A capstone of two visionary Newfoundland bands, he still has an affinity for the odd tune.
“I was kidnapped, taken to a house on Power Street, brainwashed, and forced to play the mandolin.” Newfoundland folk music pioneer Dave Panting laughs as he reminisces about the early days of the seminal folk rock group Figgy Duff.
“I really looked up to Noel Dinn, and I knew early on that I wanted to play with him. I was hired to play bass, but at one point we were in a situation where there was no melody player in the band. We wanted to get some jigs and reels on the go, so Noel suggested that I play mandolin.
“Their former fiddle player, Jamie Snider, had left this old, electric Eko mandolin with the band. It was a chunk of plastic with a neck and a pickup. I didn’t know the mandolin at all; I had it tuned in C for about a year before I realized it was tuned like a fiddle.
“But it didn’t matter; we would find tunings to suit the songs. It might have been naïve in some ways, but because we didn’t really know the rules, we weren’t bound by them. We just did our own thing, and subsequently came up with some pretty unique sounds.”
In Newfoundland and Labrador, Panting is a musical legend. His career spans four decades, two iconic bands, Lord knows how many albums, and hundreds of gigs around the world.
A number of his original compositions, including The Memory Waltz and The Gypsy, are standards in the NL tune player’s repertoire. If an instrument has strings and frets, Panting can play it: guitar, bass, mandolin, bouzouki, and baglamas, he moves effortlessly from instrument to instrument, genre to genre—weaving delicate accompaniments for ballads, pile-driving through traditional dance tunes, and forging danceable folk-rock originals.
After a decade with Figgy Duff, Panting left the band to spend more time with his wife and young son. Besides gigging, he worked as a technician at the Resource Centre for the Arts.
In 1985, he met a young Nova Scotian student named Ian McKinnon. A couple of years later, he, Panting, and Panting’s brother Geoff formed a trio that would eventually evolve into the Celtic powerhouse known as Rawlins Cross. Named after a confusing and treacherous intersection in the heart of St. John’s, Rawlins Cross built a devout following in Atlantic Canada and beyond.
“In the late ’80s and early ’90s, traditional music was exploding,” says Panting. “But we made a conscious decision to start playing original material, even though the advice we received at the time was the opposite. It was when we did that, that things took off for us.”
With the Panting brothers as the primary songwriters, the band made six albums over a 13-year period, and then took a break in 2001.
“After being on the road for so long, we decided to shut down for a spell, but the door was always open. Plus, we parted on amicable terms and we had no debt. We weren’t like The Eagles, siccing lawyers on each other,” he laughs.
In 2008 the band re-formed and agreed to tour on a select basis. Since reuniting, they have put out two albums and recently finished another. Meanwhile, Panting has many other musical irons in the fire. While in Halifax putting the finishing touches on the new Rawlins Cross recording, he recorded an album with Nova Scotian multi-instrumentalist Greg Simm, and recently produced a book and CD of original instrumentals with musician Dan Rubin.
Currently, he performs with the Newfoundland/Greek band The Forgotten Bouzouki; he is a longtime instructor at the Vinland Music Camp (a camp that specializes in teaching the traditional arts of his home province); and this past fall, he released a wonderful CD of original compositions entitled Worlds Away, featuring some of Newfoundland’s finest musicians.
“You can work in a vacuum to a certain extent, but collaboration can really enhance your work. The songs that I wrote in Rawlins Cross? They just wouldn’t be as powerful without the boys playing on them. I worked with so many great musicians on the Worlds Away project: Christina Smith, Gerry Strong, Aaron Collis, Emilia Bartellas, and my brother Geoff, to name a few. There are a couple of tracks on the album that I barely played on. On Sea Heart, I was joking about the fact that I played drum machine bass with one finger; that was my contribution to the track as a player. Those guys did sterling work; it’s not really a solo album. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
After more than 40 years in the music business, Panting is still excited about what comes next. He recently pulled back from performing in clubs, citing fatigue and the desire to do other things with his time. He is working on a potential publishing deal, and is trying to find more time to write music and produce albums.
“I would like to do another Worlds Away. That’s the stuff that really interests me, and if I had me druthers, I would spend a lot more time recording and writing. I really love all the traditional music I’ve learned over the years, but I don’t consider music static. I never had an academic approach to it; I don’t believe in that. It’s storytelling, history, and entertainment.
“You can’t stifle that and put it in a box. No one has a right to say, ‘You should be playing this tune like this, or like that’.
“I love the genre, and I’m excited by the chance to add to it. We need to have respect for the tradition, but we should feel free to make our own mark on it, too.”