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Concert Review: Wade Fernandez

On Wednesday, Apr. 17, at 7 p.m., the Ethnic Studies department presented a performance by Menominee musician Wade Fernandez (Walks with the Black Wolf) in the Nathan Marsh Pusey Room at the Warch Campus Center. Fernandez has won significant awards for his many albums as well as for his leadership and activism. Professor of French Lifongo Vetinde introduced Fernandez and spoke about how expressions of ethnicity reside at the core of the ethnic studies curriculum. Then, Fernandez shouldered his guitar and introduced his son, Quintin (Bear Claw), who plays the drums. Fernandez mentioned that he had given lectures in the Deep Listening Lab and in an ethnic studies course that morning and that he will likely be more involved at Lawrence in the coming years, including teaching a class at the Conservatory in 2020. 

Fernandez’s first song featured the Menominee flute, whose clear and deep sound washed over the audience like a warm wave. Besides the soulful melody, Fernandez executed many complicated ornaments, which added a fervor to the music without taking away from its melodic contour. Fernandez exuded a deep calm, playing with his eyes closed, and the audience applauded gratefully at the end of this excellent opener.

Accompanying his excellent playing, Fernandez maintained an easygoing and amiable stage presence. Regarding the setup of the Nathan Marsh Pusey Room, with its carpeted floor and sofas in the back, he said, “It’s like we’re in someone’s big living room, so make yourselves comfortable.” Even when audience members entered the performance space late or left early, Fernandez kept his cool and continued to engage the rest of the audience with his music. For his second piece on the concert, Fernandez played his electric guitar while Quintin maintained a steady drumbeat. After beginning with a beautiful ostinato, Fernandez pressed different mechanisms on his pedalboard with his foot, which allowed him to layer a solo line over the ostinato he had just recorded. Soon after, Fernandez picked up his flute and played it simultaneously with his guitar. Continuing, Fernandez picked up another flute and played two flutes at once, both resounding through the room in exquisite harmony. The theme that Fernandez played eventually transitioned to a vocal melody, and Fernandez sang about broken promises and broken hearts in his soulful, vibrant voice. Everyone in the audience enjoyed this number’s impressive virtuosity and responded with great applause.

The concert also included a few of Fernandez’s hits, such as “Commodity Cheese Blues,” a song about his first job out of high school working for the United States Department of Agriculture. Another meaningful song was “To Grow in the Rain,” which chronicles acceptance of life’s struggles and looking to the future with hope. “If everything was easy, we’d be wimps,” Fernandez quipped, eliciting laughter from the audience. Fernandez also sang a song in the Menominee language and had everyone in the audience join him in the refrain, which they did with enthusiasm. Another audience favorite was “Indian Summer,” whose lively groove had many in the audience smiling and tapping their feet.

In between his admirable music-making, Fernandez told the audience some personal stories, including one about his grandmother who had passed away. He talked about how he had gone to UW-Milwaukee for music performance until his teacher kicked him out because “after two years, [he] still sounded like Wade Fernandez!” Fernandez said he eventually figured out that wasn’t a bad thing, and he went back to school later and got his degree in music education. He talked about the importance of listening, how it is an act undertaken not just by the ears but by one’s heart, soul and spirit. Fernandez said that when he truly listens, he feels like a faucet has been turned on, and everything flows through him, which provides him inspiration and helps him preserve his people’s legacy. He also spoke about the necessity of caring for the planet and standing up for what is right, mentioning his experience at the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock. 

In his concert, Fernandez displayed superb musicianship and spoke thoughtfully about life and issues in the world. Lawrence students are fortunate to have experienced this exceptional event, made possible by the Ethnic Studies department. For more information on Wade Fernandez, his upcoming tour dates and his albums, visit  https://wadefernandezmusic.com/.