It’s Sunday morning and the gates to the shire have just swung open. The cast and performers move toward their designated areas, interacting with the early arriving patrons. As the quartet reaches the stage, their loyal fans are already settling, preparing for what has become a traditional set of quiet tunes, a chance to play the softer ballads and slower melodies. Let me introduce you to Queen’s Gambit.
He may support the family with a job at an internet service provider, but for Bruce Cannon it is all about the music. His first faire experiences were at the Oklahoma Renaissance Faire in the late 90s where a friend was singing. He enjoyed the music and continued to attend until 2001 when he decided to audition for a cast position. As with many first time male cast members, his assignment was as a member of the Queen’s guard, an essential position but one that only required him to escort her, ward off overly attentive patrons, and avoid stepping on her gown.
While working at faire, he came to know the Bedlam Bards, watching their shows and listening to the music. The more he saw, the more he thought that it was something he would enjoy doing. He began learning various tunes, picking up around forty in six months. When time for auditions arrived, the faire signed him as a drunken Scottish minstrel. His youngest daughter, Amber Cannon, plays the whistle and attended faire as a gypsy. One day all the minstrels were busy when it came time for the maypole, so he and Amber played together and found that they enjoyed the dance tunes.
A trip to the Scarborough Renaissance Festival for the final weekend of 2002 introduced the father and daughter to an amazing variety of talented musicians. They made some great connections and learned of some great resources for Celtic music. They worked all summer learning dance music and went to the Kansas City Renaissance Festival in the fall of 2002. It was there that Bruce met Susi for the first time.
Susi Matthews Cannon has been working at renaissance festivals for 30 years, though only as a musician since she met Bruce and Amber. She told me that she’s done pretty much every job at faire except sell tickets and serve food. Primarily she has been on cast, as either a street character or a member of the court. She portrays Queen Elizabeth at a couple of faires to this day, and you can catch her in that role at the upcoming White Hart Renaissance Festival. She is also a professional costumer, though she no longer accepts custom orders, having found that all her time these days goes to providing costumes for the band and her acting jobs. The tapestry instrument bags that she made for the band raised enough interest that she has started a home based business,, to provide them to other musicians. Susi also produces shows such as White Hart Renaissance Faire and Joplin Renaissance Festival. She just finished at the Joplin where she held the dual responsibilities of entertainment director and Queen Elizabeth.
Susi’s mother was a music teacher who used Susi to fill in whatever range was missing in performances. She chuckled when she told me that her mother called her an “also,” rather than an alto, since she had the range to sing whatever needed covering. She has a strong voice and drops in to harmony parts easily, making her extremely versatile. Susi and Bruce first played music together at the Boare’s Heade Feast in Oklahoma in the fall of 2002. Susi’s voice softened as she told me that it was “magical.” Bruce said, “I wondered why she had never been picked up as lead singer.” They continued playing music together over the next year.
In 2003, Kansas City Renaissance Festival signed Bruce on as a solo act. Susi was going to be there with a fencing group. It was the first time they sang together at a festival and he continued to teach her the songs he played. “It wasn’t easy for me,” she told me, “Bruce is a really quick study, but it comes hard to me. I have to write them down and work hard to learn them.” Nevertheless, learn them she has.
It was early in 2004 that Bruce and Susi became a couple and about the same time that the band started to gel. Bruce’s daughter, Amber, returned from a tour with the Army and the three performed at the 2004 Norman Medieval Faire. They didn’t even have a name at that point. They began offering their audiences the opportunity to name the band and Wendy Zdrodowski, formerly of Minstrosity and now with Merry Measure, suggested the name Queen’s Gambit between songs. The name worked on several levels, both paying tribute to Susi’s years in the role as Queen and to the risk they were taking to make the show work.
Bruce, Susi, and Amber performed as a trio for a time, always looking for a fiddler to add to the mix. Julia Shayto joined them in 2006 and brought the added advantage of having a degree in recording. They recorded three releases as a quartet in that configuration but time has brought change. Julia’s husband took a new job that moved them away and Amber has taken hiatus while she completes her degree. Bruce and Susi looked for members to fill the positions and found Nikki Ryan, a treble who plays whistle and works in an office when not at faire, and Becky Grotts, a public school music teacher who plays viola and fiddle and has a vocal range from second soprano to bass. This configuration has been playing together since mid-2007. Bruce told me that the band “has a really good blend of personalities, we’ve really become a family as you have to in order to be a good band.”
Queen’s Gambit specializes in the old folk and traditional songs, played in the traditional manner. Whoever has the lead part on the song determines the arrangement they will use. A patron once told Bruce, “You guys sound like what a Renaissance Faire is supposed to.” He told me that was the highest compliment they had ever received. When Susi is on cast, she can’t perform with the band at the scheduled sets but will try to get by for a couple of songs. “Greensleeves,” a song reportedly written by King Henry VIII, is one they sometimes do if Susi is on cast. It seems appropriate, as Henry was Queen Elizabeth’s father. They generally have a set list in mind but the flow of the show usually determines the order of performance. Bruce calls the next tune, taking in to consideration requests coming from the audience.
The Sunday morning quiet sets, as they’ve come to be known, are some of the band’s favorites and, it seems, a favorite of their fans. It started because there were usually few patrons at those early shows and the band could sit close, sometimes even in the audience, and sing the quiet ballads that don’t work in the noise of the later day. They sometimes practice new pieces. Those shows have become one of their more crowded shows these days.
Between sets, they go out and wander, stopping to sing a lullaby for a fussy child or perform for a merchant who never gets to see a show. A song they know is in Low German and they’ll sing it for someone they notice speaking that language. Susi laughed as she told me, “I don’t understand it but I can sing it properly.” At Scarborough Renaissance Festival, they sometimes perform in low traffic areas, drawing attention to the booths. Knowing that there will be magical moments each new day and that they can share those with their friends and fans is what keeps Bruce, Susi, Nikki, and Becky coming back each day.
While the band has appeared at as many as 26 weekend events in one year, these days they are trying to keep it to 20 weekends, all within five hours of home. With Bruce, Becky, and Nikki all working full-time jobs, there is a need to be at work Monday through Friday. The balance of their 2008 schedule calls for them to be at the White Hart Renaissance Faire, the Conestoga Sci-Fi convention, a one day performance in Parsons, Kansas, and the Boare’s Heade Feast at the Castle of Muskogee. Their contract with Kansas City Renaissance Festival is still in negotiation, so they may or may not be there.
The Conestoga Sci-Fi convention was new to the band last year and they greatly enjoyed it. Bruce and Susi told me that they hope to find more Cons to appear at in the future. Their music went over well with the attendees and CD sales were great.
Bruce looks forward to an ever-increasing technical competence with their instruments. Susi, feeling a need for something to do when a performance piece is strictly instrumental, has recently begun to play the bodhran. They’d like to develop their repertoire of Irish jigs and reels. “We want to be Tullamore when we grow up,” Bruce told me with a chuckle.
While Bruce reiterated several times that performing the music is what it’s all about for him, Susi says that one of the things they do so well is to build bridges—creating interconnections between people, bands, faires, introducing this person to another who has the skills or resources needed by someone else. She told me that it was important enough to them to have included the concept of bridge building in their wedding vows. Bruce laughed and told me that it was a good thing he isn’t a chemist. “Sometimes the mixes I come up with go KaBoom!!! But then again, sometimes two people are magic. There have been some pretty serious working, personal, faire, and musical relationships because of [the bridge building] and we’re really happy about that.”
Websites for Queen’s Gambit: