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April in Savannah
Canada's top fiddler headlines the 2011 folk festival
The band's all here: Cody Walters, left, April Verch and Clay Ross

The Savannah Folk Music Society is bring a world–class performer to Forsyth Park for this weekend’s Savannah Folk Festival, a player who wouldn’t be out of place at the prestigious springtime Savannah Music Festival.

She’s 33–year–old April Verch, a past winner of the two highest Canadian honors for fiddling, the Grand Masters and the Canadian Open. Verch is an acknowledged master of the Ottawa Valley school of fiddle–playing – it’s a fusion of Scottish, Irish, French and Appalachian music, performed full–tilt and high–energy – and a champion stepdancer. “That’s part of who I am,” she says of her dancing prowess. “The traditions go hand in hand for me.”

The April Verch Band includes Clay Ross on guitar and Cody Walters on upright bass and banjo. They all sing, and Verch is an accomplished songwriter with eight albums to her credit.

Verch is one of Canada’s best–known and most–loved folk musicians – she made her first TV appearance at the age of 10 – but celebrity, she says, holds little interest for her. It’s always been about the music.

“Musicians are known for getting in the way of themselves sometimes,” she laughs. “I mean, we’re all like that because we all have something we feel is important and we want to share it. And sometimes you want to do it so badly that you get in the way of just stepping back and letting the music do the work.”

Verch was 3 years old when she began stepdancing; she took up the violin three years later. Mom and Dad, she explains, supported her goals from the start.

“My parents were also realistic,” she adds, “and they wanted to make sure I had an understanding that it wasn’t the easiest way to make a living. They often said ‘Listen, you love to play, but you could do something else and still play on the weekends. Do you realize what you’re getting into?’

“They weren’t like that to an extent where it discouraged me from doing it, but it really made me seek out a lot of the answers I would need to make it work early on.”

The Ottawa Valley style is unique because it has deep, deep roots that connect the Old Country to both Canada and the United States. “They’re all related – it’s just hard to pinpoint exactly what came from where,” Verch says. “Certain regional styles at home to me sound more like old–time American than others. Or certain tunes even. And the old–time American stuff also has that African influence.”

She was 15 and still questing when she attended fiddle virtuoso Mark O’Connor’s camp in Tennessee; later, she studied classical music and played with the Ontario–based Deep River Symphony Orchestra.

Then came the Berklee School of Music in Boston. “I wanted to study further, but I didn’t want to pursue just classical,” Verch explains. “I also knew of a really good jazz school, here at home, but I didn’t want to do just jazz. The string department at the time was still really tiny – they didn’t want you to do one thing or another, they just wanted to help you pursue whatever it was that you were looking for.

“And what I wanted to do was just be exposed to more styles. And I wanted to be able to improvise a little bit more – you know, I grew up in a tradition where you play the tune a few times, and then play another tune, and then another one. And you vary the tunes. But I didn’t grow up in bluegrass where you learn to solo and stuff like that.”

Verch left Berklee after a year, and she hasn’t slowed down since. When her touring schedule has a break, she’s part of the award–winning, high energy fiddling band Bowfire.

Last April, Verch, Ross and Walters toured the People’s Republic of China. It was both an eye– and ear–opening experience.

“There are certain things you get used to as a performer,” she says. “We talk a lot to the audience – the stage banter, and letting them get to know us is a big part of what we do. So we weren’t sure without being able to communicate, other than the music, how things would go. And we needed a lot more material to make up a set!

“But it really went over. Even the vocals – it was amazing to me how sometimes we’d sing a song, and they couldn’t understand the words but somehow they had the same reaction that an audience at home would to listening to the lyrics.

“That’s the cool thing about music, and your body language, and the tone that you’re setting with the instrumental part of it.”

People in Hangzhou, Ningbo, Beijing, Shanghai, Dongguan and other cities, Verch says, “loved what we did, but part of it was that we were from so far away.

“And we were so unique. When Cody pulled out the banjo every night, they clapped – because they weren’t really familiar with it.”

Savannah Folk Festival

All events are free


Oct. 7, 7–11 p.m. in Ellis Square: The Old Folkers, Michael Maddox, Chris Desa, Jean–Paul & Dominique Carton, Hanson and Amburgey, Jamison Murphy

Oct. 8, 8–11 p.m.: Old Time Country Dance at Notre Dame Academy Gym, 1709 Bull St.  Music by the April Verch Band. Caller:  Janet Shepherd

Oct. 9, 2–7:30 p.m. in Forsyth Park (rain site: Ships of the Sea Museum)

2 p.m. Opening Announcements

2:10 p.m. Four Shillings Short

2:45 p.m. Boo Hanks

3:20 p.m. April Verch Band

3:55 p.m. Tom Chapin

5 p.m. Four Shillings Short

5:35 p.m. Boo Hanks

6:10 p.m. April Verch Band

6:45 p.m. Tom Chapin

7:25 p.m. Closing