Road Notes from Bob: The Hamilton Music Awards

Bob Mersereau | Author's Notes | Sunday, November 18th, 2007

Date: Sunday, Nov. 18/2007
Dateline: Hamilton, ON

This is the big day for the Hamilton Music Awards, with lots of excitement in the air, through the day-long rehearsals and roll-calls leading up to the event. Hamiltonians take great pride in their music scene, as well they should. It’s among the most vibrant in the country, and it’s a close-knit, highly supportive club, no matter what the genre. Perhaps their great local pride comes from the fact they are so close to Toronto, and so often ignored. There will be no major media from T.O. at the awards, despite the fact major international stars Daniel Lanois and Garth Hudson are all over the place, available at the drop of a hat to anyone wishing to speak with them. Also, the rich history and current crop of excellent young musicians and seasoned veterans is thick. As a music journalist, I found it a goldmine, not just the many top-flight shows one could attend, but the number of fascinating stories folks would tell me.

Here’s a hats off to the people of Hamilton, too. I was welcomed so warmly, and taken into friendship so easily. I was given drives to venues by virtual strangers, people would walk right up to me and welcome me, and thank me for coming. Most were so proud that so many Hamilton acts were in the Top 100. I had to keep reminding people that the whole jury voted for these artists, not just me, but it was great to accept the well-wishes.

Backstage, I got a chance to catch up with more people in for the awards. My CBC colleague Stuart McLean was on hand to present some awards, and we had a fun reunion. Stuart was one of the jurors, and said how much he loves the book, which of course means a lot to me. I’ve been getting great mileage out of telling interviewers that Arcade Fire didn’t finish at #8 just because young people voted for them. I always say that “older” folk such as Stuart had them in his Top Ten list as well. I think Stuart’s still trying to decide on his final list of Top Ten though, as he was easily the most unsure and contemplative juror in the pool.

It was a great thrill to meet a man I first heard about from Garth Hudson. Garth had asked his old colleague Paul London to come to the awards, to be part of the honour he was receiving. Paul was the lead singer for Garth’s first rock and roll band, pre-Ronnie Hawkins, and what was one of the earliest rock and roll bands in the country, Paul London and The Capers, or Kapers. Both are correct names, by the way. Garth, Paul and I spent some time getting to the bottom of the name change, which they decided was due to a legal concern when one former member threatened some trouble, and they registered the Kapers name to avoid it. Paul and his wife have remained friends over the long years with Garth and Maud, and it was an obvious thrill for Garth that they travelled from the States for the show.

I also got to meet Sonnie Bernardi, the drummer for Crowbar, still living in the hammer. He and his lovely daughter came out to the show, and he had some great stories about Kelly Jay, King Biscuit Boy, and the rest of the group. He told of the time the group met up with John Lennon in the Record Plant studio in New York. Lennon was already friends with the band, having stayed at Ronnie Hawkins’s farm during the famous Bed Peace days in 1969. Sonnie does a spot-on Lennon impersonation, and repeating the slightly off-colour joke he sprung on Lennon that “made a Beatle laugh”, plus tales of playing Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s birthday party, and the whole band finished “Oh What A Feeling” by jumping into the fountain. Sounds like we have the makings of another book, Sonnie.

I can’t tell you much about the show itself, because as a presenter, I was in a holding pattern backstage waiting to go on. I’m still not even sure who all played, who won awards and who all was there. You can’t hear much in those situations because the sound goes out into the audience rather than back behind, and the curtains blocked the view, too. I do know that Hamiltonians will get to see the two-hour TV version broadcast during Christmas week. I got to give out the songwriter of the year award to Lori Yates, whom I mentioned I saw perform in a previous blog. But my big surprise came earlier in the day when I was informed that I would be one of the two presenters to announce the lifetime achievement award to The Band, as accepted by Garth Hudson. I was joined at the podium by Tom Ferns from Dofasco, lead sponsor of the awards. Believe me, it was the capper of a great week to be able to say “The lifetime achievement award goes to The Band, and to celebrate the music that began back here in Hamlton, please welcome Maud Hudson and Blackie and the Rodeo Kings to back up The Band’s Garth Hudson.”

Also joining in were more friends of Garth’s: Kevin Hearn from Barenaked Ladies on accordian, John Till who played guitar with Janis Joplin in the Full Tilt Boogie Band (some believe the name Full Tilt was in reference to Till’s name), and of course Paul London on vocals. The ensemble did three Band numbers: “The Weight”, “The Shape I’m In”, and “I Shall Be Released”. For the final song, Garth went to the mic. and told the crowd to “listen closely to the words”. That’s because he asked Kevin Hearn to write a new verse for the occasion. Because of my stage-side vantage point, I couldn’t make out the words, so I hope I do get a copy of the TV show, and not just to see my face on it.

A great after-party featured the music of veteran blues singer Harrison Kennedy, who moved back to hometown Hamilton a couple of years ago, after a long career in the U.S. Harrison’s reclaimed his status as one of the country’s great blues singers with his fine recent disc. He’s also the first African-Canadian to record a million-selling record, as the lead singer on the great 1970 cut “Give Me Just A Little More Time”, as a member of the Detroit-based Chairman Of The Board. The crowd was dancing their butts off to that song, and many more blues and soul classics. It was smiles all around. I said goodbye to the many friends I made from the festival, including lots of volunteers and musicians. My enduring thanks goes out to chair Jean-Paul Gauthier for inviting me, and the music people of Hamilton for making me feel like on of them for four unforgettable days.

-Bob

Road Notes from Bob: Meet the Hudsons

Bob Mersereau | Author's Notes | Saturday, November 17th, 2007

Date: Saturday, Nov. 17/2007
Dateline: Hamilton, ON

My day starts with a surprise. As I leave the hotel room to go in search of breakfast, I run smack-dab into Garth and Maud Hudson, just arriving at the hotel after driving in from their home near Woodstock, NY. Garth and Maud are here because Garth will be receiving the Hamilton Music Awards Lifetime Achievement prize, representing The Band. For the tribute, Maud will be singing two numbers with their pals Blackie and the Rodeo Kings at the show, with Garth on organ. Also, Garth is one of Daniel Lanois’s special guests at his feature show Saturday night, joining on piano.

I met Garth and Maud during the interview stage of the Top 100 Canadian Albums, first via email and then through the phone, enjoying several hours of conversation with both. They greet me as a friend, which is humbling to say the least. It’s also my chance to hand-deliver their copy of the book, which they’ve been waiting for. Both are tickled over the back cover quotation from Garth, in bold letters: “I just want people to know that I’m Canadian. This is what The Band was founded on.” This was certainly the message that Garth was determined to get across in his lengthy interview for the book. It means so much to him for people to remember that he, and three other members of the group were Canadian, and he deeply cherishes his roots here, born in London. Levon and the Hawks was actually formed in Hamilton, after they left the employ of Ronnie Hawkins. Garth loves to chat about his forefathers and their roots in music, showing me an old handbill from 1899 advertising his grandfather’s musical vaudeville-type revue, from Th. Hudson. Maud, well, Maud is the life of the party everywhere, quizzing everyone on who they are, what they do, taking great delight in the slightest detail of your life, making you feel as if you’re family. In fact, she used that phrase, “Bob’s family”. I’m sure, as any fan of the their music could guess, this is quite a special feeling for me. But they need sleep more than chat, and I excuse myself after an hour, although certainly they never would have asked me to leave.

I spend some free time exploring a little more of Hamilton, and doing some serious record shopping. There are some great stores in the downtown, including Cheapies, Dr. Disc, and the Sonic Unyon store. I leave poorer, but happier, with about 25 Canadian singles from Dr. Disc among the highlights. I even find one for Garth, a present from a New Brunswick musician he loves, an original copy of Don Messer and his Islanders, doing Don Messer’s Breakdown among its four tracks. Collectors, it’s Apex 26222, so tell me if I just gave him a rare one. It cost me a whopping 20 cents.

The evening features the Industry Awards, for best club, best sound, best photography, etc. It’s a bunch of fun, since I’d met many of these people in the past view days. My new friend Kyle Weir won for best photographer, and hopefully we’ll be uploading some of his photos from the event very shortly. I got to hand out some trophies, and Hamiltonians never seem to tire of my mentioning how many of their musicians made the Top 100 book.

Then it was back to my MC duties. First, as I tried to scarf down a meal between the awards and the shows, I got the word that Daniel Lanois would like me to introduce his special show that night! In fifteen minutes! I beat a hasty retreat back to the theatre, leaving one piece of fish and many chips on the plate. It was the third time I’d had the honour to introduce Daniel this weekend, and I was told he usually doesn’t use an opening introduction, so I take his request as another in a string of highlights. I watched a bit of the show from the wings, including an amazing solo piano piece from Garth, which featured him weaving in bits of O Canada into a composition that smoothly moved from jazz to classical to Gershwinesque flourishes.

But duty called, and soon I was off across the hall to the other theatre, to introduce more artists from The Top 100 Canadian Albums. I finally got to see Simply Saucer in action, and they were just great, full of real energy and excitement. They played a set that included songs from their 1974 Bob Lanois-produced demos, right up to new material for the album coming out in January. Can’t wait. Also on the bill, sharing a stage with the Saucer for the first time in over 30 years, were Hamilton’s legends, Teenage Head. They were just as blistering and dynamic as the first time I saw them in 1980 or so.

As I moved away from the backstage to go into the front, who’s coming down the hall, but Garth and Maud! They wanted to see Teenage Head too, and we caught the last of their show. Maud asked if I could find the band after to meet them, so we all had a great chat in the venue for another hour. Then, it was decided Garth and Maud needed to eat for the first time in 24 hours, so a suitable bar-b-q joint was found. That’s how a whirlwind day ended, back at the hotel at 4 AM, Garth and Maud with their take-out, me wishing them some rest finally, and the knowledge that we had to get up soon for Sunday’s rehearsals for the award show. Read all about it next blog.

-Bob

Road Notes from Bob: Hamilton Rock meets Favourite Colours in a Sonic Unyon

Bob Mersereau | Author's Notes | Friday, November 16th, 2007

Date: Friday, Nov. 16, 2007
Dateline: Hamilton, ON

Now, we get down to the music, which is what a music awards is supposed to be all about. Sometimes we attendees lose sight of those things, caught up in meeting old and new friends. I’ve certainly had no shortage of chat time, catching up with familiar faces, and finally getting to shake a lot of hands of the many people in Hamilton who helped out so much with the voting for the Top 100 Canadian Albums. A bit about them in a moment, but first to the clubs!

Lori Yates is a well-known Hamiltonian singer-songwriter with a country feeling, the honest, emotional type of writing, with a twang in her voice. Yates has six discs to her credit, and Friday showcased material from her latest, The Book Of Minerva. I love coming to a new area (for me), and getting a blast of local culture, and Yates is a smart writer who knows how important it is to set some of her songs in the area she knows best. That’s how we spread our stories, and as she said after the gig when we chatted, “It’s about time we stopped singing about Memphis”. A highlight of the set, and her new disc is “Simcoe“, nearby to this city, where one of her characters is working the tobacco crop. It’s a story of simple, normal heartbreak, and never once has to travel to Memphis to make that point.

Next up on my entertainment schedule was a guy who is already a huge favourite of mine. Liam Titcomb has put out two fine albums at a young age, and put on a great set. For just two guys, drums and acoustic guitar, it had the sound and energy of a full band. Titcomb writes excellent modern-and-roots rock, and plays guitar with confidence and swagger. You can tell he feels completely comfortable on stage with that instrument, and has worked really hard on setting up echo, effects, and all those touches and tricks that give the best players their individuality. It wasn’t my first time meeting Liam, as he’d come through Fredericton a couple of years back. This time though, we got to hang out a bit more, and for a laugh I even picked up a couple of his old man’s singles for him at a used record store. You may know the old Anne Murray hit, “Sing High-Sing Low“? It was written by his Dad, Brent Titcomb, the excellent singer-songwriter who also played in the seminal 60’s group Three’s A Crowd. If you’re not familiar, you youngsters, hit your search engine and pick up an important bit of Canadian music history. Anyway, Hamilton’s Tom Wilson used to follow Brent around, picking up the tricks, and Liam did the same thing to Tom as a kid. I hope Liam enjoys those singles, because Brent isn’t the kind to keep that old stuff, and Liam didn’t have them. Cost me all of forty cents.

My evening out ended with a full show by The Sadies, who are in the Top 100 book with their fine Favourite Colours discs. Although this wasn’t technically part of the Hamilton Music Awards (not a Hamilton band, after all), the city sure treats them as local heroes. The Casbah was packed to the gills, and not by the festival crowd but mostly by college students who just love the group here. I’ve only ever seen the group as an opening act before, in hockey rink tours, such as their recent gigs with The Tragically Hip, so this was my first chance to catch them in their true element. I’m going to quote from the book now, because my buddy Rick White of Eric’s Trip has a quote in it that really is true, as I found out: “I want to take a picture of their audience because all the girls are dancing, and a lot of the guys are just standing there with their jaws open.” This was exactly the scene, and my jaw still hurts. Highlights last night included lots of their new album, lots of Favourite Colours (including what is my favourite instrumental song of all time, Northumberland West), and encore covers of The Flaming Groovies’ “Shake Some Action“, and Pink Floyd’s early classic “Astronomy Domine“, as a tribute to Syd Barrett. Is there another band that goes from classic fiddle tunes such as “Stay All Night” to psychedelic freak out Floyd? I think not.

That’s a great month of music, let alone a night. I mentioned the many friends I’ve run into, and I’ll list them in a further blog as a tribute to Hamilton’s people and music scene, but I will say that I had a great visit to the legendary music label/distributer Sonic Unyon, thanks to my friend Sean Palmerston. He gave me a tour of the wonderful, funky operation, a cool old downtown building, including the distribution warehouse, a music junkie’s dream if I ever did see one. Sonic Unyon has the new Simply Saucer and Teenage Head albums coming up in the new year, and is responsible for much of the hippest music around being released and distributed across the country. Thanks to a new deal with Maple Music and Fontana North, much of that great product will now become even more accessible to Canadians coast-to-coast. Me, I got the increasingly rare album by The Unintended and The Constantines, vinyl-only, limited edition 1000 copies, with the Cons doing four Neil Young cuts, and Unintended playing four Lightfoot. Talk about the ultiimate Top 100 Canadian Albums album! The Unintended, by the way, are the sometimes-side project offshoot of three Top 100 artists, featuring Greg Keelor, Rick White, and Dallas and Travis Good of The Sadies. I got number 900, and there’s maybe a dozen left in the warehouse BTW. Go to the Sonic Unyon website.

Oh, ran into Garth and Maud Hudson in the hotel hallway. But that’s another story. Join us for coffee and book talk next blog.

-Bob

Road Notes from Bob: The Hamilton Music Awards

Bob Mersereau | Author's Notes | Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Date: November 15, 2007
Dateline: Hamilton, ON

It’s been awhile since I blogged, and it’s time for an update. The main reason is that I’m back on the road, out promoting the Top 100 Canadian Albums book once more. I’m writing from Hamilton, where I’m attending the annual Music Awards in the city. When the book came out, and organizers saw how many Hamiltonians made the list, they extended the invitation to take in the awards, which I readily and heartily accepted. That was BEFORE I found out who else would be here; more on that in a moment.

I guess I’d always known that Hamilton was a music hotbed. I knew many musicians were from the city, but I hadn’t really put it together, until the Top 100 list was finalized. There’s Crowbar, and there’s King Biscuit Boy of course; Teenage Head; Daniel and Bob Lanois; Tom Wilson of Junkhouse and Blackie & the Rodeo Kings; Martha & the Muffins; Tomi Swick. Stan Rogers was born here. . . and then there’s Simply Saucer, the surprise band in the Top 100.

You can go on and on, but the point is the city has an amazing music history, and continues to be one of the most vibrant scenes in North America. It just doesn’t get all the ink other places do.

However, they know how to honour their own, and starting tonight, it goes on for four fun-filled days. When I accepted the invitation to come, I didn’t know what I’d be doing, but not only am I busy, I get to meet many of the above people, and finally put a face to some of the folks I did interviews with, or wrote about in the Top 100. Tonight, hometown hero Daniel Lanois returns, to kick off the Awards with a showing of his brand-new film. Lanois spent the last year putting together a documentary that looks at the process of creating art. Who better than someone who not only creates his own excellent music, but also joins in the process with many of the world’s best. His film includes footage of U2, Eno, Garth Hudson and more, and I’ll have a full review in my next posting. Oh yeah, I get to introduce Daniel tonight at the showing.

I’m also moderating a panel, handing out awards at both the industry and music functions, and acting as MC at a little show featuring Teenage Head and Simply Saucer. The wonderful Garth and Maud Hudson are in town, so I’ll finally be able to shake their hands - after hours on the phone interviewing for The Band sections in the book. And my buddies in The Sadies (#97 for Favourite Colours) are playing Friday night. I brought my personal copy of the book to add some much-cherished autographs. I’m just as big a fan as anyone else, and I can’t believe my luck to have so many of the people in the book here on one weekend.

See, told ya Hamilton has an amazing music scene. Stay tuned for the play-by-play of the Hamilton Music Awards, starting with my next posting.

-Bob

Road Notes from Bob: No, the other Bob.

Bob Mersereau | Author's Notes | Thursday, November 15th, 2007

Date: Thursday, Nov. 15, 2007
Dateline: Hamilton, ON

“Daniel, Bob is going to introduce you.”

“Who’s Bob?” says our guest of honour, Daniel Lanois.

“That’s me”, I say.

“Oh, I thought Dylan was here”, deadpan Lanois.

Okay, it’s an easy mistake. Daniel Lanois certainly does hang in such company, having produced two Bob Dylan albums in his career. Plus, we’re both writers, an we’ve both mentioned Lanois extensively in our books, Dylan in his Chronicles memoir, and me in the Top 100 Canadian Albums. But tonight, the esteemed Mr. Lanois will have to settle for the less famous Bob as his M.C.

The Hamilton Music Awards has decided to kick off the festivities this year by welcoming home one of their own. Daniel Lanois, musician and producer, has now added filmmaker to his resume. His new, 90-minute documentary is called “Here Is What Is”, and premiered to acclaim at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. This is its first showing since then, appropriately back at the place it all started for Lanois. My role is to welcome the crowd, and introduce a man who, for once, truly needs no introduction to the audience. Many family members and close friends are in the crowd, and Lanois clearly relishes the chance to spend time with them.

The film is a wonder. Lanois and his small team decided to try to capture the creative process, to expose the path that leads to fine art. It pretty much documents a year in the life of this travelling musician and producer, as he moves from continent to continent, spending time with musician friends, some famous, and all fabulous musicians. The film starts with Lanois’s keyboard hero, The Band’s Garth Hudson, as we simply see him create a masterwork at the keyboard. While most filmmakers would give us several angles, and edit the piece, this film throws away those hyper rules of attention span, instead focusing only on Hudson’s hands, allowing the music to speak to us, at length. It is one of many surprising filmmaking techniques that make the movie stand out.

We are introduced to Brian Blade, the Louisiana drummer who has worked with Lanois for fifteen years, a subtle and highly musical partner. Blade in turns takes us to his home, where his minister father joins the band for a jam of praise. We meet Lanois’s mentor and eventual partner, the famous producer Brian Eno, as he discusses how art comes from nothing at first, simple ideas that talented people develop. Eno famously brought Lanois with him to produce U2 two decades ago, and we join this close unit of six as they work on the next band album. We’re treated to new music at every stop, shown little tricks, such as how Lanois ‘plays’ the studio mixing console, bringing the faders up and down, creating new mixes on the fly.

It’s a primer on recording, and a look at how serious musicians approach the creative process. All these people take great joy in playing, feed off each other’s energy and excitement, and are completely devoted to the art. It works extremely well as a film too, allowing us many moments to enjoy the music, and an unspoken narrative from beginning to end, much like a song.

Lanois won’t be using the normal distribution system for his film. Hamilton was a testing ground; the idea is to take the film on the road, like a tour. He’ll show the movie, then do a seminar, sometimes question-and-answer, and maybe if you’re lucky, bring some instruments and players. That’s what we were treated to the following morning, as Lanois kicked off Friday with a two-hour session for workshop guests at the festival. The workshops were aimed at young, aspiring musicians or music industry employees of the future, most of the 200-plus people in their teens and early twenties. Lanois and Brian Blade went through rhythms, musicial history, instruments, even effects tricks on stage. We heard them play nasty, James Brown-funk, plus classical music on the pedal steel. Lanois told us echo tricks he learned from The Edge, and showed one of the secrets of Jimi Hendrix’s sound, turning up really loud, but playing soft, which gave him his trembling effect. In response to a question about producing Dylan, Lanois raised his normally-whisper-quiet voice to emphesize that a producer must “be prepared, be ready. Don’t even let them see you plugging in shit. Dylan’s all business, and doesn’t want to waste time. And I had prepared in advance!”

In one evening and one morning, Lanois has presented a new film, and shared many secrets about making and producing some of the finest music of the last 25 years, including the #20 album in the Top 100 Canadian Albums, his “Acadie”. Not a bad way to start a music conference, eh? And to think people outside the city often react with surprise when they here that Hamilton puts on its own music awards. Lanois’s appearance is just the first I’ll mention as the conference continues. Believe me, I’ve already seen and met many more excellent artists. See you next blog.

-Bob

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