Thursday, March 19, 2015

Blame it on Hamilton: A Celebration

It’s Tuesday after Juno week in Hamilton. The big poster designed by Tom Wilson still overlooks James Street. Swag bags are emptied though, and the blue boxes are filled with was passed for swag in some of those bags. Booklets, ads, tickets are blowing down the road. All that remains are the memories. Memories of that week when all the clubs were full of people, and music was played everywhere. Even Limeridge Mall had an event. A music event! Not a sale. The libraries had an event, believe it or not. Hamilton Public hosted a concert in the round on their 4th floor. And McMaster Libraries did a demonstration of electronic instruments for attendees! Give your head a shake. I was there, participating, demoing the Makey Makey and my colleagues showed off the Atari Punk Console, the Little Bits Synth Kit and a theremin that was also built from a kit. The theremin was the big draw. After people bought their beer at the bar they were pulled over by the sounds of alien invasion coming from the weird black box. They then stayed to twist the knobs of the punk console or bang away on the banana piano. Yep, it’s a piano with bananas for keys (or forks, or tofu, or even raw meat). Fun wow!

It wasn’t all about the Libraries though. It was held in a library, but it was a celebration of songs from Hamilton. Every song played had something to do with the city. It was all put together by Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ Tom Wilson (and his daughter Madeline). B&RK appeared as the house band and special guests were invited from across the country to sing a Hamilton song. It was called "Blame it on Hamilton," and a fine time was had by all. The night began with B&RK taking the stage (they brought Gary Craig and John Dymond on drums and bass) to sing guitarist Colin Linden’s tribute to local legend “Jackie Washington.” It was a great start to the night and kept Jackie’s name alive. Jackie was a mentor to a couple generations of Hamilton musicians and a hero to us all. Linden’s song reminds us of Jackie’s background as a porter for the railroad, and his strong desire to make music. Next up was Ottawa folky Jeremy Fisher (originally from the Hammer) to sing Ian Thomas’s “Painted Ladies.” Tom Wilson shouted out, “Didn’t you think this song was Neil Young when you first heard it?” reminding me that I thought it sounded like America ("A Horse With No Name"), who sounded like Neil Young. Fisher made it sound good though and stayed on stage to join B&RK for a rousing rendition of Teenage Heads’ “Something On My Mind.” Fantastic.

Tom Wilson.

Terra Lightfoot replaced Jeremy Fisher to sing one of the great love songs of all time, “45 Years” written by Stan Rogers:

Where the earth shows it's bones of wind broken stone
And the sea and the sky are one
I'm caught out of time
My blood sings with wine
And I'm running naked in the sun
There's God in the trees
I'm weak in the knees
And the sky is a painful blue
I'd like to look around but honey all I see is you 

Then a bombshell named Divine Brown came onstage with Harrison Kennedy’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time.” OK, Kennedy was fronting The Chairmen of the Board at the time the single came out, but it’s a good tune and Ms Brown does it up proud. Tomi Swick was up next doing Jacksoul’s “Someday.” Jacksoul’s Haydain Neale passed away in 2009 from lung cancer. He was only 39 years old. Swick backed by B&RK paid tribute to his enduring legacy.

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings first joined together in 1996 to record a tribute album celebrating the songwriting talent of songwriter and musician Willie P. Bennett. They took their collective name from one of his songs. “Blackie and the Rodeo King”, the song that started it all was next on the playlist. Then Stephen Fearing took the spotlight with a rendition of the oldest song of the evening. “When You and I Were Young Maggie” was first published as a poem in George Washington Johnson’s book of poems Maple Leaves in 1864. The Hamilton school teacher wrote it as a tribute to his young wife. She died of typhus a year later, and the poem took on new meaning. A Baltimore musician James A. Butterfield added music and the song took on a life of its own. It was a joy to hear it sung over 100 years after the fact.

Tom Wilson made a few comments about Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson living just up Highway 6 and Colin Linden launched into a brilliant version of The Band’s “Endless Highway.” Juno Award winners Digging Roots joined B&RK to perform the Junkhouse classic “Shine” (a song composed by Tom Wilson). The lights came up, the audience headed to the bar where they were quickly running out of beer and the banana piano and theremin were turned on again.

Sarah Harmer.

After a brief intermission, it all started again. B&RK did “Stoned,” then Hawksley Workman joined them for “It’s Only Make Believe.” Apparently this 50’s staple was composed by Conway Twitty and his drummer Jack Nance between sets at The Flamingo Lounge. It was the first of nine Top 40 hits for Twitty. New Brunswick bluesman Matt Andersen took the stage for “Corrina” in honour of King Biscuit Boy. Andersen stayed up to assist with another song by The Band “It Makes No Difference.” Daniel Lanois, who got his start in Hamilton at his Grant Avenue Studio was represented by Sarah Harmer’s version of “Under a Stormy Sky.” B&RK did “Lean On Your Peers,” Wilson’s own tribute to Hamilton, and Joel Plaskett came out to do “Linda Put the Coffee On.” This one was written by Ray Materick who released it on David Geffen’s Asylum label in 1974. The show ended with a bang, not a whimper as Jon Harvey (from Monster Truck) and Big Wreck’s Ian Thornley joined B&RK for Crowbar’s anthemic “Oh What a Feeling.” Only one chord but oh, what a feeling!

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings came back for one encore. The Everly Brothers’ “The Price of Love.” I heard Don & Phil do it on the Hamilton Place stage in 2001, so I am willing to give it a pass. You can blame it on Hamilton! The night was a total success. Sure the 4th floor of Hamilton Public Library needs some acoustic work done if it’s going to host more of these in the round concerts, and whoever organizes the bar needs to understand their patrons a little better both with quality and quantity, but the feeling is there, the intimacy is perfect. Oh, what a feeling, indeed!

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.     

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