2006 – 2007 …
Starting almost immediately after our first season – the one we didn’t even know was going to be the start of a multi-year adventure – we started getting interesting mail. Remember that Facebook had only begun in 2004 and was not yet ubiquitous, and not everyone even had a personal email address. CDs and buying music in bricks-and-mortar stores was still the norm, portable music still meant boomboxes and Sony Walkmans just as often as iPods, and most homes still got mail delivered to a mailbox attached to their house. Ours began yielding CDs, sometimes more than one in a single day.
Ted and I were still in the process of rediscovering Canadian folk music. Things sure had come a long way since my student days at the University of Toronto and dates spent listening to music at Yorkville coffee houses or in the student union building. With our sons now both grown and out on their own, we now had time to seek out live music again, at Hugh’s Room in Toronto and the Moonshine Cafe in Oakville, among other places. Each time a live performance wowed us, we’d buy a CD or two, and often give the musician one of our home-made business cards. Those cards, and word of mouth spread by musicians we had already hosted, resulted in a deluge of proposals to come and play at one of our house concerts.
Lillian Waulthier had once channelled Field of Dreams and told us “if you build it they will come”. Our problem wasn’t finding enough musicians to host, but rather choosing who to host out of many many wonderful candidates, and then having the unenviable job of saying “no” to the others.
CDs would arrive with promo packages, handwritten notes, and contact information. I began the habit of putting one or two CDs per week in my car, and listening to them over and over Monday through Friday on my way to and from work. If I fell in love with one the first time I played it, I’d set it on “repeat”. If before the week ended I was still in love and singing along, I’d contact the artist and start the process of booking a live performance. We had so many options that if a CD didn’t grab me the first time through, I’d email the artist and thank them sincerely for sharing their talent with us, but not offer to book them. I was determined only to book songwriters that I loved so much that I would be able to infect our audience with my enthusiasm. Ted and I had also decided that the perfect number of events in a season was five, usually September, November, February, April, and June – basically the school year, leaving everyone’s summers free.
It went fairly smoothly. It never got easy to say “no, thanks “, but the musicians were unfailingly gracious – with one memorable exception. Just before our third season, I received 2 CDs from Bob Egan, pedal steel player for the iconic Canadian band Blue Rodeo. He had just released his solo EP “Lonesome Destiny” and was looking to tour. I was flattered that he was interested in Just Milton Folks, but there were two issues: I wasn’t in love with the music, and he had a firm $1000 minimum fee. To say that Bob wasn’t thrilled to be turned down is a bit of an understatement. Over the phone, he insisted that my audience would love him, that I could “easily” just increase the ticket price for his performance, or “just rent a bigger hall”. He was part of Blue Rodeo after all! We did neither. I remember being a bit rattled by how different that interaction was when compared to other phone calls I’d had. Maybe he was just having a bad day.
Norman’s “Beneath These Skies” was a CD that played on “repeat” in my car for weeks. What I remember most fondly about that concert night (beyond the incredible performance itself), was the half hour between when the doors opened and when the concert began. Norman had completed his set up and sound check, and was sitting in the foyer with me, just talking. He had picked up one of the season brochures as a souvenir, and was holding it in his hand. As folks arrived, and I collected tickets, he simply blended into the crowd, chatting with various people. When we opened the doors to the hall, he quietly disappeared into the back room as everyone found seats. The memory of the surprised looks on the faces of our audience members when I introduced our evening’s performer – and Norman re-emerged – still makes me smile. It was as if they had all been touched by celebrity and only just realized it.
Norman stayed overnight with us, leading to one of Ted’s favourite Just Milton Folks memories: the “breakfast concert”. After muffins and coffee in our little kitchen, Norman asked if we would “mind” if he went through his morning warmup routine. Mind??? What followed were stunningly beautiful guitar renditions of Bach’s Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring, a few of Norman’s own instrumental compositions, and Mason Williams’ Classical Gas. He made that last tune look so effortless that Ted’s reaction was “I hate you!”
Not only did we very definitely not hate Norman, but we asked him to play at #1 son’s Victorian-themed wedding at Casa Loma in October of 2008.
Looking back, I still cannot believe that John and Michelle are not more famous. Listening to them now, comparisons to the harmonies of Lady Antebellum come instantly to mind. For purists, think Ian and Sylvia Tyson, or the Everly Brothers. Their songwriting, some of it honed in Nashville, is stellar. Why aren’t we hearing them on the radio?
The Laws also came to us via a CD in the mail. I loved “Live at Camp St. Cafe”, recorded on one of their winter trips to Texas, so much that I started asking artists to send me “live” recordings instead of studio ones. Our audience loved them too; their strong on-stage chemistry leant real excitement to everything they played, whether country, folk, roots or bluegrass-infused. John snuck up on the audience by segueing from tuning his guitar into “Beaumont Rag” before they even realized what was happening!
Sadly, we couldn’t host them in our 3-Siamese-cat home, because John was allergic to cats, but our loss turned into a bonus for Laurie and Moe, one of the couples who were staunch supporters of our series not only via ticket purchases but also by putting up event posters and distributing brochures in their wonderful Main Street store “Delacourts” (since closed after their retirement).
@ Hartley’s due to cat allergy
I think that Bill, a singer, songwriter, producer, and co-founder of Borealis Records, connected with us through Terry Tufts, since Borealis had released Terry’s most recent – at that time – CD (The Better Fight). Again, it was a case of listening to a CD received in the mail. Bill and Sue had a more traditional sound than the other acts we’d hosted to date: lots of songs in both French and English, and beautiful takes on classic Canadian songs like “Un Canadien Errant”, although it was Sue’s “Red Shoes” that hooked me.
They had come all the way from Montreal, so stayed with us after the concert. Sue brought a bag of real Montreal bagels to add to our breakfast table, making her instantly one of my favourite guests! http://www.melwoodcutlery.com/Bio.html
In 2000, six people died in the Ontario town of Walkerton when the town’s water inspector failed to notice e-coli in the water supply. Inspired by the ensuing provincial inquiry, in which the province was assigned much of the blame for lack of oversight, Melwood Cutlery – in the best traditions of folk music highlighting injustice – wrote a song about the disaster. That song, played on CBC Radio, was my first exposure to Melwood’s music. In 2005, a CD including that song arrived in the mail, and within a few weeks I had booked Melwood for our series.
At the time, he had no real web presence, and we’d never met him, so I didn’t know what he looked like, but… Ted and I had tickets to the January 2007 Hugh’s Room Lightfoot tribute concert, and Melwood would be performing, as would musicians we already knew: Terry Tufts, Jory Nash, and Gregg Lawless, so we thought we might be able to get an introduction. That’s exactly what happened. Before the concert, we found Terry and I asked him if he could arrange for me to meet Melwood, who I’d already booked. Terry took me upstairs to the green room, filled with SO MANY Canadian music legends, and introduced me to a wiry character with shoulder-length grey hair, wearing a very stylish fedora, who greeted me in the broadest Southern drawl I’d ever heard, and then rushed away. I was stunned. Who on earth had I booked? At the intermission, (Melwood was playing in the second half) Terry came over to ask how the meeting had gone. When I told him what had happened, he laughed out loud. “Yeah, that’s not his real voice. He does that when he’s nervous”. Oh dear.
There was little evidence of nerves when Melwood played for us, maybe because he brought along his trusty sidekick, the lap steel and dobro-playing Fred Guignon. They proceeded to entertain us with guitars, piano, and an entertaining routine that had Melwood choosing what to play completely at random, and expecting Fred to figure out his part on the fly (which he always did)… and then Melwood YODELLED !!
Holy cow, what a fun night, followed by beers and stories back at our place.
We had talked so much – to everyone who would listen – about our wonderful Lightfoot nights at Hugh’s Room, that it was almost inevitable that we would try to host one of our own. We certainly couldn’t present the dozens of performers in one night, with full band backup, that Hugh’s Room did, but we did have a secret weapon: Jory Nash. Jory, along with Aengus Finnan, was co-founder of those events (which continued for 15 years). In addition, Jory, Aengus, and Terry had travelled North America performing a pared-down version of those events as a trio. THAT was the act I knew we could host.
For any of our non-Canadian followers, I should perhaps explain that Gordon Lightfoot, like Joni Mitchell, is a songwriter who has reached national treasure status in this country. He started out in bars and coffee houses in Toronto, where he still lives, and gained international status, with songs like “Leavin’on a Jet Plane”, “Early Morning Rain, “Sundown”, “Cotton Jenny” and many more being covered by the likes of Elvis, Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, Michael Ball, Harry Belafonte, Glen Campbell, Jimmy Buffett, Judy Collins, Jim Croce, and even his contemporary Bob Dylan. I’d hazard a guess that there is no one over the age of 40 in Canada who is not familiar with Gordon Lightfoot’s music.
Now that you’re up to date, you’ll understand that Ted and I needed a space bigger than our 60 seat registry hall for this event, so we rented what was at the time the best concert space in town: the 160-seat Milton Bible Church auditorium. We could have sold over 300 tickets, but those last 140 people had to be turned away after we sold out.
It would be hard to choose a highlight from that night. Terry, Aengus, and Jory each played their favourite Lightfoot songs, shared anecdotes about their interactions with Gord, and introduced some of their own original works inspired by Lightfoot songs. For me personally, hearing Terry play “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” on 12-string is always awe-inspiring, but I know each person in the audience that evening took home their own perfect moment.
We were well and truly ready to move into season four.