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.