Refreshed Walper Hotel a symbol of downtown Kitchener’s resurgence


Refreshed Walper Hotel a symbol of downtown Kitchener’s resurgence

A $10-million investment has not only restored the historic gem but it has also given the rebounding city a missing amenity – upscale, boutique lodging


The rejuvenated Walper Hotel has filled a void in downtown Kitchener, offering upscale accommodation. MICHAEL MURAZ

Jazz legends Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong once stayed there. So did Eleanor Roosevelt and the Queen Mother. But over recent decades, The Walper Hotel’s appeal – and appearance – declined.

Today, though, thanks to a $10-million transformation and reinvention led by Perimeter Development Corp., the boutique hotel in Kitchener is back in ascendancy and has become the hot spot to rest your head in Waterloo Region – for everyone from locals on staycations to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who had a recent stay.

“When it came about to be involved in acquiring the hotel, we jumped at it,” says Craig Beattie, founding partner at Perimeter Development. “We saw it as an opportunity to bring that hotel back to what it once was. We’ve been working on a lot of different projects in downtown Kitchener for a number of years, and through all the relationships we’ve built with the tech community and local CEOs, we kept hearing time and time again that the missing piece was amenities downtown, in particular quality accommodation.

“Companies would have visitors come in to the region from out-of-market and they would have to limo them back and forth from Toronto because there was not the quality of hotel offerings locally.”

Built in 1893, designated as a historic landmark under the Ontario Heritage Act in 1983, and reimagined in 2017, The Walper Hotel sits at the corner of King and Queen streets – the heart of Kitchener’s downtown. This stretch of street had fallen on hard times in recent decades, and along with it The Walper had lost its regal stature.

Perimeter Development joined with Bogdan Newman Caranci Inc. (base building and restoration architect), Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and Jill Greaves Design (suites and guest floor design), and Dialogue 38 (lobby and second-floor public spaces design) to give the property a much needed facelift.

The time to invest was right. First, there’s the technology boom in this area often referred to as Silicon Valley North. Not only does the area have branch plants of some of the world’s largest tech companies (Google, Yahoo and Shopify, for example), but Waterloo Region also has the second highest startup density.

Add to that the new light-rail transit route (on which the hotel sits), set to be operational sometime this summer, and the hotel is a key part of the Kitchener rebirth and rapid growth story.

The Walper’s pledge of personal service is combined with 92 unique rooms to exude a vibe that rivals hip boutique accommodations in San Francisco or New York. It’s the little touches, such as in-room, pour-over coffee service, staff that know your name, and modern spaces. Canadian Juno award-winning musician Stephen Fearing recently stayed one night, following his sold-out solo gig around the corner at The Registry Theatre. The artist’s only regret? He couldn’t stay another night.

“It was very enjoyable,” Mr. Fearing says. “It’s a very sleek and elegant space, well-appointed and modern.”

The Walper Hotel, with rooms created by Dubbeldam Architecture + Design and Jill Greaves Design, has capitalized on the Kitchener and area’s tech boom, as industry visitors and locals alike seek out increasingly sophisticated lodging. GILLIAN JACKSON/HANDOUT

Growing demand from local businesses, combined with the overall growth in commercial and residential construction in the surrounding area, were the biggest investment drivers for this modern redevelopment project. As more technology companies call Kitchener home, their employees want amenities nearby, as Mr. Beattie notes. Visiting executives and potential recruits are also looking for a cool place to stay.

Michael Litt, chief executive officer of online video hosting firm Vidyard, loves the new and improved Walper. The hotel is visible from the software startup’s rooftop patio nearby. Not only do his leadership team, board members and investors stay there when they visit, but the firm also holds executive strategy sessions in the historic hotel’s Oak Room.

“When we are recruiting executive leadership, they stay there,” Mr. Litt says. “We put a welcome basket in the room with some snacks, and Vidyard swag. It’s a warm and welcoming experience you wouldn’t get out of a bigger chain, which we were using prior to the renovation.”

Gaze down King Street toward the heart of Kitchener’s core from Google’s office (located in a restored building that was once a rubber factory) and the signs of this growth in what is known as Kitchener-Waterloo’s Innovation District are visible on every corner. On one side of the street, a sign proclaims a new Liquor Control Board of Ontario outlet is “coming soon;” on the opposite side, a crane is busy hauling material for 345 King West – Perimeter Development’s new 116,000 square-foot, six-storey office building, expected to be ready in the fourth quarter of 2019.

In the first quarter of 2019 alone, the City of Kitchener issued close to $1-billion in new building permits. That comprises about 15 developments, which will have 2,500 residential units, either condos or apartments. Add to that about 700,000 square feet of office space with roughly 125,000 square feet of retail at grade in the various developments.

“We are really excited about what’s happening,” says Brian Bennett, the city’s manager of business development and economic development. “The volume of growth we are experiencing downtown is unprecedented. A lot of that is predicated by the LRT as we’ve been encouraging intensification along the LRT route and in the central transit corridor.

“The evolution will continue over the next number of years,” he adds. “We just have to wait and see what the impact of the LRT will be.”

The hotel sector in the region is also poised for future growth, if supply can meet the apparent demand. “The Kitchener-Waterloo region continues to be highly sought after by hotel investors, particularly given a lack of product available for sale in the GTA [Greater Toronto Area] and the overall strength and growth potential of the region. However, only a small amount of properties have come up for sale in recent years,” says Fraser Macdonald, senior analyst of hotels with Colliers International.

According to Mr. Beattie, the biggest potential game changer, which he believes is only a matter of time, would be an incoming GO rail service from the GTA.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that there is as much – or more – incoming traffic into our region for employment as there is going out to Toronto,” he concludes. “To have an incoming GO service is a huge game changer. There is lots happening behind the scenes on this front and it will be phenomenal when it happens.”

The Walper Hotel was built in 1893 but was refreshed a couple of years ago under the new ownership of Perimeter Development, in conjunction with lobby designer Dialogue 38 and others. LANGEN STUDIOS INC.


photo: Heather Pollock

After Steve Waxman graduated from NYU in 1982, with a screenwriting and acting degree, he stumbled into the music business. It was the tail end of the recession. Waxman took a Madison Avenue gig as an errand boy for Aucoin Management (KISS, Billy Idol). Two hours into his first day on the job, he knew he belonged in this business.

Nearly four decades later (the last 27 in publicity, promotion and marketing at Warner Music Canada) Waxman uses his talents and experiences today to help artists discover their story with his recently launched business: I.M. Steve Waxman. Just like landing that first job with Aucoin, finding this new calling at 60 was a “happy accident.” The epiphany came after many coffee conversations. He stresses his service is not a consultancy; rather, he offers entertainment career guidance.

“You need to define the narrative first”

Waxman is a storyteller with a curious mind, and a conversation with him is a lesson in listening. He rambles from one anecdote to another. Each sentence starts with, “Did I ever tell you about the time…?” From stories of dressing up in KISS’ outfits in Aucoin’s warehouse along the Hudson River to launching Scott Helman’s career, what emerges is this: Waxman knows his narrative. The value of an authentic story, well told, pairs with the most important lesson Bill Aucoin taught him: we’re all facilitators.

“If the artist has a vision, it’s our job to make sure they succeed at their vision, but so many artists don’t even know who they are,” Waxman explains. “They want to put themselves in the hands of the ‘experts’ and let the ‘experts’ guide them. Bill taught me to do it a different way. You need to sit together and figure out how we can get out of you what your vision is, but you need to define the narrative first. Sometimes you just need an unbiased third party to ask all the right questions until you figure it out, but it has to come from you.”

Once an artist has a clear vision and a compelling story, Waxman works with them to determine what steps to take next, and what actions make the most sense at that particular stage in their career, by asking the right questions. Do they need a manager? What about a publicist? Just because you made a record or uploaded some songs to Spotify, Waxman says, this alone is not a story. You need something that defines you or your band, and makes you stand out.

“My goal is to help as many artists as I can get into a position where they can successfully take the next step, whatever that is,” he says. “From getting out onstage to finding a manager or agent. Your best friends are always going to be wowed by what you do. You need an unbiased truthsayer if you’re going to take your career seriously.”

Connect with Steve to learn more about how he can help you navigate your career and define your narrative:

Steve’s Top Five Tips

  1. Set goals. A lot of times people don’t set goals, or they set goals that are too big, like ‘We want to fill an arena one day.’ That’s a big goal that’s hard to get to, unless you have a whole bunch of smaller goals you can achieve first.”
  2. “Ask questions like, ‘What makes you special?’ Define your narrative and start to create your unique story. Then, figure out how to get this story out to the world.”
  3. Be original. Chasing what’s on the radio, or someone else’s sound, is pointless.”
  4. Develop your live experience. People often don’t think about that enough. What are you doing to entertain your fans? Envision what your greatest performance looks like, then scale it back to what you can afford. Keep that vision in your head, so when people see you perform, it always looks bigger.”
  5. Get social. Create content online that’s consistent, and matches your narrative and vision. Many artists fear social media; they think you have to be everything to everybody, all the time. Instead, you need to strategize and plan.”

“It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” — The Northern Pikes on recording at Studio Bell

Calgary, Alberta: a premiere place to record a record? Come again. The home of the world’s most famous Stampede is not the first place one thinks of when recalling locales where great albums were made. With the opening of Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (NMC), that perception is changing fast. Artists ranging from Luke Doucet and Randy Bachman to Boston alt-rock band Guster and The Northern Pikes have all recorded projects recently at this one-of-a-kind facility.

“Sure, it’s strange to have a world-class recording facility in Calgary of all places, but the word is getting out,” says Jason Tawkin, Manager, Building Audio, Studio Bell. “The facility, and the collection housed within the facility, is world class … it’s a pretty unique place.”
Unique is an understatement. It’s a curio shop of wonder. Something new and unexpected waits around every corner. Where else can you see artifacts like k.d. lang’s stage clothing, Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night” sunglasses and Neil Peart’s hockey-themed drum kit during recording breaks? “It’s like Disneyland for Canadian music!” says Northern Pikes’ drummer Don Schmid.

This past summer, the four members of The Pikes (Schmid, Jay Semko, Bryan Potvin, and Kevin Kane) gathered in downtown Calgary with only their band ethos – “art before ego” – as their guide. The group arrived at Studio Bell with only a couple song sketches prepared. As Semko says: “it was an experiment and an adventure.” Over the course of just 16 days and two separate sessions (10 days in February 2018 and another six days in July) they collaboratively built the 10 songs from the ground up – tracking seven at the first session in the spring and the remaining three when they returned to Studio Bell mid summer. Working with engineer Graham Lessard (The Barr Brothers, Basia Bulat, Kevin Drew) and NMC Audio Technician Eric Cinnamon, the foursome recorded these songs one by one live off the floor using a Trident A-Range analog console — only one of 13 built and sonically superior to anything available these days. Due out in 2019, the record (the band’s first studio effort in 16 years) remains untitled. The result is an eclectic disc unlike any the Northern Pikes have captured in the studio before.

It is marked by some fairly heavy songs, a little bit of social/political commentary, some power-pop, and some acoustically-inclined numbers.

“Even though we were using modern technology with multi-track recording, we were going through a lot of vintage gear, which warms up the sound and creates a cool vibe,” explains Semko.

“It definitely sounds different,” Schmid adds. “It sounds gritty and real. Listen to how quiet everything is in the digital age … there is no hiss. At some point maybe music should have some other idiosyncrasies.”

World class, unique, and idiosyncratic are exactly how each band member described the Studio Bell setting — ranking the facility on par with historic haunts where they’ve made records in the past including Bearsville Studios in Woodstock, NY and London’s Abbey Road. The NMC studios include: three control rooms, three live rooms, three isolation booths and a plethora of historic gear to use.

“It’s possibly my favourite studio that I’ve ever recorded in,” says Kevin Kane, guitarist for The Grapes of Wrath, and the Pikes’ newest member, who joined the band for the Big Blue Sky 30th anniversary tour in 2017. “With the demise of the record industry, well, it’s not dead, but it is but a shadow of its former glory, there are fewer and fewer big studios.”

The National Music Centre living musical instrument collection includes more than 300 musical instruments (in working order) spanning 450 years of music technology: everything from a 1591 harpsichord to the legendary monster synth TONTO (a.k.a. The Original New Timbral Orchestra) that was a big part of Stevie Wonder’s sound, a grand piano that once belonged to David Foster, and a rare Novachord of which only six remain in the world. Artists record using one of three historic analog consoles in any combination of adjoining live rooms; each live room is designed to have its own sound and has a selection of historic musical instruments suited for the uniquely designed spaces. One of those rooms is the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck where iconic songs were cut, such as: “Stairway to Heaven,” “Smoke on the Water,” and “No Woman No Cry (live).”

“Unique to our living musical instrument philosophy is that we are not collecting just for prosperity sake,” Tawkin explains. “We feel those objects are better appreciated when they are actually used as they were intended such as the Rolling Stones Mobile recording truck. It would be a shame if another record were never made with that truck.

“A great deal of inspiration comes from working with such historic pieces,” he adds. “That positive energy and that creative spirit of working with such important pieces of music technology translates into amazing things.”

One of the most recent donations to the NMC collection, which The Pikes took advantage of, was a 1958 Fender Pro Amp, owned and used by Neil Young. Bryan Potvin had not recorded through an amp in the last 15 years, but he and Kane both plugged into this vintage amplifier during the second session for the record. The Pike’s guitarist christened it “Old Nasty!”

“Imagine what this amplifier sounded like to break that 15-year streak!” says Tawkin.
One of Kane’s favourite memories from the NMC sessions occurred when the band had only one day left in the studio and they felt they were still short one song.

“That night Bryan [Potvin] presented an idea he had for a verse with a few lyrics,” he concludes. “The four of us sat around the hotel room and, as I listened to Bryan and Jay talk about the song conceptually and play around with some melodies and chords, I scribbled down a few lyrics based on what they were saying. The next morning, Don sent us all a text with the final lines of the song and we had ‘Don’t You Give Up’ completed by the time we walked into the NMC.”

Learn more about recording at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre, here.

New “Old Direction” for Dennis Ellsworth

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” – Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr (Les Guêpes, 1849)

This above oft-quoted epigram from the 19th Century French critic and novelist is usually translated as “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” The phrase refers to how a large-scale change may appear monumental on the surface, but on closer inspection, the fundamentals remain.

Catching up with Dennis Ellsworth to chat about Things Change (his fifth solo album), we find the 41-year-old in the midst of a domestic existence. Ellsworth has just returned from Home Depot, where he was picking out kitchen cabinets and paint samples. Karr’s well-worn phrase sums up the songwriter’s current state; it’s also an apropos tagline to describe his new record.

Ellsworth quit drinking more than a year ago; he and his wife bought a house near where he grew up in the suburb of Stratford, PEI (on the other side of the Hillsboro River from Charlottetown); and he’s set to become a first-time father. Upon an initial spin, Things Change sounds like a departure for the songwriter. Gone is the alt-country sound that’s served as his wheelhouse. Replacing the roots vibe is a radio-friendly wall of sound, with a sprinkle of pop. Listen deeper, and you’ll still hear the poetic lyrics, and Ellsworth’s ability to make a song speak to us all – confirming Karr’s words. The building blocks of this songwriter’s art remain the same.

“I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do.”
Pursuing Publishing PlacementsImagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

“It’s not so much that I took my songwriting in a new direction, it’s more like I went back in time to an ‘old direction,’” says Ellsworth explains. “I’m a child of the late 1970s. When I first started collecting records, what I chose to listen to was late-‘80s and early-‘90s stuff. The early ‘90s were marked by alternative music that featured heavy guitars, and that music inspired me a lot in my formative years.

“When I started writing songs for this record, and I got a feel for where I was going, I intentionally listened to artists like Matthew Sweet, The Lemonheads, and The Jesus & Mary Chain,” he continues. “I used their music as my inspiration.”

Once the song bones took shape, it was “the icing on the cake” to hire fellow East Coaster Joel Plaskett to produce the record. The pair convened at the JUNO Award-winner’s New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth, NS. “With Thrush Hermit, he lived in that alternative rock and Sub Pop [Records] world back in the ‘90s,” says Ellsworth.

Adding to the throwback vibe, Plaskett recruited The Super Friendz’ rhythm section (Dave Marsh and Charles Austin) to join them in the studio. “Recording this made us all feel like we were in our 20s again,” says Ellsworth. “As I get older, nostalgia plays a bigger role in my life. I’ve chosen music as the way that I write and express myself. Six months on, I feel Things Change is the best record I’ve ever made.”

While not a concept album, several of the songs on the record (“Absent Mind,” “Caught in the Waves,” and “From the Bottom”) describe Ellsworth’s feelings of career ennui, and the personal transformation he experienced in the last 365 days – especially his decision to put the plug in the jug.

“I wasn’t an abusive drinker,” he admits. “I was a constant social drinker. I didn’t want to quit because I like the taste of beer, scotch, and red wine, but I realized I needed to pull myself together a bit more, on a personal level, to strengthen my chances of survival. The benefits far outweigh the losses.”

Two decades into his artistic career, Ellsworth’s music keeps getting stronger. With this maturity, he’s also re-prioritizing where best to invest his energy. That means more time in the studio, recording demos, writing and co-writing songs every week, and less time away from home in the grind of touring. Signing a publishing deal three years ago with Cymba Music Publishing (see sidebar) was the main driver for this switch.

“I’m less of a performer and more of a songwriter, anyway,” Ellsworth concludes. “I just changed the parameters and structure of what I believed in. I didn’t want to commit to the same old routine that everyone says you have to do. I still want to make music, write songs, and make records, but if I can switch my focus to songwriting more than performing, that’s a transition I want to make.”

SIDEBAR: Pursuing Publishing Placements

Imagine turning on the TV and hearing your song played while watching a well-loved Canadian CBC drama. That’s one of the feathers Dennis Ellsworth can now add to his songwriting cap. His song “Hazy Sunshine,” from the 2013 record of the same name, appeared on Heartland last season.

Vince Degiorgio, President and founder of Chapter Two Productions (which includes Cymba Publishing) first met Ellsworth at a song camp a few years ago. Immediately, he was struck by the artist’s abilities, and a year later signed him to a publishing deal.

Another recent publishing credit is a song in the Canadian rom-com The New Romantic, which made its world premiere this past March at SXSW. “Vince sent me a message asking if I had any songs that sounded like ‘Skinny Love’ by Bon Iver,” says Ellsworth. “I said, ‘I don’t,’ but I’d just written a song that was close enough, so I sent him a demo. Vince called back immediately and asked, ‘How soon can you get in the studio?’”

Ellsworth cut the song, sent it to Degiorgio, who forwarded the track to Instinct Entertainment — the Toronto-based music supervision and licensing company representing The New Romantic. Then the publisher went to Japan for more than a month, so the songwriter didn’t hear anything. “I figured they weren’t interested,” says Ellsworth. “Then, one day after Vince got home, Instinct got in touch with him and said the song was going to be in the movie!”

Farm Aid 2017: A Priceless Pilgrimage

More than 1,200 miles following the white line from Waterloo, Ontario, to Burgettstown, Pennsylvania, and back again in a 36-hour span; 1,600 pics snapped in the photo pit; many more musical memories made over an 11-hour span on a summerlike September day – including seeing Neil Young wail on Old Black (his 1953 vintage Gibson Goldtop Les Paul guitar) and Willie Nelson pluck away on Trigger (his faithful acoustic, which though battered and scratched, still resonates with a sound all the Texas songwriter’s own) – all for a great cause, raising awareness and funds for family farmers at Farm Aid 32 = priceless.

While the miles I logged might seem a lot, gazing at the license plates in the parking lot showed I was not alone in my journey to support this cause; people came to Pennsylvannia from as far away as Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, Maryland, and Tennessee.

With Mother Nature wreaking havoc in recent weeks as people (including many farmers) from Florida to Texas tried to reason with hurricane season, this installment of Farm Aid proved the event is as important and as relevant today as it was when Willie Nelson founded the nonprofit organization back in 1985. Its mission to help and support family farmers trying to eke out a living, growing good food and competing with corporate giants and factory farms, remains the same.

As always, the ornery and unpredictable Young – never shy to share an option – had one of the strongest statements in the morning press conference. Shakey said: “I’m here to tell you America is already great! We don’t need to apologize and feel bad about who we are. Stop watching TV because it makes you feel bad.”

More than three decades on, the Farm Aid concert is a live music event that certainly makes one feel good about not just the Americas, but life in general. All the artists donate their time and play for free. And the 23,000 strong who attended this year’s all-day festival showed their support by sporting T-shirts that read “Stop Factory Farms” and “Fuck Monsanto” and buying posters, pullovers, and other Farm Aid merchandise throughout the day. Since 1985, Farm Aid has raised more than $50 million to help family farmers thrive all over the country while inspiring millions to take part in the Good Food Movement.

The day began shortly after 12:30 p.m. with Farm Aid founder Nelson singing an a capella version of the Lord’s Prayer. Appropriately, the original country outlaw closed the show nearly 11 hours later with his family band and many of the amazing artists who played throughout the day.

Willie’s son Lukas Nelson logged the most miles on the Farm Aid stage on this Saturday. And for good reason. He played a tight set early in the day with his band The Promise of the Real (POTR); later, he joined many of the other musicians, such as Jack Johnson and Sheryl Crow, before backing up Neil Young in his late-evening scorching set – channeling the ghosts of Crazy Horse 40 years gone – playing riffs on his Gibson and letting it wail and take him on a meandering journey. The 28-year-old’s voice echoes a young Willie Nelson, but he’s got a sound all his own.

Other highlights are too numerous, but I’ve captured a few. What the fundraiser was marked by – more than any of the other five Farm Aids I’ve attended over the past 15 years – were the artist collaborations. Jamey Johnson invited Nelson and POTR to join him for a rousing rendition of The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek.” Next up, Margo Price performed the appropriate song: “I Want to Buy Back the Farm.”

The day really kicked into gear around 4 p.m. with Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats. Their big hit “S.O.B.” got the cowboys and cowgirls in the crowd stompin’ their feet and clapping their hands trying to keep up the beat with the band’s raucous rhythms and pulsating percussion. The Avett Brothers kept the kitchen party going, playing an energetic and sweaty set marked by songs new and old.

Later, Jack Johnson set the tone for encouraging collaborations. The highlight came mid-set when he invited Rateliff and his band, Jamey Johnson, and Sheryl Crow to join him on a memorable, soulful rendition of Bob Dylan’s classic “I Shall Be Released.” Crow’s set that followed featured many of her radio-friendly hits, including “My Favorite Mistake,” and “All I Wanna Do.”

The pinnacle was when Crow invited Willie Nelson, Lukas Nelson, Jack Johnson, and Margo Price to join her on a blistering version of The Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider,” in a nod to the late great Gregg Allman.

As night descended, and predictable but enjoyable sets by Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds and John Mellencamp had passed, it was finally “Neil time.” After the roadies worked feverishly to get all his gear set up and his guitars ready, Young strutted out shortly after 9:35 p.m. with POTR and wasted no time, picking up Old Black and launching into “Fuckin’ Up.”

Finally, as the concert drew to its close, the grandfather and founder of this incredible day, 84-year-old Nelson, ended the show with nearly 60 minutes of all his hits. Nelson was backed by his longtime family band and, for the last few songs, nearly every one of the artists who had played that day joined him for a final curtain call.

While waiting for more than an hour to get out of the parking lot, I reminisced about the day, the cause, and just how lucky I was to be one of the 23,000 fans who witnessed Farm Aid 2017 in Pennsylvania – a concert I’ll not soon forget.

No time like now for Steve Strongman

Blues (noun): Melancholic music of black American folk origin, typically in a 12-bar sequence. It developed in the rural southern U.S. toward the end of the 19th Century, finding a wider audience in the 1940s as blacks migrated to the cities. This urban blues gave rise to rhythm & blues and rock ‘n’ roll.

Blues is an omnipresent genre, but it’s rarely in the spotlight. While it’s always acknowledged this “melancholic music” birthed rock ‘n’ roll, modern mainstream rock listeners tend to shun traditional blues. That’s fine with Steve Strongman. As a purveyor and champion of a genre that boasts a legendary line of guitar-slingers – like Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and Otis Rush – the blues course through Strongman’s veins and flow from his fingers every time he picks up his Gibson electric guitar. The singer-songwriter believes it’s his role to help keep the genre alive, and to educate the masses of what blues really means in the 21st Century.

“We have to continue to push the parameters of what people think blues means, because everything sounds like the blues,” says Strongman, a 2013 JUNO Award winner in the Blues Recording of the Year category (for A Natural Fact). “Even heavy rock stuff is blues-based.”

Strongman’s earned three Maple Blues Awards, and has toured with the legendary likes of B.B. King, Johnny Winter, and Buddy Guy. While Colin James recently returned to his blues roots (Blue Highways), as did The Rolling Stones (Blue & Lonesome), Strongman has always stayed true to his roots – as with his next (and sixth) album, No Time Like Now, which drops March 10, 2017. The songwriter spoke with us in January 2017 at the Gibson Guitar Showroom in Toronto’s Liberty Village the day the album’s first single, “No Time Like Now,” was released.

“I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything.”

All Strongman needed to feed his muse, inspire him, and seize the day, was a sense of urgency. He recorded the 10 songs of No Time Like Now with longtime friend, former bandmate and frequent producer Rob Szabo, mostly at Beulah Sound Studio in Hamilton, where the singer-songwriter hangs his hat these days.

“We wanted it to be a very exciting, guitar-driven record,” he says. “It’s still steeped in the blues – because anything I do is steeped in the blues – but there are a lot of other elements to this record that previously we hadn’t really focused on.”

While James and The Stones each pay homage to the genre’s legends with 100-percent-covers albums, Strongman offers nine original songs steeped in the blues, but that also rock out, and boast layers of soul. The only cover is a swampy take on Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – an intriguing choice for a blues album.

“Rob and I opened for Randy [Bachman] a long time ago, and later I ended up playing with Randy’s son Tal,” says Strongman. “We’ve always kept in touch. When I was rehearsing with Tal, one time I stayed at Randy’s house in White Rock. He’s always been a huge supporter of my music and often plays me on his CBC Radio show. When Rob and I decided we were going to do a cover on this album, Randy’s songs came to mind. ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’ just leapt out at me. We didn’t want to do that cover the way Randy did it because to me it’s a fantastic, massive hit. I tried to put my own spin on it.”

When Strongman sent an MP3 demo of the classic-rock anthem to Bachman, asking for his opinion (and his blessing), the Canadian Music Hall of Famer loved it, and even agreed to lend his guitar work to the finished track.

While musicians like Bachman, James, and The Stones discovered the blues early – listening to, and learning licks from, the likes of Elmore James, Jimmy Reed, and Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin – Strongman’s attraction came via a more circuitous route.

“I arrived at the blues via classic-rock bands, because that was what I was into,” he explains. “I was a huge Led Zeppelin fan, like many people my age. Then I realized where they were getting everything. Growing up around Kitchener-Waterloo, having [blues club] Pop the Gator [that hosted the likes of Bobby “Blue” Bland, Albert Collins and Mel Brown] right there, you also got to see these amazing, world-class blues artists come through town, and that really resonated with me.

“I always think of myself as a guitar player first,” he adds. “Everything I do is steeped in the blues, but centered on guitar playing. I hear blues in everything, even in pop. Blues itself… people have an idea when they say the word. This record is just a continuation of what I’ve been working on.”

When it comes to crafting songs, does Strongman experience chills, like some other writers, when he knows he’s on to something good?

“That’s exactly the way it works,” he says. “I know when I hear something, and get a bit of a chill vibe, that it just feels right. You might spend eight hours one day and not get one word, and then the next day you get up and in 10 minutes you have two verses, and a chorus you love. You always try to strive for that ‘Aha!’ moment, where you say, ‘That’s it!’”

Gear Talk with Strongman.


After four rigorous years on the road that included a broken heart, singer-songwriter and pop star Serena Ryder was burnt out, physically and mentally. So in 2014, she moved to Los Angeles, with no plans other than to take a break from music. The then-31-year-old, who has openly and publically battled depression before, checked out for a while – taking time to rest, rejuvenate, and just hang out at the beach.

“I was going through a break-up and winter was coming,” says Ryder. “I just wanted to feel warmth and sunshine on my face, and in my heart.”

The ocean had always called her name, so L.A. was the perfect place for Ryder to seek refuge. It took almost a year just to “get my shit together,” she says. Only after Ryder started feeling like she was back to her old self did the desire to write return. As she combined the inspiration of living on the West Coast with a host of new co-writers, it wasn’t long before song sketches started to fill in the blank canvas for the follow-up to the JUNO Award-winning Harmony (2012). Utopia is set for release in November 2016, and while its final track list isn’t yet set at press time, Ryder has recorded more than 50 songs.

Sir Thomas More coined the word “Utopia” for his 1516 book of the same name; it describes a fictional island society in the Atlantic Ocean, and has come to mean an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. For Ryder, Utopia means something different. “The title came from the First Nations story of The Two Wolves,” she says. “It’s an old parable of the battle that’s going on inside every human. Two wolves, a dark wolf and a light wolf, represent this battle. An elder tells this story to their grand-daughter, who asks: ‘If there’s a battle going on between the dark and the light wolf, which wolf wins?’ The elder replies: ‘The one you feed.’

“For this record, I decided it’s important to feed both your wolves. If you feed both your wolves, then, in essence you will acquire utopia… that’s the dream. Everyone wants balance. For me, utopia means balance.”

Ryder credits her long-time management, Pandyamonium, and her record company, Universal, for allowing the six-time JUNO Award winner and two-time SOCAN Award honouree to achieve this balance; neither of them pressured the musician to deliver a new batch of songs within a set period of time. Not having a schedule worked to her artistic advantage; it allowed the songs on Utopia to come together organically, in their own time.

“I was blessed to have that,” she says, “because a lot of artists finish one record and they feel this pressure to put out another one right away. It’s like you have a baby, and it’s two years old, and you’re told, ‘Now go have another baby!’ I’ve been lucky I’ve been able to do some living in between. There’s definitely more of a variety, storyline, breadth and depth of emotion in the songs because I had that time.”

Did Ryder’s break-up play a role in this new batch of songs?

“Everything I experience in my life plays into my music,” she says. “I didn’t consciously write about my break-up. I was writing about my relationship with myself… That’s the one that ends up affecting all the other relationships you have.”

“Got Your Number,” the first single from Utopia, is an infectious, upbeat song that originated during one of those L.A. afternoons. Ryder was just chilling, hanging at her place with a couple of friends. She set up a drum kit in the living room and started to groove. “I always strive to write a song that makes people want to move and feel the beat,” she says. “I was playing on the drum kit, looking for the right vibe. I had this New Orleans scene in my head of people street dancing, and playing drums and horns, and I just started rapping.”

While Ryder usually starts writing songs with a melody in mind, on this occasion it was the drumbeat that fuelled her muse. “I just started spewing out lyrics,” she says. “It all happened organically. My two friends, [songwriters] Derek [Furnham] and Todd [Clark] were there, just writing stuff down as I said it. I like being the monkey in the middle: throwing the lyrics and the melody out for them to record. It was a really inspiring writing session; I believe that energy transferred onto the song.”

Utopia was also about finding new songwriting partners, including fellow SOCAN member and multiple award-winning professional songwriter Simon Wilcox, who’s become one of Ryder’s “best friends on the entire planet.” The pair, first introduced by Ryder’s keyboard player Hill Kourkoutis, write a lot together, but mostly they just hang out and do yoga. More than half the songs on the new disc are co-writes with Wilcox and another highly celebrated pro songwriter and SOCAN member, Tawgs Salter.

“I love that other people mirror stuff back at you,” says Ryder. “People end up working better when they work together. That’s just my experience. Some people work really well alone. Maybe my next record I’ll write by myself. I have no idea why, but for this record, community was really important.

“I like working with people who are opposites of me,” she says. “Tawgs knows music theory and how to use a computer and track songs, so that’s what happened on this record. I wrote most of the lyrics and the melodies and then I had a producer or writer do the tracking and add in the musical theory.”

While 50 per cent of the songs on Utopia were written during Ryder’s sojourn in L.A., the rest of them were written in various locales around the globe, including Nashville; London, England; Australia; and Toronto. One new songwriting partner Ryder discovered in the U.K. was John Grant. “I wrote ‘Killing Time’ with him,” she says. “I fell in love with working with John, and I flew him to Toronto a couple of weeks later and we wrote another song called ‘Back to Me.’” Another was Colin MacDonald of The Trews, who ended up becoming her fiancé.

No matter where she writes, one wonders if Ryder follows a set songwriting formula. We ask whether, like recent U.S. Songwriting Hall of Fame inductee Chip Taylor, she gets chills when she knows a song is a keeper.

“It all depends,” she says. “Songwriting is so ethereal to me. I write on real intuition and feeling. When Chip talks about those chills, sometimes that happens to me… sometimes I get melodies in my head, and sometimes someone will say something that sparks a whole other idea.”

Ryder compares that moment before an idea arrives to an artist staring at a blank canvas. “When you have a blank canvas, you have an open invitation to take a color you like and put it on there,” she says. “For me, I play around with melody like it’s one of my favourite colors… I think about how this note tastes on my tongue, what word makes that sound happen and then I’ll write down that word and ask what it means to me… In that moment I’m just like a pre-school kid sitting and playing with their favourite colours.”

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band Circles Back to Its Roots

When we chat on an early September morning, Jeff Hanna is keeping cool at his home in Nashville, Tennessee, before he hits the road again with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. First, they’re heading to Shreveport, Louisiana, and then they’ll add more miles to the odometer, bouncing around North America for the rest of the year.

The latest tour sees the group celebrating the release of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Friends – Circlin’ Back: Celebrating 50 Years. The concert album, recorded live at Nashville’s venerable Ryman Auditorium, features Hanna and the other original members: Jimmie Fadden (drums/harmonica/vocals), Bob Carpenter (keyboards/accordion/vocals), and John McEuen (banjo/fiddle/guitar/mandolin). The recording drops September 30, as an individual record or as a CD/DVD combo, on the band’s own NGDB Records.

The Ryman was an obvious host for this nostalgic celebration. “It’s where a lot of the music we loved lived, and still lives today,” says Hanna. “It was a natural choice on several levels. As a Nashvillean, there is nowhere I would rather go to hear or play music.”

One wonders, a half-century on, if climbing those steps — and settling aboard a tour bus — ever gets old. Not really, says the 69-year-old Hanna. “There is something comforting about a tour bus. You have all your stuff on there and you are travelling with your pals.”

As trailblazers in the Americana, country-rock, and roots music traditions, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band decided there was no better way to mark 50 years together then to make a record and document a special evening, inviting a bunch of their musical compadres and those who’ve played some part in their storied success to the party. As a retsult, Sam Bush, who guests on the classic tune from the American songbook “Nine Pound Hammer,” called the beefed-up version of the band, who appear on this recording, the Nitty Gritty E-Street Band.

“This was just a gathering of our pals to celebrate this milestone,” Hanna explains. “Everyone involved in the show has had a significant impact on our career, and all the songs we chose to play and record are touchstones for us.”

The 18 cuts on this new record are all musical threads of the rich tapestry that comprise the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s catalogue. Many of these tunes also appeared on one of the trio of classic Circle records such as the Grammy-winning Will the Circle Be Unbroken, released in 1972.

Similar to how that album featured a number of their musical friends and heroes, even more of the group’s heroes accompany them this time around. John Prine was on hand to sing and play on a pair of his songs: the classic folk tune “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” and a spirited take on “Paradise.” NGDB chose the latter because it’s one of their all-time favorites. “We’ve been singing that song in soundcheck for 30 years,” Hanna says.

Another song long in the band’s repertoire, that makes an appearance on Circlin’ Back, is Texan troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker’s melancholic tale of “Mr. Bojangles,” one of NGDB’s bigger hits, which rose to Number 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts back in 1971. “We hadn’t played with him in 25 or 30 years, so it was great to reunite,” Hanna adds.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Jackson Browne is another artist who Hanna and his bandmates reunited with for the new retrospective record. Browne sang with NGDB in the early years, when they were still a jug band, but he had never recorded with them before now.

“We did one of the old jug band tunes with him — ‘Truthful Parson Brown,’ along with ‘These Days,’ [which was] a song he wrote during his time singing and playing with us in the 1960s.”

“Truthful Parson Brown” is a traditional tune from the 1920s that Browne’s father taught him. On this recording, the song sounds as relevant and fresh as when it was written nearly a century ago.

Jimmy Ibbotson, a member of band for 30 years, who left the group a decade ago, returned to play a couple of tunes with his old friends. Among them were Cajun numbers like: “Fishin’ in the Dark,” songs that were integral parts of the band’s set for years. Other guests on Circlin’ Back include Vince Gill, Byron House, Allison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, and Rodney Crowell.

Fifty years since they first gathered together to play music, these four horseman still sound oh-so-good. Their harmonies ring and instrumentations sing.

When I ask Hanna if he ever imagined the band would stick together for this long, he laughs. “No way,” he says. “The majority of us were teenagers when we started. We thought, ‘This is a band that will be fun for a couple of years.’ The band then went through a few direction changes musically. We started as a jug band, then a few years into it, about the time when the country-rock revolution was happening in California with Poco and the Flying Burrito Brothers, we saw that as a natural evolution for our sound. We were always also fans of Buck Owens and the Everly Brothers … those artists all influenced us in 1969 when we changed direction.

“Until then, we had done four records of mostly jug band music,” he adds. “That was the first time we felt we could do this for a living, but we would have laughed you out of the room if you had said we would be together for 20 years — let alone 40 or 50. Lo and behold, we are all — knock on wood — healthy, and we’ve made it to this milestone. We get along like most families. We are a little dysfunctional, at times we fight, but we are grateful we get to still play together and hang out.”

Hanna says one thing that’s helped the band stay together for 50 years is that they all have musical side projects outside the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Everyone does sessions with other musicians and Jimmie Fadden has a trio (Suitcase Full of Blues) based in Florida with whom he plays regularly. For his part, Hanna does a lot of singer-songwriter guest spots on other people’s records; he also performs as an acoustic duo with his wife from time to time, which he says is fun and different from his “day job.”

No matter what job he’s doing day to day, despite a drifter’s existence for the first half of his life, Hanna is happy to have called Nashville home for the past three decades.

“I moved to Tennessee in 1985,” he recalls. “We made our first Circle record here in the summer of 1971. Then, in the early 1980s, we came back to Nashville and started to make a record aimed at the country market. I’m proud of those records we made in Nashville in the 1980s, even though we eventually returned to our acoustic-based sound.”

On the road, as the band celebrates its first 50 years, there’s no reason why they can’t keep the music going for at least another decade.

“People have been happy to light the birthday candles with us,” Hanna notes. “It’s been a real celebratory year. We are very grateful to have a fan base that has shown up and bought our records for so many years. It’s not lost on us how lucky we are.”

Jack Ingram’s Seven-Year Journey Is Worth the Wait

Life these days is good for Jack Ingram. The Austin, Texas-based songwriter is living on his terms and making the music that stirs his soul. Listeners and fans are thankful his muse has taken him down this path less taken.

On August 26, seven years to the day since the release of his most commercially successful record (Big Dreams & High Hopes) on Big Machine Records — which included the Top 10 hit “Barefoot and Crazy” — Ingram released his first batch of new songs. The result, Midnight Motel, features 11 choice cuts that moved Ingram when he wrote them; these are the types of songs that slowly creep into your soul and stir your emotions.
Every night, after his kids went to bed, Ingram would go into his music room and stay there until three or four in the morning, just working out the songs like he did at the beginning of his career. On the road, he stayed up well past midnight writing in motel rooms.

“I wanted to bring people into that space with me,” he says.

He wrote and recorded the songs for Midnight Motel independently before shopping it around, and found the perfect home on Rounder Records. The disc was cut with Ingram and the musicians recording live off the floor, huddled in the same room, with minimum overdubbing. Produced by fellow Texas singer-songwriter Jon Randall, the sessions also featured an all-star studio band that included guitarist Charlie Sexton (Bob Dylan, Arc Angels), drummer Chad Cromwell (Neil Young, Dire Straits), bassist Robert Kearns, and keyboardist Bukka Allen from Ingram’s longstanding Beat Up Ford Band.

To understand the impetus — and inspiration — behind Midnight Motel, let’s flash back to 2008. Ingram was doing meet-and-greets with Kenny Chesney and touring with Brooks and Dunn. That same year, he was named Best New Male Vocalist by the Academy of Country Music, despite the fact that he’d already been rocking honky-tonks, theaters, and stadiums for a decade and a half. After toiling the gravel roads and lost highways of America, Ingram finally found the widespread commercial airplay he yearned. This mainstream success explains the long delay between recordings.

“The truth is this,” Ingram says, “in 2009, I had ‘Barefoot and Crazy’ out. It was a huge hit single, but it wasn’t a turntable single: it moved the needle at the radio station and people loved it, but it wasn’t the type of song that made people forget what they had to do and go buy the record. When that happened, I was working so hard to be in the mainstream of country music and to have singles on the radio. When that record came out, that song was my seventh or eighth single and I said, ‘I need to do something different.’”

Midnight Motel is definitely different. While not a concept album, there is a definite theme that ties all the tunes together. The songs speak to Ingram’s life journey, documenting the struggles and strife we all face. The barebones compositions build to the disc’s closer, “All Over Again,” which captures the essence of the record. When I say “barebones,” I don’t mean the tunes are any less catchy or heartfelt; in fact, the opposite is true. These 11 cuts go deep. The songs will swim in your head long after you’ve pressed stop on your music player. Ingram’s well-chosen words, combined with lush instrumentation, show a songwriter at the top of his game — following in the footsteps of some of his idols. Unlike the songs on Big Dreams & High Hopes, these are creative outputs he would be proud to play for his musical heroes.

“After my last record,” he explains, “I came to the conclusion that I have these big heroes like [Kris] Kristofferson, Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, and Willie Nelson — guys I grew up idolizing and listening to. I [thought], ‘I have a bunch of hit singles and they are great, but if I was in a guitar pool in heaven with any of [my] heroes, I wouldn’t play any of these songs for them.’ Not because they are bad, but as far as the world I’m really gravitating towards and the songs I hold in high regard and respect, I wouldn’t play them those singles. That was the moment I knew, my next record was going to be very different and on a different label.”

Rounder Records is the home he discovered for his music. The now-Nashville-based label is the right place for Ingram at this point in his career, fitting well with his current goals and aspirations.
“I don’t mind being on the fringe of country music in the mainstream,” he says. “And I also don’t mind being on the fringe of Americana music, because I write that kind of music. I needed to be at a label where I know they can sell one million records … they’ve done it. But I also know they are okay with selling 20,000 records.
“At some labels,” he continues, “you make great music and it’s like a tree falling in the woods: Does anyone hear it? [But] Rounder has the capability, if something sparks, they can get it to enough people where you can make a dent.”

The choice of record label, and the songs on Midnight Motel, are about being true and authentic to Ingram’s muse, whether or not he makes a ‘dent.’

“So many people in the world think it’s about talent,” Ingram comments. “Not true. It’s more that artists are being authentic and that authenticity is speaking to a large group of people. Whether you are Beyoncé, Neil Young, or Chip Taylor, they are all telling their truths. The amount of people that they appeal to is not about talent … there is a bit of the luck of the draw, but once you’ve got them, you’ve got them, even if you take a departure.”

“[Big Dreams & High Hopes] wasn’t a sell-out. I felt like my foot was on the brake artistically. I wasn’t really doing all I could do as an artist, and that didn’t sit right.”

Midnight Motel shows a songwriter willing to take risks and make the music he needed to make. To boot, he stayed true to his longtime fans. Does that mean he artist “sold-out” when he recorded Big Dreams & High Hopes?

“I don’t think it’s a matter of selling out,” Ingram says. “That’s a hot button word anyway. I believe selling out is when an artist does something they can’t stand and they know it is only for one reason: to actually cash in or cash out. In my career journey to have hit singles on the radio and be a part of that world, in my mind, I could be wrong, but I don’t have to be on the top of the charts consistently or forever, but all of the guys I really respect had moments where they were.

“They didn’t compromise too much,” he continues. “Face it, you need to compromise a little bit. If you listen to the radio, the production is all the same, so if you are going to get on the radio, pop or country in any mainstream format, you are not going to get played if the production changes predominantly from song to song. That’s not how radio works.”

Ingram says, on Big Dreams & High Hopes, he found a sound that fits into radio formats in a way that he could still dig and play for somebody, and go out and take the lumps and bruises one takes on the road. “That sound and that format is not even a quarter of who I really am,” he explains. “So, it wasn’t a sell out. I felt like my foot was on the brake artistically. I wasn’t really doing all I could do as an artist, and that didn’t sit right. I knew to stay in that format and on that label was about consistency and having hits every few months.”

The mainstream success of his last record allowed Ingram the opportunity to take his time with his next record and make music that is 100 percent authentic to who he is as a songwriter. “I’m willing to take those consequences, which means you may get on the radio and you may not. But, because of the success I’ve had, I’m lucky enough to say, I have an audience, ears that want to hear my music and people who believe in my songwriting because of those hits.”

For Ingram, it was always about making music and having his fans follow him no matter what artistic road he chose. That’s what artists do, after all.

“I would rather be an artist,” he says. “I believe you can be a star and an artist. If everything doesn’t go your way, you’ll be one or the other. For me, I’m willing to bet on being an artist before being a star. At some point in your life if you are going to do something for a living, you bet on your own talent. I can live with that. What I can’t live with is not being completely authentic and living with those results, especially if they are not positive.”

Following the Muse With Nothing to Lose Read more