Monthly Archives: March 2015
I love music.
Other than the love of my kids, family and friends, there remain few things that can supercharge my soul as much as a live musical experience that reaches me in some kind of deep, personal way. And boy, did I get charged up at a charity event a little over a week ago, thanks to a band called 7T8.
If you look at the music page of my website, you’ll see that I’ve dabbled in recording and releasing a few of my own musical creations (which represent a fraction of what I’ve actually written over the years). And you might also see that it’s mostly acoustic, bordering on folk music in some cases. And that’s fine.
But I have always been a rock and roller at heart. It’s just that, to record and perform as a rock outfit, you need more people, more gear, more money, more space, more time … more everything. And so to share the few creations I have, I’ve chosen songs that I can just show up and play with my acoustic guitar and nothing more.
The point is that I’ve been through the process of recording, releasing and performing some of my own music. I know from experience that it’s not easy. Far from it. And I can only imagine how much of a challenge it would be to try and record a rock band, especially on a tight budget, and have it come out sounding good.
Last week, I met a band that’s done it. And I’m really impressed.
On March 20th, I volunteered my time to March of Dimes Canada to serve as Master of Ceremonies for their “Rock For Dimes” event here in London, Ontario. It’s essentially a “Battle of the Bands,” with terrific corporate and community support.
At “Rock for Dimes,” each band gets the opportunity to perform for a half hour. They’re judged on their musicianship, audience response, originality and overall level of quality. Most of the bands churn out classic (and some current) rock cover songs and do a fine job of it.
Before I tell the story of what happened at “Rock for Dimes,” perhaps I’l share a bit about my own musical background first. That might help make it clear why I feel I reacted so strongly to this particular experience.
I’ve been a member of a rock cover band before. Back in the late 90’s, some friends in a group they called the “River Band” approached me about joining their group as rhythm guitarist, backup vocalist and … songwriter. They had spent years playing the local clubs around Sarnia and through Lambton County (in Ontario Canada) as the “Whiskey River Band,” but when the local AM country station flipped it’s signal to an FM rock format, they dropped the “Whiskey” from their name and went for more of a pop-rock feel, and anticipated they’d want some original rock music to play. So they approached me, and asked me to write them some songs. And I did, and to this day I know I wrote some really good ones (maybe you’ll get to hear them one day).
The River Band got paid pretty well and worked steadily, thanks to the constant efforts of the band’s leader, my pal Sean Robbins (Sean was a master at getting the band booked). I jumped in with both feet, learned 40 or 50 songs within a couple of weeks and went to work as their rhythm guitarist and had a great time. But I knew all along that the payoff was to start performing and recording original music. Otherwise, I felt, what’s the point?
Coming in to the summer of 1999, we rehearsed a song I’d written that, at the time, we called “Rock the Boat” (I’ve since renamed it “Sunken Soldier”). We performed it on live TV as part of a charitable telethon in London, and got terrific feedback from it. You see, to be on TV, we had to perform original music, as we didn’t have the rights to play any one of the dozens of cover songs we’d always play in clubs and bars. So we played our own song and instantly heard from people that liked it.
A couple of weeks later, we were set to be one of the headlining bands at the annual Canada Day festivities in Centennial Park in Sarnia (some video of that show still exists, with me playing and singing lead on Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69”). Our plan for that night was to perform “Rock the Boat” as part of our set to show the thousands of people who were there that night that we did, in fact, have our own music in the works. But what happened instead is that we were a little short on time and were asked to cut a song or two from our set. Despite my protests, my bandmates chose to cut “Rock the Boat,” and though we went and played that gig and had a great time of it, I knew then and there I would leave the band, because they’d had the chance to put their own work out front and didn’t.
I was not there to sing “Mustang Sally” and “Crocodile Rock.” I tolerated the cover songs so we could get to original songs. But the other guys felt the opposite (which, by the way, I completely understand. They were good at what they did and got paid pretty well to do it. I just wasn’t there for the same reasons, so I left shortly afterward).
During that time, I was always told that “You can’t go into a bar and get away with playing original music.” I always thought that was a load of bull spoken by people too scared to try. It takes guts to get up on stage at any level. But it takes real fortitude to share and stand behind your own creations. I knew I could do it, and I did, the next spring, with a band I called “Freight Train.” But that’s another story.
Writing original music, especially good original music, is harder than it looks. And to get a band to work up a good arrangement of a song is, in my opinion, even more difficult. And even after that, you’ve no guarantee the audience will like it. So it’s a lot easier to just play popular songs, where all that work is done for you.
And so, with all that in mind, let’s jump back to present time and the business at hand. I was truly intrigued when I was reading the band bios in the program at this year’s “Rock for Dimes” event. I saw that one of the bands was going to try something new. Here’s a bit about each band from that night:
There was a group called the RJ Conspiracy. I knew them from last year. They’re a group of guys who work as accountants during the week and come together to gig now and then and they do a great job with their classic rock tastes. Their take on “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” stood out to me. Their singer, Rick Jankura, later told me it was Peter Frampton’s version of the song. I really liked it.
Another group that had returned from the year before was a band that calls themselves the Attic Apostles. They’re a great group of guys who put a lot of energy and enthusiasm into their performance. I was happy to recognize John Raposo, their lead singer, and to get the chance to chat with him a bit. Anyone who gets up on stage and sings has my respect, and John has mine. And I was especially pleased when they took on a really tough song from one of my favourite bands, the Trews, with a wailing rock track called “Hold Me In Your Arms.” I also liked their choice of other cover songs.
A band called Oui B Jamon was back for another go. They’d actually won the event a couple years before and they are indeed a neat outfit. Though their keyboardist was the lead singer and seemed to be the focal point, it’s the guitarist, Norm Emblem, who stands out to me for his slick style and smooth sound. He was the only one to play a slide all night, and he looks and sounds cool and laid back when he plays. I enjoy watching him cruise through tunes like Skynyrd’s “Call Me the Breeze” or Thorogood’s “Move It On Over.”
One of the two new bands for this year was a group of police officers who had named their act Duty Calls. I chatted with a couple of them. Great guys. And they did a terrific job on stage with a cool mix of covers. As with Attic Apostles, Duty Calls had me smiling when they finished their set with a Trews song called “Fleeting Trust” (a great track).
Each of those bands were fun to watch and they all did a great job. It’s just that, for me, it was all stuff I’d heard before, in one way or another.
So I was very much intrigued when I read the bio of the other new band for this year, a group from Cambridge that called themselves 7T8. I liked the name straight away. But what I liked even more was reading that, though they’d started as a cover band, they quickly began to gel with each other and write their own music, and had not only begun to play some of it live, but they had also recorded and just released an EP of their own music as well.
That had my full attention.
As the band was setting up for their set, one of the members approached me, shook my hand and said, “Hi! I’m Shane. I’m the singer for the next band, 7T8. I just wanted to thank you for being the MC. You’re doing a great job. Is there anything you’d like to know about our band?”
Nobody else had asked me that, though I’d have welcomed it.
I asked Shane (who I instantly liked), “I read about you guys. Are you going to play a whole set of your own music?”
“We’re going to do a mix,” Shane said. “We’ll play some of our own songs and some other songs people will know.”
I remember my heart jumping a little bit. Shane had confirmed for me that we were going to hear something new that night. A little voice popped into my head that pleaded, “Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck. Please don’t suck.”
Let me tell you. They didn’t suck.
Impressed, I thanked Shane and wished him good luck and got out of the way as the band finished their quick set up.
A few minutes later, they nodded that they were ready, so I went back up on stage to introduce them. As I came to the end of my introduction, they sensed the timing and started playing what was, essentially, an intro to their own first song. It was the kind of sensing of momentum that most others never seem to take advantage of, and it’s always baffled me why more bands (and performers in general) don’t pick up on that sort of stuff. But the guys in 7T8 were tuned in.
As they tore in the opening chords of their first song, the hair went up on the back of my neck. I didn’t know what the song was. I’d never heard it before. But I knew I liked it, and that I was going to want to hear it again. The air in the room changed instantly. For me, it was one of those soul-grabbing, stupid-smiling, spin-you-around-the-room kind of moments that happens all too rarely.
At a time like that, it’s a lot of fun to observe people’s reactions. The crowd seemed momentarily disoriented at this band that was suddenly thundering new sounds at them with swagger and style, whereas they probably knew every other song that had been played earlier in the night, with those bands maybe not having the throttle pinned all the way to the floor the way 7T8 did. And yet, they weren’t upset. The band sounded too good for that. It was a strange mix of excitement and confusion that lasted about two minutes.
After that, 7T8 had the room. They owned it.
After grabbing the crowd by the collar with their opener, a rip-snorter of a song from their EP called “Outta My Head,” they instantly transitioned into a rollicking version of the song “Paralyzer” by Finger Eleven. Later came their EP title track, “Rebirth,” “My Hero” from the Foo Fighters and then another of their own songs. By the time they reached the end of their set, 7T8 had made it clear the competition was over for that night. They had the crowd in the palm of their hand, and finished their performance with a hair-raising rendition of the Billy Idol song “Rebel Yell.” I’ve always been lukewarm to “Rebel Yell,” but if 7T8 had made a recording of their version of the song available for sale that night, I’d have bought it without even thinking about it.
After they were done, the crowd yelled for an encore, and I don’t think they were being in any way disrespectful to the other bands. They just genuinely wanted to hear more from 7T8. I did too.
7T8’s set that night reminded me of how I’d felt so long ago, that you could play your own songs for an unfamiliar crowd, if your songs were strong enough and if you were confident about it.
I was buzzing from the experience. I was so glad I was there to see that performance. And perhaps I am overstating it, but I can only share what my sincere reaction to it was, and I felt like I’d been a part of something very rare and a whole lot of fun. It’s the kind of emotional response only music can generate for me, and it can’t be manufactured. It just happens.
As soon as I got home that night, around midnight, I chose buying and listening to 7T8’s EP over going to sleep, and I am still happy with the choice. They somehow got that right, too. It’s a fine first effort, and sounds great at maximum volume in my car. If you’re interested, you can download it HERE.
I love music, and want to thank March of Dimes for having me as their MC again to help remind me why. I also want to tip my cap to all the bands that were there that night, not just 7T8. They were all great and worked hard and played well and supported a great cause.
I think I’ll go pick up my guitar.