Strays & runaways

The Waifs talk about their roots and touring with Bob Dylan

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Myles Hyken

The metamorphosis of folk trio The Waifs, who play at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in Lyons this weekend, is equal parts gritty survival story and enchanting fairy tale. Beginning in 1992, sisters Vikki and Donna Simpson, selftaught guitarists, began traipsing around their native Australia in a camper van. They sang at resorts, markets, mines, biker bars — anywhere people would listen to them perform their favorite songs.

“I was out of college options, and Vikki, well, she dropped out of high school at 15 and has never had a real job since,” Donna says.

Months into their first foray, they stumbled upon Josh Cunningham, a rock ’n’ roll expatriate. After a short jam session, Josh agreed to join the troubadour sisters, and The Waifs were born.

Continuing a seven-month traverse of the expansive outback, the three musicians forged a working chemistry, often sleeping in riverbeds. They began to develop an almost uncanny connection with their growing audience.

Over the next four years, The Waifs toured Australia relentlessly. In 1996, after attendance grew significantly at their shows, The Waifs began recording a series of self-released albums every couple of years, each selling thousands, with little or no help from the Internet.

It’s now 2003, enter Bob Dylan. As you might guess, this is where the fairy tale begins. On the heels of 2003’s platinum album Up All Night, The Waifs supported Dylan on a brief tour of Australia. The folk legend was so enamored with their songs and energy he asked them to open for him on his ensuing North American tour.

“We were in orbit,” Donna says.

“Bob gave us the opportunity to be heard by a lot of people. We had never experienced such big hype.”

Since
they hit the “big time,” Donna moved to Minnesota, sister Vikki now
lives on a farm in Utah, each with families, and Cunningham resides in
California. Collaboration now involves significant travel.

When
asked why she has never taught at the Folks Festival Song School, Donna
replies, “Oh no. I write completely alone. It is a very personal thing
for me. My neighbor knows to bring me a big bag of almonds. It is a very
dangerous place fraught with manic episodes.”

The
Rocky Mountain Folks Festival has enjoyed a contingency of Australian
performers over the years, from Xavier Rudd and John Butler to Missy
Higgins and Mia Dyson. Still, the Waifs are often referred to as the
festival’s little darlings.

“We
have a hard time scheduling our staff members to work during their sets
— they’re so popular in our office,” confides Brian Eyster of Planet
Bluegrass. “They have a wonderful chemistry. They’re also very sweet.”

Donna
relays the following story: “I just saw an incredible Neil Young solo
show,” she says. “His sincerity shined through so succinctly you could
feel the energy in the audience. It was like ‘I’m here, and I’m going to
play this fuckin’ song however I want to.’ The magic is in the
simplicity. I think Colin Hay [of Men At Work] grasps this idea. I hope
we convey that to our audiences as well.”

The
Waifs are currently reworking some of their traditional favorites,
sometimes a big no-no among themselves and even artists at large. The
band promises jazzier, more soulful renditions of oft-requested tunes,
replete with three-part harmonies.

“Vikki
helps begrudgingly,” Donna says. “We just get bored with them.
Performing live, they just become monotonous. I don’t understand how
Dylan plays the same version of ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ over and over
again.”

The Waifs
are certainly qualified to write a do-it-yourself guide to succeeding as
a touring band. Obviously, an Aussie work ethic helps.

“It’s been an amazing life,” Donna says.

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