Sackville Sunrise

Voyageur "scarfed" Checked Facebook this morning and read the sad and terrible news about Doug Queen, a public school music teacher from my neighbourhood who'd been missing for three days before being found dead in Lake Ontario yesterday. I'd met Doug a number of times in the past when his band Jughead – for whom he was the accordion player – played regularly at Harbourfront Centre, where I worked. But my more recent connection was his twin brother Andrew, who played Voyageur as part of a presentation at Hillcrest Public School in Campbellford where he was also a music teacher. Andrew is just a sweet and lovely guy and my heart breaks for him and the rest of the Queen family.

I digested this news over breakfast in the vast dining room at the Marshlands Inn before setting out for Moncton in an hour or so. Had a very nice conversation with proprietor Barry Dane over coffee and told him a little about last night's event as I perused the list of some of the Inn's more famous guests, which includes quite a few connected in one way or another to the Six String Nation. And I suppose, thinking about Doug Queen and about Dan Steeves' moving tribute to Tyler Aspin last night, that there are many threads that draw us together in so many different ways.

A brief note about the photo: I have a huge collection of travel mugs from schools where I've presented in the past. So I was extra delighted when, following my presentation at Brunton Auditorium last night, Mount Allison president Robert Campbell "scarfed" me - a newly traditional bestowal upon guests of the official Mount Allison scarf. I was told later that while Mt. A does not regret adopting the burgundy and gold colours, it has made the scarf a popular item among Harry Potter fans.

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Opening Doors in Sackville at Mt. A.

Student Award winners at Mt. Allison University I have a bit of a soft spot for New Brunswick. Mostly because of an amazing solo drive I made following the route of the Matapedia River in October of 2001 when the glorious colours of fall took my mind off of the turmoil the world had entered following 9/11. Having said that, I've always been disappointed that I didn't get more response to my initial Six String Nation research outreach from New Brunswick and even more disappointed that neither the Harvest Jazz Festival nor the scrappy little SappyFest in Sackville ever responded to my suggestions that they bring the Six String Nation experience to their events. So naturally, when I got a call from this year's graduating class at Mount Allison University asking if I'd take part in their Last Lecture event before convocation, I thought it would be great to open some doors in Sackville.

Mount Allison is a highly ranked Liberal Arts & Science University with a very strong sense of tradition that expresses itself in a number of ways (including the tradition of "passing the cane" to the next graduating class, which, of course, had me thinking of this cane). The Last Lecture event is a new tradition meant to offer graduating students one last thing to think about and to celebrate their academic and community achievements with an awards ceremony. It was an illustrious group and it made me feel smarter and more committed just being part of the evening with them! That's the core of the major prize winners posing with Voyageur in the picture.

The presentation went really well, with a performance by Louis Zatzman on Voyageur, Maria Wilson on vocals (that's her at the far right of the photo) and their pal Corey accompanying on cajon. But what made the presentation extra special was the connection between Mt. A and Tyler Aspin. Tyler was a Mt. A grad in Fine Arts and you may know him as the talented young sculptor behind the Canada Tree who died tragically following a freak lightning strike in August of 2001. You may also know that his mother and step-father generously permitted me to take part of one of the mallets Tyler used in the construction of the Tree so that I could honour him in the construction of the guitar. Two pieces from the mallet appear at about the 11 and 5 o'clock positions on Voyageur's rosette. Fine arts prof Dan Steeves came up at the end of the presentation to tell the story of how Tyler "borrowed" a few tools from the department to help in the construction of his masterwork and Dan eventually donated one that was incorporated into the sculpture. And the door on which Tyler scrawled his thank you note to Dan will be transplanted into the new Fine Arts building when it opens next year. Dan's story added a new dimension to my own link to Tyler and the presence of Tyler in the Six String Nation project – which I talk about at every presentation, not just the one here – lent a bit of extra resonance for everyone attending tonight.

So, all of that made for a pretty special evening. But here's the kicker:
After I got my stuff back amongst the plush creatures in my room at the Marshlands Inn, I wandered out in search of a nightcap and found myself at the new pub in town (so new there was no FourSquare entry!) called Thunder & Lightning. The place has a great vibe and I just ordered one drink, sat at the bar and got into a conversation about films with Paul, Graham and John behind the bar. Turns out Paul and John started the establishment having run the course of their previous creation, SappyFest! And Graham is on the current festival board! No hard feelings but I am glad we got to meet in Sackville in the end!

Special thanks to Kathryn Levandier for making the invitation and Carolle de Ste-Croix and Dr. Christl Verduyn for making it happen. Thanks also to Mt. A. president Robert Campbell, Sarah and Ben for tech support, Alison for book-selling support and all of the volunteers for making the event a success. And congrats once again to all the grads on their achievements!

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Not Quite “I’m in Insurance”

Safely arrived in New Brunswick and ensconced at the Marshlands Inn, which seems very cosy – albeit somewhat over-run with plush toys and vaguely creepy Victorian dolls. Well, if it's good enough for the Queen of England, it's good enough for me! I've got a few minutes before I head off to prepare for tonight's presentation for the Grad students at Mt. A. and thought I'd reflect on my flight to Moncton...

For the Toronto-Ottawa leg of my Porter flight, I had the row to myself. Most of the passengers deplaned in Ottawa and were replaced with new passengers bound for Moncton. Colette sat next to me. She's a francophone from Ottawa but has retired with her husband (and their wooden car!) in Kent County NB where she came out of retirement to work on local poverty-relief and literacy issues. Very interesting. She started to ask what I did and then told me she wanted to guess – declaring herself a bit of an "intuitive". I answered every question she had for about an hour in the air to Moncton with the wager of a bottle of wine if she could guess what I did.

I tried to float a few clues here and there but otherwise answered her questions as asked and it was a fascinating experience because it revealed how difficult it is to actually communicate what the Six String Nation project is all about if you don't already know – if you haven't seen the presentation or read the book or heard about it at school or learned of it through a variety of second-hand sources. At one point Colette guessed (on the basis that I was an artist of sorts who works with an object as my partner) that I must be a puppeteer! Eventually she got that it was an instrument that I don't play myself but she never did guess. There is a bottle of wine in my New Brunswick future!

Thanks to Colette for the great seat company and many thanks to the great people at Porter Airlines who didn't need my urging to take Voyageur on board for safe keeping! And bonus points for anyone who got the Terry Gilliam reference in the title of this entry.

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What It’s All About

Thank You notes from H.I.S. students 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.

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The Localest of Locals

Matty play "Toronto" on the bar. 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!

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Into the Junction

Alain at the Hole In the WallThe 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.

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First Stop on the Local Tour: The Local

Renwick & Pinchin: Los DoBros 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.

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Home Away from Home

Harrison, Bryan, Sue, Stuart, Trish & Michael 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

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Meyokumin Morning

Tamara Roberts & Chloe Albert 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.

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Hand Made in Edmonton

Chair by Brad Goertz 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.

Thanks for the coffee, conversation, craft and care, Brad – and thanks for the introduction Chris!

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