August 10 - I’m delighted to have a gig in Toronto, but I don’t think I’m being unfair to the Tranzac Club when I say that it could use a little makeover.
The Tiki Room at the Tranzac (which stands for ‘Toronto Australia and New Zealand Club’) is painted a dull brown and dotted with incongruously gaily painted tables and chairs. It reminds me of one of those stuffy meeting rooms you see in British Legion clubs and parochial halls all over Ireland.
Inside, the sweet-natured bundle of talent that is Kyp Harness (left) is tuning up. Kyp is one of the city’s remarkable writers (he’s Ron Sexsmith’s favourite songwriter). He has written some remarkable songs, providing material along the way for Blue Rodeo and picking up all kinds of nice comments from Daniel Lanois, Leonard Cohen and many others.
Someone has kindly left out a PA system and two speakers for us, but there are no microphones, cables or mic stands. There’s a pull-down screen on the wall behind us which won’t pull back up. And there’s an ancient piano that even smells out of tune.
We decide to perform completely unplugged. And that’s kind of nerve wracking. Onlookers never have any idea how much songwriters love to hide behind a mic stand.
We’re strumming at the empty corners to see what the room sounds like and the first of the audience arrive. Billed as an ‘open mic’ night, there seem to be no other takers but me – and I’ve brought my own crowd, which consists of our hosts in the city, Pat Thompson and John Brewin. I realise it’s a little unfair to Kyp – there’s a large number of people in the room with Andrea connections who want to hear if her boyfriend is actually talented or not. I shake hands and assess them all for forgiveness potential.
My friend Laura Adlers arrives – Laura (left) handles PR for a host of classical events in the city, and has kindly put the word out to a host of her friends. She has one in tow tonight – Phil, who I later find out is part of a punk trio that wear charity shop ‘dead guy suits’ on stage and call themselves The Parkdale Hookers. I like him already. (I checked out their website, and here’s how they describe themselves: ‘We can best be described as AntiGlam… We’re like a trio of accountants who figured out a way to make Marshall stacks tax deductible and went with it’.)
Also here for the show is Joanne Sleightholm and her husband Blair – their daughter Madeleine is one of my songwriter friends from Nashville, but hails originally from Toronto. Isn’t it a small world? So small that, as we chat, we find out Madeleine needs a place to stay in Belfast in February of next year, so our spare room suddenly becomes her pad for the week.
Kyp starts proceedings with the excellent ‘God’s Footstool’ and continues with a rash of great material – ‘Little Dog Song’, ‘Old Grey House’, ‘Chemical Valley’ and many more. Behind me, I can sense a lot of school reunion nerves in the room. People are dying to chat and connect after so many years apart.
I don’t help by going on stage and stealing another forty minutes of their time, in what has now become stifling heat (when I sit down later, I find that I have sweat patches on the knees of my trousers, and that’s just weird).
But the reaction is great – people seem to appreciate the stories and the extra context that I give with the song introductions, and the hit of the evening is undoubtedly the new song ‘East of Louise’, which also garnered a cheer at the Black Sheep. It’s great when songs from the NEXT album make an early connection like that.
An unusual thing happens – a late arrival to the show brings a guitar with him. It’s Jowi Taylor, a friend of Pat and John’s, and in his case is the most amazing guitar I’ve ever seen. I could spend pages talking about this instrument, but here’s the short version: The guitar (called ‘Le Voyageur’) has been made from 64 individual pieces of Canadian history.
From the beautiful book that documents the creation and celebration of the instrument: ‘Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle is in the tone bar, Paul Henderson’s hockey stick is part of the pickguard, and the sacred golden spruce of Haida Gwaii forms the soundboard. Even Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard’s first Stanley Cup ring is in the Voyageur – a small piece of it adorns the 9th fret.’ Jowi has taken the guitar all over Canada to bring it to the nation – his website and book Six String Nation give more details on the story at www.sixstringnation.com.
Both Kyp and I take turns playing the instrument, which has also been played by everyone from Feist and Gordon Lightfoot to Ron Sexsmith, Justin Rutledge and The Wailin’ Jennys. And then everyone in the room wants a try, wants to get their picture taken with the guitar. And why not? It has everything built in there – even a piece of the floor from Jack London’s cabin, for crying out loud.
As everyone lines up for pictures and a quick strum (see right, Jowi and I), I realise that friendship and a shared sense of pride and history have transformed this airless brown little room into a real space where hearts and minds meet. Thanks Jowi.
After the show, we retire (Andrea, her friends and I) to the Futures Bakery on the corner, where she and they re-connect until the owners throw us out.