Door sales are not guaranteed unless reserved.

To find out more about Wendell and Wheat, visit Katherine Wheatley and Wendell Ferguson’s websites.