I tend not to vent as much here on the blog but anyone who knows me knows that keeping the Six String Nation going is fraught with difficulties. From financial strain to travel complications to organizational frustrations – you name it, there's lots to leave me feel like I'm barely holding on. This is especially keenly felt after the festival or the concert or the conference engagement or the school visit – after the applause has died down and the love has been shared and I'm sitting at my desk trying to organize whatever is next. All the warm feelings and shared stories seem a distant memory. And then, from time to time, I get little reminders that the experience of the Six String Nation presentation continues to resonate for those with whom I've shared the project long after I assume I've been forgotten. Today, I received an envelope in the mail with no identifying marks on the outside. I opened it to find a thank you card and several handwritten notes from students at Halifax Independent School where I presented the project (with a special performance by two students and Six String Nation stalwart friend Stephen Fearing) back in November. What a delight to be reminded of a wonderful day with some terrific students and a good friend and his family. But more than that, it's a reminder that this is the whole reason for doing this project in the first place: to toss a handful of stories collected within Voyageur like pebbles into the awareness of students and other audiences and to have those stories ripple into the culture as they will. It's not up to me to determine which stories sink and which ones sail for any given person but there's all kinds of evidence growing every day that each of the stories that are part of the Six String Nation project (not to mention the stories we gather along the way at our various events) finds a harbour with different people and each is capable of carrying other ideas, emotions, stories and significance to individuals and communities across the country. To be able to play a part in that process is a real privilege and to be reminded of it is a real gift. And as if I needed further reminding, I was visiting the website this morning of Inner City Angels – an organization that works to integrate arts into education especially at schools in priority neighbourhoods in the Greater Toronto Area. Visit their homepage yourself and scroll through the images in the banner at the top of the screen. There you'll find a picture of a student working on a life-sized artwork of an object we all know well! So thank you once again to the staff and students at the Halifax Independent School; to Stephen, Christine and Orla; to Jane Howard Baker and the Inner City Angels; and to everyone who invites me to share the stories of the Six String Nation and in so doing helps build a powerful and ever-changing new story of Canada.
Matty Powell is originally from Saskatchewan and a terrific songwriter. And like so many musicians, when I met him year or two before Voyageur was born he was working in a couple of Roncesvalles neighborhood bars to keep food on the table. Soon after our Canada Day debut in 2006, on a home pitstop as our first summer tour was just getting underway, Matty made the decision to return to Saskatchewan to raise a family and the neighborhood held a send off at Mitzi's Sister down on Queen St. I took Voyageur down for him to play as part of his going away present and he performed a stunning new song called "Prairie Grass" that includes the refrain Matty, please come home. I'm coming home. He now has three beautiful children but his notion of "home" has shifted and the pull of Toronto lured him back. You can once again find him behind the bar at The Local and continuing to write great songs. So while we've been in regular contact since his return (including a performance at an Idle No More benefit at Revival) last night was our first chance for a proper musical reunion. After the first set we pulled down a screen in front of the drum kit and I did a short presentation (believe me, the Friday night pub version has a whole different tone from the full-length school or conference version!) and then handed off Voyageur to Matty for a couple of songs from the tiny stage starting with an almost-8-years-in-the-making encore of "Prairie Grass". After that, I roadied the guitar while Matty climbed up on the bar (pictured) for an unplugged rendition of his song "Toronto". About two-thirds of the way through the song the band kicked in and he handed me back the guitar while he made his way back to the stage where I was waiting to get him plugged in again. While that was meant to be the extent of Voyageur's cameo, Matty was inspired to hold onto it for the remainder of the set and it was a pleasure to hear him play again. Coincidentally, Thursday night at the Hole In the Wall Alain Richer had done a set of mostly covers including Radiohead's "Karma Police". A contributor to his tip jar had requested another Radiohead tune and people were calling out various titles. I'd called for "Fake Plastic Trees" but Alain opted for a Kid A selection. Matty ended up doing it last night as one of a couple of covers – the other being Bob Marley's "Stir It Up" which brought the set to a close as a sing-along. Thanks to Matty and his fantastic band. Thanks also to Gerry and Patrick Lebrun, the staff and patrons at The Local and to friend Stephanie Marshall and mixologist Kyle across the street at The Westerly for the perfect "Toronto" nightcap!
The Junction neighborhood is an historic part of Toronto adjacent to my own neighborhood. It's the home of some colorful Toronto characters, including the original "Bad Boy" mayor, Mel Lastman, heavyweight champion George Chuvalo and, of course, our good friend Justin Rutledge – whose original band name, The Junction 40, refers to the bus that goes through the neighborhood from Dundas West station. There's also some specific history I'm trying to track down of the remarkable building that houses The Hole In The Wall. It's been through a number of ownerships under the same name over the past decade or more but the constant has been the kookily asymmetrical entranceway that makes it a true hideaway. Anyway, that history and the Alice-in-Wonderland entrance were part of what made me leap at the chance to bring the Voyageur for Alain Richer's sets last night. I normally see Alain tending bar at another local watering hole, the Dizzy, which has more of a sports vibe. The Hole in the Wall is a bit more upscale and features a little stage at its far end for live music. Alain does a couple of originals but mostly covers – including a pretty astonishing repertoire of Canadian gems that he polished up for last night. Not surprisingly, he led off with Neil Young and made the rounds of several Canuck classics but my two favorite performances of the night were a really beautiful, slow arrangement of Bryan Adams' "Run To You" and a great rendition of Danny Michel's "Elgin Ave." – a tribute to Alain's home town of Ottawa. Plus, we got to hear a couple of Radiohead tunes and a several other really interesting covers delivered in Alain's powerful rock-ready voice. Thanks to Alain, the staff at The Hole in the Wall and Sugar Devil Joshua Piche.
I often joke that I live exactly halfway between Hugh's Room and Lula Lounge – which comes in handy when Voyageur's presence is requested at one of those venues, as it has been countless times. But one of the great things about my west end Toronto neighborhood is that those two storied venues are just two of dozens of places within a couple of kilometers around here where you can go to hear top notch live music pretty much any night of the week. You may have read previous blogs from Not My Dog or the Cadillac Lounge or The Sister or the Intersteer or Gallery 345, or the late-lamented Tinto Cafe – all a short walk away. Well, by coincidence, Voyageur has a few ultra-local appearances in a short space of time at a couple of places that are favorite spots of mine where we have not yet presented so I'm glad to add a couple more FourSquare check-ins to the Six String Nation profile, starting with last night's appearance at The Local. I've spent my share of time in The Local since it opened in the old Café May location next to the Revue Cinema about a decade ago but never with guitar in hand. That changed when Arthur Renwick (pictured, left) got in touch last week to see if I might bring Voyageur by for his monthly matinée with Sean Pinchin (pictured, right) in their Los DoBros duo configuration on the occasion of the birthday of girlfriend Dawn Maracle. Great guys, great guitar players, great occasion – all added up to a great opportunity to take finally take Voyageur across that threshold yesterday afternoon. Now, Arthur is best known for his gritty cigar-box guitar and – not surprisingly for a duo called Los DoBros – his resonator-top guitar; but he has played Voyageur on a couple of previous occasions – most recently at an Idle No More benefit at Revival. I'm happy he didn't treat my guitar with kid gloves but continued in his classic "dirty-blues" style. I always love to hear Arthur play and to hear him again on Voyageur was a treat. Also a treat was to finally get the guitar into Sean's hands. He's a wicked player cut from Allman Brothers cloth and we'd met months ago at Not My Dog but this was his performance debut with Voyageur. Again, sometimes people get a bit "precious" with the instrument but Sean had it fed through his pedal board and really put it through its paces. So thanks, guys – it may have been Dawn's birthday but your performances on Voyageur were a real gift to me. I'll be back at The Local this coming Friday for a reunion performance by old pal (and Local bartender!) Matty Powell.
I take a lot of ribbing in the folk festival world for not really being up for the camping festival experience. I've camped and it's just not for me, I'm afraid – a creature of creature comforts. Occasionally, the hotels we stay at can be pretty comfortable indeed. Our accommodations for the Ottawa Folk Festival, the Tremblant Blues Festival and Un Paese a Sei Corde, for example, were each spectacular in their own ways. But really, there's nothing like staying with friends and extended family. I like to say that Voyageur is at home wherever it is in Canada but I love to have that feeling myself and I truly felt the warm embrace of home staying with Sue Davis and Stuart Cowen on my trip to Edmonton. While the NCTCA teachers' convention was the anchor event for my trip, staying with Sue and Stu made all the other public and private events I squeezed into this trip possible. In truth, I didn't see much of them for the first few days. My suitcase was parked at the house but I was out and about (in Sue's car, I should add) with all the things you've read about in the preceding blogs. But as we settled into the weekend we got to spend some more time together. There was a lovely family dinner out with Mark Davis and Alice Kos (finally got to meet Alice!) but we did the cozy stay-at-home on Sunday night. It was a great chance to meet Bryan Redpath and his son Harrison and to reunite with Trish and Michael Stevenson, whom we'd met on a trip to Spain years ago. Thank you all for making my trip to Edmonton really feel like a homecoming! Pictured L-R: Harrison, Bryan, Sue, Stuart, Trish, Michael
Old friend Tamara Roberts (pictured, left) is a teacher at Meyokumin Public School in southeast Edmonton so when she heard I was bringing Six String Nation to town she set up a presentation opportunity for my final morning before heading home. And while I usually encourage school event organizers to draw from the staff and student talent pool for someone to play the guitar at the end of the presentation, they are certainly welcome to bring in professionals if they want to go that route (or feel there's no one quite up to the task of entertaining with their guitar skills for 8 minutes, which can be pretty daunting for the non-pros!). Tamara is pretty hooked in to a couple of music scenes in Edmonton so I'm not surprised she kind of hit the jackpot with her player pick today. More on that in a moment... First, though - the students. The neighbourhood has become a settlement destination for the city's burgeoning South Asian population and the school reflects a very diverse population. The group today – representing grades 3–6 – was so engaged in the story of Voyageur and so enthusiastic in answering the questions that are part of the presentation, and so attentive, and so polite and bright when they came up to ask questions and touch the guitar as they exited the gym, I was utterly charmed. And speaking of charmed, in what turned out to be a real coup and a brilliant piece of timing, Tamara asked Edmonton singer-songwriter Chloe Albert to fill the "performance pocket". Early last week, we learned that Chloe had been nominated with her CD "Dream Catcher" for a Juno Award in the Adult Contemporary Album category (along with Celine Dion, Alysha Brilla, Coral Egan, and Johnny Reid). Whatever the Juno jury decides, the kids loved her and so did I. I gave her a couple of Six String Nation guitar picks of the kind Chris Hadfield took to space and I hope they act as a bit of a good luck charm for her! Thanks to Tamara, Chloe, Patti, Debbie, Brian and the rest of the staff and students at Meyokumin. I appreciate you sending me home with such a lovely morning memory.
I bumped into my friend Chris Ellis from MASS LBP in Toronto a couple of weeks ago and it came up that I was headed to Edmonton. He made me a short list of places to check out and an introduction to designer and craftsman Brad Goertz whom he thought maybe I ought to meet if I had the chance. Brad and I connected electronically and after my visit with Fred Anderson yesterday, I swung by the nondescript light-industrial studio that Brad shares cooperatively with a number of other artists. As Brad prepared us an espresso on the studio bialetti it quickly became clear why Chris thought Brad and I might hit it off. Apart from the very eclectic (and mostly familiar) selection of vinyl records in the hand-crafted crate next to the turntable by the window, Brad and I quickly found common ground in a conversation around urbanism, quality craftsmanship and the state of indie culture in Canada. It's been a common thread during this trip – especially since Edmonton seems to be going through a bit of a flowering on the locavore/culinary/craft brewery front. And while a lot of Edmonton money is focussed on the accoutrements of the oil patch business (Brad himself spends part of each year maintaining equipment and teaching rig-related safety courses in northern Alberta), more people are starting to pay attention to the work of local designers and craftspeople. That's one of Brad's chairs holding Voyageur in the photo. I would link to his website but it, like the gorgeous walnut dining table in a few major pieces around his bench, is under construction. But keep an eye out for his company name: Nomadic Infrastructure Labs. Unfortunately, I didn't get to meet Brad's studio-mate, Dion Bews, who was away in Calgary. Dion is making a name for himself making some very fine acoustic guitars, so being in that part of the shop was kind of familiar territory with the various forms and clamps and partly finished guitar bodies laying about. His website is up and running so you can check out some of his work. Dion kindly offered by phone to front me a couple of gel-packs for Voyageur's humidifiers (it's unbelievably cold and dry here, so mine turned to thin little bricks in the time I've been here) but alas we were unable to find anything amongst the paraphernalia. Hopefully, things will hold out until I can replenish things back home in Toronto tonight. Thanks for the coffee, conversation, craft and care, Brad – and thanks for the introduction Chris!
Inlaid on Voyageur's seventh fret is a small donut-shaped stone plucked from the shores of Lake Winnipeg. It is there as recognition of the largest Icelandic population outside of Iceland who settled around Gimli Manitoba and who took these natural formations as emblems of good fortune for their community. And it is there because when I asked my friend Katrina Anderson – who is of Icelandic heritage from Gimli – what we might get from the community to go into the guitar, she introduced me to her uncle David Arnason – author, publisher and professor at the University of Manitoba, who secured this contribution for the project and gave me all the background. However, she didn't tell me about her other illustrious uncle, Fred Anderson, until I let her know I was coming to Edmonton. Through the family, Fred was aware of the Six String Nation project and his vicarious contribution and would love to have come to the presentation at the MetroCinema last Thursday but his Parkinson's disease has progressed to the point where such trips away from his residence are rare. And so Kat put me in touch with her cousin Angela, Fred's daughter (both pictured), and together we arranged for me to bring Voyageur for a visit with Fred at the Lynnwood long term care facility in Edmonton. While it was clear that the disease creates many challenges and discomforts (to which Angie is lovingly attentive), Fred's wit and sensitivity were just as abundantly clear. We lingered on an indoor balcony overlooking the courtyard and talked about various things and I shared the story of Voyageur and his family's contribution. When our visit came to an end, Fred presented me with a series of cards printed from his watercolour paintings and his book of poems, White Flashes on Charcoal, published in 2004 with illustrations by himself and his niece, Katrina. In one of the greeting cards he wrote a personal note made steady enough with care and craftily slipped in a bill for me to buy "a couple of Scotches". I will save that to share a toast to his health and comfort with Katrina back in Toronto. Because, really, encounters like these are precious. And I consider the introductions that the project has made possible through the connections of friends and strangers, families and communities, to be gifts that Voyageur has given me and for that I am forever grateful. Thanks again to Fred, Angela, Katrina and to Sam for dropping by for a quick visit.
I met Al Chapman (pictured front and centre) a few years ago at an Alberta music funding jury put together by mutual pal, Kerry Clarke and we really enjoyed working together but that was the last I saw of him. He's now working as Manager of Visitor Services at the Legislative Assembly of Alberta. Like most of the provincial legislatures across Canada, Alberta's has an impressive architecture and an impressive history but it's currently undergoing some major renovations and repurposing of surrounding buildings to that will make it truly spectacular. Another mutual friend, Richard Davis, urged Al to take in my presentation at the Metro Cinema on Thursday night but Al was ahead of the curve having already purchased his tickets. Still, Richard's endorsement convinced Al to bring along several members of his staff, who all came up to say wonderful things after the show. Al joined the rest of us at the bar post-show and we hatched a plan for me to come and do a presentation for a staff development seminar scheduled for this morning. The team rearranged the schedule of discussions and presentations and Al and I showed up around 10:30am, where I delivered one surprise for the day. The other surprise (for me anyway) was the performance by staffer Patrick Hughes – a part-time pro musician who played a classical piece with great fluidity followed by a crack at Don Ross' arrangement of the Gnarls Barkley hit "Crazy". So our plan was so successful this morning that now Al and I are hatching another plan: to mount events with the public and Voyageur at all the provincial and territorial legislatures across the country. I'll keep you posted!
Our first summer touring with Voyageur we appeared at the famed Edmonton Folk Festival held in Gallagher Park on the Cloverdale side of the North Saskatchewan River that snakes through the city. Memories of the festival flooded back as I gazed on the entirety of the park in its winter clothes today from the Shaw Conference Centre as it kind of terraces down into the valley on the City side of the river. The Centre was the site of the North Central Alberta Teachers Convention where I was booked as the closing speaker. I confess that the closing slot is a mixed blessing: it's an honour to be asked to deliver the final address that you hope will send delegates home with a good feeling; but it often comes after delegates have had their heads filled with sessions and speakers and seminars and networking events for two days or more and what they really want is to head to the pub to decompress and socialize. So I confess that I was a little disheartened by the number of empty seats I faced in the huge hall with stadium seating and massive dual screens for my projections. But I needn't have worried. Those teachers who stayed on for the final presentation demonstrated a real passion and appreciation for the project that fed into my own emotions in delivering the stories of the Six String Nation. And following the presentation, we gathered in the more intimate setting of the lobby with those huge windows facing Gallagher Park and I had many wonderful conversations with people individually as I signed copies of the book and people posed for snapshots with Voyageur. As is so often the case with these presentation events, I detected a slight note of panic when I informed the organizers they'd need to either hire someone to play Voyageur in the "performance pocket" or (preferably) find a person or two from their own staff or delegate list to fill that 8 minute slot. People are never quite sure of what talent might exist within their ranks and it's always a pleasure when they discover instrumental or vocal prowess among their colleagues. This occasion was no different, where a search yielded three eager and willing players: Kyle Swenson, who had a truly wonderful voice and sang Barenaked Ladies' "Jane St. Clair" (one of my favourites by them); Chris Layton, who reworked a Bon Jovi hit so it really spoke to his audience ("Teaching Grade 5" – I'm sure you can guess the original!); and Jerome Chabot (pictured), whose rendition of Bryan Adams' "Summer of 69" passed without incident. I should mention that I asked Jerome to play first because he was expecting to be called away for the birth of his child at any moment! Thanks to Annie Drapeau and her team at the convention, ATA board member Greg Jeffrey for his heartfelt closing remarks, Shawn and his tech crew in the room; the gang from Boxcars & One Eyed Jacks for handling the book sales; and, of course, to my good friends at the National Speakers Bureau. And finally, a thousand thanks to those dedicated teachers who stayed to the very end of the convention. I hope you're glad that you did – I know I am!