JULIAN TAYLOR, ON HIS BREAKTHROUGH ALBUM THE RIDGE

There’s a westbound wind
Blowing through the ridge again
You can stay in, or go outside
And wait for it to die
But either way, it never ends

—“The Ridge” Julian Taylor

Our past is always present. Even when we try to leave lost memories behind, they return in unexpected and unimaginable ways. How or why these pieces of our personal history reveal themselves is different for everyone. For Julian Taylor, the spark that took him on a nostalgic trip of contemplation started with death.

Julian Taylor

Not just the passing of one person, but losing everyone on his mom’s side of the family tree (three aunts and his step-grandmother) in quick succession. To process those losses, the singer-songwriter wrote a series of letters to those who cared for him when he was young, dictating them to his phone. These digital epistles became the skeletons for The Ridge. The new batch of songs was recorded at The Woodshed (Blue Rodeo’s studio in downtown Toronto) and released on June 19thin honour of his grandmother’s birthday, and Juneteenth (aka Emancipation Day) in the United States.

A mellow, acoustic departure from his work over the past few years with the  Julian Taylor Band (self-described “Pilgrims of Funk, Soul, and Roll”), The Ridge has surpassed 300,000 cumulative plays on Spotify and counting; earned rave reviews in publications across North America (including coverage from American Songwriter); and seen Taylor earn significant airplay on BBC 2 in the U.K., and on 70 stations in Australia, as well as accolades from fellow artists such as William PrinceAHI, and Rhett Miller (of the Old 97s). All of which is humbling for Taylor, who’s also the host of the weekday drive-time radio show on Indigenous-forward radio station ELMNT-FM in Toronto, and has been appointed to an advisory committee for the Toronto Blues Society.

“I’ve been banging on the wall for a long time,” he says. “You put something out and share it with the world and you just hope people will enjoy it.”

“The ridge is like a cut — a divide, in half, of me”

If they’re enjoying it, it’s because the songs connect with listeners, via universal themes to which they can relate. Some speak of hope and love (“Human Race,” “Ola, Let’s Dance”), but mostly, the songs look back to take stock of one’s place in the universe. Taylor cites one example of how these songs have resonated, describing a note he received from a Black farmer from the U.S. Midwest who told him how much “The Ridge” meant, as it dispelled the stereotypes that all Black folks live in urban areas.

Reviewers have commented that The Ridge is fresh, yet also has a vintage sound. “All my records sound like that,” Taylor says. “I’ve usually got one foot in the past and one in the future.”

Putting these lyrics and melodies to tape was therapeutic. Taylor tries to heal an unseen scar — one that’s haunted the musician, and marked his existence, ever since he was a child: his realization that he’s an outsider. This is especially true for the title song.

“People have asked me what The Ridge stands for,” the songwriter explains. “First, it stands for Maple Ridge, the short form for the place where I spent my summers growing up. It’s also a metaphor. The ridge is like a cut — a divide, in half, of me — not only from an emotional standpoint, but also from a social standpoint as a Black and Indigenous person growing up in a predominantly white experience.

“The Ridge speaks to the pain caused, and left in me, by losing those people so rapidly,” Taylor adds. “It also speaks to that split, and my feeling of not belonging.”

Taylor started singing and writing songs as a teen. Ever since, he’s been a staple of the Toronto music scene, and Taylor chronicles his early attempts to find his voice on “Ballad of a Young Troubadour.” He found success and a major-label deal on Warner Music Canada fronting Staggered Crossing in the late 1990s and early 2000s; more recently, he’s led the Julian Taylor Band. Despite his affiliation with these groups, the artist says he’s always felt he’s a singer-songwriter first and foremost.

Despite his gratitude for the record’s success, Taylor is struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic, and afraid of what the future holds. “I haven’t slept in four months,” he says. “I’m fearful of a lot of things. This time is not like any other I’ve experienced. It’s hard to explain. I’m scared for [the future of] the music industry and the hospitality industry… I’m scared for the next generation. Are they going to be a bunch of germaphobes? How do you teach people not to touch each other? That’s insane!”

While none of us have an answer to Taylor’s rhetorical question, or know when the pandemic might truly end, we do have his songs. And for now, that’s enough to help us heal.

AARON ALLEN: TATTOO ARTIST TURNED COUNTRY SINGER-SONGWRITER

Music brings us together; it helps us heal in these trying times. Artists, and their songs, fill a void when we’re surrounded by emptiness and uncertainty. Aaron Allen, from London, Ontario, is one of many musicians answering the public’s call for new music during the pandemic. Stuck at home, with the family tattoo business – The Taste of Ink (see sidebar) – closed, he’s enjoying time with his wife and two children, and writing away the days.

“I’ve never been busier,” says Allen, who recently landed two Country Music Association of Ontario (CMAO) nominations for both Male Artist and Rising Star of the Year.  “At the beginning, it was hard,” he adds. “Us writers don’t love to do the Skype thing, but now it’s like being in the same room, and I’m firing on all cylinders, all day, every day, doing lots of co-writes for myself and for other artists.”

Allen released Highway Mile on April 3, a six-song EP co-produced with CMAO Producer of the Year Jeff Dalziel. There was a bit of trepidation about putting out new music in the middle of COVID-19, but he figured it was worth the risk.

“I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting”

“At this time people need music more than ever,” he says. The strategy worked: online plays of the new record have already eclipsed two million streams, and continue to climb. The song connecting most with people, and the one recently released to radio, is “Can We Go Back.” Recorded just two weeks before the pandemic hit, it’s a love song to his wife and a nostalgic nod about returning to a simpler time, when they were young and carefree. Allen sings: “I wonder if that tree’s still there/ The one we carved our initials in/ Back when we were kids/ It didn’t really matter where we were at / As long as you were shotgun, holding my hand.”

As if the new EP was not enough, in May, Allen added a publishing deal with Arts & Crafts Music to his resume. He’s excited about expanding his repertoire, exploring more synchs, writing in other genres, and expanding from the sometimes-formulaic structure and rigidity of writing the Nashville way. “In synch you can break some rules, and say some things you normally can’t say in country music,” he says. “I just love songwriting… it’s nice to try something different and learn something new.”

Growing up in London, Allen started penning songs to express his feelings. It quickly became his lifeline. When he was 13, his mother got ill; it hit Allen hard. “She had terminal cancer for many years and I didn’t take it well,” he recalls. “I was really angry. I did not like school. I had this guitar and I locked myself in my room, just shut the world out writing songs.”

Twenty-five years on, Allen still spends endless hours locked away, alone in his home studio, writing away the days. “It’s a part of me,” says. “It saved my life when I was a kid and it’s therapeutic; I would probably be in jail if I didn’t have songwriting.”

The Taste of Ink: Tattoo Artist on the Side

Allen and his wife opened a hair salon and tattoo shop about a decade ago. Realizing tattooing pays more, they morphed the store into The Taste of Ink. Allen says it’s a career where you constantly learn and grow. The songwriter sports many of his own permanent markings of the trade. Asked what they mean, he laughs. “When the shop first opened our apprentices needed someone to work on, so I volunteered… I would not be this covered if I didn’t get them for free!” There are times when Allen’s two vocations intertwine: people come into the shop, share a story, and it works its way into one of his songs. One of the standout tracks on the new EP is “Good Tattoo,” an ode to his wife and their everlasting love: “Our love is like a good tattoo/ It might fade a little along the way, but trust me babe, it’s here to stay.”

William Prince: Hard Truths & Timeless Songs

Juno Award-winning songwriter’s hard truths make his latest recording timeless

By David McPherson

Reliever: a noun meaning something or someone that relieves pain, distress, or difficulty.

Long before he won a Juno for Contemporary Roots Album of  the Year, and left side hustles behind to work full time as a musician, William Prince dreamed of a different calling.

The Peguis First Nation from Manitoba set his head, and his heart, on becoming a physician; he wanted to travel to remote communities and relieve people’s pain. What he didn’t realize is this: despite his path diverging during his university years from doctor to songwriter, his art allowed him to become a different kind of healer.

Through his words, metaphors, and melodies, this musical messenger relieves the burdens of others—sharing his struggles and his gratitude. People find solace in his music. In these days of constant noise, the healing powers of his songs are needed more than ever. Spend time talking with Prince and listening to his music and you come away affected.

“William is what the music world needs right now,” comments fellow songwriter and mentor Scott Nolan, who co-produced Prince’s latest batch of songs, Reliever, at his Winnipeg studio (The Song Shop).

“People look for healing and calm in music. William’s music isn’t frivolous or bubble gum for the radio. It’s life affirming. There are healing properties to what he is doing. Authenticity in art is mandatory and William has that in spades.”

When Penguin Eggs connects with Prince, the songwriter is at home in Winnipeg, staring at a cold lunch. When promoting a new record, sometimes just getting a bite in between back-to-back interviews is hard. The artist is not complaining. Prince is full of gratitude.

Despite a recent appearance on CBS Saturday Morning, rave reviews from publications such as Rolling Stone, and sharing the stage in the past with Canadian legends such as Neil Young and Buffy Sainte-Marie, Prince remains grounded. He is happy to talk about his sophomore record with anyone who appreciates his art and is interested in listening. Something about Prince’s honesty and his warm, soulful delivery makes the songwriter a connector.

Reliever, released by Glassnote Records in the U.S. and Six Shooter Records in Canada in February 2020, follows his 2015 debut, Earthly Days. The 11 spirited songs on Reliever offer hope and healing. All are sung with a voice that bleeds passion.

Prince’s pipes are the star instrument, guiding the listener to the heart—and the heartbeat—within each composition. Prince goes through painful reflection. From the heartbreak of realizing the mother of his child is not his soul mate anymore (“Wasted” and “Always Have What We Had”) to coming to terms with the death of his father (“Great Wide Open”) to offering advice to his son (“That’s All I’ll Ever Become”), there is something in these universal human experiences with which everyone can identify.

Take this turn of phrase and wonderful wish from “That’s All I’ll Ever Become”: I want to live to the second last day that my children do / selfishly so I can see them through all that they’ve become.

In “The Gun,” Prince lets go of regrets and realizes he needs to get out of his head before he can truly live and move on, describing this feeling like “living with a loaded gun”. His fatherly advice in this song is simple, yet sincere: It doesn’t matter who you love son / If you don’t love yourself son.

As the songs emerged, Prince’s muse instructed him to throw discontents and resentments out the door. In return, this release offered him a new purpose.

“I was born to sing but I want to exit as a philanthropist, someone who helps and heals,” he says.

As the catharsis of Reliever concludes, gratitude emerges. Each song, like a prescribed pill, offers a dose of medicine that focuses on a different ailment. What he, and the listener, is left with is newfound hope. The simple act of taking these thoughts and letting them pour onto the page was the creative spark his muse needed.

“That was the relief,” Prince explains. “For me to stay alive, I needed to chase these songs. The theme of relief came simply from the fact that that is what I needed most. There are records about drinking, or records of lonesomeness or love, but what I needed most was a break from the ongoing dialogue in my mind: dealing with losing my dad, becoming a dad, the separation from his mother, and the whirlwind from all these hard things I was dealing with in real time.”

Prince sought to balance in his brain these hard truths all while Earthly Days launched the songwriter into stardom. He lived with the grief of these unresolved feelings for years while his career took off. This record was the overdue amends and release he needed to make before he could find internal peace.

“I was in the midst of a dream, yet there was still a cloud hanging over me that I could not shake,” he recalls. “I wrote these new songs as a way to reflect. The songs are not filled with anger, spite, or resentment, but a place of love. Reliever is a piece of art that shows resilience. It tells people how to survive when your engines fail or there is a hole in your boat.”

This honest writing makes Reliever a timeless record. It’s only Chapter 2 in a lifelong story. Forty years from now, just like seminal songs from his writing heroes such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, and Neil Young, Prince believes these pieces will survive and still resonate.

Now that he has found his calling, he plans to make records and continue to heal himself—and others—from Manitoba to Berlin, and wherever else his music finds a home, for as long as his muse delivers these songs as gifts for this reliever to offer the world.

David Crosby: Remember My Name Documentary Turns Honest Lens on a Rock And Roll Legend

David Crosby: Remember My Name Documentary Turns Honest Lens on a Rock And Roll Legend

By David McPherson

Time is not on David Crosby’s side.

If this is indeed his final act, the legendary songwriter has no plans to go gently into that good night.

As a two-time inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (The Byrds and Crosby, Stills & Nash) with five decades of pop stardom behind him, the reality is that musically he has nothing to prove; yet, in the last five years, since the dissolution of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young (CSNY), following the supergroup’s 2015 tour, he’s had one of the most productive periods of his career, releasing four records (with a fifth on the way).

This creative reawakening piqued the interest of filmmaker A.J. Eaton. The result: the director’s first full-length documentary, David Crosby: Remember My Name, which had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival this past January.

Honesty is the film’s central conceit. Twelve-step programs teach us that honesty is all we’ve got. As a past AA member (for 14 years) the songwriter embraces these teachings. Rather than resort to a puff piece or hagiography—like so many celebrity documentaries—Eaton, co-producer Cameron Crowe, along with their main subject Crosby, knew that to do this right, it had to be the most honest piece on the pop icon ever produced.

BeatRoute: Why now? What was the inspiration to create and release this documentary at this time?

David Crosby: Largely because of this surge of work. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I was supposed to be dead 20 years ago. At the end of your life, you should just wave and go off into the distance gracefully, but instead I’ve made four records and into a fifth one. That is not how it is supposed to go. This got AJ’s [director A.J. Eaton] attention. He thought it was fascinating and said he wanted to do a documentary about it. I was like, ‘Yeah kid, sure, whatever!’ Then producer Jill Mazursky mentioned it to Cameron Crowe. He’s known me since he was 15. You know the Almost Famous movie, right? He was the kid and we [CSNY] were the band. Cameron said, ‘Let me ask him the questions.’ Since he is my friend, they knew I would open up to him; he knows where all the bones are buried. He was in the dressing room when the bones were being buried!

BeatRoute: As you told me when we jumped on this call, some people felt this film is too in-your-face, that there is too much truth and honesty to handle, but that’s the point, right?

Crosby
: Definitely. Cameron [Crowe], AJ [Eaton] and I have all seen how other people make documentaries and we did not want to do that. What I call a shine job, where they say, ‘isn’t that great, isn’t he cute, he is so lovely, etc. etc.’ Those types of documentaries are bullshit. They are as deep as a birdbath. They don’t tell you anything about the person you want to know. I want to know what is that person really about: who do they love, what do they want to fix, what is going on in their head, and what really matters to them, not how many records they sold in their prime. All three of us had a unity of purpose. We knew the level that was acceptable to us.

BeatRoute: Staying with the honesty theme, you mention in the film that you’re a ‘flawed human.’ I loved this brutal honesty. Not many people are confident enough and/or are too scared or afraid of what others will say. How and why did you do it?

Crosby
: It’s a matter of choice and how you go about things, really. None of the three of us thought we could do it any other way. If we were going to do this film, it had to be brutally honest. Cameron asked me the hardest questions I’ve ever been asked.

BeatRoute: Were there any you didn’t or couldn’t answer?

Crosby: No, I made a promise that I would answer every question he asked me.

BeatRoute: That must have been uncomfortable for you.

Crosby
: Yes, very uncomfortable. There were a couple of times I said to them, ‘Don’t put that in the movie,’ and they still put it in; my only job in the movie is to not lie. That was my main contribution.

BeatRoute: I’m guessing there was a real cathartic effect to the whole exercise. Was a weight lifted for you during the process?

Crosby
: It definitely is a catharsis. It’s the real deal man! I got to lighten my load; that’s what they teach you in 12-step programs: to look at your life, your mistakes, and your achievements, then learn from it, set it down, and move on. You really have to look inside yourself.

BeatRoute: I loved the stories of your earliest music experiences and how these moved and shaped you. First seeing the symphony with your mom and later hearing Miles Davis for the first time. Music really is your life, isn’t it?

Crosby: For sure. I feel music is the gift I was given. That’s an obligation. If life gives you a scalpel you don’t use it to dig weeds, you do surgery.

CARLY PARADIS: MAKING EPIC MUSIC OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

CARLY PARADIS: MAKING EPIC MUSIC OF THE HUMAN CONDITION

Story by David McPherson | January 15, 2020

The touchstones of our lives often present themselves when we least expect them. These messages from the universe remind us that the journey we’re on is the right path. Songwriter Carly Paradis recently received one such sign. The object: a letter featuring a stamp of Elton John’s classic 1973 double-LP Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. This brought back early childhood memories of discovering the gems in her parents’ record collection, and those first feelings of a raging fire in her soul to write, and to create, that never went away.

“When I was really little I would listen to my parents’ vinyl,” Paradis recalls. “As a child, that Elton John record blew my mind; ‘Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding’ was such an epic, genre-bending tune. I decided right then that one day I would make epic music like this.”

Catching up with the songwriter via Skype, just before the Christmas holidays, finds Paradis in a contemplative mood at the London, England, studio she designed in an old warehouse building.  We chat about the human condition (the central conceit of her new solo instrumental record Nothing is Something), the creative process, and her journey from Ontario indie rocker to award-winning film and TV composer, now based in London, England.

Born in Hamilton, Paradis grew up in nearby Stoney Creek. At nine, she started writing tunes. Later, she studied classical piano, but admits she always felt more like a rock ‘n’ roll player. After completing a music and multi-media degree at McMaster University, Paradis honed her skills playing in bands and learning about production. This led to a desire to get tracks synched. On a whim, in 2006, she reached out via MySpace to Clint Mansell (who scored Darren Aranofsky’s Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan), one of her favorite composers. “I told him how his music made me feel,” Paradis recalls. “I did not expect a reply.”

Mansell was moved by Paradis’ message and did reply. This correspondence led first to a longer coffee conversation in Los Angeles, and then into a lasting friendship. The songwriter joined Mansell’s band, arranged and played the piano parts for the composer’s songs, and toured with him around the world. Through his mentorship, Paradis also started to place songs in films and TV programs. Some of these successful synchs include the end credits theme from the successful Netflix original series The Innocents; writing the score for every season of the No.1 BBC drama Line of Duty; and compositions in trailers for True DetectiveHomeland, and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve connected deep down with things I didn’t understand, through music.”

Nothing is Something is the songwriter’s third solo record. The orchestral, brooding collection of original compositions and collaborations features a diverse range of global musicians – from Norwegian composer EERA, to Jonas Bjerre (the lead singer of Danish rock band Mew), to U.K. spoken-word artist PolarBear. In scope and complexity, it’s as grand as those seminal songs first heard in her youth. “This album draws back to those early musical experiences,” she says.

Seven years in the making, some parts of the album were recorded at her London studio, but most was captured at Hamilton’s legendary Grant Avenue Studio, where she played her favorite piano: a vintage Yamaha, circa 1979. With song titles like “The Crushing Weight of History,” inspired by a visit to La Rocca Cefalu in Cefalù, Sicily; “Heaven Ain’t a Place”; and “One Light in the Sky,” the record explores the state of being human, and the range of sensations we all face.

“It’s been quite an emotional journey,” Paradis explains. “The concept of the title Nothing is Something is this: if you think you have nothing, see nothing, it is really something. Just look into outer space. There is so much stuff we can’t see. If you’re feeling hopelessness and loneliness, that is something… to feel that emotion is part of the human condition. We all feel these things. You can find comfort in knowing we are connected by these negative emotions, and you’re not alone. When you go through that journey, you realize it’s OK.”

For Paradis, music expresses emotions, thoughts, and feelings you can’t – or don’t want to – vocalize with words. “Ever since I was little, I’ve connected deep down with things I didn’t understand, through music, and I’ve written and created sounds that match those feelings,” she says. “This album is a diary of the last eight years of my life. It feels like a big book. A chapter is closing. It’s that moment before you open the next one.”

DECISION-MAKERS: MUSIC PUBLISHER VIVIAN BARCLAY

DECISION-MAKERS: MUSIC PUBLISHER VIVIAN BARCLAY

Story by David McPherson | February 28, 2020

Just like the rest of the music industry, the publishing business today is a lot more fluid than it used to be. Where the role of the music publisher once focused mostly on getting synchs (or placements) for songs in a variety of media – TV shows, movies, videogames, advertisements – today’s publisher wears many hats.

“Our business represents songs and songwriters,” explains Vivian Barclay, General Manager, Warner Chappell Music Canada, and member of SOCAN’s Board of Directors. “Our job is two-fold. Some people still take a very linear view of publishing, thinking it’s only about administration, like a bank or service business, but it is really multi-faceted. The proper administration of copyright, registration, and paying out royalties is one side. The other side is about creativity. We’re signing songwriters, developing them, and helping to provide them with resources and connections.”

Barclay is used to wearing many hats, and making many connections. She’s never had a five-year plan, and has always taken on whatever job needed doing. Barclay was born into the creative arts field. Her dad was a working musician and her mom was a fine art painter. After graduating with a degree in audio engineering from Ryerson, she worked for now-defunct community radio station CKLN. There, she did everything from on-air host, to program director, to acting station manager. A stint with Denise Jones, at Jones and Jones Productions, followed, as Barclay’s education continued. She learned how to manage artists, market them, and promote and host live events, among other things

“If you can’t pull it off live, I’m not interested.”

In 2001, a vacancy opened in the royalties department at Warner Chappell Music Canada. Denise Jones recommended her, and she jumped at the opportunity to learn about the world of music publishing. This temporary gig evolved into a full-time role. She moved from royalties to copyright, and by the end of the year transferred to the company’s Los Angeles office. Two years later, she was back in Toronto to head up the Canadian office.

Maple Music Makers

Warner-Chappel Music Canada’s roster includes, or has included:

  • Aaron Goodvin
  • Barenaked Ladies
  • The Be Good Tanyas
  • Begonia
  • Death From Above 1979
  • Donovan Woods
  • Gordon Lightfoot
  • Jully Black
  • Michael Bernard Fitzgerald
  • Michael Bublé
  • Nickelback
  • PartyNextDoor
  • The Rheostatics
  • Saukrates
  • Sebastian Gaskin
  • Spirit of the West
  • The Tea Party
  • Tomi Swick

Today, as General Manager of Warner Chappell Music Canada, Barclay manages an extensive and diverse song catalogue, encompassing  the American songbook compositions of George and Ira Gershwin, the storied songs of Gordon Lightfoot, and everything in between. The Canadian office of Warner Chappell Music also represents a pair of Christmas classics penned by Johnny Marks: “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Barclay finds ways to bring these classics to a new generation.

“It’s about re-invigorating the catalogue,” she explains. “We try really hard to find ways to breathe new life into these evergreen songs.”

There’s no typical day for Barclay. Each writer she represents is at a different stage in his or her artist cycle –penning new material, or releasing new recordings, or touring. She spends as much time finding and developing new artists as she does brainstorming ways to get timeless songs re-interpreted. For songwriters, earning a living today is challenging at best. As it gets harder for them to make ends meet, Barclay’s role is even more important to “try to make sure the value of what they’re creating isn’t decimated.”

Playing live is still one of the best ways for songwriters to earn an income, and attending live shows is also one of the best ways for publishers to discover new artists. Many nights, Barclay is checking out artists in clubs around Toronto, and at festivals and conferences across the country, and around the world, seeking new songwriters for Warner Chappell. “For me, no matter what genre you’re in, ‘live’ matters,” she says. “If you can’t pull it off live, I’m not interested.”

Warner Chappell Music Canada has many domestic artists on its current and past roster. The company also recently entered into a deal with The Brothers Landreth’s label (Birthday Cake), thereby picking up many Western Canadian artists. (See sidebar for some of the company’s Canadian clients.)

Digital music, and the subsequent easy access to discovering new artists, has made the world smaller. Since Canada is such a diverse country, and people settle here from so many different cultures, Barclay isn’t just searching for Canadian acts she can bring to the rest of the world, but also for international artists that resonate domestically. A couple examples are the “King of Soca,” Machel Montano of Trinidad, and Patoranking, a Nigerian reggae dancehall/Afrobeat artist.

Artists and their managers send Barclay links every day to music, via every major social media platform. SOCAN, and others in the music industry, also tip her off to potential artists to whom  she “should” listen. When searching for new clients, whether Canadian or international, genre doesn’t matter to her. It’s all about the song.

“No matter who you talk to in the publishing business, we’re all passionate about good songs,” she says. “Creating a legacy of good songs is where it starts. You can write in whatever genre you want to, as long as the song is good, and connects with your audience.”

The Fillmore Meets The Shining: A History of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom

The Fillmore Meets The Shining: A History of Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom

March 28, 2019

Courtesy: The Commodore Ballroom

By: David McPherson

Venues are a mirror into a city’s past, present, and future. They witness and document the societal changes that happen around them while concurrently adding to a locale’s history. As author Aaron Chapman, who was born and raised in Vancouver says: “They are a wonderful cultural barometer, showing us where we’ve been and where we are going.”

Chapman knows historic music venues; he wrote the book on Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. From big band and swing to punk rock, pop, jazz and blues, Vancouver’s most famous (and infamous) room has played host to the greats of every genre of music. No wonder in 2011 Billboard named it one of the Top 10 most influential venues in North America (the only Canadian spot cited) along with such iconic spots as San Francisco’s Fillmore and New York’s Bowery Ballroom. A fixture on Granville Street for nearly 90 years, the venue now hosts more than 150 public events each year — entertaining approximately 120,000 guests annually.

The Commodore was built on beer money (from the Reifel family’s breweries) and since has survived on passion, acute business sense, and a wee bit of luck. The irony of how the building was originally financed is not lost as more than a few brews have been swilled on that horsehair dance floor over its history – illegally in the early decades until it finally got a liquor license in 1969 – and legally ever since.

Billed in the local daily that day as “Vancouver’s Latest Attraction,” the venue opened as the Commodore Cabaret on Wednesday, December 3, 1930. Despite a few blips and hard times (it closed for three years from 1996-1999 before House of Blues revived it) 90 years on, the venue is still going strong — serving up live music and hosting local events six nights a week. There have been a lot of memorable rock ‘n’ roll shows at the venue since the Vancouver institution opened, but in the eyes of many, there is one that stands out. During punk’s heyday, The Clash took to the Commodore stage, on January 31, 1979. It was the first North American show for the English quartet. Forty years on it remains a seminal moment in the venue’s history.

Just ask Brad Merritt. The bassist for Vancouver’s beloved 54-40 was there.

“Bo Diddley and a local all-female punk trio (The Dishrags) opened,” he recalls. “That was a crazy show! I was dead centre in the middle of the dance floor and halfway through the show, some guy threw a beer can backwards and it hit me in the face. I had a dent in my forehead for nearly five years, but it was a badge of honour!”

The Clash show was not Merritt’s first at the fabled club. On December 2, 1978, he was 18, and saw a sold-out Blondie concert. That night was just as crazy and just as memorable.

“About midway through the show, every table had 6-8 people standing up; they all took the red tablecloths off and started whipping them around. It was one of the rowdiest shows I had ever seen in my life … that was my introduction to the Commodore Ballroom.”

When Merritt started 54-40 out of high school, along with buddy Neil Osborne, their goal was to one day play The Commodore, maybe open up for one of the groups they admired. They’ve more than surpassed that now. 54-40 holds the record of playing the Commodore more than 50 times and counting. Their Thanksgiving weekend gig (slated for October 11 this year) has become an annual tradition Vancouverites and long-time fans anticipate. The band even recorded a live DVD (This Is Here This Is Now, 2005) at the Vancouver landmark.

Merritt still recalls the first time he hit the storied stage and how nervous he was. The year was 1982. “We were part of a four-band local promotion, which included Images in Vogue, Moev, and I can’t recall the other band. There were 1,000 [people] in the room. We went on first and it was incredibly exciting.”

54-40 headlined for the first time after the release of its self-titled 1986 release (later known as the “Green Album”). The Wooden Tops from England opened. Though it’s been more than 30 years since the band’s name lit up the marquee on Granville for the first time, the allure of playing this hometown venue never fades.

54-40 Live at The Commodore Ballroom. Credit: Toni Horncastle.

“It’s still special for us and for the people who come,” Merritt explains. “It’s a celebration: for us, for our fans, and for music in Vancouver … Vancouverites take special pride in the venue.”

Merritt, along with other musicians and patrons, can thank Drew Burns for The Commodore most music lovers now know and love. The bar’s modern era took hold when Burns purchased the lease in 1969. The entrepreneur obtained a liquor license, renovated the venue and changed the name from the Commodore Cabaret to the Commodore Ballroom; the first rock act he booked was Detroit’s Mitch Ryder, who took to the famed Granville stage in July 1971. While the place was licensed for 1,000, they often crammed a lot more people into the room. Since Mitch Ryder, the Ballroom has hosted a who’s who of rock royalty: everyone from Tina Turner and Patti Smith to U2 and Tom Petty. For all these bands, playing the Commodore meant something – they all respected the room – as author Chapman reveals.

“I spoke to Benmont Tench [keyboardist for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers] for my book and he said it was a big deal for them the first time they played there in 1978 … they knew about it!”

Besides writing the definitive book on The Commodore, Chapman has also played there, with one band or another, 25 times. “You are aware of it before you ever go in for the first time,” he explains of the venue’s gravitas. “If you grew up in Vancouver, your parents or grandparents most likely went to a dance there or saw some music there. It has seen every era of pop music – from big band to people slam dancing – not every city has a place like that – we are a bit spoiled.”

Kevin Kane (guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and more recently also a member of The Northern Pikes) has played The Commodore countless times. Growing up in Kelowna, British Columbia, in the late 1970s, he subscribed to The Georgia Straightto keep abreast of the burgeoning punk scene. “I kept seeing that all my favourite bands were always playing there, so the Commodore always held a mythic status for me,” he says.

Kane’s first time in the Commodore was when he was still in high school. He caught a ride with a friend into the city to do some import record shopping when the pair learned The Cure were at the Club doing its sound check.

“My friend and I plucked up our courage, walked up the stairs from Granville Street into the venue, and parked ourselves in a couple of chairs off in the shadows, hoping to not be seen,” he recalls. “The band were setting up their own gear and I watched transfixed as Robert Smith pulled his Jazzmaster from a road case. Smith then saw my friend and I, gave us a welcoming smile and wave, and in the seconds it took to decide if we should run over and introduce ourselves as a couple of 16-year-olds who just wanted to hear our favourite band sound check, we were spotted by security and ejected!”

Jay Semko, Kane’s bandmate in The Northern Pikes, gives us the final word of what makes The Commodore Ballroom so special:

“When the energy in the crowd reaches the ‘magic zone,’ there is no better place in Canada to be for live music,” he concludes. “The silhouettes of heads bobbing up and down on the horsehair floor, the timeless vibe when you walk through the doors – whether grooving in the audience or grooving on the stage, there is something about the Commodore that has always had a profound effect on me; it’s The Shiningmeets The Fillmore, and in the best way imaginable.”

Learn more about The Commodore Ballroom at www.commodoreballroom.com or via Aaron Chapman’s book: Live at the Commodore: The Story of Vancouver’s Historic Commodore Ballroom.

 

From Portuguese Club to Winnipeg Music Mecca: A History of the West End Cultural Centre

From Portuguese Club to Winnipeg Music Mecca: A History of the West End Cultural Centre

May 06, 2019

West End Cultural Centre c.1995. Credit: Ava Kobrinsky. Mural By: Larry Spittle.

By: David McPherson

Luke Doucet and his girlfriend got caught with their pants down in the boiler room here one New Year’s Eve when he was 17. A teenage Romi Mayes drank Gowan’s beer in the green room here, while the JUNO-award winning artist covered “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The common thread: one of Winnipeg’s most treasured venues: the West End Cultural Centre (WECC).

For more than three decades, the WECC has been a warm-sounding room and a place to foster the Winnipeg music scene. Many local artists—from Mayes and Doucet to bands like The Watchmen and The Weakerthans—got their start at the all ages venue. Mayes credits the WECC for the early opportunities she had to share her songs with a wider audience.

“The first time I was on stage at the West End Cultural Centre I was 15-years-old,” recalls Mayes. “Mitch [Podolak] was in charge and there were commonly big folk artists from across the globe sharing that stage. I remember being nervous to join the roster of the talent that was performing there all the time.”

Since her teenage debut, Mayes has shared the WECC stage many times with renowned acts, as well as enjoyed many memorable shows there as a fan. Heck, she even had her wedding social there. The singer-songwriter can’t say enough good words about this hometown hotspot.

“Not only is it a music venue, but it’s also a team of creative curators being inventive with themes and show ideas to celebrate our local music scene,” Mayes comments. “In recent years, with the artful artistic direction of Jason Hooper and its hard working staff and volunteers, the West End Cultural Centre has become a pinnacle in nurturing and hosting community projects to help the area and improve the neighbourhood and develop productivity for its area residents.”

Adds fellow Winnipeg songwriter Scott Nolan: “It’s our Mother Church. It may not be as grand as the Grand Ole Opry, but it’s fitting for our town.”

Flash back to 1987. That’s when this musical shrine was born. An eye for spotting talent and for supporting artists is Mitch Podolak’s raison d’être. While running the Winnipeg Folk Festival in the 1970s, the champion of the arts and his wife Ava Kobrinsky frequently drove by the West End neighbourhood where the Portuguese Cultural Centre [and previously a series of churches] was located at Sherbrook Street and Ellice Avenue. The talk, during these drives, often turned to the buildings’ potential.

“I thought it would make a great combo of what is now The Cultch (formally the Vancouver East Cultural Centre) and the Cotabi Cabaret in Sonoma, California,” says Podolak, 71, who is still active in the folk community running Home Routes/Chemin Chez Nous, a not-for-profit arts organization that creates new performance opportunities for French and English speaking musicians and audiences in rural, remote and urban, communities across Canada.

Following Podolak’s departure from the Winnipeg Folk Festival, the music lover and his life partner made a pit stop in Vancouver. While there, a friend in the know back in Manitoba tipped them off that the Portuguese club was selling its building and the prospective buyer was going to turn it into a furniture warehouse. That was all the fuel Mitch needed. He picked up the phone, made a call, and offered to buy the building. The rest, as they say — thankfully for the Winnipeg arts community — is musical history as the WECC was born.

Spirit of the West was the first headlining act at the WECC. The Vancouver band played a pair of sold-out shows in October 1987. The following month, the venue hosted 30 events, including a gig by legendary blues singer Taj Mahal. While primarily a music venue, the WECC is a non-profit, charitable organization that promotes local, national, and international artists by fostering artistic development.

Thirty years on, everyone from Odetta, John Prine, and Stan Rogers to Jann Arden and Lyle Lovett have stepped on the West End Cultural Centre’s stage, making a lasting connection with Winnipeg audiences. Not only is the venue an incubator for local talent in the Peg, and an intimate venue for international touring acts – from folk to alt-country and punk to indie rock, it’s also a place for young minds, who might not otherwise have a chance, to create. The WECC offers free drop in music lessons on Tuesdays and Thursday afternoons where local artists mentor and teach neighbourhood kids as part of a successful drop-in program.

“We are a charity so that is what we do – foster that creativity in people,” says Executive Director Jason Hooper, who started out as WECC’s bar manager 10 years ago. “The West End Cultural Centre also hosts a street festival every June and free concerts for schools in the neighbourhood. That makes us a special place. Not a lot of venues have that time or resources to do that, but being a charity makes that possible.”

The WECC’s founding statement speaks to this community commitment to “make sure people will get involved, not in some peripheral way but with their hearts and guts and brains.” Hooper has been at the helm of the not-for-profit for the past decade. Some of his favourite shows at the WECC, which he attended as a teen newly arrived in the city in the 90s, were the punk-rock matinees on Saturdays. “For five-dollars, you could come down and see five bands,” he recalls. “I saw bands like Guy Smiley, Propagandhi, and meatrack. The venue was a really important part of the local punk scene.”

When Hooper started working at the WECC in 2009 the venue had just undergone an extensive renovation and reconstruction, thanks to a $4 million capital campaign; several neighbourhood houses were bought and razed to expand the Hall. Hawksley Workman, whose new record (Median Age Wasteland) was released this past February, was lucky enough to be the artist who reopened the new WECC. The songwriter says just like a best friend, it’s a place you can always count on.

“The venue always treats people right,” Workman concludes. “You play across this country long enough and you make a mental list of the places you can really rely on and the WECC is one of those. Live music is at its core. It has a theatre feel versus a club feel; it’s the perfect hybrid and people come to shows there with their hearts open.”

The West End Cultural Centre has won the Western Canadian Music Award for Venue of the Year six times since 2002. To view a list of past performers visit: https://www.wecc.ca/past-performers

From Big Band Dance Hall to Lakeside Musical Landmark: A History of Muskoka’s The Kee to Bala

From Big Band Dance Hall to Lakeside Musical Landmark: A History of Muskoka’s The Kee to Bala

July 07, 2019

Picture this: a sultry summer night, circa early-to-mid 1990s. The exact date is not important. It’s all part of the magic and the lore. Joey Ramone, with his trademark black leather jacket and tight blue jeans slinks out of a rented white van. Sweat drips from his furrowed brow. He gazes at the tall pines and the beauty of this ever-changing Group of Seven painting come to life as he takes the last drag of his cigarette. The place: a tiny Muskoka town. The venue: The Kee to Bala. Far from his New York home, the skinny punk rocker is definitely out of place. No matter. He is here to spread his punk-rock gospel to Canadian cottagers. He steps into the club, removes his jacket, and hangs it on a rack in the cramped backstage area. A couple of hours later, Ramone steps onto that storied stage. With his trademark 1-2-3-4, the band launch into a spirited evening that added to the already legendary status of this venue.

This Ramones moment is just one of hundreds of snapshots in time that have played out in Ontario cottage country at The Kee — the big wooden barn structure on Lake Muskoka that is a summer tradition equal to barbecues and road trips for many Southern Ontario music lovers.

Sue McCallum, who was doing publicity for MCA Records at the time, recalls this memorable gig. Her beat-up Honda was decorated with stickers of this seminal New York punk band. She was a fan before she got into the business, so doing publicity for them was a dream come true. “They didn’t even know what cottage country meant,” says McCallum of this event. “I also remember Johnny [Ramone] asking me that day, and it has haunted me for the rest of my life, ‘what is it about our music that you like?’ I froze and stammered out, ‘it’s the songs.’”

Long before there were roads to Bala, it was a whistle stop for Big Bands to perform their songs. Everyone travelled by steamship in the early days; later, they arrived by train. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Guy Lombardo and Tommy Dorsey all played in Bala at The Kee’s predecessor Dunn’s Pavilion where you could fetch a ticket for $2.50.

Flash back to 1929. That’s when Gerry Dunn purchased the property with the idea to build a venue that would attract small orchestras to the area. Dunn hoped to capitalize on the increased tourist traffic expected with the completion of rail service right to the village of Bala. One of the earliest slogans for the new venue was “Where All of Muskoka Dances.” And, dance they did six days a week. Before the first decade of operation finished, the place was so jammed a new venue was needed. So, in 1942, Dunn’s Pavilion opened. Dunn operated the dance hall for the next 21 years, before selling to Ray Cockburn in 1963, who renamed the venue The Kee to Bala. In the ensuing years, there have been several ownership changes, but the structure and the spirit have remained relatively unchanged.

Today, The Kee to Bala is still the place “where all of Muskoka dances”; it exists in Dunn’s original building and is one of Muskoka’s iconic landmarks. Over the years everyone from Crowbar and Lighthouse; the Tragically Hip and Rough Trade, to The Fabulous Thunderbirds and even Snoop Dogg, have played this historic venue. Cottagers and city folk alike make the trek to this hallowed hall most summer weekends. Some travel by boat, others hitchhike for miles. That is part of the mystique and what makes seeing a show at this venue so unique. Many artists rent or stay in cottages in the area with their families and make it a mini-vacation.

This year, the venue celebrates its 78th anniversary. The Sheepdogs have already played a pair of sold-out shows there in early July. Still to come: Alan Doyle, Steve Earle & The Dukes, David Wilcox, The Arkells, 54-40, Kim Mitchell and more.

Mitchell has been making The Kee a regular stop on his summer schedule for decades. Flash back to 1989. He and his band arrived, along with truckloads of gear, to capture a MuchMusic Big Ticket Special. You can see a glimpse here from the Rockland Wonderland DVD produced from this concert. Later, Mitchell returned to film parts of his “I Am a Wild Party” video at The Kee. Doug McClement via his LiveWire Remote Recorders captured the Big Ticket Special 30 years ago. What he recalls the most is some songs used three drummers, which made it difficult to get the sound on tape just right. “It was tricky to fit it all on 24 analog tracks,” McClement explains.

Speaking of drummers, Bazil Donovan, Blue Rodeo’s bassist, has a tale to share that involves their former keeper of the beat Cleave Anderson. The beloved Canadian band has played The Kee for a long time. The first time they performed at the Muskoka venue was definitely the most interesting. “Our drummer’s wife was pregnant and she ended up having the baby the day we played The Kee,” says Donovan. “We thought we would have to sub him out, but he ended up making the gig. We didn’t go on until 10:30 p.m. and his wife gave birth earlier in the day so it gave him time to get there.”

“It is such a fun place to play,” Donovan adds. “Most times we would do two nights and stay at a cottage down the road.”

It’s also a room where you have to let loose since the audience is so loud, making it a hard stage to play, unless you turn up the amps. “It’s definitely a good rock room!” Donovan concludes. “If you are going to be sensitive and quiet, they will drown you out.”

To learn more about Muskoka, Ontario’s famed The Kee to Bala or for information on upcoming shows visit: thekee.com