Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Never-Ending Tour: Encores


Just when I thought I was done, this was the victory lap.

Nov. 10, 2018 Forch’s Record Store, Cambridge

I didn’t get a lot of invitations on this tour; 95% of it I booked myself. This one came from a random stranger who messaged me on FB and told me to get in touch with this record store in Cambridge. The owner was immediately enthusiastic and the date was made.

I’m amazed whenever I find a well-stocked record store in a major urban centre, so to find one in the exurb of Cambridge seems like a miracle. This is a miniature version of Toronto’s Sonic Boom, with premium vinyl, a solid used section, gear, memorabilia, etc. There’s no real plan for this gig, so—much like my gig in the Lindsay bike store or the bar in Saint John without a P.A.—I just wait until at least five people show up and I start talking. About a dozen eventually congregate. I do the full reading—which I can do on autopilot by now—and then take a couple of questions. The singer from the very first Hip tribute band, Almost Hip, shows up. A guy arrives with a copy of Have Not Been the Same to sign. All in, this is a lovely, low-key, low-stress gig. The opposite of just about everything I've done in the last six months.

May 15, 2019 Creemore Springs Brewery, Creemore

Mark Howard
One of my favourite interviews for the book was with Mark Howard, who produced Day For Night. At the end of our conversation, he told me he’d been working on a memoir and was wondering what he should do with it. I gave him my editor’s contact. A year later, his book Listen Up came out on ECW, and we were scheduled to do two book events together.

This one is in farm country between Barrie and Collingwood, home to a well-known brewery. Turns out the town also has a very well-run bookstore that puts on regular events, a community hall that regularly books A-list Canadian acts (Joel Plaskett, Sarah Harmer, Rheostatics, Stars, etc.), and an excellent French restaurant. Not bad for a town of 1,100 people. It’s also home to the New Farm, an organic operation run by Brent Preston and Gillian Flies; Preston wrote a bestselling memoir about the farm’s founding. He’s been hired to interview Mark and I onstage at the brewery.

Mark comes to my house and we carpool to Creemore. He’s living in Toronto these days after years in the States, mostly California. He recently survived a bad case of melanoma, having been saved by Canadian health care. The car ride to Creemore and back is a total gift, with stories about his health struggles, very off-the-record stories about many of the artists he’s worked with, either with his longtime mentor Daniel Lanois or on his own, and about why he doesn't work with Lanois anymore. He's helped make some of my favourite records ever: Neville Brothers' Yellow Moon; Lanois's Acadie; Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball; Tom Waits's Real Gone, and the only Bob Dylan record I like, Time Out of Mind.

We meet Brent and Gillian for dinner at the French restaurant. The event is well-attended, maybe 30 people—several of whom come from Collingwood, including my parents and some of their friends. This event is an effortless joy, and inspiring on many levels. I’m very grateful to all involved.

May 22, 2019 Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto

This is Mark Howard’s Toronto book launch, and he asked me to be the interviewer. It’s his night; I’m not here to talk about my book at all. He’s decorated the Shoe with many of his photographs, some of which are in the book. Despite good promotion and advance press, this event isn’t any better attended than our event in Creemore. Score one for the small towns. 

June 22, 2019 Meehan’s Public House, Atlanta
The paperback came out in May. I had no plans to do any promo other than piggybacking on Mark Howard. The book had done well. The tour had been an amazing experience, but it turns out I didn’t need to do it for the book to do as well as it did. With the paperback, I figured I’d gladly accept any invitations (see above), but didn’t feel the need to hustle. I spoke to some classes at Bishop Strachan School. Another school visit fizzled in the planning stages. But then I got an email from Atlanta: a Canadian there, Marty Seed, who owned a bar where he held a big pre-Canada Day party every year. (Expats, he said, often went back to Canada for part of the summer, so he held his party a week before July 1.)

Atlanta?! After my Buffalo gig went so well, I had considered doing something in NYC or Boston or Chicago. Maybe Texas. But never Atlanta. Marty had booked the Strictly Hip, the group of lovely guys who had brought me to Buffalo, and he offered to put me up at a hotel. The publisher agreed to cover the plane ticket. I could not refuse.

Shortly before the trip, the Strictly Hip had to cancel due to health concerns. That made my presence there somewhat less relevant, but the invitation still stood. Marty scrambled and considered hiring a Canadian act, but eventually settled on a local cover band, as well as country duo Twin Kennedy, twin sisters from Powell Creek, B.C., who now live in Nashville. I shipped some books to Marty’s bar, and hopped on a plane.

Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, home of MLK
I don’t know much about Atlanta, but figured I’d give myself a full day to explore it, and maximize the trip. I’m not interested in the Coca-Cola Museum or the aquarium, but I somehow forgot that this is Martin Luther King Jr.’s hometown: I associate him with various cities during the Civil Rights Movement, but not his own. King’s old neighbourhood, including his original church, have been well preserved and are well worth the visit. The National Center for Civil Rights is also really well done, although understandably focused primarily on African-Americans in the 1950s and 60s. Indigenous genocide: not so much.

Kim Richey at Eddie's Attic in Decatur
I’d scoured local live music listings sites to find out who was playing while I’d be in town. Not much, it turns out. I was missing Operators by a couple of days, and Rose Cousins by one. Fortunately, all roads pointed me to Eddie’s Attic in the suburb of Decatur, where Americana songwriter Kim Richey was playing. I’d known the Ohioan’s name for the last 20 years, but had never heard her music. A few listens to her 2018 album Edgeland sealed the deal, so I bought tickets before I left. Listening to the rest of her discography, it was clear this was someone who continued to improve with each record; this was a lifer at the top of her game. Decatur is a long subway ride away from downtown Atlanta; as far away from the core as my far-east childhood home in Scarborough was from Yonge Street. Outside the venue is a lovely town square with some kind of family festival happening; on stage is a rock-solid disco funk band doing covers of Chic, Diana Ross and others. Inside the venue is an ideal listening room, tailor made for singer-songwriters who tell stories. Richey is rock solid and witty, with a great band behind her. I almost never stand in line to get merchandise signed after a show, but felt a strange compulsion to tell her how I ended up at her gig. She was very nice about it. 

Nadia Theodore, Canadian consulate in Atlanta
The expat party starts the next day around noon, at a bar in a suburban parking lot. I don’t know anyone there and don’t have much to do. Awkward. It doesn’t get much better when it comes time to perform. Marty gives a great introduction, and the lovely Canadian consulate in Atlanta, Nadia Theodore, conducts a short interview. But other than maybe five or six people standing near the stage, no one else cares: this is a talkative bar in the middle of the afternoon, long before the live music outside starts to roll. I cut my reading down to about two minutes, and call it a day. That said, I do sell a couple of books. 

The stage and road hockey in parking lot of
Meehan's Public House
Hanging out for the rest of the day helped me sell a few more. Turns out Canadians living in the American South are very excited to meet other Canadians. I meet a white woman from BC who tells me she’s an “African-American archaeologist” on the verge of retirement and can’t wait to get back north. I meet a woman from Hamilton who moved to L.A. in 1992 and attended a bunch of Kim Campbell parties there, before meeting an Atlanta guy and moving here. I meet a couple who used to live down the street from my high school. The Atlanta Curling Association is eager to recruit some Canucks. Two guys from Calgary love my Louis Riel shirt. I meet a French-Canadian couple from Gatineau who were transferred down here and are raising three kids in ESL. I meet an ex-military man who bought Road Apples on a whim while posted on a German base in 1990, and took Up to Here with him to Iraq in the 2000s. Now he teaches school in Chattanooga, and inspired two students to play “Wheat Kings” for him at a talent show. He didn’t know Downie had put out solo albums; I quickly set him straight. I’m really sad the Strictly Hip didn’t make it here today, for a whole bunch of reasons. Their replacement is a decent wedding band, who are a bit out of their element; they clearly don’t know any Canadian songs, and take a wild guess by introducing Modern English’s “I Melt With You” as a Canuck classic. 

Howard Finster, one of many self-portraits
At the end of the night, Marty is exceedingly gracious and thankful, and keeps going on about what a gentleman and a professional I am—I’m not entirely sure why, other than the fact that I always responded promptly and I wasn’t a dick. Professionally speaking, this whole event has been a bit of a bust, and I’m going to have to ship books back to Canada. 

But whatever. All I ever wanted was an adventure.

The next day I pick up a rental car and head to Howard Finster’s place in Summerville, northwest of Atlanta. Finster was a famous and eccentric folk artist known to rock audiences for his album covers (R.E.M.’s Reckoning, Talking Heads’ Little Creatures), and for his appearance in the doc Athens, Ga. When he was in his 40s, he had a vision in which God told him to make 5,000 works of art before he died. He ended up with more than 50,000, which fill his property, known as Paradise Gardens. 

Paradise Gardens
This place has to be seen to be believed. It’s both inspiring and maddening: the man’s vision and work ethic are undeniable and there is much beauty to be found, but there’s also a whole bunch of junk just lying around, like a mountain of discarded bicycle parts, or Finster’s abandoned workshop filled with broken glass. No matter: it’s all part of the package, and this is the Weird America I’m always seeking out.

From there I drive straight to Athens. I wasn’t sure what Athens would have to offer me in 2019; it’s not like I’m going to bump into Michael Stipe in the street. 

Paradise Gardens
But I saw there was a weekend-long street festival happening, and playing on the Sunday afternoon was something called Pylon Re-enactment Society. Was this some kind of tribute to Pylon, the late 70s local legends who were R.E.M.’s biggest influence? Turns out it’s original singer Vanessa Hay with younger players (i.e. people in their 40s) revisiting her old songbook and adding new originals. Never in my life did I think I would get to see Pylon, never mind in 2019. 

Sadly closed for renos while I was there
I check into my hotel, where R.E.M.’s “Seven Chinese Brothers” is playing in the lobby. In my room is a copy of local music mag Flagpole, which has been around since the 80s. There’s a neo-vintage radio in the room; the local college station comes in loud and clear, and the programming is fantastic. Across the street from the hotel is the town visitors’ centre, where a woman hands me a walking-tour map of the city’s musical history. This is insane: does this embrace of local music exist in Toronto? Montreal? Vancouver? Hell, even New York? The hotel loans me a bike and I head out to find Weaver D’s (the deli with the slogan “Automatic for the People”), the railroad truss from the cover of Murmur, the church where R.E.M. filmed their segment of Athens, Ga., the record store where Peter Buck worked, etc. 

Murmurs of glory
The stage at the street festival is set up outside the 40-Watt Club, whose marquee lists upcoming shows by Black Flag and Kristin Hersh. The P.A. is playing the Athens, Ga., soundtrack. What year is this, anyway?!

Pylon Re-Enactment Society; Vanessa Hay (right)
Pylon—sorry, Pylon Re-Enactment Society—are fucking fantastic. Vanessa Hay is dressed like a sixtysomething woman who just stepped away from her garden, but sings like an 18-year-old who’s excited to be on the mic for the first time. Her band of young whippersnappers (people my age) give it their all, and this punchy post-disco dance party from the new wave era leaps to life. I can’t believe how good it sounds. 

I hang out side stage after to be a total fanboy, and end up talking to guitarist Jason Nesmith, with whom I have several mutual friends in Toronto, it turns out. He introduces me to a British fellow, Tom Ashton, who had a band in the 80s before moving here to be with his American wife. What was the band, I ask? “The March Violets.” “I know your drummer!” For years at Maclean’s I worked with Andrew Tolson, the photo editor who helmed the office band, and would occasionally regale us with tales of living in Britain in the 80s and how his band ended up in a John Hughes movie. Tom and I take a photo together and send it to Andrew, who is suitably freaked out. To top off the evening, I head to a bar where a klezmer band with a Japanese cojon player is interspersing Yiddish tunes with “Feel Like Making Love” in an entirely different key and tempo. I’ve clearly found my people.

Athens primer
And the entire reason I’m seeing all this in R.E.M.’s hometown because I flew to Atlanta to talk about the Tragically Hip. 
FINAL NOTE: All photos by me. Apologies for any/all copy editing mistakes, especially when I stray in and out of never-ending present tense. 

Also in this series: Spring; Summer; East Coast; Western Canada

Fin (apologies to Jean-Pierre Ferland)

The Never-Ending Tour: Western Canada 2018

October 22: Calgary

I’ve never been to Calgary. When my band toured out west, we spent a lot of time in Edmonton, a city whose music scene I’ve always loved. Calgary was always a mystery to me. Until Chad Van Gaalen came along, I was hard pressed to think of a single Calgarian artist I dug. I’m excited to finally explore and rectify my Central Canadian ignorance.

Phantom of the National Music Centre
Upon arriving, I immediately head to the National Music Centre, which I’ve been reading about for years and am thrilled to finally witness. I’m given a guided tour by program director Adam Fox, who once lived in Toronto and fondly remembers my writing for Eye Weekly. I get the behind-the-scenes special tour of the vintage synth collection, including the legendary Tonto, as seen in Phantom of the Paradise, one of my childhood favourites. My gig here is not until next week, but that day will be busy, and I needed to come here first because I’ve had my books for this leg of the tour shipped here.

Luka Symons
Dinner is with my old campus radio friend Luka Symons, who went on to be a well-known DJ at CKUA, heard throughout Alberta. She’s regrettably out of that scene now and working as a nutritionist, but her love and passion for music still run deep, and her enthusiasm is always infectious.

I’m staying with Patrick Finn, a U of C professor I interviewed for the book. He first came to my attention as someone who uses Downie’s lyrics in curricula; in 2016 I was commissioned to write a slight story for Maclean’s university issue. Finn and I had a great conversation from which I could only use a couple of quotes in the story, and when I called him again a year later, we had a fascinating chat about Downie’s entire approach to performance. I asked him to host my Calgary event; he agreed and also offered me his basement suite. We chat for a couple of hours with video of the Hip’s final show playing in the background, which I haven’t seen since I wrote the chapter about it.

October 23: Calgary / Heartland Café, Medicine Hat / Lethbridge

I wake up in Calgary and Patrick Finn takes me on a hike up nearby Nose Hill, with a beautiful panorama of Calgary, the Rockies and the Prairies. Then it’s off to Medicine Hat.

I booked this stop when I thought I'd be driving west from Winnipeg and thought I'd need a stop between Regina and Lethbridge. Long story short: it would cost me $600 to rent a car in Winnipeg and return it there; it would cost me $3,300 to rent a car in Winnipeg and drop it off in Vancouver. Hence the decision to fly to Calgary, rent a car for a few days, and hop on planes for the rest, which is surprisingly cheap and far less tiring.

I listen to Albertans Corb Lund’s Five-Dollar Bill and Rae Spoon’s Bodiesofwater on the drive. I don’t have any Jr. Gone Wild on my iPod, sadly.

My first stop is at the local TV station for a spot on the noon show. After I’m ushered on to set, I hear a booming, welcoming voice: “Anybody who wrote Have Not Been the Same is always welcome in my studio!” The host is Dan Reynish, a New Brunswicker who’s lived all over, including a stint in Toronto where he worked at HMV’s flagship Yonge Street location. He’s very excited to talk about The Never-Ending Present. He’s one of the only people in town who is, apparently.

What to do in Medicine Hat? I have a lot of time to kill. I hang out in the beautiful library for a bit. I laugh out loud at a sign for Gaslight Dental (“That didn’t hurt a bit!”). I marvel at the intact ’50s neon sign for the otherwise dive-y looking Assiniboia Inn on the main drag (I later learn it’s nicknamed “the Sin Bin”). I go to the thrift store to buy a perfectly fitting suit jacket—for $5.

Heartwood Café
I pull up to the venue, a quaint little café beside the railroad tracks, where they tell me they hide the fancy teacups when a local metal band books a gig there. The metal band has posters up; I don’t, despite sending some in advance. Maybe a listing ran in the paper? Maybe the café’s FB page would draw some folks? The girl behind the counter tells me, “My parents are both Hip freaks. I was dating a guy who didn’t like the Hip. I had to break up with him.” I’m cautiously optimistic.

The venue has a couple of tables of eating families about half an hour before I start. There is a darts tournament in an adjoining room. The families eventually leave. The dartists (?) stay on their side. At the appointed hour, there is no one sitting in the rows of chairs in front of me. There’s no one there 15 minutes later, either.

An excited crowd in Medicine Hat
Then a table of three people come and sit at a table off to the side. One of them is wearing a Hip hat. That’s a good sign. I approach, welcome, and explain the situation: I could go up there and read, or we could just sit here and gab over a couple of pints. They opt for the latter. I’m not drinking on tour. The trio includes Jeremy Appel, who works at the local paper and apparently tried to get in touch with me for a preview piece. His friend Whitney works in admin at the paper, and her man, David, the guy in the Hip hat, works at a car dealership. 

The lifesavers of Medicine Hat: Whitney, Jeremy and Dave
They apologize for the turnout; apparently the last time the Hip played Medicine Hat, in 2015, the venue was half full. Not a lot of acts make a stop here at all; this trio often drives to Calgary for shows. What could have been an absolutely disastrous opening to this leg of the tour was rescued by these three. Not sure what I would have done without them: just packed up and left?

When we’re done, I hop in the car and drive to Lethbridge. The booker there has booked me in a hotel, one of only four I’m staying in during the 19 gigs this month.

October 24: Lethbridge, the Geomatic Attic / Fernie, B.C.

I’ve been sent to this town with some very specific tasks. My lady spent several years of her childhood here, and so I have to go and photograph the family home, the school across the street, a cemetery, and various other landmarks, as well as visit the university where her dad did grad work.

Feelin' coulee
Lethbridge is beautiful. The houses are lined with mid-century modern homes. The downtown is developed but retains the small-town Prairie charm. (I also see posters for the gig, which is a good omen and a welcome change.) I had an amazing Mexican meal for lunch. The architecture of the university, built into the coulees (note to self: check spelling), is gorgeous. Then there’s the coulees themselves, the rolling hills in the valley between the town and the campus, where I spend most of the day on a long walk.

Mike Spence of the Geomatic Attic
I’m a bit skeptical of the venue’s location: on the far east side of town, away from campus and the downtown, in an industrial mall surrounded by car dealerships. The guy running the space is Mike Spencer, who runs his geomatic business on the main floor of the venue, which, as the name suggests, is on the second floor. "I try to make money downstairs, and try not to lose it upstairs," he tells me. He also books shows at larger downtown venues, and an annual festival that’s attracted the likes of Steve Earle and Los Lobos. The venue itself is staffed primarily by volunteers committed to making culture happen in Lethbridge.

Steven Foord, John Wort Hannam
Everyone in Lethbridge shouted, 'Medicine Hat!'
This show is fantastic. Professional stage and lighting. Solid crowd of about 50. The musical guests are outstanding: Steven Foord, who runs his own venue downtown, and John Wort Hannam. They bookend my reading with a song each. John does "New Orleans is Sinking" as an open-tuning blues and found his own unique way into "Courage." Steven does haunting versions of "38 Years Old" and "It's a Good Life." 

At the end, I sincerely thank everyone for being there and ask for the house lights to go up so I can take a picture of the crowd: I ask everyone to say, “Medicine Hat!” This is perhaps the best night on the Western leg.

I leave town after the show and drive halfway to my next gig, staying overnight in Fernie, B.C. Seeing the Rockies emerge from the darkness as I approach is truly magical. Listening to the Low album Double Negative makes it extra spooky.

October 25: Canal Flats, B.C. / Golden, B.C., Golden Taps

Canal Flats, B.C.
Driving through the Rockies, I stop for lunch in Canal Flats. I do that thing where I bring a copy of the book and leave it on my table, just in case anyone notices and wants to talk about it, or buy one. It works.

“How's that book?” asks the waitress, whose 81-year-old aunt started this diner 32 years ago. “It's great,” I say. “I wrote it.” “Really? I must have watched that documentary five or six times. Cry my guts out every time.” We chat a bit more. I order. She serves. “So can I find that in a store in Cranbrook?” “I'll sell you one out of my trunk right now.” “Sold.” “Can I take your picture?” “Nope, nope, nope. I don't do pictures!”

Somewhere near Radium, B.C.
I then have a great chat with a couple who saw the Hip three times, most memorably Another Roadside Attraction ’95 with Spirit of the West and Ziggy Marley. They run a foresting company in Fernie and are taking six months off to backpack across Nepal, India and Sri Lanka. They school me on the history of the Columbia and Kootenay rivers.

Always talk to strangers. 

I stop at the Radium Hot Springs—because it’s there. But it’s really just a big outdoor pool. Not that thrilling. The nearby forest and drive and vistas nearby, however, are stunning.

Tanya Hobbs
In Golden I’m staying with an old pal, Tanya Hobbs. We played a lot of music together in Guelph in the '90s: she in Corduroy Leda, me in Black Cabbage. There were many other adventures as well. She now lives on a mountainside just outside Golden, with her husband, stepson, some chickens and a pig. I haven’t seen her in years. We have a lot of catching up to do.

The gig is at a local pub, and once again I find myself orating to a tiny group of people interested and a lot of people who are not—including a table right in front of the stage. At least I have a microphone here, unlike in Saint John. This gig is not great, although I do sell a couple of books—including one to someone at the talkative table. I don’t really care. I’m mainly here to see Tanya, who has booked me to speak to her high school English classes tomorrow.

October 26: Golden, B.C. / Calgary 

High school is in session
I haven’t been back to high school since I left it. I have no idea what to expect here. Tanya’s classes are doing a creative writing unit, focusing specifically on biography. I’m here to help them do that. I do an extremely abbreviated reading, eliminating everything that no one under 30 would get. I then talk about my work and my career. The students have questions that range from the token to the rather penetrating: “How do you know everything in your book is true?” 

The students’ assignment is to profile a Canadian musical artist. They claim they don’t know many. Drake, obviously. Avril Lavigne's intergenerational reach is wider than I thought. And in this part of the world, Dean Brody is much bigger than Justin Bieber or Alessia Cara. Best comment: "Why does Michael Bublé only appear at Christmas?"

The (former) Golden Rim Motor Inn
After classes, I hit the road. On the way out of town I take a selfie at a Days Inn that used to be known as the Golden Rim Motor Inn, immortalized in the Hip song “Luxury,” from Road Apples. This is where the band was stranded when their tour bus's transmission broke down outside Golden. Everyone in town made sure I knew this story. Essential local lore. 

The drive through the Rockies back to Calgary is overcast and misty. My soundtrack includes Basia Bulat’s Good Advice, Jeremy Dutcher’s record, Jordan Klassen’s Javelin, a k.d. lang collection that includes “The Valley” and “Barefoot Through the Snow,” and Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. I stop at the Banff Cultural Centre for dinner. I’m intrigued by this place, but don’t have much time to check it out. It’s dark by the time I leave. Driving out of the Rockies toward Calgary, the most enormous harvest moon I’ve ever seen is rising in the east over the Prairies. It’s majestic and awe-inspiring.

October 27: Calgary, National Music Center / Vancouver 

Rik Emmett's camel toe
I wake up at Patrick Finn’s again. We head to the NMC and spend more time taking in the regular exhibits. They have a lot of crazy things here: Walter Ostanek’s accordion, k.d. lang’s Juno-acceptance wedding gown, Nash the Slash’s violin, Rik Emmett’s camel-toe onesie.

k.d. lang's Juno wedding dress
I also remember that I actually wrote a bunch of the display copy; years ago, before this place opened, I was part of a group of writers tasked with writing blurbs for various artists. I totally forgot that I’d written about Arcade Fire, Sarah McLachlan, Bob Rock and others. I do remember that I had to write about Roch Voisine, and my editor asked me to punch  up the short bio with more interesting things to say about his music—an impossible task.

Patrick Finn
My event is in a large, atrium-like space. Lots of room. No one to fill it: there’s maybe a dozen people here, despite the high profile of the venue’s programming, and a large, lovely feature in the Calgary Herald by Eric Volmers. So that’s disappointing. But Finn, of course, is a great interviewer. There are tons of tangents we could go into, but we try and keep it relatively straight and narrow.

In the adjacent café over lunch with Luka Symons, I meet Pat Steward of the Odds, who notices my book and comes over to ask about it. He’s with a guitarist who used to be married to Sass Jordan (and looks remarkably like her, which is weird) and the two of them are playing some corporate cover gig across the street at the King Eddy. We have a nice chat. Canada: a small country.

Greg Lettau
I then hop on a plane to Vancouver. Once in the Calgary airport, I realize I left my passport in the rental car. Whoops. Good thing I’m staying in Canadian skies. In Vancouver, I’m met by one of my oldest childhood friends, Greg Lettau; our parents met at university. We had a lot of ridiculous teenage adventures together. He takes me out drinking, which I’ve been avoiding on tour but make an exception for time spent with this guy. I’ve barely seen him in the last 25 years, so this feels good.

Staying with another old Guelph friend, Tawny Darbyshire, with whom I stayed on my first professional trip out here to work for the CBC in 1998. The pace of this tour is finally starting to get to me, but the social times are the best.

October 28: Vancouver, The Heatley

The Mighty Anicka Quin
Brunch with Anicka Quin, editor of Western Living and Vancouver Magazine, old friend from Guelph, ex-girlfriend, former co-worker at Id Magazine. She’s lived out west for almost 20 years now; much like Greg Lettau, I’ve only seen her a handful of times since, and only fleeting. So moments like this are to be cherished.

I didn’t know what to expect from Vancouver. None of my friends here are Hip fans. I didn’t know where exactly to hold the event. The lovely folks at Red Cat Records offered to help, but figured a standing-room only event works for music but not for a book talk. CBC Radio host Grant Lawrence suggested the Heatley.

Grant Lawrence
Almost 20 years ago I wanted to be on Grant’s Radio Escapade show so badly that I flew out to Van on my own dime and he gave me eight hours of national overnight radio. After setting me up at the board, he said, “You're okay here, right? I'm going to head back upstairs.” There I was, making national radio on a board that belonged on the deck of the Starship Enterprise, alone, entrusted that whatever I did would be great. Grant's support and even his endless teases and taunts have meant the world to me over the years. It was an honour to lend a small hand with the manuscript of his first book, Adventuresin Solitude, and to see his success as a writer as well as a more mainstream broadcaster, breaking out of the indie rock ghetto we were both in back then.

Rob Baker... I mean, Joe Foley of the Hip Show
The crowd here is small, which is disappointing for one of Canada’s four major cities—but not surprising, really, after Calgary. There was no press or radio in advance, and there were no posters in the venue, which meant anyone there found out about it through the FB page I set up for the book. Other than my friends, the crowd also includes Joe Foley, of Hip tribute band the Hip Show, and Yaron Butterfield, who I mention in the book as someone who has lived with glioblastoma for a whopping 14 years—which is practically unheard of for such a brutal and swift disease. It’s an honour to meet him. Because he’s such a huge Hip fan, he was thrilled to be mentioned in the book.

Yaron Butterfield
Grant has had a successful side career lately, promoting his books by hosting ticketed evenings of “stories and songs,” featuring another writer and two musical guests. He started doing this after too many gigs resembling my current tour. Now he gets good crowds all over the western provinces, everyone gets paid, including him, and it’s turned into a thing. I have a lot to learn.

Grant does a great interview of course, informed by our long-standing tradition of roasting each other in public. He tries to bait me on several points, including the long-standing assumption that the Hip were really only ever popular in Ontario, and that 54.40 and Spirit of the West were a much bigger deal here. (Is that true? Neither ever filled hockey arenas in Vancouver or anywhere in the country, to my knowledge.) We then conduct a straw poll in the crowd: How many people here are originally from Ontario? Almost everyone puts up their hand. Grant: you win.

Tawny Darbyshire
Photographer and fellow Polaris Prize juror Christine McAvoy invites us out to Save on Meats, a Gastown diner recently reinvented as a socially progressive enterprise. Tonight, it’s a venue: Her favourite Vancouver band, Said the Whale, is having an album launch there. Grant is a big fan, but he’s solo parenting this week and has to head home. Others bow out as well. I head there with Greg Lettau and a friend of his, but we don’t last long. The music is not our bag. But what do we know? We’re from Ontario.

October 29: Edmonton, the Almanac on Whyte

I’m here to meet a man named Fish.

Fish Griwkowsky
Fish Griwkowsky has been one of the smartest and most entertaining music critics in this country for years, and so of course I asked him to host my event. I didn’t peg him as a Hip fan until I read his review for the Edmonton Journal of the 2016 tour stop, which was the most moving piece I read about the entire tour. Our musical guest is Joe Nolan, who, I only found out recently, also started a Hip cover band after Downie’s diagnosis, much as Dennis Ellsworth did out east.

I’m staying with another Guelph friend, Michael Hunter, who played in several bands around the same time I did. He married an Edmonton woman and moved here many years ago. Keep in touch with your university pals, folks: it pays off years later.

The crowd here is, again, tragically small. Other than Michael and his friend, and a table of Fish’s friends, there are only six other people here. And only two of them—my friends—are from Ontario. Apparently we’re competing with a popular monthly tribute night across the street, featuring many local players; this month they’re all covering… Limp Bizkit?!

Too bad, coz Fish is a great interviewer, and tells the story of where he was watching the final show: he was outside a powwow, listening to a radio signal that kept fading out until he finally lost it; he then listened through his smartphone, and the battery died right after the last song.

Joe Nolan does absolutely stunning versions of “Bobcaygeon,” “Nautical Disaster,” “So Hard Done By” and “Escape is at Hand”—the latter half are two of my favourites that I rarely see anyone do.

October 30: Saskatoon, McNally Robinson

The Paris of the Prairies! I no idea what to expect here. I know nobody in this town. It’s one of the two cities I booked a hotel room: in this case, I chose the 110-year-old Hotel Senator, where, indeed, the elevator and certain fixtures appear to be originals.

At the airport, shortly after landing, I do a phone hit with a local talk radio station. He asks me specifically about the Hip’s relationship with Saskatoon, and if it’s true they boycotted the city for a long time. I don’t claim to know the fine details of the Hip’s tour schedules, but I know exactly what he’s alluding to. “Didn’t it have something to do with law enforcement?” asks the host, cagily.

During my research, I heard an off-the-record story about the band once being busted for drugs here, and one of their staff taking the fall for it. I can’t confirm that, of course, which is why I don’t mention it in the book—although I do refer to it cryptically, so that those who know will know that I know. If you know what I mean. Which this radio host does, and we have a very amusing on-air dance around the topic—which I’m sure confused most listeners.

My name in lights
The event is at McNally Robinson, a large independent bookstore (I believe it’s the biggest indie in Canada, in terms of floor space) located in a mall on the other side of the river from downtown. Things look promising: after I get off a public transit bus, I see my name in lights. Quite literally: my headshot is digitized on a large billboard in the parking lot, on a scroll with other mall happenings. I take a pic and send it to my friend and Maclean’s photo editor Liz Sullivan, who took my headshot.

Turns out I didn’t need a big space at all. Only four people show up: Nisha, Eric, Steve, and Steve’s lady whose name I didn’t catch. But they’re the best four people. They’ve all read the book already and have effusive praise. I’m not going to sell any copies here, but the flattery is certainly nice.

Stephanie McKay
At their request, I go ahead with my formal reading and Q&A with Stephanie McKay, a former Polaris juror and arts writer at the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix. (She’s now head of comms at a major local art gallery.) She’s wonderful and game and pretty quickly the whole thing turns into an informal chat with everyone in the room. Eric is a superfan who loves Coke Machine Glow, and asks me about Downie’s potential inheritors, which prompts a discussion of Joel Plaskett, Kathleen Edwards, John K. Samson, etc. Nisha was born in 1982 and got into the band through her older brothers—one of whom worships the band and has so far refused to read my book. Steve read my book just before he was released from prison this summer, and found it emotionally difficult to read. This kind of night has become a theme on this tour: yeah, maybe there’s only a handful of people here, but they’re the best people.

The gig ends early. Stephanie drives me back to the hotel. What does one do in Saskatoon on a Wednesday night? Not much, apparently. I go to the downtown cinema and see A Star is Born. It’s fine. Lady Gaga is fantastic, especially the parking lot scene, but the rest of the movie is merely a pleasant distraction that I’m only enjoying because I’m on tour. I’ve seen episodes of Nashville that are better than this.

October 31: Saskatoon / Regina, the Artesian on 13th

WTF am I doing up at this hour?!
I rise bright and early to do a spot on CTV Saskatoon; I have to be there by 6.30 a.m. The studio is close to the hotel. I get there and the producer is literally dressed like the Mad Hatter. Oh right, it’s Hallowe’en! Still, a weird sight before dawn.

I’m taking an inter-city bus to Regina; it’s actually more of a Red Car-type service, as Greyhound is about to abandon its Western routes. The office appears to be within walking distance of downtown. It’s—well, it’s not, really. I break my suitcase’s wheels dragging it—weighed down by books I have yet to sell—through an industrial park on a northern edge of town, rushing to catch the bus in time. Why am I doing this? Why am I doing any of this?

But I’m en route to the second-last gig of this tour and my hubris is in full effect. On the bus I listen to Joni’s Hejira and the latest record by locals Kacy & Clayton.

It’s Hallowe’en! What kind of writer holds a book event on Hallowe’en, in a town where he knows no one and hasn’t visited since his first time there 23 years ago? This guy, that’s who.

Most of my options for a Regina gig either didn’t want to do a Hallowe’en gig or presented alternate dates that didn’t fit with my schedule. (Although, in retrospect, seeing how I’m hopping planes for most of this leg, I have no idea why I felt compelled to maintain a straight west-east trajectory as if I was driving.) The one option open was this converted church. The catch? I’d have to rent it.

Darlene Barss
OK, so if I have to rent a venue, I should charge admission. And if I’m going to charge admission, I should have a band. I don’t know any musicians from Regina, other than Andy Shauf, who a) is too big and b) doesn’t live here anymore, and Rah Rah, who broke up a while back. I did a lot of research and reached out to fellow Polaris juror Darlene Barss, who gave me plenty of great suggestions. Everyone was either busy or didn’t respond, except for Dustin Ritter. The rootsy singer-songwriter was immediately up for it. Turns out he and his band do a monthly live karaoke night, and they’ve had to learn their share of Hip songs over the years. I place all my trust in him; he assembles a band and a cast of guest singers from the local scene. I’m basically asking him to do for me in Regina what I did at the Horseshoe in Toronto.

I’m staying with Chris Macenz, who is the cousin of my next-door neighbour in Toronto. She picks me up from the bus station, and shuttles me to a CBC Radio interview. The kindness of strangers continues to amaze me.

I’d arranged to have books shipped here from Toronto, on the ridiculous assumption that I’d have already sold out of the ones I’d had shipped to Calgary and Vancouver. (I already shipped a box back from Vancouver, at my own expense.) They didn’t arrive. Will I have enough books to sell tonight? Turns out that won’t be a problem. At all.

I arrive at the beautiful venue as the band is still arriving. The soundcheck sounds great. I take the core band out for dinner. Guitarist Travis Rennebohm tells me he saw the Hip 13 times; a good friend of his saw them 30 times. He once met a guy who say the Hip a whopping 250 times; he had earned his “250-mission cap,” the guy boasted.

The best sausage party in Regina
Back at the venue, I work the door when I’m not on stage. Darlene is doing the interview; she’s super nervous. Though she’s on the Polaris jury, she’s neither a journalist or a broadcaster; she’s an enthusiast, a serious listener and a blogger who started in the CBC Radio 3 fan community. But she’s not used to interviewing on stage, and I try my best to make her comfortable. She does just fine.

The band is wonderful and gives it their all. The singers all do a great job. 

Here’s how it broke down:

Travis Rennebohm of Tiger Charmer: Bobcaygeon, Wheat Kings, Long Time Running, Lake Fever

Christopher “Tiny” Matchett: Scared

Tim Rogers: Blow at High Dough

Ethan Bender of Tiger Charmer: Three Pistols, Fireworks

Tyler Gilbert: Poets

Dustin Ritter: Something On, Boots or Hearts, Ahead by a Century

Bryce Van Loosen: Little Bones, Courage

Marshall Burns of Rah Rah: Escape is at Hand, Grace Too

Bryce introduces his songs by saying, “The Hip made us simple farm boys believe we could be smart and dig poetry.” Amen. Mission accomplished.

Marshall Ward (Rah Rah) with Dustin Ritter (Jaws shirt) et al
At the end of the night I meet the singer known as Belle Plaine, and her husband Blake Berglund; both are local lights of the country scene, she more traditional and he more modern. I’m not familiar with either of their music, though when I get home I fall in love with her latest release. This town is full of great talent; I feel like a completely ignorant Toronto ass—which I am.

The gig ends up pulling out 30 people. It’s enough for me to cover the rental. I’m definitely losing money on this tour, but I give Dustin a few C notes from my own pocket to pass out to the core band to thank them for their hard work. I have no idea why I tried to pull this off. But, you know, YOLO and all that.

November 1: Winnipeg, Good Will Social Club

I woke up in Regina to see that Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson’s lovely piece for the Winnipeg Free Press is in today’s paper. Lesson learned from this tour: whether or not anyone shows up to the gig, you’ll get way more media just by showing up in town than by staying home.

Something to remember later tonight.

Keeping it Riel
I’ve never been to Winnipeg. On that one western tour I did in 1995, we didn’t have a gig here and drove straight through it, both ways. Of all the major cities in Canada, I probably have more friends who grew up here than from anywhere else. That includes Julie Penner, violinist to the stars and radio producer, who relocated back to her hometown shortly after having her first kid. I’m staying with her tonight; I won’t see her husband, ex-Weakerthan Jason Tait, who is out on tour with Bahamas. She’s working during the day, so I set out to see what I can of the town on my own. Downtown is what it is: former Eaton’s building, Portage and Main. I head to the Forks; it’s impressive. I stroll past the iconic legislature building, and the Louis Riel statue. Wish I had more time to take in the Human Rights Museum.

The gig is at the Good Will Social Club, which is co-run by Cam Loeppky, a well-travelled sound engineer. I asked my dear friend Jill Wilson, of the Free Press, to be the interviewer. Like Regina, I tried to get some live music at this thing, but everyone I contacted was busy and/or out of town. The club booked Liam Duncan, a young guy who until recently fronted a band called the Middle Coast. He’s 22 years old, which means “Ahead by a Century” was on the charts the year he was born. His parents always had the Hip in their truck’s tapedeck in Brandon; he thought “Wheat Kings” was about a local hockey team.

Jill Wilson at Good Will Social Club. Photo by Julie Penner.
Before the gig, I set up my books at a table. A twentysomething guy lingering at the bar comes over and points at the book: “Gord Downie would make a better prime minister than the guy we’ve got now. If he was PM we wouldn’t be letting in all these terrorists.”

Uh, really? I should know better than to engage, but I do anyway. “Well, there will be an election next year,” I say, “so if you’re looking for change, that will be the time.”

“Nah, the system is rigged. There is no possibility of democratic change.”

“Why is that?” I ask. He pauses, smiles, clearly delighted that someone has asked, and then launches into a rant about the Rothschilds (here we go…) and how Russia is not the villain and how the U.S. is the real terrorist and how NATO expansion was a blatant act of aggression. I’m not the least bit surprised that someone who buys into Putin propaganda is also susceptible to anti-Jewish banking conspiracies.

“You’re telling me Russia is a paragon of virtue? You think you’d be more free under Putin?” I ask, against my better judgment.

“No,” he responds, “but at least they’re honest about it.” He wishes me luck with the book, and leaves.

Too bad. I could have used the audience.

Jill Wilson and John Kendle
Julie is there, and legendary local rock critic John Kendle, who I’m excited to finally meet. Two others are friends of Jill’s. But when the gig starts, there are only three other people there: two women who were mostly silent, and a guy named Ryan who heard about the gig on the Hipbase message board. Again, I ask if we should just can the formalities and sit around a table, or if we should do the reading and Q&A as scheduled. Everyone wants the real deal.

Which is good, because Jill is predictably excellent. She challenges the notion that Secret Path was particularly revelatory to non-Indigenous audiences; she points out that the history of residential schools has been part of Manitoban curricula for a long time. Which makes sense to me: Indigenous issues are impossible to ignore here, and in much of the western centres; compare that to southern Ontario, where I’d argue Indigenous communities are largely invisible (with the exception of Brantford and Peterborough).

The last photo of my trip, with these beauties
After the official talk, we all sit around over pints and John Kendle tells stories. He has quite a few. At least one of them I can’t tell you. Some I can.

Kendle is the same age as the members of the Hip. He wrote about them on their first western tour, where he helped rally the town around them after they got fired by a local promoter for being “too weird.” They always stayed in touch, and Kendle would always be at the Winnipeg after-parties. In 1994 he pitched Rolling Stone on a story about the “Land” single benefiting Clayoquot Sound protesters; he talked to the Hip, Lanois and Midnight Oil. The mag spiked it and paid him a kill fee. Jake Gold was angry that the story wasn’t going to be just about the Hip. 

In 2016, Downie—who did very little talking at any of those final shows—took time to acknowledge Kendle from the stage at the Winnipeg show. The writer went to the Fairmount after, because he knew that’s where the after-party would be. The Hip’s longtime security guy Ricky Wellington was working the door. Gord Sinclair saw Kendle and waved him in, telling Wellington that Kendle was welcome anywhere. Sinclair warned Kendle that Downie was not good with names lately, due to what he simply referred to as “the injury,” but remembered faces. Downie eventually surfaced at the party. Kendle introduced himself. Downie looked him in the eyes and told him he loved him.

Our entire table is weeping when John tells this story.

Julie and the three strangers eventually head home, leaving John, Jill and I to close the bar. I am drunk, for only the second time on this tour. I am standing outside the club on a chilly Winnipeg street with two of the smartest, loveliest, most passionate music lovers in the country, and was headed back to the house of another one. Tomorrow night, I will be in my own bed.

The Forks and the road
I feel incredibly blessed. I’ve learned so much: about this country, this music, about myself. I’ve met beautiful strangers and reconnected with dear old friends. Writing can be a lonely pursuit, if you let it. This book has been anything but.

FINAL NOTE: Most photos here are by me or someone standing next to me. I have some great video that I hope to have ready by the book's third anniversary. Apologies for any/all copy editing mistakes, especially when I stray in and out of never-ending present tense.

Next: Encores 

Also in this series: Spring; Summer; East Coast

The Never-Ending Tour: Encores

ENCORES: Just when I thought I was done, this was the victory lap. Nov. 10, 2018 Forch’s Record Store, Cambri...