Just a quick update on how I'm coping with the current situation. Overall, I consider myself quite fortunate. As a card-carrying introvert, I'm well equipped to handle social isolation, physical distancing and so on. Like it or not, some version of this has been my reality for years anyway, so it's not been that dramatic an adjustment. I don't miss my full social calendar because I've never had one. I spent huge swaths of time alone before the pandemic, and very little has changed but for the fact that there are no social engagements to turn down.
As far as supporting myself goes, my freelance job, which I've not heretofore perceived as terribly stable, has been rock solid. I work in television broadcasting, and my industry has made the Ontario essential workplaces list, both the original and revised versions. Work has been steady and I've been able to transition quite well to working from home. I was concerned at the prospect of having to upgrade my home computer (i.e., buying a new one), but my only financial outlay was a mouse, full keyboard and wrist rest, which totalled under $40. Again, I'm grateful for my good fortune—which is blind luck, really, when I consider how many people with secure, full-time jobs are glumly sitting at home, hoping the CERB will cover their mortgage and car payments.
Of the adjustments I have had to make, some are rather humorous. I was overdue for a haircut and had booked an appointment just before the big shutdown in mid-March which, in a moment of prescience, my stylist cancelled. I'm not a fan of ponytails, and I abhor man buns. So, between repeated playings of CSNY's "Almost Cut My Hair," I've fashioned a homemade headband out of an old bed sheet. I'll look like a true Woodstock warrior until my next haircut, which will be who knows when. (Hey, Paul Kantner and Jack Casady wore headbands at Woodstock: good enough for me.)
On a more serious note, I had a cycling accident in mid-March. Bad timing. No car was involved; I rode headlong into a curb I did not see and went flying, landing on my face. For a day or two I looked like the Elephant Man, but the cuts on my face healed in short order. More worrisome is the ring finger on my left hand. Five weeks on, it's swollen and slightly bent, though not at all painful. After numerous failed attempts to receive medical attention, I finally got an x-ray this afternoon and am waiting to discuss next steps with my doctor.
Despite this I've managed to devote some time to my old standby, home recording. What better time to lay down some tracks in your home studio, right? Thing is, my finger has made playing any of my stringed instruments difficult. I've devised a couple of alternate-fingering workarounds, and compensated by recording my guitar and bass parts in even more pieces than usual. The finger has slowed me down, but I'm progressing with the cover tunes I set out to record in December. Anyway, I'm now on to mixing the latest, and this one has a lot going on so it'll take a good while. I'm hoping my finger will be back to full strength by the time I'm ready to record the next cover.
What else? Well, we've all had to learn how to video-conference in five minutes or less. My Zoom H1 (handy digital recorder) also works as a USB mic, and it's a significant upgrade over my laptop's built-in model, a pinprick in the front console. I also have a decent USB webcam that provides high-quality visuals. The experiment continues, I guess, as long as COVID-19 keeps spreading. Me, I'm happy to live in a country whose guiding principle is "peace, order and good government." In my estimation our leaders, even those whose political stripes don't jibe with mine, have acted prudently and responsibly. Contrast our prime minister, premiers and mayors with that very stable genius to the south who openly ponders the benefits of shooting Lysol at his press briefings.
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In the fall of 2018 I embarked on my second micro-tour, a venture cut short by my cat's illness—from which, I'm happy to say, he's largely and miraculously recovered. Nonetheless, I played enough shows to produce a few audio highlights, which I've posted on my music page. Before we get into the meat of it, I give you the stats:
- Duration: 6 weeks, plus the final show a month later
- Shows played: 9
- Unique venues: 7
- Songs played: 30 (15 originals, 15 covers)
- Songs repeated: 1
- Songs debuted: 5
"This Magnificent Dare" (Stop 2—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, October 13, 2018)
It took over an hour to get here by transit, and due to my late arrival I was lucky to grab a spot (10th). I'd hoped to go on first, as always, but a few performers were far more eager—the sign-up sheet had a 0 and -1 as write-ins. Anyway, that 10th spot, which was really 12th, came after the feature's opening half-hour slot, so it was a long wait. Said feature (an accordion/sax duo) played impeccably, but I'm afraid I was born far too late to appreciate what sounded like a pared-down Lawrence Welk. I did, though, enjoy the host's singalong version of The Beatles' "All Together Now." Still schmaltz, I guess, but at least of my era.
I brought the dulcimer along to accompany myself on "This Magnificent Dare," which I've also performed on guitar. I really wanted to play the dulcimer at an open stage before the outdoor humidity dropped too low. Flubbed part of a verse but recovered quite well. It's taken a while, but over the years I've learned to shrug off the mistakes and carry on.
"Let Love Strum You"/"On the Bus" (Stop 3—The Tilted Dog, Toronto ON, October 18, 2018)
I didn't feel like playing tonight, but TTD is walking distance from home and I promised the host I'd show up, so no excuses. This, by the way, is almost always the right decision. In 30 years of live performances, I can count on one hand the shows I wish I hadn't played.
The cover I cannot shake—and will never attempt, as I can't stand it—appeared in the midst of an otherwise pleasant set by a mid-twenties singer/songwriter. Yes, folks, it's Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," one more time. On the plus side, the crowd was treated to two Dylan covers tonight. A charming old hippie played a truncated "Desolation Row" with wildly varying tempo, while a nylon-string guitarist did a nice job on "Tangled up in Blue."
As for me, well, is one of your old band's originals not penned by you a cover? I say yes. That band was Sour Landslide, and way back in the 1990s I accompanied my brother's killer tunes on bass and harmony vocals. I've always wanted to try one of, um, their songs, and this one seemed the quickest way in ... after I changed the key. See, I often joke that my voice didn't change till I turned 50. Not only were my high harmonies on the 1994 recording unreachable; I couldn't even sing Vince's lead vocal in the original key! So, my version is lower and slower, as befits an aging indie musician. I also did a little tinkering to make it my own. I managed to up the tempo a bit for my original this evening, "Let Love Strum You," the chorus of which was shamelessly lifted from a radio commercial.
"Groping to Victory"/"Skyway" (Stop 4—Hirut, Toronto ON, October 21, 2018)
This small, intimate open mic, hosted by the friendly, funny and talented Nicola Vaughan, is a little far-flung but right on the subway line (Woodbine, for you Torontonians). Unfortunately I have other commitments in the Sunday 3-6 time slot, so can rarely make it out. I feel a few pangs of guilt because this open stage needs support that I can't really give, but I enjoy coming when I can.
After Nicola regaled us with a few obscure Monkees songs, up came a parade of talented folk, blues and jazz players ... and me. Sometimes I envy the technically proficient, but I try not to compare. They do what they do, I do what I do, and it's all good. How dull these open stages would be if we all sounded the same, right? Now, I was quite taken by the jazzer's gear: an Ibanez electric with F-holes and a Bigsby vibrato, a tasty digital delay and a looper pedal. I was dying to hear him give the Bigsby a workout, but he barely touched it. Why, if I had a Bigsby, I'd be John Cipollina! (That's my delusion and I'm sticking to it.)
Delusions of guitar-hero grandeur aside, "Groping to Victory" went down well this afternoon, as did Paul Westerberg's delicate "Skyway," long a favourite of mine.
"Have I Been Expecting You"/"A Glimpse of Heaven" (Stop 5—Legends Sports Lounge, Toronto ON, November 1, 2018)
Tonight was supposed to be an out-of-town jaunt to Markham, but 25 mm of rain put a damper on those plans, you could say. I settled instead on this place, a block or so from Pape Station. Acoustics were a bit dodgy, as you hear on the recording, but I'd say overall this was my best show of the tour. As often happens at open stages, I was playing to two distinct (and small) audiences: fellow musicians waiting to play, attentive listeners all, and oblivious regulars chatting away, the latter faithfully captured by my Zoom H1.
I navigated my way through "Expecting," my somewhat tricky new song, then launched into this Strawbs cover that I do every now and then. For posterity I've preserved my exchange with a fellow musician at the end, who not only knew the tune but first heard it the same way I did, on an eight-track "best of" purchased at Woolco, circa 1981. Man, no one ever recognizes my obscure covers. I'm slipping.
"Mon Vrai Destin" (Stop 6—The Birch Bistro & Lounge, Bowmanville ON, November 8, 2018)
I took the 4:30 express train (no stops till Pickering), which was jammed. First time I've had to stand on a GO train. Even travelling express to Oshawa, it took the better part of two hours to reach Bowmanville. After a nice dinner at the local Mr. Sub, I head to the venue, early for once, and sign up to play first so I can get home at a reasonable hour. Unfortunately, the place started to fill up after I'd finished playing. So it goes.
The Birch has a pleasant, warm, almost-elegant ambience—far from the rough-and-tumble bars I associate with small towns. I'm allotted five songs, which is quite generous, and the stage sound is pretty good once the host turns down the guitar amp midway through my first number. I play reasonably well, though not at my blinding best. Halfway through "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party," my new Beatles cover, I realize I should sing it an octave higher or change the key. Too late. This one, a Peter, Paul & Mary chanson, comes off much better.
Speaking of obscure covers, Sam, the young guy who follows me, tells the crowd that he traffics in them. I practically wet my pants when he announces "Broken," but no, it's not The Guess Who B-side from 1971. This is another "Broken," by ... Jared Somebody? Beats me. Then he says, "Here's a Catfish and the Bottlemen tune." Right. Uh, so, you know any Juff Gleento? Rufus and the Juts? The Ked?
"Liza Radley" (Stop 8—Dr. B's Acoustic Medicine Show, Free Times Café, Toronto ON, November 17, 2018)
Boy, that 1:00 start time is tough for me. I arrive late and sign up 13th, which is fitting. This has not been a good day. My front bicycle tire went flat around St. George, and I had to walk the bike from there. As I sip on the obligatory decaf coffee—at the Free Times you must order at least one drink, "no exceptions" as the sign says—I'm preoccupied not with my set but how I'll get home. It's possible to lug a guitar on the Carlton streetcar. Transporting a bicycle is more awkward, but I've done it. A guitar and a bike? No way.
Maybe I'll take the guitar home first, then come back for the bike. Or maybe not. That's four fares and besides, I'd like to get the bike in to my local shop before it closes. The other option? A 45-minute walk home, and the shop will be closed by the time I get there anyway. Unless I luck out with an empty streetcar that stays empty? Keep dreaming, pal. Not likely on a Saturday afternoon on College Street.
It's a good crowd, mostly performers, and Dr. B's is one of the city's higher-profile open stages. Hey, no pressure on a day that I'm feeling lousy. A grizzled poet named Dark Cloud takes the stage. I'm momentarily distracted from my dark cloud by his natty suit, walrus moustache, pork pie hat and ... seven-string guitar? I chat with him afterwards and yes, it's the G that's doubled with an octave string. He says it's a Martin, made specially for Roger McGuinn, king of the 12-string guitar. Roger must have tired of tuning the other five strings.
By now, I'm resigned to walking home. Wish I'd stayed in bed. When my turn comes, the host is genial, the sound fantastic—as the recording proves—and I play reasonably well. My stage patter is minimal, and I wisely decide not to whine about my flat tire. Inflicting a bad mood on innocent bar patrons is never a good idea.
What goes around comes around, I suppose, and this story has a happy ending. I unlock my bicycle and am maybe one minute into my long, dreary trek when I gaze up at a storefront and see the sign: Urbane Cyclist. A bike shop!
"We Howl" (Stop 9—The Tilted Dog, Toronto ON, December 20, 2018)
This was the gig I didn't expect to play, as a few days after the Free Times gig I cancelled the rest of the tour due to Muswell's worsening condition. About a month later, he'd made such a stunning recovery that I was able to make this, the scheduled final date. Kudos are due my veterinarian, clinic staff and the various medicines my cat has been on since late November, to be sure; but I'd also like to offer my thanks and gratitude to God for answering my prayers. I'm not a preacher, so I'll leave you with the words of James 5:16, should you feel so inclined. But I will say that in my experience prayer really works, often when nothing else does.
As seems to have been my custom this tour, I arrive just after everyone else has signed up. I'll be on seventh, which is a long way down the line because everyone gets four songs. It's a small crowd gathered here this Thursday evening, mostly performers. Host Robert Labell kindly dedicates "Embryonic Journey" to me, and continuing the Jorma Kaukonen theme, finishes his set with a couple of songs off the first Hot Tuna album. I really must offer to accompany him on bass sometime. Way back when, I learned how to play by copping licks off that record, among others, and I'd love to revisit it and get back into playing bass. I miss it.
Among my four numbers this evening is "We Howl," one of my older songs and probably the first thing I wrote that I actually liked. Some songwriters are innately gifted; the rest of us have to write a slew of bad songs before we start writing good ones. This was my first good one, and I'd never played it live till tonight.
And there you have it: my latest adventures in micro-touring. Look for my next micro-tour this spring, which will be upon us all soon enough.