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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.

Metal collage by Dave Hind and Gord Pullar

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.

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It has been a glorious autumn here in Ontario. I wasn’t here in the summer, having been down in Costa Rica, but by all accounts it was literally a wash-out. Autumn’s warm sunny days, served up with a minimum of moisture, have helped to bring a bit of balance to 2009. In just over a month, we’ll be in 2010 and though I guess I shouldn’t be counting my chickens before they hatch, I can already hear a busy year crowing.

This is my last weekend here – Monday I’m on a plane bright and early and by mid-afternoon I should be sweet and deep in the arms of Roberto in San José. A few days to chill in the hammock in Cahuita, to check up on the state of the papayas I planted in July, to get my calypso mojo working. Then I’ll be up in Monteverde, working on the history of Bosqueeterno and waiting to hear the first CO-CO-RI-CO of the new year (no doubt supplied by Mr. Wolf.) 2010 is a World Cup year but unfortunately Costa Rica lost her chance to play soccer with the big boys in South Africa. She’s a bit of a deflated hen, her tail feathers dragging. There’ll be some serious consoling to do.

the divine Lori Yates

As I’ve been preparing to leave my Canadian home for about six months, I’ve gone out to hear as much local music as I could fit in, most of it within walking distance of my house. At The Saint’s Tuesday night singer/songwriter gathering last week, my good pal Lori Yates gave an impromptu thirty minutes of new and old songs with an inspired, hilarious monologue. It was perhaps the best half hour of performance that I’ve seen this year.

Carolyna Loveless, Rae Billings, Greg Briscoe, Paul Reimens, Lori Yates

The other singer/songwriters who were out that night – our affable host Paul Reimens, Rae Billings, Shelley Adams and Carolyna Loveless – also rose to the bar Lori set. It was my first time hearing Carolyna and she kicks it. After having a conversation with her over lunch a few days later, I realized that not only has she got big talent but she’s also got this outrageous energy and over-active mind -she could probably take over the world with if she was so diabolically-inclined. I’m ready to see more of her – maybe even in the 11th hour Sunday night when she is performing again at The Saint. Trying to convince myself that I can go out and still get up at 4:30 Monday morning to get to the airport. I can always sleep on the plane. 

Another night I headed out with friends to see local blues guitarist Steve Strongman in a new venue outside of town known as The Barn. Music producer and drummer, Dave King, built this as a place for him and his friends to play and record music and now he has started a concert series. Steve was the first show and it was an beautifully intimate place to see a great performer. The backdrop for the stage is one of the phenomenal metal creations by local artist, Dave Hind.

Mike McCurley

We finished off that night with a trip back to our local pub, Fisher’s, who was celebrating their 16th anniversary with the regular band, the Sugardaddies. It’s lucky to have such a friendly crowd and hot band guaranteed for dancing only two blocks from home.

Dallas Good

 

 

The grand finale to these rocking episodes of local music happened last night when I went to see a band from Toronto, the Sadies. The Sadies are in part the sons of one of my favorite bands from many years ago, The Good Brothers. The fathers, uncles and friends played a high-energy bluegrass and I spent a lot of time as a teenager at local bars and festivals dancing to them. The next generation has moved the bluegrass into a punky rockabilly lotsa riffs and a rock wall sound. I can see that the Good family’s musical genes haven’t been lost, just amped up.

Andre Williams, Trevor Good

In 1999, the Sadies recorded an album, Red Dirt, with a cat from Alabama,  André Williams. Mr. Williams has been making music since the fifties, R & B, punk blues and something called sleaze rock. He’s in his 70s and still has a cool stage presence. His stylin’ shiny blue suit and shoes fit the Sadies’ metallic blues that accompanied him. They performed songs together from several decades, including some great raw numbers from the 40s. I doubt that a song called Jailbait, one of Williams, is politically correct these days, but the men in the crowd seemed to identify as Andrew growled out the lyric about the temptations of the forbidden underage fruit. It was a night to shake yer money-maker and I did.

I spent a couple of days down in the Kingston area. I took Walking with Wolf to the Kingston Field Naturalists and had a wonderful evening with them. Told Wolf’s story to an interested crowd, sold a few books, was treated to a beautiful dinner at Aroma’s Café (highly recommended) and visited some friends in the area.

It’s necessary for me to get out in the Canadian countryside, balancing out the gritty urban life of my home in the industrial wasteland.

James Isaac Hendricksen

Here in the Hammer, I ran into my friend, Isaac Hendricksen, a musician from the Caribbean island of Nevis who lives locally. We had coffee one afternoon with Larry Strung, the brilliant photographer behind the Hamilton 365 project that I have written about before – he shared with me this photo that he took of us. Isaac writes songs of peace and love, lullabies for the soul. It was wonderful to see him, and absorb some of his wisdom regarding the intricacies involved in balancing the cultural weights in my relationship with Roberto. It’s a challenge to put together two genders, two histories, two cultures, and make it stick, even with the soldering glue of love. But I gotta tell ya, I’m anxious to be taking up that challenge again soon.

The three months since I returned here have gone by quickly. What a beauty season too – the glorious fall, the finale of the year. The Hammer continues to amuse – the music scene expands, the James Street North art crawl explodes, a new creative energy has taken over from the dying steel pulse that has driven this city for a century. I have a lot planned for the coming months in Costa Rica, but hope to spend next summer here in my home, in the fiercely proud north end of Hamilton. I’ve got to get control of the jungle that has consumed my yard during the last two summers . While I’ve been hanging out with the monkeys and the Rasta and the Wolf in Costa Rica, the vines have taken over. Even though I hate leaving my Tico friends behind when I get in that northbound plane, thank goodness I don’t ever mind returning here. If the key to a good life is finding a happy balance, then smokestacks and strangler figs, black leather and brown skin, punk guitars and tribal drums – these are but a few of my favorite things, all taken in equal measure.

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