Ted and I really, really miss live music, which has had us looking back at our favourite musical venture together.
From 2004 through 2010, we ran a non-profit music series, which we called “Just Milton Folks”. We lived in Milton, the focus was supporting Canadian singer-songwriters in the folk/roots genre, and we were “just folks” trying to share our love for music with our community. When we sold our house in 2010 and downsized to a condo in Mississauga, we closed out the series and passed on its care to one of the couples who had been loyal attendees. It was a bittersweet transition, since we’d derived so much pleasure from hosting the concerts. We had 7 years worth of CDs, and signed posters – which we proudly displayed in our condo – to keep our memories alive, but in 2017 when we completely downsized to our nomadic lifestyle we also needed to downsize all those plaqued posters. We created a glossy photo album of the posters and our story, but now even that is ready to be archived since we travel with only our clothing, so….. I’m adding the story here on our blog.
I hope you’ll enjoy reliving our musical journey, beginning with our individual perspectives on how we got started.
Our story begins with the Sunday Star.
Every Sunday, in the entertainment section, there was about a half a page of advertising for various entertainment offerings available in the Toronto area. The ads measured no more than about 2 inches square.
Always on the lookout for new diversions, I scanned the ads every week. One of the ads that I found my eye wandered to was for Hugh’s Room, which appeared week after week and looked really interesting. However, we lived in Milton, on the outskirts of Toronto. I was normally extremely reticent to drive in to Toronto no matter what; the drive was usually mind-numbingly painful.
One Sunday in November 2003, my eyes, as usual, were drawn to the Hugh’s Room ad. I noticed that in January they were doing a “Gordon Lightfoot Tribute”. My dear wife has always been a big fan of Lightfoot, so I considered this the opportune time to try out Hugh’s Room; this concert would be worth the trip.
On a cold Saturday night we made the drive from Milton to Toronto,. We had never been to Hugh’s Room before, and we really did not know what to expect. When we arrived, we were welcomed at the door by a very pleasant fellow who looked up our reservation and took us to our table, number 88 if my memory serves. I mentioned that we had never been there before, and as he escorted us to our table he said we were in luck because it was one of the best tables in the house. We were seated just at the top of the steps very close to the stage and had a great view.
Our waitress put in her appearance very shortly afterwards, and she was a delight. She took our orders for libations and left. A few minutes later she returned with our drinks, and as she was putting them on the table, she became very furtive and conspiratorial. She looked one way, and then the other, as if to make sure no one else could overhear what she was about to say.
“You see that table over there?”, she said, glancing toward an empty table about three over from where we were sitting. I replied, “Yeah, I see it”. More furtive glances and then whispering: “We purposely didn’t sell that table, we left it empty on purpose”. Even more furtive glances: “ HE might come to the show tonight!”.
Son of a gun if Gordon Lightfoot didn’t show up a short time later! He had been very sick and I think still recovering from serious health problems that had plagued him in 2003. Seeing him there just added to what turned out to be an almost magical night for us. There were many, many talented people, most of whom we had never heard of, performing Gordon Lightfoot songs. Performers from all over the place came on, played a song, told a story about some interacton they had with Gordon or how he had affected their career, and then played another song.
During the intermission, our waitress was back. More furtive glances, more whispering. “Ron Sexsmith just showed up at the door, and he has asked if he could play. He’s not on the list, but he wants to play anyway. If my mother was here she would just die!” To say we were amused doesn’t begin to explain the enjoyment we were having.
Of all the stellar performers, I found myself drawn to two in particular: Aengus Finnan, and Terry Tufts. I really liked Aengus’s voice, and Terry … well Terry’s guitar playing had my jaw dropping. “Wow!” As we were leaving Hugh’s Room, we stopped at the table where they were selling CDs. I was trying to decide of the two artists I was drawn to, whose CD would I buy. Terry won out, and I picked up his Two Nights Solo CD.
As I recall, we did not listen to the CD in the car on the way home. I did not want to lose the sweet sounds of all the Lightfoot music that was reverberating inside my head after this wonderful show. We saved the CD until we got home.
I really can’t remember the last time we had paid any attention to Canadian folk music. It was probably when Murray McLauchlan was young. The only folk musicians we knew were Gordon, of course, Murray, and I guess Ian and Sylvia.
In any event, we put Terry’s CD on and listened through, and then again, and then again. We were blown away. What had we been missing? How could we have not heard this stuff before?
As is my wont, when something twigs my interest I need to find out more. So, on to the internet, and what can I learn about Terry. I found all I could and discovered that he had his own website and a place to send him email, which of course I had to do.
I sent him an email, told him we heard him at Hugh’s Room, bought his CD and needed more. Asked him to please let me know when and where he would be playing in the Toronto area and that we would make an effort to show up.
A few months went by and then I got ‘The Email’! Terry would be performing a house concert in Scarborough sponsored by Lillian Walthier at an old farmhouse. Tickets were $15.00. I looked at Rose. She looked at me. I said it for both of us, “What the heck is a ‘house concert’? and “How on earth can you see an artist for only $15.00 a ticket?” We really didn’t know what to expect; was the $15.00 all it was going to be, or was it a fundraiser and we would have to contribute more when we got there? We really did not know what to expect.
If anyone does not know what the drive across Toronto on a Friday night on the 401 is like, then they don’t know what driving in Hell is like. It was stop and go driving (mostly stop) and seemed to take forever. Turned out to be worth it though…
We arrived at the old farm house, and it was indeed someone’s house. We paid our $15.00 and had to walk through the kitchen to get to a room that had what appeared to be every mismatched chair that could be scrounged up jammed in to it.
Terry put on an amazing show and we fell in love with him; he is just so amazingly talented (we are still friends to this day). During the break, which included free coffee and cookies, Terry chatted with several people. Really, what kind of show has the artist mingle with the guests during the set break?
We couldn’t figure this out. How could you get this kind of quality entertainment for so little money? What was the economic model for this? We sought out Lillian and (nicely) demanded an explanation. How did this work? Lillian kindly took the time to explain what she was doing and how it worked. We were flabbergasted; she encouraged us to try and do it ourselves.
After that great show we went home, and thought about it.
To be perfectly honest, our first thought was “Let’s not drive to Scarborough on Friday nights again”. Our second thought was “We have never done anything like this before, should we try?” Our third thought was, “Yes!”
We contacted Terry and asked if he would be willing to appear in our town, if we made the arrangements. He agreed immediately, and we set a date for September. That seemed easy enough.
We had logistical problems: our house was not big enough, and we certainly didn’t have 40 chairs. We were, however, determined to make the effort. We thought about it for a while and eventually settled on a turn of the century hall in the middle of downtown Milton. It seemed the right size, maximum occupancy was sixty, and there were, as we found out a little later, fifty-six chairs.
We decided that we would consider fifty tickets a sell-out, which with the maximum of sixty would give us a little leeway in terms of complementary tickets for guests and media. We came up with a name (Just Milton Folks), set up a web site, and started shamelessly promoting ourselves. We found a logo that we liked, and had t-shirts printed that we could wear around town. We convinced our local newspaper, The Canadian Champion, to do a story on our efforts. We were very fortunate in that they provided us with great free publicity.
Over the summer, we begged, pleaded, and cajoled everyone we could think of to please buy a ticket and give us a try. We set the ticket price at $20.00, as we had to cover the price of the hall rental and we wanted to provide dessert and coffee during the set break. In the spirit of adopting a ‘folk awareness’, we found a wonderful company in Georgetown called “The Ultimate Bean”. We told them what we were trying to do, and they donated the coffee for our event: we were going to serve Fair Trade, Organic, Bird Friendly coffee; freshly roasted.
A couple of days before the concert, we achieved success: we had sold our fifty tickets.
A Magical Night
I have to emphasize we were as nervous as mice in a house full of cats. We had never done anything like this before, and we had so many questions about things that could go wrong. What if people didn’t share our passion for Terry’s music? What if the Hall was acoustically terrible? What if we forgot something? What if Terry didn’t show up?
Around 6:30 Terry arrived with Kathryn Briggs and their daughter Beth. We welcomed them and got to work setting up the chairs in the room while Terry got his instruments ready and tried out the feel and sound of the room.
As he tuned up and started playing the room filled with music. Hugh Foster Hall is not a large room, but it has a very high barrel-shaped system. As he played, Rose and I looked at each other and smiled. The room sounded wonderful.
We finished setting up the chairs and got the coffee and pastries ready to go in the reception room outside the main hall and then got ready to receive our ‘house guests’. At 7:30 the doors were opened and we started to receive our guests. We were so nervous, and our hearts were in our throats. Shortly after 8:00 the hall was full and we were ready to go, our very first House Concert. Rose got up in front our crowd and gave a really nice introduction for Terry and told our guests they were in for a treat.
And then, Terry started to play. From our point of view, if anyone wants to start up a house concert series, the best way you can do it is to invite Terry Tufts as your first performer. It isn’t just the music; watching him play and seeing his fingers fly over the guitar is part of the enjoyment. The House Concert format is a wonderful way to experience great performers: you are up close and personal with the musician and you can see the dexterity required to play an instrument well.
I sat at the back of the hall in order to gauge people’s reaction; to see if they were enjoying our show. Our worries were pointless, people were blown away – first by the quality of the music and then by the charm, wit and wonderful stories that Terry told. There were smiles on everyone’s faces and a lot of toes were tapping and heads bobbing to the wonderful music. I’m sure nothing ever sounded so good in old Hugh Foster Hall.