Monday, February 28, 2022

New live music venue (but out in Surrey): Central City Taphouse

...So I wrote a post on Facebook about the venuelessness of David M. - key songwriter of NO FUN, the Beatles of Surrey - since the Heritage Grill burned down and the Princeton declined to have him play there on Mondays anymore. I have seen M. at the Princeton actually more times that I ever saw him at the Railway - a venue NO FUN had long association with - see here, for instance - but I didn't make much noise about the decision, despite knowing that M. WANTED us to make noise about it, because the truth is, I didn't really ever enjoy the hassle of GETTING to the Princeton. I want M. to have an outlet for his music, and I want to see him play - I missed that there was no Christmas show this year - but the Heritage Grill (RIP) was a much more convenient venue for me. So I asked Facebook, in the spirit of helping M. (and myself), did anyone have any good ideas where David could play next?

Why yes, said Dave Bowes - the impresario of the Bowie Ball, a musician and promoter and podcaster about town and formerly the man behind Iron Road Studios. He wrote me a message to announce, "I'm launching a new venue, perfect for David M. and anyone else you know in the troubadour mold: Central City Taphouse and Kitchen" - located right on the Skytrain line out in Surrey. Musicians, Dave tells me, will be paid "200 bucks for two sets plus food and drink." It looks like the place has been running as a restaurant for awhile, but the start of Bowes' involvement booking shows there apparently began with the esteemed Orchard Pinkish playing a show (I missed it). There's no cover, the food is good (sez Dave - I haven't tried it yet) and there will be concerts on weekends through March and April. 

Sure enough, there are links on Facebook - you can follow Dave under the name "Dirk Bentley" - to several events already: Stephen Hamm Theremin Man, Joseph Blood, and Dave Dykhuizen. I do not know if David M. will take David B. up on is suggestion, but meantime, Bowes has encouraged me to spread the word. So here I go, spreading the word! 

Y'all a troubadour, by any stretch? Hit Dirk Bentley up on Messenger. I don't really monitor Dave closely but only good things have come for ME out of knowing him - including a New Model Army concert at the Rickshaw awhile back, which Dave and I conspired to make happen and promote. I'd like a new venue, and even if Surrey is a bit far away, it being near the Skytrain is a big plus. 

More to come, probably. I mean, I ain't even been there yet!

Cinema Salon: Don Stewart Presents Sacco and Vanzetti at the VIFF Centre (directed by Giuliano Montaldo)

[This article may get expanded if I hear back from Don!]

Attention cinephiles, anarchists, and used bookstore enthusiasts: here's a genuinely exciting chance to see a movie that seldom screens, about an important moment in history, introduced by a man who himself is pretty interesting: Don Stewart, proprietor of MacLeod's Books, Vancouver's best, biggest, and I believe longest-surviving antiquarian bookstore, still located at the corner of Richards and Pender. Had no idea the event was happening until yesterday and suddenly went into high alert, because - well, I don't know about the rest of you, but this is a movie I've wanted to see for years...

Y'see, this Tuesday, as part of Cinema Salon, Don is presenting a screening of the 1971 Italian film Sacco and Vanzetti. (link leads to the VIFF Centre listing).  I have not confirmed my suspicions yet, but - since I gather Don has a bit of a political past - I doubt very much that he is screening this film because of a fondness for filmmaker Giuliano Montaldo. I *am* interested in the topic of the film myself, about the persecution/ prosecution/ execution of two Italian immigrant anarchists wrongly convicted of murder in 1920's Massachusetts, and even more interested in what Don has to say about it - because I have something like 40 years of history with Don, dating back to the time when, around age 15 or so, I found a B. Traven first edition in a thrift store and consulted the yellow pages to find someone to sell it to, ultimately flipping the book to Don for a hefty profit. But in fact, Montaldo would be the key reason that I am going - because immediately prior to making Sacco and Vanzetti, as part of a bid to secure funding to make the movies he wanted to make, Montaldo made one very entertaining, slightly nasty commercial action movie, Machine Gun McCain, the casting of which appears to have been basically taken over by John Cassavetes and his rep company (Cassavetes, Peter Falk, Gena Rowlands, and Val Avery are all in it, as well as a few notable non-Cassavetes-people, like Britt Ekland and Gabriele Ferzetti, whom you might recall from Once Upon a Time in the West). Cassavetes himself took the role to secure funding to make his own films - in his case, Husbands. So Sacco and Vanzetti and Husbands - as radically different as I presume they are - have a sort of parallel history, here, both films funded by Hank McCain robbing the Mafia in Las Vegas (a peculiar metaphor for raising money for non-commercial film projects, but hey, why not?). 

By the way, if you care about any of this but haven't heard Mike Patton singing "The Ballad of Hank McCain" on the expanded CD of John Zorn's The Big Gundown, it is superb... and streamable online here

While many of his films are hard to see in North America, Giuliano Montaldo also made, much later, one very interesting, underrated political thriller starring a young Nic Cage, about an Italian soldier stationed in (I think) Ethiopia who has sex with (or perhaps rapes...?) a woman, and then discovers - possible spoiler alert? - that she had leprosy; it was called - at least for purposes of distribution here - Time to Kill, and held my attention and respect for awhile back in the days of VHS. As I recall, it wasn't well-received by critics of the day, who were wanting an entertainment, and got instead a gritty, even somewhat ugly arthouse film that is none too kind to its young star. Since there is to my knowledge only a cropped, crap-looking DVD of it, I have not revisited it in years, but would, if it came out in blu-ray; as I recall, it does interesting things with time, with key events in the film's narrative being withheld til its end, so you don't really understand what anything means until the last few minutes of the movie; I would be unsurprised if it had an influence on the filmmaking of, for instance, Quentin Tarantino or such (there is no doubt a finite and documentable history to non-sequential cinema, dating back even further to Kubrick's The Killing, obviously, but Time to Kill was the first film that played with its time structure that *I* saw, so perhaps that is true for others, as well...

Anyhow, with Montaldo having helmed two films that held my attention - including one - the Cassavetes - that I am very fond of indeed, I am very excited about the screening of Sacco and Vanzetti - a film I have wanted to see for years. I do not know if I will hear back from Mr. Stewart, who is probably busy running a bookstore today, and who may not want to ruin the surprise of what he has to say tomorrow by answering my questions here, so this may be all I write about this particular screening, but I congratulate Cinema Salon for this most-inspired film choice. With apologies to Adrian Mack (who did a stellar job presenting the Clash's Rude Boy a few years ago), tomorrow's screening is the Cinema Salon that I am most excited about since Michael Ondaatje presented The Hustler (where I first learned of The Queen's Gambit, then in no way famous; that particular Tevis novel is, I believe he told us, Ondaatje's favourite book, which - I paraphrase - he re-reads every few years just for the pleasure of its prose). I mean, I love Mack, I'm just only ever been so-so on Rude Boy.

Read more about Tuesday's screening of Sacco and Vanzetti on the VIFF Centre website

Friday, February 25, 2022

Beau Wheeler on Living Each Day All the Way: an interview, apropos of tonight's show at the Rickshaw (and last week's Bowie Ball!)

Beau Wheeler at the Bowie Ball, 2022 by Gord McCaw

Beau Wheeler has an amazingly rich, resonant voice, which Rickshaw attendees got to hear last Saturday at the 7th annual Bowie Ball, wherein Wheeler covered "The Man Who Sold the World," "Changes," and "Queen Bitch" - the latter of which has a really great, but slightly unusual video, which operates in "360 VR" mode, a sort of panorama view that allows you, if you watch it on your Youtube app on your phone, to turn your phone and see what's happening off to the side. (It doesn't look like much if you watch it on your desktop - just a slightly blurry view of the show focused almost entirely on the bassist - so it's worth the effort to go read this on your phone, if you aren't already and want a peek). Wheeler - who uses they/ them pronouns - was the discovery of the night for me, the how-do-I-not-know-this-person singer, and one of the songs, "Changes" - given the context of being performed by someone who recently came out as trans - stood out as the most inspired song choice of the night, the one you could most easily imagine Bowie standing in the wings and smiling over. Beau was also the only person onstage who was explicitly identified as a cancer survivor, which also seemed meaningful and relevant, given that we lost Bowie to cancer (it also informed my own interest in Beau since I've had my second brush with squamous still cancer this last winter and am still recovering from my third and fourth surgeries...).  

Well, whether you missed the ball, were curious what Beau's own music sounds like, or just wanted more, you're in luck, because Beau Wheeler performs tonight (February 25th) at the Rickshaw as the middle act in a lineup that includes Hoodie Browns and "the new queen of Canadian soul," Dawn Pemberton.  With apologies to Dawn - whose voice I also marveled at when seeing her at the East Van Opry some years back - having just seen Beau perform this past weekend, I was excited to learn more about their music, and ask a couple of questions about the Bowie Ball to boot. An email interview follows (my questions are in italics).  

Beau Wheeler at the Bowie Ball, by Gord McCaw

Allan: When did you start singing? Did you have formative experiences or inspirations? (Favourite singers…?). Your voice is kind of fucking AMAZING, but I don’t know if you’ve had formal vocal training or if you’re a “natural,” or…?

Beau: I grew up in a musical family. My grandfather played piano with Nat King Cole and Sammy Davis Junior, also Lena Horne and a lot of huge jazz acts that would come through Vancouver in the 50s and 60s. So I grew up in a musical family and don’t really have a memory of when music began for me because it started from the very beginning. I started writing music when I was 13 years old, and have been consistently writing ever since. I took some guitar lessons growing up but I am mostly self taught. Then I went to music school and studied vocals and composition.

Your song “Open Up Your Heart” begins with the words “Step into the sun/ step out of the shadows/ be who you are.” That could be about coming out – but you wrote it quite some time ago; what were you thinking of when you wrote it?

"Open Up Your Heart" is a song about a person that I knew who lived their life to the fullest and passed away very young. He was inspirational for me because regardless of his health challenges he was so positive and such a big personality and spirit. I wrote this song for him after he passed. It has no connection to queerness for me. 

Did cancer (or the brush with mortality) have any effect on your decision to come out as trans?

I feel like it was definitely an experience that made me really want to live each day all the way. It has made me really appreciate the people around me and it has also made me aware of the health of those relationships which extends to other parts of my life. For me coming out as trans was very personal and very positive. But it’s not some thing that I see as a section of my life. I’ve always been the same person.

I loved that someone trans and non-binary covered “Changes” at the Bowie Ball – very inspired, perfect, best political gesture of the night. Granted it lends itself very nicely to this, but had that song been repurposed as a trans anthem before? Do you have particular history with that song (or with Bowie's music?).

I didn’t see it as repurposing a song as a Trans anthem. I just saw it as me singing a song just like any other time I’ve covered a song. Whenever I sing a song I always have to connect with the material. So having come out this year as trans, I found I could really relate to the message in this song and I think that feeling really translated to people, but it wasn’t an intentional political statement - I just love that song. I chose to say what I said between the songs live off the cuff, I don’t really rehearse what I say in between songs. I just feel what I’m feeling and speak to people from my heart.

That live video for “Queen Bitch” is quite something! Once I knew how to watch it properly, I was stunned. What tech was involved? Who filmed it? Are you savvy about making videos, or do you have more techy friends (or hired guns) who helped?

My friend and collaborator Michael Simpsonelli who plays drums in my band is also a videographer. He is experimenting with 3-D video these days and offered to capture our performance for us. I’m very lucky to know a lot of creative people who are so incredibly talented and also lovely human beings. Playing music is always a collaboration even if you’re playing solo. You are collaborating with the audience in the moment and feeling them.

How much will your approach change between the Bowie Ball and opening for Dawn Pemberton? Do you ever adjust your song choices based on who else is on the bill...? (Will any of the Bowie songs you did stay in your setlist for this coming show?)…. Or will you be doing entirely alt-country/ folk/ blues stuff?

I feel like it’s a real slippery slope to try and choose material or think about what an audience would want you to do. I feel like the best path for an artist is to follow your inspiration and excitement. Part of being an artist is looking inside yourself and feeling your inner imaginative world. This is something we all know how to do when we’re little kids but some people lose the skill along the way. I never choose material based on what I think an audience will like. I choose material based on what resonates with me, and what makes me feel something. If I’m not feeling it nobody else will . I was only playing Bowie material because that was what the Bowie Ball was all about. I generally never play cover songs when I am playing shows with my own material. 

That being said I also don’t trap myself inside any kind of genre. I am currently recording a synth pop record and an old-school live off the floor singer/songwriter record. I don’t see myself as being inside any kind of box. I just play what I play and it sounds like me. It’s the same for any artist.

Any history with Dawn we should note? Have you shared a stage with her before? 

I have known Dawn for decades now. She is an old friend of some of my oldest friends. We used to go to parties together way back in the day and play music. Ever since then she has remained one of my favourite vocalists to come out of the city. She also has an incredible vibe that is really how she is as a person. 

Beau Wheeler opens for Dawn Pemberton tonight at the Rickshaw; tickets are still available... and all restrictions about sitting, dancing, and mingling are lifted...! 

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Bowie Ball 2022!

Coach StrobCam. or, in this case from L to R, "Coach CamStrob"

All photos, such as they are, by me, taken at the Rickshaw last night. Ask before re-using, eh?
This article has been mildly tweaked since it was first published.

Just got in from the Bowie Ball - am writing this as the cat, wanting attention, paces between me and the computer screen, occasionally obscuring my view... but I need to get some notes down while they're fresh...

I had originally bought tickets to tonight's Bowie Ball because a local band I am friendly with was scheduled to perform; then COVID turned, the event got postponed, and they had to drop out. But there were still people I knew who were attending, and a few who were performing, it turned out - like Pete Campbell, of Coach StrobCam, the evening's openers, who dug deep for two songs (ie., they stumped me) and then ended on "Kooks," which came with a shout out to mutual (but absent) friend David M. Rachel seems to have been permanently impacted by her time in Clone, because she was totally glammed up, which is NOT how I recall her dressing in her pre-Clone days. It suis her - she looks like a rockstar now! 

A ghostly trumpet player emerges for "Kooks." The "effects" are an accident of lighting!

I can't fully say why, though - but despite having enjoyed seeing Coach StrobCam at their Rickshaw debut, I have to admit, it took me quite a few acts after that to warm up to the show tonight. Through many of the first few bands, I noticed mostly the things that didn't work so well, the notes that were a bit off, the flubs (I will point no fingers, name no names; it might all have been the product of my own bad mood). It was like some part of me wanted an excuse to go back home,  like I was actually resisting enjoying myself (or had forgotten how, due to lack of concert practice?). But by the time the Asian Persuasion All Stars were onstage - ripping through a stellar "Modern Love," one of the night's higher points - I was warming up, and Danny Echo's delightful rearrangement of "Here Comes the Night" and, especially, his closer, "Under Pressure" - a song I had not seen attempted at any of the Bowie Balls I've been to, I don't think - got me out of my seat and up to the front of the house...

Danny Echo plays to a packed Rickshaw

... and that's where I got hooked in, sold, converted. I loved Beau Wheeler's energetic readings of "The Man Who Sold The World," "Changes," and "Queen Bitch" - viewable on your phone as a 360 degree video, here - tho' I had some Tommy Bahama envy for Beau's shirt... Fans of Beau's set can get a taste of their originals next Friday, in an opening slot for Dawn Pemberton, also at the Rickshaw, which I've interviewed Wheeler about here

Beau Wheeler

A bit of emcee chatter later, I adored Mellow Friesen's set - especially "I'm Afraid of Americans," which I'd also seen Betty Bathory do at a previous Bowie Ball (see, she CAN sing Bowie songs when she wants to). Mel's Rock Pile, in fact, was the surprise of the night, a band that does not (to my awareness) play often - maybe only Bowie Balls? - but who were really cohesive and tight and generally just crazy good. I had seen Mellow once fronting the Little Guitar Army out in Maple Ridge, but that's it to date - I'm gonna start paying more attention. And she sure knows how to wear a mask!

Betty Bathory's band Daddy Issues, up next, took things in a slightly more confusing direction, defiantly, knowingly, and deliberately playing non-Bowie songs (Devo's "Uncontrollable Urge"), with Betty saying things to the audience like "You want to hear David Bowie songs? Fuck you!" (but in a not-unpleasant way, which made it even more confusing).. I didn't mind that - Betty's always great, and I've actually seen some tangential justification for the Devo choices on FB (someone was saying that Bowie helped Eno produce that first Devo record, which I did not know, and I see now that recordings of Bowie jamming with Devo were discovered a few years ago) - but at the time, it seemed not to jibe with expectations. Betty did explain to me afterwards that her third song, PJ Harvey's "Dress," which really really really has nothing to do with David Bowie, is a "PJ Harvey song we perform often as a reminder of the missing and murdered indigenous women. Its something i personally believe deserves serious attention especially because of WHERE we were performing, a venue right smack in the epicenter of where lots of those women disappear on a regular basis." So I guess that's my second-favourite political gesture of the night? 

Betty Bathory fronting Daddy Issues

By contrast, there was no rebellion from Jimmy Baldwin, whom I'd previously missed at past Bowie Balls. He seems a mainstream enough kinda performer that "Dancing in the Streets" - a funky, infections version of it, but still a very obvious, almost too-easy crowd pleaser - fit in his set, but goddamn if he didn't get me moving around to it a bit  with it, because it was a very tight, fun reading of that song, which I would normally be a bit snobbish about. More to my tastes, he had a version of "Scary Monsters" that swapped that song's slight weirdness for straight up rock riffs, which actually kinda improved it (for me, at least) over Bowie's original.  

Gord McCaw shoots Jimmy Baldwin

Then came one of the high points of the night - for me, THE high point of the night - in the form of Cass King and the Cassettes, doing a soul-ripping reading of "Rock'n'Roll Suicide." It was great to see Cass belting it out like that. Hadn't seen her for awhile; I vaguely remember being a little underwhelmed by her at a previous Bowie Ball, so it was nice to see her regain her crown (at least in my head) as one of the very best singers and frontpeople in Vancouver... 

Cass King and the Cassettes

Then came the last band FOR ME, if not the last band of the night: Orchard Pinkish and his Old Canadians - who I gather are a repurposed version of the Lot Lizards, which Orchard and I previously spoke about on this very blog. His mood was also a bit hard to read, and he engaged in a rather lengthy bit of storytelling that I think lost a couple of people (the content of which sure didn't stick in my memory), but his set was amazing and his "honey gravel" voice perfect for "Space Oddity," "Andy Warhol" (also in the repertoire of his LGA alum Bert Man) and, finally, a really hot, lively "Young Americans" with Cass, Betty, and two (three?) other female singers from other bands providing backup. Sadly, I have no photos - my camera ran dry - but here's Orchard with Daddy Issues:

Orchard Pinkish with Daddy Issues

Missed out on the last couple of bands, but it was nice to be leaving because I was satiated, not because I was having a bad time. That I saw, Gord McCaw was the only pro photographer present up front (well, Sharon Steele was there, but she'd forgotten her battery pack and couldn't shoot!). People wanting better-quality photos of the night are directed to Gord's Facebook page - he was still sorting photos while I was crawling into bed.  

What a pleasant surprise last night was! Glad I got with the program, and I'm so glad SHOWS ARE BACK. I needed that! 

My 40+ year history with Prophecy... a belated review of Shout Factory's 2019 blu-ray

The film Prophecy has stayed with me for decades, but it took me three years (from its release on blu in 2019 to now) to upgrade from DVD, which I ultimately did this week. That very nearly says all that I need to say about the film - much can be inferred from my hesitancy, as well as my ultimately succumbing; but there is still stuff that bears telling about my history with the film and the related book...

I began my experience with the movie through David Seltzer's novel, also published in 1979 (he wrote the screenplay before he novelized it, a bit of a bass-ackwards way of doing it, but actually probably not a bad way of going about telling a story, using the screenplay to get at the underlying structure before fleshing it out with description in the novel). It is very likely I got it second hand, a few years after it first came out; I was an avid reader, by the time I was 13, of  horror writers like Robert Bloch and HP Lovecraft, and even more mainstream writers like Stephen King. While neither of these images were on the front cover of the first copy of Prophecy I owned - which in fact had a mere, boring forest scene on the front - I could not have resisted, as a kid, a novel with covers like this:

Or this: 

The book fascinated me as a kid. I probably grew to esteem the outdoor ordeal films Clearcut and Rituals - my two favourite Canadian film productions - as much as I do because of my early childhood experiences with Prophecy. I formulated a rule of thumb at some point that any film that begins with people flying into a remote location in a small plane is probably worth watching, and in fact, Prophecy - the filmcontains just such a scene, prefiguring the moment in Clearcut when Ron Lea looks out the window and sees logged forest. Here, we see not logged forest, but log booms, floating on the water: 

...which of course says "BC" to those of us who live here, because this is a frequent sight hereabouts. As a kid - before the world went crazy for safety - I used to climb out on booms like these with my friends. I recall once that the oolichan - candlefish - were running, and I tested something I had heard was true, and indeed it was: if you plunged your arm down into the water - I would have been likely lying face-down on the edge of the boom at this point - you could come up with a fish in your hands. It's true! (I have no idea if oolichan still spawn in such numbers). 

Of course, logging has always been an issue in BC for people who were environmentally-attuned, but it's not a major one in the book or the film. It isn't the cutting of trees itself which is the environmental issue at the core of the novel, but the effects of a chemical added to the logs to protect them as they float in the water. The story, when you strip away the white saviour and monster movie elements, is essentially one of a Native community in Maine that is impacted by methyl mercury poisoning, due to negligence on the part of the pulp mill; the presence of PMT in the food chain leads to both deformed babies - the book was where I first read about Minamata disease, too - and a rampaging mutant animal, shown in embryo form on the cover. The descriptions of activism on the part of two of its main Native characters in the book were among the first I ever read of any sort of activism - before I became aware, even, of the Squamish Five, say - and fit in with stories I had heard about land disputes and the other things that trickled into my childlike sense that something was not right in the world I'd been born into. I had heard stories about land claims in the news, had seen movies like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue on late night TV - the latter ending on some very stark images of whites committing genocide. And I was aware of the racism around me, though in a raw, childlike, innocent way, when white people around me went off on racist rants about - trigger warning? - "chugs" expecting the government to take care of them, while "ordinary folks" (= we whites) had to work for a living. It was a theme that came up frequently in discussions of the so-called Indian problem, the solution to which was invariably - to the suburban rednecks I grew up among - that "we should just stop giving them handouts and make them all assimilate; we won, they lost, and they've got to get over it." I think that it's safe to call that the dominant attitude towards First Nations among the people I grew up around, and I knew there was something very wrong with it, which I tried to argue with, using what few tools I had as a kid. Crap culture or not, books like Prophecy helped fill in a few blanks for me, were often the place where I could get exposed to the plainest speech about issues like this, and fueled my curiosity, too... 

Even if the political angle hadn't been there - or if I hadn't been curious about it - Prophecy would have fascinated me as an outdoor ordeal story. I lived close enough to the woods, and went into the woods around me often enough, that stories set in them, or involving the creatures that lived in them, had resonance; I remember an even earlier outdoor ordeal novel I had signed out from my elementary school library, one written for children, prosaically called Sasquatch Adventure, involving kids held in a cave by a clan of Bigfoot (I am half-considering ordering that off Abebooks to revisit it - especially since I see it is a small-press BC publication!). I also read a sort of "outdoor adventure" of a different sort, in the form of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (which I was into because of the dinosaurs, of course, but the most memorable scene - the giant tick attack - doesn't even have any!). And from devouring anthologies of horror fiction, I even recall a Canadian short story - not Algernon Blackwood's - about the Wendigo, which I have not yet been able to track down (I had hoped the film Antlers would maybe be an adaptation of that story, but it wasn't) - it was something about a kid in a basement with an artifact associated with the Wendigo, and the kid's fear that the Wendigo is going to come out of the woods to retrieve it. Hell, I might even have seen Day of the Animals and Rituals on late night TV before I encountered Prophecy, or around the same time. Anything about people fighting to survive when faced with the forest or its representatives - the more monstrous the better! - would have piqued my curiosity back then...

...which makes sense, because I had a more rural upbringing, out in Maple Ridge, than you might imagine. I remember a story - still repeated in cryptozoological circles - about a "lost world" discovered in the Pitt River Valley, with weird horned lizards and - what was it, barking frogs? - and other cryptids (I previously posted on that here). I also vividly remember a bigfoot hoax that made newspapers and traumatized a local bus driver. And while I never encountered any cryptids of my own, I often spent time in the woods, fishing in rivers in lakes, going out catching snakes and frogs, and exploring the ponds and ravines around me for wildlife. There is still something about a good rotten log in the forest that I can't resist turning over, to see what is living under it; and I vividly remember one pond where I used to play, where my friends and I, for fun, more than once put leeches on ourselves, to see what it felt like to have a leech suck your blood and to practice removing them, should we ever need to know how to (note: this proved less useful information for later life than we had imagined at the time, but in case you are curious the trick is to get a lighter hot and hold the metal close to them. You don't even have to touch them; faced with the close proximity of a heat source, the leech will curl up and let go, fall back into the pond, and swim away unharmed). 

Anyhow, outdoor ordeal stories resonate against my inner Canadian and my fascination with the woods around me, and Prophecy was a fine read as a child. I don't think I saw the movie at the time, not catching up with it until much later, just due to its sheer unavailability; I don't remember ever seeing it on VHS tape. And though I was impressed with the pulp and paper mill footage (I think I remember reading the mill was in Port Alberni?) and the work of, in particular, Richard Dysart - the doctor in The Thing - as the mill owner - when I finally did see the movie, overall I felt strong disappointment - especially since Prophecy takes the embryonic monsters, shown on the paperback cover and ACTUALLY DESCRIBED THUS in the film's dialogue, and makes them into mere mutant bears - being played by men in costumes. I mean, if you're going to change the creature design, fine, but the art for the paperback and movie poster have a creature with a cat's eye, and Richard Dysart, when he first mentions Katahdin, also notes that it is supposed to have cat's eyes... why keep all that, if the monster isn't going to actually HAVE cat's eyes?  

We learn from the extras on the blu that members of the FX team and crew took to describing this guy as the pizza bear:

...And the bears weren't even the worst part of the film. From the first time I saw Prophecy, I was pissed off to realize they had cast (Italian-Irish) Armand Assante, in redface, as John Hawks, the main Indigenous activist. I didn't realize until this week that Victoria Racimo, the other main aboriginal character, was Filipina-Irish, though that somehow seems less objectionable, as at least she doesn't need face paint!

Now, Assante and Racimo are both really good, and sell their characters. There's a scene where Assante, armed with an axe, squares off against a logger with a chainsaw, a key moment of which involves Assante lying on the ground with a running chainsaw at his neck, acting his heart out - which is a hell of a brave scene to shoot, even if the chainsaw had been modified to reduce the danger (as is explained in one of the film's extras, I think by Robert Foxworth).

You are further inclined to cut the film some slack for its laudable political intentions: Assante's character is an activist trying to defend his community against the ravages of toxic chemicals put into the water by the pulp mill, while everyone blames the symptoms they are experiencing - like staggering - on drunkenness. He quickly, given a sympathetic ear, turns on their heads the racist cliches spread about his people, though he remains a supporting player to Foxworth, as an EPA representative with a history of taking on lost causes. Nothing in this film is perfect, but I still don't recall another non-documentary that takes on the issue of water quality on reserves as its key problem, and while there have been a few films since - Erin Brokovich, A Civil Action, Dark Waters - that deal with the impacts of water pollution, they came much later, and had no Indigenous presence whatsoever. So all of this is ahead of its time, still sadly relevant, and very stirring. 

Still, another measure of just how far behind the film production was when it comes to cultural sensitivity comes up in David Seltzer's mini-interview featurette on the Scream Factory blu. While a fair number of the interview subjects have very little bad to say about the film or its director, Seltzer is a brutal critic - hell hath no fury like a writer scorned - and provides the funniest and most eye-opening commentary, because he's clearly still pissed off with how far short the movie fell of his hopes. He characterizes director John Frankenheimer as a bit of an egomaniac "Hollywood"-type who was deeply out of his element in making the film, who was drinking too much, and who badly fucked up by making the monster into a mutant bear - though the other idea that gets described in the commentaries, of a chicken-footed, cat-eyed, gilled, beaked, and winged "fusion of all things created" sounds pretty risible too, to be honest. Surprisingly, though, Seltzer's most horrifying anecdote about how messed up things were - whether Seltzer realizes it or not - makes SELTZER HIMSELF look bad: he had wanted his native characters to occasionally speak their own language, but didn't want to do research into this, so used his own made up gobbledygook "Indian language" to fill in the screenplay with... which would be fine, I guess, if he made sure everyone knew that was what he had done, but he didn't. Later on set, he would notice Assante learning the faked-up garble phonetically, earnestly assuming that it was real... which Seltzer further admits he didn't give Assante a heads up about, when he realized what was happening! Presumably when the one actual First Nations actor in the film - Canadian artist George Clutesi, as Hector M'Rai - speaks his non-English lines, he is actually speaking a real language, but Assante is just replicating Seltzer's "filler." Ouch!

It's all kind of sad, and takes some grappling with, such that I think - even with my various predispositions - the first three times I watched the film, it was just about getting over the obvious flubs, coming to terms with them - especially the pizza bear and the Italian-Irish and Filipina-Irish "Indians." There is no getting around these problems, though listening to people who were actually involved in the production laugh about them actually eases some of the sting.   

But attempt four to watch the film, last week on DVD, was far more enjoyable than I expected. The locations are stunning - especially the mill. There are some very effective scares in the film, like the raccoon attack! And if the film doesn't work so well as a horror movie, it fares a bit better as an ecological polemic and John Frankenheimer political thriller. Even if you have to rise above some of the bad choices that get made, the underlying story here is a good one, and there's still a lot of talent on display (Talia Shire is really strong, too, as a pregnant woman who realizes too late that she's eaten some potentially contaminated fish). Seltzer mentions at one point how much he'd like to see the film re-made - how much untapped potential there still is in the story - and I've got to agree with him; but in the meantime, if you haven't seen the original 1979 version of Prophecy - well, you should, especially if you have an investment in the BC film industry, because this was an important production, up here. The one extra that for me, as a BC film fan, that is sorely lacking, would have been a featurette on the locations used (akin to what you see on the Severin release of The Changeling, say). Why not tell us where the mill is, for instance, or give some history of it? I think it takes someone (Severin's Kier-la Janisse, say) with local ties to even think things like that are important for BC-shot films - and presumably Severin's new Out of the Blue disc will have a featurette on locations? ...but frankly, regardless of whether a film is Vancouver-shot or not, I don't know why every bonus section doesn't include a "locations" featurette, especially where cool location shoots are involved.

Trivial brag: I was pleased to instantly recognize the main drag in Fort Langley, even though it was being filmed some 40+ years prior to my most recent visit there...  That's the Fort Langley Community Hall, masquerading as a hospital...

Finding myself thinking all these things while re-watching my old DVD, I went out and upgraded to blu-ray and started the movie over. Shout Factory's 2019 blu offers a really enjoyable presentation of the film - it looks and sounds great, and while it is not quite as packed with extras as I would have liked, it's cool that they got so many people to provide their stories of the shoot, with interviews with Talia Shire, Robert Foxworth, FX artists Tom Burman and Alan Apone, and one of the two guys in bear suits, a mime named Tom McLoughlin (who also is entertainingly take-no-prisoners in his stories, though not as savage to the film as its disappointed author was). In a rare move when it comes to bonus features, I watched them all. Now I'm half-tempted to watch the whole movie again... 

It may be that Prophecy is the rare example of a bad movie that gets better each time you watch it... or maybe it's just not that bad in the first place? So if you find yourself put off by the casting or the pizza bear or the sheer indifference to details like you get with the "cat's eye" dialogue, the solution might just be to watch the whole movie again. And there's a good reason to watch it in the best presentation available: with so much else against the film, you don't want to be seeing it in an inferior format! 

And don't turn away too soon, because just before the credits roll, you get this cheesy lookin' fella rearing up into the frame - presumably the bear daddy, come to get revenge for our heroes having killed his mate. Go, bear daddy! (Someone really should remake this movie... it could be so much better...). 

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Bowie Ball this Saturday: a Who's Who, with links


The Bowie Ball is this Saturday

This article has been updated to reflect that restrictions have apparently been lifted and MORE TICKETS GO ON SALE AT NOON TOMORROW, Feb. 16th. Apparently we can... dance again? We won't have to sit in little rickety chairs? What if I was GETTING TO LIKE those little rickety chairs? I am going to bring my own little rickety chair and sit right down in the centre of the floor and...

No, no I won't. We can dance! Yay. Hurt my back the other day, the exercise might do me good. 

Look: buy tickets for this. Come to this. This is a lovely celebration of really great music, as performed by many folks very close to the heart of the local music scene... and some others, too, whom I know very little about! But they're prolly all REALLY GOOD. An event curated by one of the people who published me a bunch, early on, in fact. 7th anniversary, proceeds to cancer research, and it's THE RICKSHAW, which feels a bit homecoming-y for a lot of folks. The energy should be very very good. Postponed but unbowed! This Saturday night.

Y'all better sell it the rest of the way out. 

The lineup is as follows:

7:40 - Coach StrobCam: I have articles on them! See here, or for even deeper background, here.  Listen here.  (You know the song "Hockey Sucks" off the Johnny Hanson Puck Rock Compilation Vol. 1? It was WRITTEN BY THE CAM IN Coach StrobCam! He was in Pink Steel, too! But he lies about his band name's origins.  

8:00 - 20 Explosive Hits! (no website? They've gigged at LanaLou's and the Princeton and such, but I don't really know who they are and could not find it in the four minutes I spent on Google, since there are tons of compilation albums with names like 20 Explosive Hits! Fun name; they could rename themselves Needle in a Haystack for Googlin' purposes...)

8:20 - The Vanrays: amazing, soulful, largeish band made of Vancouver veterans; if you know that "muscle shoals" is not the name of a medical condition, you prolly need to see these guys. I have an article on them - see here; listen here

8:40 - Brass Panda (see above, under 20 Explosive Hits!, but now I'm being sold Chinese figurines). 

9:00 - Asian Persuasion All Stars - another local biggish band of local (and former Victoria) veterans; see here for my feature, which also has links to some of their songs - proceeds to the anti-racism wing of the VAFF! 

9:20 - Danny Echo - website here. Seen him last time I was at the Bowie Ball and liked their smart cheat of smuggling in Who and Them covers under the pretext of the songs ("I Can't Explain" and "Here Comes the Night") having been also covered at some point by Bowie.

9:40 - Beau Wheeler - website here, describing her as a "queer artist and recent cancer survivor" (something she and I have in common, but which David Bowie does not, sadly). Interested to see what she does!

10:00 - Mel’s Rock Pile (no website discernible from many links to SCTV-related stuff, but this is Mellow Friesen, formerly the final female vocalist of the Little Guitar Army, with members of Roots Roundup (or that's what I said here). 

10:20 - Daddy Issues - read my eye-opening interview with frontperson Betty Bathory - queen of transgressive burlesque - about her GG Allin cover band, as well as drummer Michael Nathanson about his playing with Betty in Daddy Issues

10:40 - Jimmy Baldwin Band (this guy, I am guessing. Reminds me a bit of Warren Zevon on first listen. That's not a bad thing to be reminded of!).

11:00 - Cass King and the Cassettes - see here for an interview with Cass, or here for her music. Great voice, great band, very funny and smart interview. 

11:20 - Orchard Pinkish and the Old Canadians - see here and here for more on Richie's illustrious history! One of my favourite-ever Bowie Ball tributes was Cass King joining Orchard in a biggish band, for this cover of "Fame" at the end of the first Bowie Ball in 2016. And for a real fun Pinkish original...

11:40 - Jeevious Family - bandcamp here - what, they were from Roberts Creek, did I read that? Who? What, do I hafta say something about every band?

12:00 - Rebel Priest - bandcamp here. They have a song about being lost in Tokyo. I'VE BEEN LOST IN TOKYO! What are the odds?

I dunno if there will be any further changes or updates or late additions. Of course, the presence of Mellow makes me suspect she will be doing her Aladdin Sane face-paintings again. And of course, proceeds go to the BC Cancer Foundation; even if you can't get tickets, you can donate to them here

Seeya Saturday? Buy tickets through the Rickshaw website, starting tomorrow at noon. 

Tuesday, February 08, 2022

A belated RIP to Merrill Womach, and a Nardwuar the Human Serviette excerpt

I interacted once with Merrill Womach, who - I noticed the other day - died back in 2014. I had missed it.

Womach was kind of a strange story in the world of music: a burn victim and subject of reconstructive facial surgery who wrote inspirational (Christian) songs for other burn victims, assuring them that they were happy before, and would be happy again - as he does in his video for "Happy Again." It's bizarre enough a scene that the mind reels a bit when trying to take it in, but even the hardened ironist, I presume, will register that it's kind of a great thing that he did this, even while chuckling at the weirdness of it all - because in a world where 90% of what passes for "Christian" is repugnant - from hate speech against gays to hoarding wealth as a sign that you are among the elect to traumatizing children with one form of sexual damage or another to voting for vicious bastards like Donald Trump - with all of these things somehow associated with Christianity, trying to cheer up and give hope to the disfigured, using your own disfigurements as an example, is a shiningly moral and laudable calling.  Having my own sorta-disfigurements lately, I've been thinking about Womach a bit and the example he set and wanted to repeat this story, which all took place due to Nardwuar the Human Serviette.... and a box of 8 track tapes.    

Nardwuar - in an interview that initially ran on this blog, then ended up in Mongrel Zine - was telling the story about how he and the Evaporators released an album on 8-track tape, due to his ambitions to release in every format possible: "How we got 8-tracks going was, simply, we bought some 8-tracks, we bought an 8-track recorder, because you know, a lot of them are out there at Value Villages, and we simply went from cassette to 8-track! And Scott, the drummer of the Evaporators, drew some covers, got a shrinkwrapper, sealed it up, and bang! It looked like new. He's a bit of an artist himself, so he really made it totally store-ready. And we've probably sold about 1,000 8-tracks over the past, like, 15 years. At one gig, in the mid-90's, in Penticton, British Columbia, Canada, we sold 23 8-tracks. It was amazing. They were flying off the shelf like pet rocks."

The "hardest part of making 8-tracks," Nardwuar explained, is getting clean ones to record on.  "There's lots of 8-tracks that are out there, but lots of times when you buy them, they're all dirty - y'know, like, trucker scum is on them. Or they're very old. So we were lucky that we actually happened upon a huge cache of 8-tracks, and those were found in Spokane, Washington. A guy we know called Cappy got the entire 8-track output from Merrill Womach, after he passed away."

At the time I had no idea who Womach was, so Nardwuar rounded out the story: "He's one of those guys profiled in that Incredibly Strange Music book that Re:Search put out. You've probably seen a couple of volumes of those. He was sort of a preacher fellow, and unfortunately he had an airplane crash and became terribly disfigured. But the great thing is, he kept on with his life, and he always put his disfigured face on the cover of his records. Eventually when he did die, he had a whole bunch of 8-tracks in his garage. Cappy phoned up Scott from The Evaporators; Scott drove down there in his 1967 Volkswagen bus, completely filled it up with 8-tracks, and then drove back to Vancouver. And that's probably why we don't make any more 8-tracks: Scott is tired of making them, and also, we've run out of 8-tracks! We can still buy them from Value Village, but it really sucks having to buy them for $3 or $4, for something that's totally dirty and may not work. These were 8-tracks that we taped over, but they had never been used, they had all been sealed up. So that was kind of our 8-track foray."

But here's the thing - you interview someone in a case like that, you have to fact-check them, even when it's Nardwuar (ESPECIALLY when it is Nardwuar; you don't want to associate a person of his stature with incorrect information, which I did at one point when passing him on an incorrect Eugene Chadbourne story that I hadn't checked, back when he interviewed Eugene). I looked up Merrill Womach, read the Wikipedia page - and there was no mention of him dying.

Did someone just not update Wikipedia? I did a search for "Merrill Womach obituary" and found nothing - or at least not anything about him dying; I did seem to find what seemed to all appearances to be an email address. I had to think carefully about how I worded my message. 

Mr. Womach -

Sorry to bother you; I am a music journalist currently writing an article on another music journalist, Nardwuar the Human Serviette. Nardwuar relates that he believes you are dead, but I can find no evidence of this online, and assume there would be an obituary somewhere, since you are a public figure. Since I can find none, I am basically writing to ask, um, are you still alive? (If so, are you still musically active?).


I still have his reply: "Actually Allan, I died two years ago but I frequently check my email accounts. Actually, I’m alive and well. I’m 82 years of age. I’m not singing any more."

That was on June 29th, 2009 - he had another six years left to him. I have no idea if he had cause to think back on that interaction.  He didn't really want to be in the article, perhaps after discovering the bulk of the story was about recording over his music (I felt a bit sheepish about explaining that). I recounted about the other burn victims I have known in my life, and how brave they seemed to me. Not much else came of it, but that line about how he died two years ago but still frequently checks his email was utterly delightful, so he scored big points from me (not big enough that I picked up the next Merrill Womach album I saw at a thrift store, I confess). 

That's it - my Merrill Womach story. Rest in peace, Mr. Womach. 

Maybe I should record another version of "If I Was a Bat" with my new Frankentongue, to inspire fellow tongue cancer patients?

Thursday, February 03, 2022

Of Cosmic Dawn: a Jefferson Moneo interview on Cults, UFOs, and an Unusual Ontario Artist


Opening tomorrow at the VIFF Centre: Cosmic Dawn, a film about a woman with an unusual experience in her own childhood who is drawn deeper and deeper into a UFO cult, who seem to know more than they should about her past. Deftly skipping between her induction into the cult and a timestream four years later, in which there is a final reckoning, the film is an engaging and unusual entry into a very small subgenre (there are not many "reckoning with your UFO cult past" movies out there, with only the much weirder The Endless springing to mind). There's also some interesting Canadian colour in the film: Cosmic Dawn was shot, in part, on the property of Ontario artist Peter Camani, and incorporates his art - the "Screaming Heads" - as an element in the film. The VIFC guide also says that NXIVM also was an inspiration, but do note that the cult in the movie is NOT a sex cult!  

(Star Camille Rowe inside one of Camani's Screaming Heads)

Director Jefferson Moneo and members of the cast - including Philip Granger, who plays the cult's muscle and who has had a very long career in cinema, including a role in that 1987 Wayne Wang neo-noir Slam Dance (!) -  will be present at the Vancity on Friday, February 4th to talk about the film - which will surely also please people who took an interest in Stephen Hamm's Unarian stuff a couple of years ago (fans of electronic music should also see below about Alan Howarth, who scored the film). The trailer for the film is here; what follows is an email interview with director Moneo - rushed because I only just saw the film two days ago.  If you have follow-up questions, I highly recommend going to the VIFC tomorrow and asking him (and his cast) yourself! 

Jefferson Moneo

Allan: If I understand correctly, Peter Camani's sculpture garden with the "Screaming Heads" pre-exists the film . Was that location important to the genesis of the project? How did you connect with him/ become aware of his work?

Jefferson: We found this location through our location scout. He told us about Peter's place because we had asked him to show us only the most unique places he could think of. He immediately named Peter's place, so I went there with my producer and we spent the day with him. Peter very generously agreed to let us shoot there, so we decided to incorporate his artwork into the design of the film.

Tom Charity tells me that you had your own experience that inspired or informed this film; can you tell us about it?

When I was 12 years old, I was at my grandmother's ranch in southern Saskatchewan. I woke up at night to brilliant light pouring into the windows. I came downstairs and found my grandmother out in the yard, staring at the sky. There was crazy, colourful light coming from above and then all of a sudden, it disappeared. Just vanished. The really strange thing was that I remember looking at the clock beside my bed when I woke up. It read 11:32. After going outside and then returning to bed, the clock read 11:24. Naturally, nobody ever believes this story -- but it happened.

Would you describe yourself as a "believer," when it comes to UFO's, the paranormal, experiences with aliens, the paranormal, etc?

Absolutely. I saw those damn lights in the sky! It was bizarre.

How did you research the "cult" aspect of the film? Were there specific UFO cults you were thinking of? Were there any films about cults that inspired you? (Do you feel comfortable with the word "cult," by the way? It's a bit loaded...).

Well, I used to belong to a "cult" just like this in Costa Rica. We called ourselves Witnesses of the Third Kind. But then José, our leader, died in a motorcycle crash, so we all just packed up and went home. The food was terrible too. There are only so many plantains and beans one man can eat. Plus, all we really did was take hallucinogens and hang out on the beach.

Ha! Sounds pretty idyllic. Returning to the movie, was the cult's "bible" design inspired by specific books? (It reminded me a little of the Kryon channeled teachings, but I know nothing of Kryon - I've just seen the books. It has the look of some sort of weird private press book, though - you get it very right...).

(Cult leader Elyse - Antonia Zegers - next to Dieter, played by Philip Granger. Notice the book!)

Nothing specific, but if you go into any New-Age bookshop and you'll find tons of books like this. I've read most of them and a lot of them are written by people who are clearly unwell and delusional. Then again, who am I to talk? I lived in a shack in Costa Rica for a year.

Have you encountered any die-hard believers in the process of making/ screening this film? Has anyone reached out to you? Did you feel comfortable with that - did any weirdness ensue?

Not so far.  

The thing about UFO cults: they tend not to end well for the people involved, in a lot of the stories one reads; no one blasts off into space or gets raptured away; they're all just found dead in a room, Heaven's Gate style. But somehow movies about cults or about people who are mentally ill often end with the cult (or the mentally ill person) being validated, correct, etc. Why is that? Does cinema lend itself more to belief than skepticism? Do you feel fully comfortable with this - do you worry that anything might be irresponsible in endorsing the group, here?

If you're susceptible to joining a cult, I don't think watching a film is going to make a difference, one way or another. People tend to give movies way too much power. I mean, most people watch films as a distraction, not for life advice. This is partly why I find the Academy Awards insufferable. Hollywood tends to think the movies they make "transform the world". Gimme a break.

As for the how and why of "cult films", I'm not sure I have an answer for that. Most movies about cults that I've seen involve a lot of rape and abuse, which Cosmic Dawn most certainly does not have. Or it's about dirty hippies living on a rural commune. One thing I'll say about Costa Rica, we were a good smelling bunch!

There are blue flowers with hallucinogenic properties. Are they based on anything in particular, or is that a reference to the blue flowers in
A Scanner Darkly, or...?

José used to grow flowers just like this. I don't know what they were, but I entered another dimension when we ate them. Just pop a petal in your mouth and off into the cosmos you go!

Did I correctly read Alan Howarth's name in the credits? This is the same Alan Howarth who collaborated with John Carpenter? How did you connect with him? What pieces of music does he do?

Yes, the same Alan Howarth. He composed the entire score. We had a mutual friend who introduced us. We still talk. I love Alan. He's brilliant. He's full of crazy ideas and a genuine artist.

Was it tricky getting the rights to the Klaatu song? Where in filming were you when you made the deal to use it? (Did you have a backup song in place for the karaoke scene, if you couldn't get Klaatu?).

No, we had licensed the track before shooting. It was written into the script. Of course, since it was written in the script, it didn't come cheap, but that's life sometimes. You have to pay for the things you really want.

Jefferson Moneo was also interviewed when Cosmic Dawn played the Denver Film Festival, so if you'd like to read more about this singular film, see here. Tickets for Friday's screening at the VIFC are going fast, so book soon (there are plenty left for the Saturday-Sunday-Monday screenings, but no guests are scheduled). 

Tuesday, February 01, 2022

Kevin James Howes: the Grammies, Willie Dunn and all things Voluntary In Nature

Kevin Howes, 2021 photo by Jennifer Forward Frost

There is something singular about the Native North America anthology. A collection of First Nations folk and rock, on some level - as I suggested in the Willie Thrasher interview I did for the Straight - has arguable parallels with the 1952 Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music; it collects forgotten and neglected musics of considerable resilience, packages them beautifully (including a well-researched and informative booklet), and had a role in resurrecting the careers of a few people - like Thrasher himself, whom I compared, in that piece, to Mississippi John Hurt, one of many bluesmen whose careers were revitalized, perhaps indirectly, because of the anthology. 

I was happy to draw these comparisons, stand by them, and am further happy that Kevin James Howes (formerly known as "Sipreano") - the man who curated the anthology -  understood what I was doing and was pleased with the comparison... which I think is probably the most flattering thing I've ever written in my years of fawning over cultural producers, really; I mean, the Smith anthology had a huge impact on the American music scene on the 1960's, laying the grounds for a huge revival of interest in American folk musics. It changed the landscape of both its time and ours - an ambition which the album art clearly reveals was intentional, showing as it does a hand reaching from the heavens to adjust the tuning of a stringed instrument identified with the world itself (Smith had many issues, apparently, but an excess of humility was not among them).  

...but there's still something a bit hyperbolic, maybe a bit hopeful about my comparison, I admit. Despite the Howes anthology being nominated for a Grammy, given a second lease on life through Light on the Attic, and serving as the first salvo in a series of related reissues by Morley Loon, John Angaiak, Willie Thrasher and most recently Willie Dunn (the liner notes for which album were themselves nominated for a Grammy recently), it remains to be seen just what the impact of the Native North America anthology will be. The Smith anthology only earns the reverential tones with which it is spoken because Smith's hubris was right on the money; just like the cover art suggests, the hand reached down and the world and its musical landscape were permanently and irrevocably re-tuned. But that required a whole lot of people paying attention and taking action, from tracking down surviving blues artists like Hurt to perform at the the Newport Folk Festival (or to record again) to inspired fans picking up instruments and/ or spreading the word about this stunning, nearly forgotten music. The importance of the anthology begins with Harry Smith - but once the set existed, was in print on vinyl and circulating, it was up to others to carry on the work, to make sure the music on it would not fall prey to neglect again - because things that can be forgotten once can also be forgotten again! 

Thus my hyperbole. because from where we sit now, it is unclear what the actual impact of the Native North America anthology (and subsequent releases) will be. Will it spearhead a renaissance in musical production from First Nations artists? (Are there groups or musicians now who were inspired by its release, who would not have been making music otherwise? Other artists besides Thrasher have seen resurgences of interest in their music, playing Native North America concert events and elsewhere - but it remains to be seen where this newfound interest will take them). Will major names emerge, in the manner of Dylan, van Ronk, Ochs, Stampfel, etc? Will the musical landscape be permanently changed? ...because it seems a lot harder to do that, now, than it was in 1952 (and even then, it took over ten years for the world to really feel the impact of Smith's release). Things like the Grammy nominations, which normally would pass unnoticed by me, can actually help spread the word about these remarkable albums, help keep them in print (by no means a guaranteed thing). It's a rare case where it actually matters to shaping the course of musical history - even if only a little bit. Generally who wins what Grammy matters not at all, except to the people who win...

Willie Thrasher, 2016, Amanda Leigh Smith photograph

With all of these things in mind - as well as news of Howes' non-First Nations find, the Catseye album, and the creation of his own platform for distro'ing music, Voluntary In Nature - I fired a few questions off to Kevin, who gave a thoughtful, detailed reply...

Willie Thrasher and Linda Saddleback, 2016, Amanda Leigh Smith, photograph

Allan: What was being nominated for a Grammy like for Native North America Vol 1? (Do you know anyone else personally who has been nominated for a Grammy? I believe you didn't win, that time... who did you lose to, in what category? 

Kevin Howes: The Grammy nomination for Native North America (Vol. 1) in the “Best Historical Album” category was a total surprise. I remember waking up that morning, perhaps a little later than usual, checking my phone, and it had exploded, all of my devices had exploded, with texts, screen shots, phone messages, links, and words of congratulations. There were media requests as well: print, radio, and even television. I received a call from CBC Vancouver to appear in person and in studio on the nightly news, which I did, being interviewed by an extremely professional broadcaster, makeup and all. Personally, I recall laughing at/with myself in the shower that morning in almost disbelief. I called my engineer and close friend, Greg Mindorff of Suite Sound Labs, who was also acknowledged in the nomination, but after the initial excitement, a type of dread kicked in. While it felt good for my hard work to be recognized  - and it was very hard work, a true labour of love, the “Historical” nomination recognizes the album, producer, and engineer, not the artists. I felt that there was not enough inclusion for the musicians, families, and communities themselves in this acknowledgement, the people who really made the project possible and that there was no way that I could attend the award ceremonies in Los Angeles. I consulted Elder Dr. Duke Redbird in Tkaronto (Toronto, Ontario) about my concerns. He told me to go to L.A. and take lots of pictures. This put me at ease. Thanks again Duke! 

Then there was the label, Light in the Attic, who I had clashed with during the production of the album. The last words the co-owner and founder said to me as we wrapped the project, was to paraphrase: “Kevin, you are insane. F%ck you. We are never working with you ever again…” And this was after 10 years of extremely generous offerings on my part to help create some of the landmark titles in their catalogue, so the nomination was also a vindication in that sense. All of a sudden I was the “golden child.” From my perspective, and with many of the artists still active with their music, poetry, and art, NNA was never going to simply be an album in the shops, which went out of print very fast and stayed that way until earlier this year, even with the extensive road work. Over 15 Native North America gatherings, which still continue to this day, over seven years after NNA’s release, have created stages and opportunities for many of the album’s artists. This was the victory, against the corporate music business, against the system, against the colonial mass media, and the racist nature of Canada itself. At the Grammys, we lost to Bob Dylan and The Band (The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11). It cracked me up a bit because I don’t believe that the lead producer of that project had even met Bob Dylan. Duke Redbird, ever astute, said it was ok because at least an Indigenous person, Robbie Robertson, was honoured.

Ha! Indeed. Let's move on to Grammy nomination #2. The Willie Dunn liner notes are really unique. What liner notes have you been inspired by/ modeled yourself on? Do you have any favourite liner notes...?

 Thank you. In my time, I’ve written quite a handful of liner notes for the likes of Sixto Rodriguez, Thin Lizzy, and Jackie Mittoo, but I remember veteran Canadian music publisher Tony Tobias once saying that in his opinion I’ve never bettered my first set, penned for the re-release of 1970’s Wayne McGhie and the Sounds of Joy in 2004. I just might agree. By then I had been writing for Vancouver’s The Georgia Straight newspaper for a couple of years and had long since graduated from Simon Fraser University (1996). That is to say, many words had already been written by then. Still, it was the early-to-mid 90s era when I was really delving into a breadth of liner notes. Apart from original 1960s write ups by the likes of Derek Taylor (Beatles For Sale) and descriptions on various jazz jackets, the words of Linton Kwesi Johnson and Steve Barrow on 1993’s Tougher than Tough: The Story of Jamaican Music, a four-CD box set that was released by Mango/Island Records, Tribute to Jackie Mittoo by Brian Keyo (Heartbeat Records, 1995), and Bob Marley and the Wailers’ One Love (Leroy Pierson, Roger Steffens) (Heartbeat Records, 1991) were very affecting. Honestly though, I prefer well selected photos and lyrics over supportive words, and the music most of all. To note, the Willie Dunn Notes were inspired by Akwesasne Notes, a seminal Indigenous newspaper that originated from the Mohawk Nation in the late 1960s. The idea is always to try and honour the original era of the recordings through our presentation.

Eric Landry, 2016, Amanda Leigh Smith, photograph

What is the process of being nominated like? Is it like the Oscars, where the studio submits contenders to the academy - did Light in the Attic suggest you to them, or did someone else?

At one point in their journey, Light in the Attic Records started submitting some of their projects for Grammy consideration in the appropriate categories, a Lee Hazlewood retrospective box set in 2013 and 2014’s Native North America (Vol. 1): Aboriginal Folk, Rock, and Country 1966-1985. I guess that put my contributions on the Grammy people’s radar, which led to my participation as a voting member of The Recording Academy and their annual craft committees. Considering the lack of industry engagement with my work at home here in Canada, it felt good to be acknowledged and to participate in their process. My second nomination was in the “Best Album Notes” category for my Willie Dunn Notes essay. Once again, the competition is steep and I went from being “difficult to work with” to the “great Kevin Howes.” Echoes of the final days of producing Native North America still ringing through my head.

In a case like this, do you check out the competition, to see who you're up against? What are the other nominees?

Well, there’s an incredible amount of talent in this year’s “Best Album Notes” category, so I hope that any interested academy members who are participating in that specific field take the time to read them all. It would be extremely nice to win, but it’s something that I can’t entertain the thought of. The nomination is always the victory and it pleases me greatly, but I am focused on my work. Creation Never Sleeps, Creation Never Dies: The Willie Dunn Anthology was eight years of effort for me and the focus is now on Voluntary In Nature, a grassroots and organic artist-to-artist initiative. To begin, our albums won’t be presented in a way that even fits into award categories. Perhaps, one or two projects that I can think of down the road, but not yet or anytime soon. I want to focus on the music itself, not the stories or even the format… Unless it can put money into artists' or families' pockets…  

Shingoose, 2016, Amanda Leigh Smith, photograph

So are you done with boutique labels from here in? Do you have plans to collaborate again with LITA? What does that bode for the follow up to Native North America Vol. 1?

VIN is the focus from here on out, my life's work. I would never offer an original archival production to LITA ever again (or any other label for that matter) other than to follow up on projects that I have already done (NNA Series, Jamaica-Toronto series, Willie Dunn Anthology, etc...), but only for the benefit of the artists/families involved...

For me, money is not the issue, it is respect, for myself, and to those who made the music...

Native North America Vol. 2 is currently in production and I would have to let LITA speak on that. It will be awesome no doubt and especially so if they treat the artists w/ the deep effort and acknowledgment that they deserve (beyond paying for PR)...

Are there physical releases planned for any of the Voluntary In Nature releases? (I thought I had read there would be Catseye vinyl).   

Formats (vinyl, etc...) on VIN releases are being created w/ the sole focus of putting money in artists/families pockets and ensuring that I don't lose my shirt in the process. I am of two minds: 1) the $100 LP at a limited number (250 or so) all direct sales or 2) a pressing of 500 given away for free like business cards... The latter does not help artists/families bar "promotion" and "exposure" and that doesn't put food on the table... The LITA/Numero-style option: Distribution, record stores, $25-60 retail prices do not serve artists to the level that is acceptable to me AS an artist...

Hence, no artist on VIN will have to recoup. Physical formats (w/ unique artwork) will be released in their natural time, the music must marinate in people's minds first, I think... It's what's important! Music over format any day of the week...

I wrote this on FB yesterday on a friend's post. Perhaps it might apply... [Note: Kevin added the mention of Amazon only after Neil Young's endorsement of them the other day as an alternative to Spotify]. 

To me, it's a shame that artists in positions of great power (Neil, Joni, etc...) are not leaving Spotify for that reason (greater streaming rates for all artists). Since it's beginning, the music business has rarely been fair or equitable (there is a vast gulf between those two words, music and business), but it's sad to acknowledge that it is the audience itself who has perhaps spoken loudest in regards to this dire situation. People prefer to pay a simple subscription fee to access an extremely large number of songs than to pay individual artists/groups a percentage of a living wage through the purchase of their music, whether that be through digital or physical music sales... The struggle of the independent artist or group continues, perhaps amplified through Spotify (and exacerbated through the pandemic, especially those who perform live), but nothing new. I view putting music on Spotify as a service where you are paying for your audience's convenience as well as an advertisement for your music as one would have done in a magazine, radio, TV, or newspaper ad back in the day... Unless one is generating millions of streams, it's equally hard to generate funds on any of the other streaming platforms (Apple Music, Tidal, Amazon, etc...) who give a slightly higher rate. Having just started an "outlet for sharing" on Bandcamp (deemed as perhaps the most equitable of the online platforms, but who also take a serious cut of sales in combination w/ Paypal who process the funds, and less usability in terms of listening "offline"), I can report that it's brutal everywhere (even w/ some positive mass media support for our releases)...

[End interview!]

Willie Mitchell, 2016, Amanda Leigh Smith, photograph

The Grammy Awards have been relocated to April, so we have yet to see what the effect of that nomination will be. Meantime, there are three new releases from Howes' Voluntary In Nature imprint: the funky Wayne 1976, which follows up the previously-mentioned Wayne McGhie release; Indian/ Inuit Country, by Willie Thrasher (1994); and the psych-folk of Catseye (from 1973). From the press-release for those albums (written, I presume, by Howes himself...): 

Wayne McGhie – Wayne ’76 (VIN 001)

An unknown album and a future landmark, the 1976 follow up to 1970’s soul, funk, and reggae masterpiece, Wayne McGhie & The Sounds of Joy, recorded by the legendary Jamaican-Canadian singer-songwriter/guitarist before succumbing to overwhelming mental health challenges and retreating from the music that he once held so dear. With the blessing of Wayne during his lifetime and continued family support and encouragement, we are honoured to share Wayne ’76 with the world!

Listen/support (and more information):

Willie Thrasher – Indian/Inuit Country (VIN 002)

A small-run regional, 1994, independent cassette by an Inuvialuit road warrior who has been traveling across Turtle Island since the 1960s and every bit as important as Canada’s much celebrated Stompin’ Tom Connors. Willie Thrasher sings songs about his people, their traditional culture, the human experience, and mother nature. It’s time for everyone to show Willie that “We believe in Native music!”

Listen/support (and more information):

Catseye – Self-titled (VIN 003)

Intimate, analogue, progressive folk reflections by two Canadians singer-songwriters in England, who, along with two British musicians, recorded a 99 copy demo album in 1973 aimed at the stars. Their disc received support from none other than the BBC’s John Peel and Elton John’s Rocket Records, yet missed the mark on the first go round… Or did it? Only the Catseye knows!

Listen/support (and more information):

VIN links:

Official website: