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all creatures great and small - June 20, 2010

I watched the Mexico/USA World Cup match the other day, and as Cuauhtémoc Blanco put the game away for Mexico with a penalty kick I was reminded of something.

Last summer I was at BMO Field in Toronto to see Toronto FC play Chicago. Blanco was playing for Chicago at the time, and my seats were very close to field level behind the Chicago bench. During the warmup (I always go early - a vestigal compulsion from life on the road, I guess) I noticed a small child who was also paying close attention to the warmup, but from a much better vantage point. He was standing right on the edge of the field.

As it turned out, he was one of the kids who would carry the flags out onto the pitch at the beginning of the game, but for now his attention was entirely taken up by Cuauhtémoc Blanco - Chicago's star player, the Grand Old Man of Mexican football and a huge celebrity in his home country. At 37 years old he's among the oldest players ever to appear in a World Cup tournament - soccer is, more than any other, a young man's game.

Blanco wasn't terribly busy in the warmup. At his age you save yourself for the game. A bit of stretching and a few tap-arounds was about all he did. And he happened to notice this little kid staring at him.

So he called to him, and motioned him out onto the field. He didn't move at first, so Blanco called to him again. The little kid, who I expect could barely believe what was happening, tentatively walked out onto the field. Blanco met him halfway, took a knee beside him and began a conversation.

After a moment Blanco stood up and hollered at the nearest of many photographers hanging around the field to take their picture together. Blanco got down on one knee again and put his arm around the boy, continuing to chat with him while the photographer snapped away. Then he signed the boy's shirt, ruffled his hair and said good bye.

So as Cuauhtémoc Blanco plays in his final World Cup in South Africa with the entire world watching, I see a man who in a spontaneous, honest and uncontrived moment of thoughtfulness gave a little boy a huge thrill, and a grown man a lump in his throat.

Radio and Community - May 8, 2010

I can't remember the last time I was aware of people making plans to actually sit down and listen to something on the radio, but that's exactly what I heard over and over again last week. And what they were planning to listen to was me.

Well not me exactly, I just wanted to say that. Rather, Enio Mascherin and me; he's my co-host and the creator of the Hundred Mile Music Show that launched last Thursday.

It turns out the premier of our quaint little one-hour once-a-week radio program was, in its own modest way, rather a big deal, and not just here in Owen Sound where the show is broadcast. We were flooded with phone calls, emails, chats and messages from Barrie, Newmarket, Toronto, Kitchener, the Atlantic states, the US mid-west, New York, Pennsylvania and even the UK, where the show didn't air until 1 AM.

All of which was not only delightful but also somewhat fascinating, because the focus of our show is decidedly local. We play music made by musicians who either live here in our neck of the woods or originate here. Nonetheless the passion and enthusiasm with which our first broadcast was greeted transcended geography. Virginians were as keen as Owen Sounders, and I spent much of yesterday musing on why that would be.

When I was on the road with Tanglefoot I was repeatedly surprised,  although I shouldn’t have been, at the degree to which mass-produced commercial culture has flattened the world. Ear-buds in Worcester England are plugged into the same music industry pipeline as those in Toronto or Chicago or Minneapolis or Owen Sound.  Everybody’s listening to the same stuff.

There are broader manifestations beyond musical fashion. My former UK tour manager points out somewhat wistfully that you could never tell by speaking with them that her two now-adult children grew up in rural Yorkshire. Local accents are disappearing; regional differences are smoothed out, homogeneity prevails and local culture fades.

So I wonder if our show hasn’t struck a chord with people far and wide who retain a bit of the old-fashioned notion that what happens close to home is important, and that healthy communities thrive on local familiarity. It’s a bit ironic, since so many of our listeners live nowhere near Owen Sound and have never been here. Maybe they’re responding to what they perceive as something genuine and home-grown, and feel they are visiting a real community, if only for an hour a week.

That’s what I’d like to think, anyway. What I do know is that in all my life I've rarely taken part in anything that made me feel so good.


American Health Reform - March 22, 2010

The whole debate on health care seems surreal from outside the United States. It's like... well I actually can't think of an analogy. It appears some powerful vested interests have managed to convince a lot of people that public health care - which everybody else in the world has - will mean death, destruction and the end of civilization.

Or maybe down there it will, I don't know. American culture seems such a bundle of contradictions. America succeeded in the greatest achievement in all of history - they went to the moon, for Christ's sake - and then immediately lost interest. And you're not allowed to teach real science in public schools, at least is some jurisdictions.

You can't get elected to office without being a Christian, yet it's the Christian constituency who seem desperately anxious to go to war all the time.

I read something a few years ago by an English (I think) historian, who described America as a state that essentially contains two nations, or at least two broad cultural outlooks. One, he said, is a lot like Canada - modern, energetic, good-natured and compassionate, and the other is a lot like Iran - fanatic, ill-informed, defensive and hostile.

That's likely hyperbole, but in my travels throughout the US I've certainly seen both. Fortunately, I encountered much more of the former than the latter in the circles in which I moved.

High Flight - December 7, 2009

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, --and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of --Wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air...
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark or even eagle flew --
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

(John Gillespie Magee, Jr)

That's what the past twenty-one years have been like for me.


HST in Ontario - November 13, 2009

My Dad once said that if your biggest complaint in life is that you think your taxes are too high, you really don't have any problems.

Having said that, I have no idea how the Government of Ontario thinks they're doing its citizens a service by implementing the so-called HST (Harmonized Sales Tax) next summer.

For those of you who live outside Ontario, this refers to aligning the 5% GST (Goods & Services Tax), an already-existing value-added tax levied by the national government, with the 8% PST (Provincial Sales Tax), a retail sale tax levied by the Province of Ontario.

The GST applies to almost everything: not only retail, wholesale and distribution transactions but also pretty much any fee-for-service, including performance fees charged by people like me. The PST currently applies pretty much only to goods: prepared foods, clothes, computers, CDs... you get the idea.

Harmonization means that any service previously subject only to the 5% GST, like funerals, tradesperson’s fees - and of particular relevance to me, my performance fees (not to mention gasoline, heating oil, electricity) - are going to be suddenly 8% higher.

Of course, performers in my boat are negotiating with presenters who are suddenly paying 8% more to heat, supply and maintain their venues in a time of already-declining attendance and reduced revenues. 

So we're going to have to eat it. And we'll have paid 8% more to put gas in the van to get us to the gig.

This in an economic climate where everybody in the performing arts has already taken their hit, like everybody else. Attendance everywhere has been down for over a year now, venues are closing and presenters are disappearing.

I fail to see who this is going to help, but I certainly know a lot of people who will be hurt by it. The timing couldn't be worse.


make a great day - October 8, 2009

This morning in Duluth, Minnesota, a man named Chip Stewart died. Chip had been battling cancer off and on for several years, and some time ago it became apparent to everbody, including Chip, that this battle would be the last.

Chip emailed me last week saying he was on a farewell tour of his own. He planned to come out to the Reif Center in Grand Rapids, Minnesota last Thursday to see us play one more time. He was going to come early so we'd have a chance to hang around the green room and visit. When he didn't turn up at the show we all wondered if he'd had a turn for the worse, and as it turns out, he had.

Chip was one of the prime movers behind Amazing Grace Coffeehouse & Bakery in Duluth. Amazing Grace not only has great coffee and even better home-made bread, but it's a music venue, and the first place Tanglefoot ever played in Minnesota. It was the summer of 1997 and about 12 people showed up, but Chip thought we were a good band and was keen to have us back.

I can't remember how many times we played Amazing Grace over the years, but it was many. Without exception, every time I called him to say we'd be coming through town on such-and-such a day, and was there any chance we could play that night, he said yes. Sundays. Mondays, didn't matter; we were always welcome.

Everything about the place is low-key, friendly and easy-going, which is exactly the way I would describe Chip. He was one of those people who was quietly devoted to music and musicians, both in his community and in the larger sense, and was always on the lookout for a way to give somebody a hand. He's one of the key reasons Tanglefoot was able to build a significant audience in Minnesota

When his friends describe him, you get the collective impression that he was a relentless optimist. He always ended his emails with the signature "Make a Great Day".

So that's what I'm going to try and do tomorrow, and the day after that. It's what I promised him I would do when I wrote him last week. The world is a dimmer place, but I'm going to try to Make a Great Day.

For Chip.


Electronic Gear - September 12, 2009

When my old guitar processor died a couple of years ago, I did some surfing and discovered a lovely piece of equipment made by TC Electronics called a G-Natural Acoustic Guitar processor. "An aw-royt bit a' gee-ah," as Robert Graham would say.

If you're interested in electronics for acoustic instruments, you might be interested in the comments I made in for an on-line forum back in April of 2008.

I play in a full-time touring acoustic/roots band, and I've used the G-Natural for about 2 1/2 months now. 

I'm very keen on it. Between it and the Beggs Duet pickup in my guitar, I can achieve quite a natural guitar sound. I've stored three basic  variations  - two for fingerpicking (one for bare fingers and one for fingerpicks) and and third for a nice, chunky sound for flat-pick strumming.

My only complaint is that a flange on one of the footswitches came loose after only a couple of days, meaning the switch itself disappeared into the box. With the help of an enterprising stage manager, a screwdrive and pair of needlenose, we managed to retreive it and re-secure it to, but it was a VERY tricky operation - it's almost impossible to get any grip on the flanges/rings that secure the switches to the face of the box. It has stayed put since, though. (note: as of Sept 09 it's never come loose again).

I've been really pleased with it. You do need the manual to figure out how to work with it; it's not intuitive, at least not to me. I really like the three-band fully parametric EQ. You have to know a little bit about sound to know what you're doing, but if you do you can really get a good sound dialed in. The boost function is excellent, and I like the fact that it's flexible - you can either set a universal boost level or a specific boost for each of your pre-set sounds.

I also like the fact that it will accept 100 to 250 Volts input; when we tour in the UK I can plug it straight into the wall same as here (here being Canada/US).

It's a terrifically flexible system, one consequence of which is that it's not necessarily easy to set up. Keep the manual with you on the road, though. Maybe it's just me, but when I want to go back and tweak something (a few weeks after the initial setup) the menus and scrolling etc., are just subtle enough that I can't always recall the procedures.

On Line at Last! - September 8, 2009

Well, here I am! Welcome to my brand-new just-out-of-the-box website. I hope you'll check back now and then to see what I'm up to.

I owe a big debt of thanks to Wendy, Tanglefoot's webmistress, who took a lot of time out of her already busy days to help me set all this up.

These days I'm mostly pre-occupied with the last three months of touring with Tanglefoot. We don't get too busy until the beginning of October, so I'm hoping to put in some studio time on my solo album over the next few weeks. I started on it back in 2005, but I have no real idea when it will be finished. There's no external deadline, so it will likely be whenever I get tired of working on it.

I had an excellent summer with lots of family time, dinners on the deck, friends dropping in, visiting Mom's cottage... I even went horseback riding a couple of times, and played soccer at Sandra Swannell's party last week. I can almost walk without a limp now.

But not one decent thunderstorm! At least, not ever where I happened to be. I'm one of those who loves a good storm, although I was happy our place was spared any action on Tornado Day last month. Nearest place to us to get hit was Durham, about 20 miles to the south.

By which I mean the town of Durham, Ontario. Not Durham Region, which confusingly is also in Ontario but about 100 miles away. Nor Durham, England, which is a beautiful city with a very old and extremely impressive cathedral that houses, among other things, the 1300 year-old bones of the Venerable Bede, England's first historian.

There you have it - tornados to Dark Age history in two paragraphs. Check back again soon for more stream-of-consciousness ramblings.


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