Notes from the "Road" (Part 2)

  Well, I did it! My inaugural micro-tour is complete. Let's begin with the final statistics:

  • Duration: 5 weeks
  • Shows played: 17
  • Unique venues: 13
  • Songs played: 47 (17 originals, 30 covers)
  • Songs repeated: 0
  • Songs debuted: 16
  • Song most frequently covered by other performers (Ben E. King, "Stand by Me"): 3

The audio highlights are now up on my music page, and using those as a roadmap seems as good a way as any to delve into the people, places and experiences encountered along the way. So, off we go. Fasten your seat belts and welcome to the tour!

"Days of Secret Seeing" (Stop 3—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, May 12, 2018)

Don Heights is a fabulous, welcoming venue that's well off the beaten path—a first-floor suite in a faceless office building that doubles as a Unitarian Church. When I got off the Don Mills bus at Wynford Drive, I muttered, "Wow. Welcome to Nowhere. Now entering The Middle." But location is the only downside. For $5, you get coffee, tea, cookies and two solid hours' worth of entertainment. Despite the family-friendly environs it's an older crowd, mostly church people I suspect, and the feature performer gets a half-hour set at the beginning and end of the evening.

I was first on the list, and hey, I didn't have a hard act to follow at all, as pianist Mark Lams opened the evening with jaw-dropping renditions of Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. (He later closed the show with a Joe Zawinul tune, which left me even more impressed.) So: Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart ... and Nicholson. Gulp! Adding to my nervousness was the fact that I was debuting this tricky number (for me ... easy-peasy for Mozart), but I pulled it off to warm, supportive applause. I was happy to exit after one successful song and relax for the rest of the night.

"Box of Rain" (Stop 5—Free Times Café, Toronto ON, May 14, 2018)

The venerable Free Times is one of Toronto's most well-established open stages, and this was my second visit. That wasn't the original plan. My sources told me Lola in Kensington Market had an open stage on Mondays, but when I got there I was informed no, it's on Wednesdays. Had a terrible time hunting for a place to lock my bike, and the Market is one of the most bicycle-friendly areas in the city. Finding no bike parking in Kensington Market is like finding no hay on a farm. That was almost enough to send me home, but I thought, hey, the Free Times is just three blocks away, so I scooted up there in time for sign-up.

I was frankly intimidated by the sheer talent on display this evening. We opened with Charles, a brilliant flamenco guitarist; Lexi, who riveted my eyes to the stage with her great songs, razor-sharp riffs and confident, bellowing voice; Yoko (no, not that one) whose vocal technique was so staggering I wanted to ask, "What are you doing here? Massey Hall is that way"; and finally, a spiky-haired guy in blazing red suit, tie and shoes who walked onstage with a ukulele and stomp box and said, "It's snazzy time." Here's to you, Mr. Snazzy. Great job! What I'd give for a tiny bit of your showmanship. Perhaps inspired by the competition, I rose to the occasion with this sped-up Grateful Dead chestnut that I announced had been "put through my power-pop blender." Kudos and thanks to host Glen Hornblast for the pristine sound you hear on this recording.

"Lost Villages Wail" (Stop 7The Cavern, Toronto ON, May 20, 2018)

Yes, it really is a cavern in the basement of a hostel, and when I walked in a friendly young chap introduced himself, shook my hand, and asked if I knew of any good metal bars. Meanwhile, a keyboard-heavy post-punk band was setting up. One of them might have been the host/sound man; I'm not sure. By now, Grandpa here was feeling just a tad out of place, though I was hip enough to pick up on the Franz Ferdinand influence as they played their opening set. Each open stage has its own unique culture, and despite the fact that this wasn't a fit for me I'm all in favour of venues that cater to the youngsters. There are enough places for old fogies playing Eric Clapton songs.

Anyway, I closed my four-song set with this new tune, was received politely, stuck around for a couple more performers and made my way into the good night. Lest you think that was a hasty exit, the solo blues harpist who followed me must have felt more discombobulated: the applause had barely begun when he hopped offstage, up the stairs and out the door all in one motion. Lightnin' Hopkins!

"I Need Your Company" (Stop 9Fat Albert's Coffee House, Toronto ON, May 23, 2018)

Say no more: this is the one. Fat Albert's is Toronto's longest-running open stage, having operated continuously since 1969, though it's moved around a few times. Now well-ensconced in the United Steelworkers' building, Fat's offers a friendly stage, an older crowd of mostly musicians, and a decidedly folk and singer/songwriter bent. You know it's your kind of place when you can sing along to all the covers people play. Fat's charges $2, I think, to offset the rent, coffee and cookies.

Saw a few performers here that I first met at Don Heights, which isn't surprising; it's a similar vibe. One guy came up and did a solo instrumental on the tambourine, which I found a bit odd. I played this obscure Guess Who song and to my delight, a fellow guitarist named Dave came up afterwards and said he recognized it—in fact, he bought the original vinyl in '68. (See what I mean? My kind of place.) This song has more jazz chords than I'll play in a lifetime. For a couple of years in the late '60s, Randy Bachman had a serious love affair going with major sevenths.

"Late Night" (Stop 10Steve's Music Lounge, Toronto ON, May 24, 2018)

"Cozy, comfy space, fabulous sound, awesome host, friendly staff, great musicians. And it's all live-streamed if you can't be there in person. One of the best open stages in Toronto." Yes, I liked this place so much that I gave it the glowing Facebook review you just read. A purpose-built room on the second floor of Steve's Music at Queen and Spadina, this gem's only drawback is that not enough people know about it yet.

As usual, I signed up to play first. Whenever possible, I like to get my performance over with so as not to allow the nerves to escalate. Thankfully the camera is quite unobtrusive, so it's easy to forget that your performance is being live-streamed. Jessica, the aforementioned awesome host, is not only a kick-ass songwriter and performer but a fellow Steely Dan fan, and on this night she played a killer version of "Peg." I was given a generous four songs, one of which was this moody Syd Barrett tune that I think came off rather well.

"I Welcome You (But Do You Welcome Me)" (Stop 11McThirsty's Pint, Peterborough ON, May 27, 2018)

This show marked the only time during the proceedings that I felt like I was on tour. Not surprising given that it was my first out-of-town gig. Sour Landslide played Peterborough in the early '90s, but I hadn't been back since. I biked down to Union Station, took the GO train to Oshawa, then a connecting bus to Peterborough and a two-block walk to the venue. Travel time door-to-door was 3:11—again, very tour-ish.

I'd forgotten how dead these small towns are on Sundays. The convenience store adjacent to the bus terminal closed at 6:00, the Mr. Sub where I ate dinner at 7:30. I'd also forgotten how seedy the city cores of these places can be. After encountering a couple of aggressive panhandlers, I headed straight to the venue. I'm not terribly comfortable hanging out in a bar, but loitering outside wasn't a viable option on this night. While I'm at it, downtown bars in small towns can be horror shows in and of themselves. But McThirsty's, though I wouldn't call it upscale, felt reasonably safe. And the pop was cheap, too ($2.50).

Ryan, the host, ambled in around 7:30 and told me the show would start at 9:00—an hour later than I'd expected. The last GO bus back left at 10:16, and after I explained my predicament he graciously agreed to let me go on first. (At this point, I have to say that without exception, all the hosts I've met have been kind, helpful and congenial, going out of their way to make me and the other performers feel comfortable. Thank you all for your service!) Ryan generously gave me five songs, and I responded by playing my best overall set of the micro-tour; ironic given how jittery I'd felt since I stepped off the bus. This is one of my newer songs. Working title: "Theme for an Imaginary Spaghetti Western," with apologies to Jack Bruce.

"Street Choir" (Stop 12La Rev, Toronto ON, June 2, 2018)

Though I'd had nearly a week between shows to recuperate, recharge and rehearse, I arrived at this Saturday show in The Junction tired, grumpy and out of sorts. The venue is way out in the west end, start time 2:00, traffic on Keele Street backed up due to construction. Don't they know most musicians are just finishing breakfast at 2:00? The smallish crowd at this Mexican restaurant seemed like they were just getting going, too. Nevertheless, I was able to summon forth a spirited rendition of one of my favourite Van Morrison songs, even deftly navigating the always-tricky F#m in the chorus.

La Rev was, I'd say, the most laid-back, loosey-goosey venue of the tour. When I walked in, a guitarist was playing Merle Haggard songs accompanied by a guy on a ragged-but-right out-of-tune piano. Not my cup of tea, but well done. Later, a singer-guitarist named David regaled us with a shambolic thing he called "The Like Medley," featuring brief snippets of such classics as "Like Me Do," "Crazy Little Thing Called Like," "Like Me Two Times," "That's What You Get for Liking Me," "All You Need Is Like" ... you get the idea. It sounded funnier than it reads.

"Lady Air" (Stop 13Grinder Coffee, Toronto ON, June 3, 2018)

We now come to the most pleasant surprise of the micro-tour, and a literal surprise it was, too: I'd planned to play the Supermarket on this Sunday night. A couple of hours before showtime, I was in the midst of firming that up when I stumbled on a listing for this Leslieville café. As we say in football, I called an audible at the line of scrimmage and, in a teeming rainstorm, made my way here by bus instead.

You may have noticed by now that coffee shops and coffeehouses are my favourite places to play. Not that I'm a coffee drinker, but I'm even less of a drinker drinker, as in not at all. I prefer the cafés and community venues because people aren't there to drink but to listen, and I find them safer, more welcoming environments. Even when things go slightly askew, as when a neighbourhood gal stepped up to perform a hilarious song of hers called "My Special Hedgehog Friend."

This was Grinder's first-ever open stage, and I sure hope they'll do it again because it was a terrific atmosphere. The place was packed and the crowd quite enthusiastic, as you'll hear when the last notes of "Lady Air" ring out. I also, in homage to the coffeehouses of the '60s, played a rendition of the folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" and invited the (youngish) crowd to sing along. No one did because nobody knew the song. The times they are a-changin', Gramps!

"Groping to Victory" (Stop 15Steve's Music Lounge, Toronto ON, June 7, 2018)

By this point, I'd noticed that one of the micro-tour's main objectives had indeed been accomplished: namely, curtailing my stage fright. Repeated exposure really does help, as does performing to small crowds in friendly, low-pressure environments. Also by now, I was running out of new venues to try and returning to cozy, familiar places. That helped, too. Had my second "grandpa" moment in a week when some youngster told me he was having a heck of a time booking shows for his dubcore band. Sure. I can see how that would be a real challenge. Oh, and what's dubcore?

Steve's was very sparsely attended this evening. Not sure if this was due to the provincial election or not; the sound man blamed the designer chocolatier that had recently opened a few doors down. I managed a fairly energetic version of this number despite having to sit on a stool. For some reason, your standard issue folk-singer stool puts my guitar at an awkward angle. If I ever get to the point where I can draw up a rider, it'll have two items on it: chair and music stand.

"Away from the Numbers" (Stop 16—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, June 9, 2018)

In addition to the usual coffee and cookies, cake was served tonight and it was yummy. This evening also brought the latest instalment in what for me is a worrying trend: people doing karaoke at open stages. What's my beef? Well, one, it takes them forever to call up their backing tracks on their laptops, phones or what have you; two, it feels like cheating, like it's not a real performance; three, in my experience most of these folks cannot carry a tune. At least one host agrees, laying down the law like so at one of my earlier stops: "No singing to YouTube on your phone. This isn't karaoke night. You want to perform a cappella, fine, but this is an open stage. It's for musicians." Amen, brother.

Don Heights is easily the most eclectic open stage I've encountered. On this night, in addition to the aforementioned karaoke, there were poets, ranting politicos, a blues guy who played with his guitar flat on his lap, a torch singer and an opera singer. At the night's end, a guy came on who was a real live wire, a crazed beatnik poet spinning free verse over furious, almost violent strumming and banging. (Do not lend this man your guitar!) I loved his intensity, and though my material isn't quite as unhinged I like to keep things pretty peppy myself, as you can see from my song choice tonight. We are the mods! I'd rather have performed this on a Rickenbacker guitar through a Vox amp with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler backing me, but I made it work solo acoustic. In the last chorus, I managed to do the lead and backing vocals and somehow sound like two people—but there's no trickery, honest. It's all me, in real time.

And that concludes our tour. Hope you've enjoyed this little snapshot, and hey, maybe you can join me in person next time. As an ambivalent performer, I'm really proud that I saw my commitment through. Next time, I think I'll take it a bit easier and build in more off-days. Once again, highlights are posted on my music page, and I'm already pencilling in dates for the autumn micro-tour on my shows page. Thanks for listening!

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