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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.
It seems I’ve only had minutes here in the Hammer before it’s time to head out again. I truly lucked out in having a week of glorious summer weather since arriving from Costa Rica. The blue skies and sunshine just won’t quit. I’ve unpacked and am now repacking to go to the northeastern US for a couple days – heading to a Quaker retreat in Vermont on a lake, so I sure hope this weather will follow me there and make the lake swimmable. Will then visit again with Cocky and Peter on the coast of Maine and stop in to see Carlos Guindon, who is moving forward with the final details of the Spanish translation of Walking with Wolf.
Between preparing to head out, juggling my book event schedule (have just added a talk on November 19 for the Kingston Field Naturalists), and meeting up with friends who I haven’t seen for a few months, this week has flown by as quickly as the planes that keep appearing above my house as part of the Hamilton Air Show. As is usual when I’m here in the Hammer, I’ve managed to catch a lot of live music this past week.
There is a new music venue that opened up while I was in Costa Rica, just a two minute bike ride from my house. I can see myself becoming a regular here when in the city. What used to be the old Copperhead Bar on James Street North (or the Copper John or Copper Corner or something like that – a place I’ve passed for years but never really taken notice of) has been given a new life as “This Ain’t Hollywood” – more affectionately known as The Saint. Hammerheads Lou Molinaro, Glen the Hamilton Kid and Gary Daly have taken over this ancient beer hall (slinging beer since 1893), done a few smart renovations and added a big sound system. The new stage is filling with rock, punk and alternative acts passing through the area as well as regular open mic nights where local musicians and their friends and fans gather.
Local singer-songwriter-music producer, JP Reimens, has organized a songwriters’ soiree at The Westtown over on Locke Street for a few years, but last week moved his Tuesday night gathering to The Saint. I’ve managed to catch the shows. It is a real nice room to see musicians play with good sightlines and there is a full clear sound. There is so much great talent around and you never know who will show up to perform or just drop by to see what’s going on: from the sultry sirens Ginger St. James, Lori Yates and Buckshot Bebee to guitar wizards Brian Griffith and Dan Walsh to the city’s songwriters with attitude Tim Gibbons, Linda Duemo and Dave Rave.
Last weekend was “the biggest Ribfest in the country” on the Burlington waterfront. With my friends Jeff (no last names please – the CIA is watching) and Heather, we went over to hang out on the beach in the late afternoon and have a barbeque, waiting for the sun to go down before heading up to the biggest pig-out in the land.
It’s a very different beach than the Caribbean shore in Cahuita I just spent the last two weeks on – chilly Lake Ontario sipping at its sand, just as often lashing it with serious waves. But the lake was calm and the full moon was rising and the city startled to sparkle as a gorgeous night came on.
We rode our bikes up the waterfront path to the big rib-affair to see Tom Wilson, another of my favorite musical beasts of Hamilton, along with some great musicians, including Jesse O’Brien, keyboardist extraordinaire.
Tom’s son Thompson and friends have a band – Harlan Pepper – as well as a big self-promoting father who gets gigs and press, so these four young guys are getting some exposure (opening for Tom’s show as they did on this night.) Some talent, some good songs, but still young and could do with some attitude. But the papa-musician, Tom, rocks as always and is guaranteed to be playing with hot talent no matter who he is at the moment – Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse, Lee Harvey Osmond, or he himself with an assembled band.
That big full moon continued hanging over us the next night when I went to Sonny Del Rio’s birthday party. Sonny’s the father of the sax here in the Hammer – been playing forever and at 66 is playing more than ever and loving it.
There was a backyard full of musicians and they stepped up to the mic, including Gord Lewis of Teenage Head who played a few with Sonny and friends. It was a real nice evening spent with my good friends Mike and Freda as well as Dean and Gary Duncan and his brother Randy, folks I love but I don’t get enough chances to see.
It is so great to come back to this happening little city where good friends reside and I never need be bored – not a word in my vocabulary anyway. Yet it is all on a scale that makes you look at the central core of Hamilton as truly down-town, as in the backbeat of a town, not the staccato of a big city.
Now I’m hanging my sign on the door of this blog:
GONE ON ROADTRIP…THE DOOR’S OPEN…MAKE YOURSELF AT HOME…BACK SOON
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.
If you’ve been reading this blog (and I know there are people faithfully reading – amazing but true!), you’ll know that I’ve been moving around a lot in the last few months. Since I started writing this little cyber-journal in April and then printed Walking with Wolf in May, I’ve written about my impressions and experiences while wandering through a bunch of places, selling a bunch of books. However, I don’t think I’ve written all that much about Hamilton Ontario, my birth place which I returned to after about twenty-five years of living in the northern bush and the tropical tangle.
In 2000 I came back here and bought a house with my ex-partner, Jim, in the fiercely proud north end of the city. Hamilton is a port and this is the oldest part of the city, close to the water. It was the only neighbourhood I was interested in living in, as it is bordered by the Hamilton Harbour and the Bayfront Park, giving me close access to the waterfront, as well as being a fifteen minute walk to downtown. Although I wouldn’t swim in the water here, there are places that I can go to sit on a park bench and look across the bay, and totally forget where I am which I find quite conducive to day-dreaming and creative-writing. As it says on the back of Walking with Wolf, I was born here but left, then came back rather unwillingly but stayed because I found this artistic renaissance happening here - and, always a grassroots person myself, I appreciated that the cultural revolution was swelling from the ground up.
Hamilton, once a raging steel-factory-dominated city, built by Italians and with deep working-class roots, has always been maligned. I grew up across the bay in Burlington, a suburban city - from there the body of water is called the Burlington Bay. From the big houses along the Burlington lakeshore you look east or south at the Hamilton skyline of smokestacks and shoreline of slagpiles. When the industrial barons built those big houses over in Burlington, they no doubt liked to look at the factories that were making them rich. That skyline was one of the things that sent me running to the northern bush as a teenager.
Now, from my vantage point on the Hamilton side of the bay, I don’t see the factories at all. I go a few minutes from my house and look north toward the tree-lined coast of Burlington, at the sailboats flying across the waves, the sun setting in the west, and the convoluted rocky Niagara Escarpment that adds a geographical uniqueness to the landscape.
I told Jim that I would stay here for two years and that was IT! I quickly found out that I could live here cheaper than in most places and that was reason to stay, since I was gone half of the year to Costa Rica. Jim had his work here and I began writing the book and didn’t want to uproot in the middle of that process. After a couple years, we bought the house directly across the street from where we were living - an indication of how much I liked the street and our neighbours. The neighbourhood changes constantly - people can actually afford to buy houses here and, even in a collapsed market, houses in this barrio sell quickly. About four years ago I gave up my vehicle, realizing that I didn’t need it to get around in this city, preferring to walk or ride my bike, and public transit can take me easily to Toronto and the airport. When Jim and I split up a few years ago, I stayed in the house which is perfect for one person, on this street where a number of single women live (a sign that it is a comfortable and safe neighbourhood to be in), and in this city, which slowly but surely seduced me with its dirty urban charms and incredible artistic community.
This is the appropriate time to focus on the gritty city (even our literary festival is called Grit Lit) because it is the week of the Hamilton Music Awards, when local fans and music industry folk get together to celebrate the Hammer’s musicians and the music. This is my fourth year working as a volunteer backstage. I do it simply to help JP Gauthier, whose brainchild this is, to honor the musicians, and to spend several nights feasting on the fine music here.
Although the classics in all fields are represented in Hamilton (there is a thriving Philharmonic Orchestra and an ever-growing jazz scene), the music that excites me the most is the stuff that feels like it was born on the streets. The musicians I’ve met and those I’ve watched perform have a voice and a sensibility here that is very different from the other musical communities I’ve been part of - Quebec and Costa Rica – which actually share many characteristics - or eastern and northern Ontario. I’m not sure how to describe the difference – beyond being urban - but it is definitely fed by gravelly-voiced irreverant singer/songwriters (Tom Wilson, Tim Gibbons), vixen songstresses (Lori Yates, Buckshot Bebee, Jude Johnson), smokin’ guitarists (Brian Griffith), flying keyboard fingers (Jesse O’Brien) and a whole slew of talented musicians, raunchy performers and hard-working producers. Uber-producer Daniel Lanois (U2, Bob Dylan, Neville Brothers, on and on) comes from here and returns regularly. The music community tends to be very supportive of each other. In this city of about half a million people, there is still a feeling of it being a town, a hard-rock over-sized village, but there have been enough imports and exports that there is a bit of a cosmic-politan air as well, even if that air is a little dirty.
Last Sunday afternoon, I set up a little Walking with Wolf table at the Mad Hatter’s Green Tea Party in Dundas (once its own town, now considered part of the larger Hamilton area unless, of course, you live there). After a week of balmy weather, it had turned cold and grey with frosty flakes drifting about. So it was pleasant to be in a cozy room with a number of greenish vendors, a silent auction, live music provided by locals Kim and Frank Koren, and a bonus to be set up right next door to the coffee and goodies. They were healthy ones and exceptional, especially a chocolate-covered mousse-filled biscotti….
Besides spending a very nice afternoon, I sold two books and traded another one for a stained glass peace dove and a glass bauble. I also bought a theatre ticket from a fast-talking man who I had met the night of my book launch at the Pearl Company [see A Pearl of a Night.] The play, “You Are What You Do” is actually at that same Pearl in December and now I’ll be going, thanks to this very good salesman (not that I mind at all-in fact look forward to it). The organizers of the tea party – including Peter Ormond, a local Green Party candidate, and Barbara Maccaroni, a raw food chef and soon to be house-sitter while I head south – did a great job, provided us with a pleasant time, and even made a fair chunk of change for the Green Party.
The rest of the week is about the music. It got started off in a great way as people gathered last night at the Bread and Roses Cafe to celebrate Jackie Washington’s 89th birthday. Jackie is a local legend, a great blues man but not just that - he is reputed to know more than 1200 songs off the popular charts. He is a very entertaining storyteller, his voice strong and clear even on the cusp of his ninetieth year. Jackie was born in Hamilton and has been singing songs since the age of five, first with his three brothers, and then as a regular well-loved participant in blues and folk festivals around the country. He’s played with Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee as well as Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot. He no doubt could have had a career in the United States but instead rode the rails in Canada working for Canadian Pacific to satisfy his restlessness and always lived his life in the Hammer - in the words of songwriter Colin Linden, in a song sung by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – ”He never crossed over that American border, though he lived just a few miles away. He said ‘everything I need I can find right here – north of the USA’.”
A crowd of local musicians, fans and friends came out to honor him last night and listen to his stories of what the music business was like in Hamilton in the thirties, the sixties, the eighties – well, close to ninety years of tales and tunes. So very happy birthday, Mr. Washington – “long may your sweet song carry on”.
I was there with my pal, Lori Yates, and also bumped into guitarist extraordinaire, Brian Griffith. Brian is Jackie’s nephew – he has the incredible musical genes that have been passed through this family – these genes also have given them both the longest fingers in the land. He is another man happy to stay in the Hammer and as he says, will only go on the road if the opportunity is just too much to miss – as in when he toured with Willie Nelson for three years and played with Bonnie Raitt or was asked by Dan Lanois to sit in on recording sessions. He is Hamilton’s guitar idol and the sweetest man as well. That’s in his genes too.
So for the next four nights I will be out at musical events, taking tickets at the door (at the Pearl, once again), running around backstage first at the industry awards on Saturday and then the big celebrity-laden rockin’ Hammies on Sunday, each night followed by fun and frolicking in the Hammer-core. In the days, I’ll be re-working my power point presentation to present the book in Guelph at the eBar next Tuesday night as well as be connecting with the kind folks who are helping me set up book events next spring in Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Maine. Yaaaaawwww - excuse me -nnnnn…I’m getting tired just thinking of it.
Your roving reporter will be back in a few days with more musical tales from the Hammer.