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I’m sitting in a shady yard and, as I watch, the leaves are starting to blush red, rust and yellow before making their downward drop to become a colorful quilt on the ground. I’ve been here in southern Ontario for the last month, taking care of business but also enjoying an eclectic potpourri of music and art provided by some of the great performers and artists in the area.
Back in late August, I went to the (first annual?) Daniel Lanois Harvest Picnic at the Christie Lake Conservation Area a few miles outside of Hamilton. The local-boy musician, international über-music-producer invited a bunch of his musical friends (and no doubt worshipers) to this leafy-green-and carrot-top friendly event. The weather cooperated, the stage ran smoothly, the vibe was relaxed and the mix of music was fantastic. Dan and his associate Jean-Paul Gauthier put together this day to celebrate local family farms and I would describe it as a kind of low-key Canadian-grown Farm-aid. They raised money for some local gardening initiatives but mostly gathered a crowd to celebrate the fresh produce that grows nearby, the people who tend it, and the sweet music of the performers.
Instead of MCs, a number of farmers and their families spoke about their lives spent providing us with healthy, often organic, food in this age of agro-business and industrial farming. Some were quite political and blunt about the disturbing realities of trying to survive in this corporate chemically-consumed age, while others were simple and sincere with stories of their love for the land, sharing tales of several generations in one family working the same fields.
My friend with the sweet voice and rockin’ spirit, Lori Yates – who we will revisit a few times in this post – played her poignant songs with the great Brian Griffith and her new bassist, Peter Sisk. Cocky and I got to the daylong show early to be sure to see Lori and this enabled us to have a good position right in front of the stage.
It meant that we could later see the stunning Emmylou Harris up close. She sang both solo and with Dan Lanois’ band, her voice still pure and her face still lovely. You know when you are in the presence of a queen. She was as gracious as her long, slender hands strumming her guitar.
Another musical icon I got to see for the first time was Canadian Gord Downie, famously known as leader singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip. He was with one of his other bands The Country of Miracles featuring Julie Doiron and radiated the same energy and wit that he is known for.
A band I saw for the first time and really enjoyed was The Reason. Great name for a band (“Well folks, thanks for coming, we are The Reason.”) Alt-country, attitude, good licks, stage presence…yup, liked them.
From California, Dan recruited a young soul man named Rocco Deluca. First time many of us had seen him and he was beautiful with stirring music that stirred you up. Apparently he has been touring with Dan, opening his shows. Don’t know, maybe he’s a famous guy south of the border, but I think he just got himself a new buncha followers up here in Ontario.
There were a number of other acts – John Ellison, Sarah Harmer, and the very enigmatic and powerful Ray Lamontagne – but the hardest working musician of the day was definitely Dan Lanois. Besides putting the show together and being our affable host, he played with Rocco and later performed a set with his own band Black Dub as well as backing Emmylou’s set. And during stage changes, he was jamming in the sound booth with his two musicians, Jim Wilson and Steve Nistor, pulling the crowd into center field for some spontaneous combustion with the South American dancers who accompanied much of his show. Depending on how you saw it, they added either world beat colour or feathery female distraction.
It was a perfect day and it’s hard to imagine that they could create the same magic though I expect they will try. There was lots of green energy and smart thought put into the organization and no corporate sponsorship nor plastic marketing garbage – the biggest logos screamed “RECYCLE HERE”. Instead local artisans and small food vendors had a captive audience. Food wise, I fell in love with Feng’s Dumplings, juicy tasty nuggets created by Hsaiao-feng Wu, who came to Guelph from Taiwan a few years ago and started her small business. I was so enamored with these “titillating Taiwanese temptations” as she calls them, that I recently went to the always wonderful Guelph Farmers’ Market to meet her. I thanked her for making them, devoured many more and took some frozen ones home. I am now going to try to find her a place in Hamilton to sell them otherwise I’ll be returning to Guelph from time to time. Check her out at www.fengsdumplings.com and if possible taste her dumplings – for you too could fall in love.
A couple of weeks after the Picnic, there was a convergence of music and art with community in the Hamilton area. The mid-September weekend began with the arrival of the Pride of Baltimore, a tall ship that sailed elegantly under gusty winds into Hamilton Harbour, blasting her cannons as she arrived.
I got to spend a glorious afternoon on a sailboat myself – thanks to Francis and Jeff – that included cruising close to the tall ship, views of a couple of submarines in dry dock and another large ship visiting the harbour from the Canadian Navy, amid all the other happy boaters out enjoying the early autumn weather that still resembled a perfect summer day.
A four-day run of music began in Toronto at the Lula Lounge. Lori Yates has been part of a Patsy Cline Birthday Tribute held annually where several great vocalists share the mic to belt out those songs that make you wanna weep or drink or maybe even try your luck at love again. They do Patsy proud. The hair and outfits were priceless, including those that came from our favorite local designers, Blackbird Studios. They make dresses for roller derby queens, real women and glam-punks and were well represented that night, lending some glamour and shine to the stage.
The next night, I took a tour down to Port Credit to Chuck Jackson’s (of Downchild Blues Band) Southside Shuffle, an annual blues festival at the mouth of the Credit River. There was a great group of six loud ladies – most notably the phenomenal Lady T and Cheryl Lescom – called the Motor City Women. Cheryl covered Etta James’ “I’d rather go Blind” and it sent shivers through the crowd. But the night was made truly memorable by the Blind Boys of Alabama. Only three of them are blind and only one of the original five still performs but after over seventy years of singing gospel and the blues, those boys and their band know how to raise the congregation’s spirit just fine. Jimmy Carter, the 80-year-old original, was jumping like a teenager and you could see that he was gathering more energy as the night went on. As part of the show he comes down into the audience, aided by the sighted guitar player, and people reach out to touch him like a talisman – whatever that man’s got, we all want it. You could tell that he would have stayed on singing all night but maybe those younger musicians were pooped. Glad I got the chance to testify at one of their revivals.
Back in the Hammer, on Super Saturday the city was celebrating Supercrawl on James St. North, the Locke Street Festival, the Canadian Country Music Awards, Festitalia in Westdale, the Pegan Fest in the east end…well, the list goes on. It all brought tens of thousands of art and music lovers to the city. There were a number of large public art installations such as these blown up bodies on the top of the Mixed Media building and the metal collage pictured earlier….
…as well as the knitted panels-for-siding on one of James Street North’s friendly little bars, The Brain. Wandering the street through the day and night, I ran into crazy people (often friends), soaked up music, pondered the depth of artists’ imaginations, mused over amusements…well, the fun never stopped. I was so overwhelmed by the options that day that I almost didn’t go out at all, but fortunately I got it together and caught a rag-a-ma-tag bunch of art and sound. It is getting that one hardly recognizes the old Hamilton – knitted brick buildings? Very cool – or cozy.
The outskirts of James Street North may have been quiet as usual, but the heart of it was pumping. There was only positive energy all around, great chaos and good will. And just to finish off a perfect weekend, we went to see one of the Hammer’s best bad boys Tim Gibbons rocking This Ain’t Hollywood for the Sunday matinee. My time in Hamilton isn’t complete without a little Tim, and I ain’t talking coffee.
A few days later, Lori was on stage once again, this time with another hot rockabilly chick from Texas, Rosie Flores. Lori and her band The Nashville Rejects hit the stage full tilt and played one hot set of I’d-be-crying-if-I-wasn’t-having-so-much-damn-fun music. It was Lori as I haven’t quite seen her since back in the 80s when she was royalty on edgy Queen Street West in Toronto. Her band – Stephen Miller, Ted Hawkins and Peter Sisk – were as tight as a G-string on a steel guitar.
Rumor had it that Rosie, the headliner, said “How the hell am I supposed to follow that gal?”, but of course she just kept us rocking with her guitar licks and Texas attitude. It was truly a smokin’ night with Lori and Rosie and their bands – in both cases, newly put together, one rehearsal, but no one could have known. It was a red hot ending to a great summer of music and good times. Thank you Hammer-town, you continue to amaze me.
I’ve just arrived in Boston, riding the Greyhound bus from Montreal, Quebec to Portland, Maine with a couple of hours to kill in the bus terminal. I’m too cheap to pay $10 to store my bags and they are too heavy to be carrying around on a walking tour of downtown Boston…aah, the value of traveling light. You’d think an experienced traveler like me would know better, but when you have written a book and then need to haul copies of it everywhere you go, the weight of those pages really messes with your better baggage sense.
I arrived back in Canada a couple of weeks ago at the perfect time. Summer was just settling in after what people complained was a very wet spring. Fortunately the sky has quit its crying and happy sunshine has been the new norm. The migratory birds got here long before me, the gardens are in full bloom, and even sweet Ontario strawberries are in the markets! In the short time I was in Hamilton before hitting the road again, I squeezed in as much visiting as I could along with the inevitable springtime visit to the taxman – one must take the bad with the good.
The folks who are renting my house are happy there, thank goodness, and I’m happy they are there. For the first time in years, I didn’t return to an overwhelming jungle of a backyard in need of serious machete work. Instead I stayed at my friend Jeff’s beautiful home overlooking the marina in Hamilton Bay, facing west for perfect sunsets. It took me a couple of days just to leave this retreat and head out into Canada, the bayside balcony providing a very nice transition between tropical paradise and northern bustle.
Although I’m very good at living in the moment – meaning that I don’t usually pine for the friends, food and forests that I’ve left behind in “the other place” – I do arrive ready and excited to see my pals, taste familiar flavors and wander through different shades of green.
The very wet rainy season and the very sunny dry season in Costa Rica yielded a bumper crop of mangoes that never seemed to end – it seems we were eating juicy locally grown fruit for months and seeing millions more wasting on the ground. I arrived to piles more mangoes here in the northern markets, but resist them, as I am making the switch to local foods – those strawberries, rhubarb, fresh asparagus, salmon. My Canadian palette squeals with delight. Eating locally is not difficult at this time of the year – resisting exotic species, which I love, is a simple question of political will. I am one of the lucky ones who gets to return to the land of local mangoes, papaya, and bananas soon enough.
As always, the biggest changes I see are in the faces of my friends’ children. There are new babies to meet, children who can now ta-ta-ta-talk, others graduating from the innocent years to the hormonal ones. More and more of my friends are becoming grandparents, a role that brings a light to their eyes, unencumbered by the responsibility they felt when their own children were born. I’ve gone from Auntie K to Great Auntie K, a name I can only try to live up to.
I’ve taken the opportunity to catch live music and switch up my dancing from calypso and salsa to rock ‘n roll. Our buddy, Kevin, another music lover, came up from New Brunswick and we were the flops at Jeff’s flophouse. Our friend Randy holds house parties and one night had smokin’ guitarist James Anthony along with a band called Pop Cherry which does covers of the Stones, the Doors and Aerosmith. The singer, who I call Steven Mick Tyler, has the look and the moves of those tall lanky frontmen. It was a great night for dancing.
I also finally made it to an Island Party on Ward Island in Toronto (yes, for those of you who don’t know, Toronto has islands), where old friends Pat Allcock and Tim Bovaconti played their unique selection of covers to a raging dance floor. Tim, who has been on tour with Burton Cummings (Guess Who), plays guitar and sings harmony with the best of them but also is a ukulele king. Love versatile musicians especially when they are also real nice guys.
I managed to return to the Hammer in time for the James Street North Art Crawl (second Friday of each month) which keeps getting bigger and wilder each time I’m in town. I spent most of the time at Blackbird Studios, visiting with the gals, Lynn and Kerry, who create beautiful clothes for rock ‘n roller chicks (and dress Roller Derby Teams around the world). We stepped next door into Dan Medakovic’s studio to catch some of the great local musicians – Dan, Mike Trebilcock, Linda Duemo and the lovely Lori Yates – jamming and having fun. I have given up trying to do everything there is on an Art Crawl night, it’s impossible – better to just stay where you’re having fun and move on when you must.
There is no shortage of music, art, theatre or fashion in the Hammer, only a shortage of time to catch it all. But we try…
I also had a number of book orders to fill, but was hampered by the lock-out of the Canadian Postal Corp (thus the books in my bag which I will be mailing while here in the US at a much cheaper rate). There is a conservative corporate mentality raging in Canada that should be scaring my fellow country-folk to death – instead, enough of them voted last month to give the right-wing Conservatives even more power to deplete workers’ rights, diminish environmental protections, and continue to shift our beautiful country to a less progressive, less inclusive, less caring agenda that favors the wealthy and powerful.
We need Michael Moore to come to Canada and do an exposé on our bewildering society which he has idolized in his documentaries. What is going on? The media machine and corporate controllers have managed to get stronger despite all signs pointing to a diminishing social intelligence that is going to lead us into dark years. The amount of mis-or-dis-information about the postal situation in the media is a prime example. I think most people believe that Canada Post is still a tax-funded department of the federal government which is wasting our tax dollars paying overpaid workers who went on strike when it is actually a profit-earning distinct corporation that locked out its workers rather than negotiate fairly. The government, with their union-busting mentality, forced them back to work and the contract, when ratified, is going to take the workers backwards, not forwards. As I read somewhere, it is interesting that the work of the posties is not considered important enough for a proper negotiation of a progressive contract, but is essential enough to demand back-to-work legislation.
On my way to Maine, I passed through Montreal and stayed with my friend Donna and her partner Cem. Donna worked for the Canada Post Corp for years (when she wasn’t creating and teaching art). Cem and our friend Matt are still lugging mail up and down the twisting staircases of downtown Montreal. Like other posties I have known throughout my life, their bodies suffer from the years of hauling heavy bags of mail to homes and businesses, clocking close to 15 kilometers each day. And despite the use of the internet for personal mail, their bags are no lighter as businesses flood our psyches and mailboxes with propaganda. Not just with free flyers that we can refuse to receive, but the addressed commercial stuff that must be delivered to the person, bringing us the information that inundates our lives and begs us to consume. So knowing all this, I went out in solidarity with my friends and the other posties for their last morning on the picket line before they were forced back to work.
Not everything is as it appears. As can often be seen with the public perception of working conditions, such as happens with the teaching profession, people don’t have a clue as to how difficult the job is – for example the accumulative wear and tear on the posties’ bodies (through sleet and hail and snow…etc.) Some just see it as unimportant, overpaid union work. We now have a government in Canada who is working hard at removing the rights of workers to strike for better conditions as well as the rights of activists to assemble and protest. It comes from the same mentality that considers our health and our environment as expendable in the pursuit of more outlandish profits for the wealthy upper tier of society.
What are Canadians thinking? Exactly who is voting for Stephen Harper, a man known for his contempt of the democratic parliamentary process, his life-long commitment to reducing the taxes of the wealthy as well as lowering environmental and safety standards? He believes in and supports the economy of war, including the War on Drugs, even as experts speak against it. The WOD keeps a lot of people, including the narco-traffickers, the security forces, the courts, and the arms dealers, rolling in money while its customers roll expensive joints until they find out that crack is a much cheaper high.And they say that marijuana smoking leads to harder drugs? maybe it is just politico-economic manipulation.
Wake up! Even the United States is rethinking some of this stuff. Just as happened last year at this time, during the days of the G8/20 fiasco in Toronto, I return home and feel sick about what I see happening. Is it that people will sell their souls today, along with their children’s future, for the possibility that one day they too will be part of the elite class? Good luck with that! Is it apathy? Is it greed? Is it stupidity? All of the above?
Happy Birthday Canada! I hope you grow up to be a kinder, gentler nation. I always thought that it was your destiny, but lately I fear that you’ve been smoking a corporate crack pipe and the profits are all in the hands of the dealers. It is hard to stand on guard for a system that is exploiting everything I believe in.
Aah, my last week in the Hammer. She’s been an attentive hostess this last week, our fair city. Blue skies, warm sunshine, no pollution (well, maybe that’s a relative thing), the bursting of bulbs and buds - all a perfect backdrop for getting my house and yard ready to be abandoned (well by me, not my house guy Ben),
assisting my pal Gerry to take down the rest of the crumbling poplar tree in my back forty, spending some last precious moments with friends, doing my taxes to the tune of a good return, gathering things for jungle living, and spending the second Friday of the month on the ever-fascinating James Street North.
This once maligned street – the original road up into town from the harbour of the Port of Hamilton - has traditionally housed all kinds of storefronts, bars, and restaurants as well as the Canadian Forces Armoury and the original train station which is now a large dining room and conference center. There’s also a whack of Portuguese and Italian mens’ clubs and cafes which is where I went to watch games with the old European men during the last World Cup in 2006.
I’m sure at one time the street would’ve drawn sailors off the big boats pulled into the harbor – I’ve met a sailor or two at Fisher’s , my local eatery & pub at the most northernly end of James Street North. When I grew up, across the bay in Burlington, and for most of its existence, the neighbourhood had a reputation for a mafia presence. It certainly has always had a tough spirit and a working class energy.
The original Portuguese restaurants, the Wild Orchid and Ventura’s amongst others, have continued to thrive and the little Gates of India restaurant that consistently gets great reviews is still here. There are still a few long standing family-run businesses, Millers Shoes and Morgensten’s Department Store, that have survived the years. Now a larger variety of cultures are represented, East Indians and Koreans and West Indians included. But the biggest new crowd in the area has to be the arts community.
Sometime around the turn of the century (this last one), people starting buying up the old, now fading buildings, and turning them into art galleries and studios. Torontonians with dreams of owning their own gallery or studio could actually do it here in the Hammer as the prices were hillbillyish compared to the over-inflated costs of the Big Smoke which is only about 45 minutes down the highway.
So bit by bit the face of James Street is changing – to the point that one is beginning to wonder where it will all end (besides at the bay to the north and the steep climb up the mountain to the south. ) As in, how long till Starbucks realizes a good thing? James Street South, which cuts across the upper ”mountain” of Hamilton, has already filled with car dealers and is working on collecting big box type stores. Lower James Street, here in the heart of the city, holds the life of the Hammer.
There are many characters responsible for the most recent turn of events – Bryce Kanberra, Dave Kuruc, Cynthia Hill, Jim Chambers – who first saw the possibilities for the street and were smart enough to take advantage of the cheap prices involved in renting and buying. Once people started coming to their galleries and shops – the You Me, Mixed Media, the Blue Angel and James North Gallery – they were intrigued by the possibilities and, well, the rest is modern history.
On the second Friday of each month, the street opens its doors for the Art Crawl. I think this has been going on for four or five years. In the beginning there were maybe ten small galleries, mostly simple renovated spaces created within old funky buildings with an abundance of red brick and ubiquitous white drywall backdrops to hang paintings. In the last two years, there have been many other artist-held spaces opened and you could no longer do the street at a crawl – you now have to scurry to get through all the openings and exhibitions. This last Friday night saw the opening of about five new or renovated spaces – and the bar keeps getting raised each time with the effort people are putting into their new ventures.
The street was teeming – I mean, I was recently in New York City on a Saturday night in July-like weather and, well, okay maybe there were a few more people wandering the streets of the Big Apple, but in a relative kinda way (NYC – 10 million people – Hamilton 500,000) James Street North was packed and the atmosphere was exciting.
With my friends Freda and Susie, we wandered through the galleries and couldn’t believe the buzz on the street. I’ve always found it hard to catch everything: the art openings, the occasional busker or performance artist, the friends you bump into, and now add the local fashion designers’ studios as well which could demand trying on clothes! Sheesh, you need a weekend to do the whole street anymore, not just the evening.
I have talked before about Blackbird Studios, just off of James North on Wilson Street - Kiki and Buckshot have a dramatic line of clothing that has a sense of humor as well – it was one of their hot dresses that I wore to the Hamilton Music Awards last November. I stopped by their shop and was amazed at the racks of clothes and the new styles – and Kiki told me that it was empty compared to a few weeks ago before they had a big sale. Prolific gals these two, charged with dressing the hard rock Hammer girls, and obviously starting to attract good attention.
Just down James North, there is a new clothes designer who also does alterations and custom tailoring – Olinda, a young woman from El Salvador. With her extended family present, she had the grand opening of her shop, Olinda’s, with free pizza and cake and a beautifully redone shop.
This building used to house a tattoo parlour and now it has a rose-coloured paint treatment and curtained dressing rooms. The care that Olinda and her family have put into this is a good sign for the quality of work she must do. I doubt that she will be a direct competition to Blackbird – these are two very different styles with Olinda bringing in that Latin flair – but hopefully they will augment each other’s business and bring in women looking for original designed clothes (and in Olinda’s case, tailoring and alterations) that aren’t outrageously priced.
Another changed space, just across the street, is The Clay Studio. Grazyna, who does fine and interesting ceramic work, has moved down from a large space on the third floor of the building into a more reasonably-sized room that incorporates her studio and gallery. I have spoken with this friendly artist before, and am happy to see that she has moved into this space and it looks to fit her just right. She’s bound to get much more attention at street level whereas the galleries that lurk in the upper floors of these buildings take awhile for people to discover yet are always worth the walk up.
In a short two blocks there was a bit of art theatre going on at Artists Inc, one of those bizarre scenarios that you have to watch for awhile. There was also Gord Lewis, of Teenage Head, and Chris Houston, another Hamilton rockero, accompanying a photography retrospective of punkers and rockers at the Sonic Unyon building - I think Gord was going to play but we had to leave. There was also a duo singing at the James North Gallery and an intense anti-smoking display at another new space put on by a group of university students . With a pig’s lung hanging in the window, they were intent on making a harsh point, but I got the impression it was mostly non-smokers hanging around anyway. The street is nothing if not eclectic.
There is a new boutique selling African and Indonesian art and imported items, the Tribal Gallery, just two doors down from the Woodpecker, which seems to me to sell basically the same stuff. It is wonderful to see a mix of cultures here though I don’t know how two such stores will survive in the same neighbourhood but I wish them both well.
Barbara Milne, at the Pearl Company, runs the Art Bus, taking people to openings around the Hamilton area on the first two Friday nights of each month. The second Friday the tour visits other local galleries in the central city with openings but also takes in the James Street North Art Crawl. I truly appreciate the Art Bus service – if you are in Hamilton on one of the first two Friday nights of the month, pay the $15 and leave your car at the Pearl and join the bus with Barbara’s enthusiastic commentary – it’s always a real enjoyable evening.
The warm summer evenings have always been busy on James Street North. Now that there is more and more to experience during the Art Crawl, and each new business brings in a new mix of followers, these Friday night events will be just that – big events. I hope that it spills over into bringing in good business throughout the month to the shops and galleries that line the street. Many of them offer locally produced items – like Mixed Media which is an art supply store but also carries local artists’ and writers’ work (including Walking with Wolf.) I have barely touched the list of artistic endeavours going on. I can’t imagine what James Street North will be looking like when I return in September. I hope it doesn’t outgrow its grassroots and start getting a corporate, chainstore effect going on. It’s magic is in the individual personalities of the businesses, their enthusiastic, energetic and talented owners, and the historic, funky character of the buildings that have come back to life on James Street North.
On a book related note, I received the new shipment of 2nd edition Walking with Wolf books. The truck was supposed to arrive on Friday – a day calling for pouring rain that had me worried - but there was a knock on my door Thursday morning (luckily I was home) and a trucker telling me that his great big tractor trailer wasn’t meant for my narrow residential street. Well, I coulda told him that if someone had asked me. When he opened the doors, there was my lonely little skid of boxes in an otherwise big ol’ empty trailer – carbon neutral be damned. My neighbour Bev came out and helped and we got those boxes of books into my house lickety split under a blue sky with no threat of rain. There’s a shipment of books headed to Costa Rica as well and Wolf and I will soon be visiting our old pal Eliecer, our customs man in Alajuela, to get them out of customs purgatory.
I’ve been working on my yard – the before and after pictures show my progress – and because of the tree that went down, it has now turned from a shady to sunny space. My yard consists of a terrace, beach, gardens, campground and work compound – it’s an oasis in the city and keeps me sane whenever I’m forced to be here and live like an urban animal.
I’ve had some real nice visits with friends who’ve come to say goodbye and know that I will be missing them soon enough.
So now I’m on my way, floating down a sweet stream and letting the current have its way with me. I am truly excited to be heading back to Costa Rica and Cahuita and Roberto and his jungle home. And to see Wolf again and take care of details involved in Caminando con Wolf, the Spanish translation of our book. The next time I write I’ll have monkey songs in my heart and wolf howls on my brain.
But I know I will be thinking fondly of the humble but hot-headed Hammer, wondering how she is doing – like a ragged mutt who has finally found love in a new home and is starting to shine with the attention. The prolific growth of creativity that is happening here is taking the Hammertown down her own stream (not the way of the Red Hill Creek I trust) – hopefully to an interesting and bright future. Shine on my Hammerhead friends! See you in the fall.
Frankie Venom 1957-2008
Well, where does one start? I’ve just survived a week of music here in Hamilton, Ontario, where the king is (was) a punker and rock still rolls but there is room for everything. The Hamilton Music Awards is an event that stretches over four days and takes up the downtown of the city. This is my fourth year volunteering backstage and each year I’ve been turned on to more great music, met more talented and whacky musicians, and come away having walked and danced beyond what my feet are happy with.
The Hammies are the work of Jean Paul Gauthier, who grew up around his parents’ bar and the musicians who played there, then went on to establish the Hamilton Music Scene Festival in 1995 that has now grown into the music awards and festival. JP manages musicians, produces concerts with Daniel Lanois and has brought a variety of names to the awards – Lanois, Garth Hudson of The Band, Eugene Levy, Ronny Hawkins, U2(via satellite). The venue changes each year and this year the show took place in the Hamilton Place Studio Theatre, a very industrial mid-sized concert room – and the room was packed. This was the year of Teenage Head, one of the original punk bands, and they were being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award. That honor was announced back in October the same day that their lead singer, Frankie Venom, died of throat cancer. So the weekend naturally became a memorial gig for Frankie. As was said in the local paper on Monday, this weekend was a punk love-fest. I have to say, there is something very sweet about a roomful of leather-clad hard-rock looking punkers with tears in their eyes. After eight years in this city, I’m quite sure that the music community here is about the tightest and proudest in the land – tribal, as one of them said to me. They may fight inwardly, but outwardly they’ll watch each other’s backs. And proudly declare their love of the Hammer. And grieve for the loss of their own together.
On Friday, the weekend kicked off with a music conference for high school students. I was out at the Thursday night opening reception and had gone to catch some of JP Reimens and Brian Griffith picking their guitars and singing sweet songs till late at night, but was up to help at the registration table for the conference. I agreed to come in just to have the chance to see the morning panel. It was on the future of the music album and was moderated by our east coast friend, Bob Mersereau. Bob lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick and is a long time arts reporter for CBC TV. Last year he authored the bestselling “Top 100 Canadian Albums” and now spends his time discussing his choices with people from across the country. I doubt that the conversation will ever stop.
Bob’s a great guy. I met him last year when he came here to be a presenter at the awards. JP had invited him since 16 albums on the list are from Hamilton. Bob loved it here and begged (as he says) to come back. He was joined on Friday’s panel by Graham Rockingham, who covers music for the Hamilton Spectator; Ric Taylor, all-round media music guy; Amy King, a music producer in Hamilton who also came from the east – Newfoundland; and Hamilton’s own Tom Wilson of Florida Razers, Junkhouse and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.
Although Jean Paul is in charge of keeping the embers glowing on all aspects of the production of this awards weekend, Tom is the flame that keeps things hot. I’ve talked about Tom before in this blog [see East Coast Pleasures] when he showed up on the hamilton365 website on Canada Day – I agreed that he would be my choice of Canadian songwriter who speaks to me of home and has an attitude I can identify with. Tom is a big guy – physically he towers over you, vocally he fills the room, and his presence is impossible to ignore. The best part of him to me, besides his musical genius, is his irreverency. He will say anything and he keeps things stirred up.
With two nights of award-giving, tele-prompted introductions and drawn out back-slapping amongst the musical community, it could get real dull if it weren’t for the fact that Tom throws out verbal darts that prick you awake every once in awhile. He is smart, experienced and very very funny. He has been engaged for a few years to a well known east coast (are you sensing a sub-theme here?) comedian, Cathy Jones, but made a point of announcing that that relationship was over. So whereas his little darts in past years had a bit of lovedust dulling them, this year they were definitely sharper. He sat at the outrageous end of the morning panel, he emceed both the music industry awards on Saturday and the big award show on Sunday (along with the very wonderful, very nice, very funny actor Patrick McKenna), he took his turn singing a few songs at both Teenage Head shows and did a set with his hot new band (musical collective he calls it), Lee Harvey Osmond, on Saturday night. And then he actually hung out on the dancefloor at the rap party on Sunday night when the young band, the Mississippi Kings, played. That’s a lot of energy - keep it rolling, Tommy – don’t ever let it stop.
Bob Mersereau says that after spending years going to musical events and gatherings all over Canada, he thinks that the best ones are the East Coast Music Awards, held in various locations in the Maritime provinces, and this weekend in the Hammer. I would guess that, beyond other reasons, it is because these are events that celebrate home grown music that rises out of the soul of the place - though there would definitely be a different tone and rhythm to the east coast than here in the industrial Hammer. I missed if the panel on Friday drew any conclusions about the future of the album, but I did see a room full of students saying they still buy CDs, not just download single songs; I heard alot of discussion around some of the incredible albums that have come from Canadian artists – The Band, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Willie P. Bennett, on and on and on – and I heard them all talk about the difference between the business aspect of the industry and the artistry of the musician. Real musicians/songwriters will probably always be inclined to make multi-song albums as complete reflections of the full collection of their creative work, despite what the industry might demand for sales. I had an interesting conversation a couple days later with my friend Dean Huyck who pointed out that the workshop aspect of weekend musical festivals is dying out along with the complete album – because of modern technology, today young musicians are able to produce single hit recordings in their home studios but aren’t necessarily experienced at jamming with other musicians or able to play beyond their own isolated basements. As the older musicians, more experienced with playing collectively, stop participating in the workshops, the music jam slowly disappears. High-quality albums filled with one brilliant song after another are getting harder to find. The industry demands commercial success more than musical ingenuity…aaargh, it goes round and round.
Over the weekend, there were many bands playing everywhere, but I can only talk about the shows I saw. On Friday night, I worked the door at the Pearl (my old friend, the Pearl Company) – where the Ron Palangio Jazz Sextet played a tight set of standards; followed by Shawn Trotter, a funny finger-picking guitarist with Scottish roots and great stories; and then the Lowest Lanes provided smooth harmonies to fill the lovely acoustics in the room. This little trio does nice covers and a few originals – they get their name because they all work at the Hamilton Spectator, our local daily newspaper (on a side note, I finally did an interview today about Walking with Wolf with Jeff Mahoney who writes a column in the Spec). Then Santucci and Doumas were going to be playing but I cut out to go and catch the Teenage Head show that was to be a tribute to the fallen Frankie Venom.
It was late when I walked into this sea of men with big frizzy hair, cloaked in black leather jackets (can there be a black cow left alive?), with many a blonde at their side, at Hamilton Place – fortunately, in true punk-style, the show was going to start real late so I didn’t miss anything (I knew I would miss Rackula and The Forgotten Rebels who played earlier). The remaining members of Teenage Head – Gord Lewis, Jack Pedlar and Steve Mahon - were accompanied on stage by two huge photographs of the late Frankie – as well as a line-up of local singers, each who covered a couple of songs – all aware that they couldn’t fill Frankie’s bottomless shotglass, that alone his stageman shoes. Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons, Edgar Breau (who, in his nervousness, did this dance thing that I thought was brilliant - great seeing new moves Edgar!), Adam Castelli, Brad Germain of Marble Index, Jimmy Vapids, Chris Houston, the always colorful Mickey DeSadist and the raver, Dave-Rave, along with the Head musicians, rocked the house in Frankie’s memory.
Gord’s brother John came out and sang a beautiful Irish lament accompanied just by Gord’s guitar, a song that they had performed at Frankie’s funeral – sorry I don’t remember the name of it – but it was a somber sweet note amongst the otherwise kick-ass stuff.
As someone who wasn’t a Head fan when I was young (I was living in the northern bush in Quebec in the late seventies when the Head reared its ugly self listening to Harmonium) but came to love them when I was a little older – and who is pretty new in this community – it was very touching watching the emotion of the musicians and listening to the influence that Frankie and the band had on all these other musicians in the city. Gord Lewis talked alot over the weekend – on stage and while receiving awards – and spoke eloquently of his band brother Frankie. I think the most recurring theme was that he influenced them to write original songs – that it wasn’t good enough to be a cover band, and so as long as they were writing their own music, they would all support each other. That is a big reason why the Hammer is so smack full of original sound now – this town has its own distinct snarly voice. Frankie was a rebel, and a punk, and a growling showman and a great singer of songs. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like punk music or even rock n roll, but you have to appreciate someone who has a stage presence that ignites rooms and a manner that inspires others. That kind of charisma is a gift and the rest is talent. The night was magical, in a dark gruff steel-city kind of way and you had to be moved.
Saturday was the music industry awards that recognizes the work by media, promoters, album designers and music producers. The lovely Kim Koren won an award for Musical Event of the Year for the concert she organized and played at raising money for the SPCA. I caught her resting, reading, and guarding her Hammie in the Green Room. Kim and her husband Frank can be found contributing their talent to benefit concerts and needy organizations everywhere in the city. She deserved the award, not only for the quality of her work, but in appreciation of her big heart.
Following the awards, there were three concerts that followed: the first was by local blues man and guitarist, Alfie Smith – who is recovering from his house having been burned back in the summer. Then we were treated to a set by John Ellison, the man who wrote the song “She’s Some Kind of Wonderful” – originally recorded by his band the Soul Brothers Six and played on the black soul stations in the United States in the sixties, then made super famous on the white radio stations by Grand Funk Railroad. Apparently that song is one of the most covered songs in the world – and as John said, every time you hear it, be assured he is getting the royalties and still being supported by it. He and his drummer Dean put on a high energy soulful set of covers and originals, including that famous song. Although when they came into the Green Room earlier in the day most people didn’t know who they were (and Dean told me that though John lives closeby in Dundas, they mostly tour in Europe, and we were lucky to have him there that day), by the time they rocked out the awards ceremony on Sunday with Some Kind of Wonderful to a prolonged standing ovation, we all knew who he was - not just a great entertainer and songwriter but a real nice proud gorgeous man.
The last show on Friday night was by Steve Strongman – by now I was only dancing and the camera didn’t come out, but his show blew out the room. When all was said and done, two words came to mind with him – he was versatile in his guitar playing and song selection, and beautifully restrained in how he delivers both the vocals and the screaming guitar…as in it isn’t always screaming. And, having talked with him backstage a few times, a real nice guy. MY HEAD GOES HERE
We jumped into a taxi and tried to make it to see Lee Harvey Osmond at the Corktown, but walked on to the dancefloor just as the last chord hit – and despite a real appreciate crowd, the band didn’t return for an encore. We headed to my nearby pub, Fisher’s, to finish off the night with the Sugardaddies – always a great band for dancing.
So before I finish up on this lovefest of Hammer-music, I have to throw in a fashion statement. Last week I went to Blackbird Studios where the design duo of Buckshot (she of the Evelyn Dicks) and kiki (she of the Lorrainas) make their glam rock creations. It’s a beautiful space they have and a dramatic line of clothes. I bought this little number to wear to the awards show. There were at least four of us wearing their line – and I got a lot of comments all night on the dress – to which I replied – “kiki from Blackbird dahling”. Like at a real awards show! Very cool. Next year I’ll seek out a jewelry designer who will lend me a million dollar bauble to show off!
It was a long night but a musically-incestual hilarious celebration of the remarkable talent in this little city. There were many super performances by everyone from my old friends the Evelyn Dicks, to Rita Chiarelli, to Brian Melo (who won the big Canadian Idol contest last year and happens to be a Hammer boy), to Danny Lockwood – a session drummer who won at least three awards for his new big jazz album “A Few of my Favourite Grooves” and filled the stage with musicians and latin-beats (making me a little homesick for Costa Rica) - and finished off with another set by those never-say-quit Teenage Headers. It was a repeat of the concert on Friday night, but we all could have kept jumping with them for hours more. The after-party continued at the Corktown and I danced till the last chord was struck and the feet pleaded to take them home.
Whew – this blog is easily as long as the weekend was…I need Tom Wilson to step in hear and say something outrageous to keep you all going – but almost done…just a couple more things.
Monday I slept.
Tuesday I went up to Guelph to present Walking with Wolf in my old university town at the eBar. A good sized group of long-time friends, activists and many new faces came out to see the book show and hear the sweet sounds of The Regulars, who played before and after my little photo journey and readings. I sold a nice buncha books and have to thank my pal Lynda Lehman (who I met in Monteverde in 1990 when she was with her old boyfriend Emiliano – who I saw in Guelph for the first time in maybe 15 years). Lynda wrote a beautiful review of the book for the Bookshelf’s publication Off the Shelf and helped me put this evening together. I saw some of the folks who influenced me in my early years as an activist – Peter Cameron and Carole Milligan. What a privilege to share my book with them all these years later.
And the lovely Laurie Hollis-Walker and her husband David came up from their home an hour away to share in the celebration since they hadn’t made the launch at the Pearl back in September – and gave me the opportunity to embarrass her in front of a crowd, thanking her for her work on laying out the book. And I made a fistful of cashola!
Wednesday night I had free tickets to see Great Big Sea – a band from Newfoundland who’s been singing its shanty songs across the land for years. My friends, Cocky and Peter, in Maine had met them last year and because of that, I got comp tickets here in the Hammer so I took my friend Bob. We had real great seats but were barely in them as it was an on-your-feet Newfie kitchen party most of the night. My still recovering feet were not amused yet rose to the occasion but actually I found that it was more of an arm work-out with all the hand-clapping involved.
After all the east coast references through the awards weekend, it was funny to go see an east coast band a few days later. They played in the Great Hall of Hamilton Place to a very packed-to-the-rafters house. The strange thing was that they made many many comments on not being a punk band, generally to a swell of applause by the crowd – obviously many east-coasters. It was a great show and I thank Brit, the guitar tech who arranged for me to have the tickets. But after the punk lovefest that I had been a part of all weekend, and knowing that the Hammer is still mourning its king, Frankie, it seemed disrespectful. I’m not sure what was behind all the comments(they said they’d been watching a Sex Pistols video that day), but I felt like I was in a foreign land, well a stranger’s kitchen, and I felt a bit like a traitor to my tribe.
Then I thought about Wolf’s line in our book that people shouldn’t get too territorial about things – and shook off the strange feeling. Instead I appreciated the performance for what it was, put the tendency-to-drama backstage, and remain thankful that there is this thing called music that rocks our worlds and satisfies our souls.