20 years ago today we played our first gig in Thunder Bay at Crocks n Rolls with what was to become Burt Neilson Band a few months later. Here's a recording of that show... we're quite young, so listen with that in mind. wink emoticon
I've been writing stuff down lately, and pulled this excerpt out for today about how I met the guys and the lead up to that first show.
It would have been in the Fall of 1995 that my high school shoegazer band Julian was playing at Crocks n Rolls with Ngoma, a many-membered World Beat band that rolled through town pretty often. I was wearing my favourite Grateful Dead shirt that night, I think just to be kinda punk against our faux British scene. While packing up after our set, a tall guy with long blonde dreads and a middle nose piercing came up to the stage and asked if I was interested in coming out and jamming some Dead and Allmans on the organ sometime with him and some other dudes. I didn’t know any Allman Brothers stuff, but thought that playing some Grateful Dead could be fun. This was Will Roberts. I had met him the previous summer in my back yard at 19 Crown St, which was an infamous free-spirited street in Thunder Bay, just south of Hillcrest Park. Cheap rent, lots of old houses, lots of students and lots of hippies. There was a pretty great community of friends that lived around there, including my pal James Mason who had moved into the main floor of 19 Crown a while back, sleeping in a pretty swank closet under the stairs! We hung there quite a bit, and when the apartment upstairs came up for rent, he suggested I move in.
So I did. I convinced my best pal, Jerome Santos to move in with me, and we set about splitting $450/month for a rather rundown but funky 2nd floor apartment. This became THE spot for our gang, as we were the first of our group of friends our age to get their own pad, and we took full advantage of it. Parties, parties and more parties. Late nights, all nights... you name it. I put a couch in my bedroom!! I could do that kind of thing now that I was on my own. James' roommate downstairs was a girl named Jessica Rosa, and over the summer of 95, a guy she knew from her hometown of Brantford had moved to Thunder Bay. I first introduced to Will on a beautiful sunny day sharing a joint on the steps behind our house.
So I didn’t actually know how to play any Grateful Dead songs, but knew the tunes well enough and figured I could follow along. I was really eager as a musician around this time, taking in all the new music I could. And I wasn't scared to jump into something completely new either. This was when I realized I couldn’t play keyboards as well as I might have thought. At this point, my recent hobby of guitar playing had easily surpassed my piano skill! So when I got together with Will to jam, I found I really didn’t know what I was doing. I was self taught on the keys, and came up playing relatively simple one-finger New Order and Depeche Mode synth lines. Easy stuff a kid with a synthesizer could handle. Darryl Lahteenmah, drummer and musical genius of Julian, showed me where to put my fingers for any chord work I’d ever done with that band, not really telling me what chords I was playing. I had to start learning what hand positions were what chords, and start linking that up with my ears and my brain. I came up with a few of my own in this period! I had a good chunk of band experience, but what I was getting into opened up a whole new realm of stuff I needed to take in.
That first jam was myself with my Hammond L141 and mini Leslie, Will on bass, Jeffrey Kornblum on red drums with red cymbals, with Dan Denomme on acoustic guitar - and it was super fun. We got good and stoned… a couple times, and played in Jeffrey and Dan’s living room at 244 Secord St for hours. The music I'd been playing my whole life had been so structured, never with any room to open up and be improvised by a whole group. Of course, I had no improv skills at the time, but that didn't stop me from enjoying the hell out of letting loose like that. There’s a good chance we wound up drinking a pile of six dollar pitchers at the Italian Hall afterwards too. We all quickly agreed we’d have to do it again real soon.
When I showed up the next time, Dan told me that this guy Mike was gonna come out that night, and he seemed pretty excited about it. I think he was supposed to come to the first jam we had, but couldn't make it for some reason or another. Right away I realized I’d seen Mike Filipowitsch play before - he was this dude I’d watched at the university bar The Outpost earlier in the Fall playing Dead songs on his acoustic guitar…. mostly incorrectly. But wow! Could he ever play. When he started jamming with us, it took off to a whole new level. And he could sing too! I recall being blown away by his voice. Mike then told me he had opened up for Julian a year earlier. He was on first, and apparently we didn’t say more than a few words to him and were kind of assholes. Figures. We used to sign posters with FYWJ. Fuck you, we’re Julian.
Mike later told me, and continues to insist, I didn’t say a word to him that whole first jam. I guess I was and still am pretty shy. I do recall early in our knowing each other asking Mike if he wanted me to run up the street and grab my Gibson Les Paul Custom for him to play rather than his acoustic… to which he replied, “Why would I want to play that?” Classic Mike. Eventually he did play it. It was a beautiful instrument.
University broke for for the holidays in December. I wasn’t going to school anywhere, just living on Crown St and working as a line cook at a Casey’s restaurant. When everyone got back from school, we didn’t jam for what seemed like a long time. I had even left my organ at the Secord house… a place they all referred to as DINKPIG, which was the house phone number. I guess we weren't doing any Julian jamming at this time either, who I was still fully playing with. I remember kinda feeling bad about not seeing the Secord guys for a few months, and it wasn’t until February or March that we jammed again. All those guys were from Southern Ontario and in Thunder Bay for school, so I guess they were focusing on that. Mike was from Kitchener, Jeffrey was from Toronto, Dan from Windsor, and Will from Brantford.
I finally spoke to Jeffrey and set up another time to come over and play. When I showed up, I found out Will was no longer the bass player. This kid named Jeremy Little was now playing bass… and I didn’t like him. He quickly became one of my best friends, but at the time he was 18 years old, pushy and kind of aggressive. I think the first thing he told me was "I have 80 bootleg Phish tapes." He had brought his pal Lowell Binstock along to play a second drumkit. A guy I knew from the Crown St clan named Chris Leishman was there too playing congas. We got right back to it, getting together pretty regularly and playing with this new line up.
Some mutual friends, Blair Lehman and Jeff Gibbons, ran a Thursday night jam at Crocks n Rolls, which we decided we should start showing up at. We put together a 'set'… Eyes of the World, New New Minglewood Blues, and strangely, just the second half of You Enjoy Myself, by a band called Phish the guys had started getting me into. I think we did 2 or 3 Thursdays, gradually building up a crowd of friends showing up, before we finally set up our own night.
We’d been able to book April 20th, 1996, as the first show that wasn’t just a jam night. We even got paid! The guys all loved that this was the 20th day of the 4th month, something I'd never clued into before. We’d taken on the name Captain Redbeard, which being red bearded myself, I didn’t mind at all. It was better than The Dinkmen, which is I think what folks were referring to us as.
I almost didn’t even go to that show! I was having some kind of crisis with my hair, and was feeling really self conscious, and strongly considered not even leaving the house and just bailing on the whole night. I came pretty close to doing that, but eventually convinced myself I could and should do it.
We had booked two other bands to play with us that night. I don’t remember the first band’s name… similar to us but more bluesy and Allmans-y. After them was Apollo Groove Shuttle, a band made up of some local T Bay guys I knew. Andy, Luke, Myles, Tim, who played amazing guitar, and Esenge, who was killer vocalist. They were stunning… good enough that I was more than concerned about how our set would go over. But by the time our slot came up, the crowd made it easy for us to go up and do our thing. As did the booze.
With everyone in the band but me being students at Lakehead University, we collectively had a ton of friends who filled the small bar, partying like we were the actual bands we were covering. They used to really cram them in at Crocks, and I think there was close to 200 people there.
We played mainly our favourite parts of songs as opposed to the whole thing. The set opened with Wilson by Phish… just the chant part, that we switched up for “Caaaaaptaaaain…” and eventually sped up and went into New New Minglewood Blues. We played all of Eyes of the World next! A jam of Jer’s, Cyan Water followed, which went into the end funky part of You Enjoy Myself, ending with the Deodato/Phish version of Also Sprach Zarathustra. The one ‘original’ tune… Cyan Water, was basically just two chords over and over and over and over, with Jeremy saying "Cyannnn Waterrrrrr" occasionally. I never knew what that meant. Rather than write more changes, we opted to jump up and down at a certain point in the song. We even incorporated a change somewhere that was cued by Mike doing ‘crazy stuff with his head’ as we called it. If you've ever seen Dan play, especially in those days, you wouldn't be surprised that he sliced his hand open in the middle of the gig strumming his guitar like a malfunctioning weedwhacker, splattering blood everywhere inside it. Actually, it was Mike’s guitar that he was using, and redecorating. Mike played my Gibson.
I’m sure the band alone out drank most of the room, and everyone was in great spirits that night. This was a bit of an end of year party, and was also one of the last shows ever at Crocks n Rolls, which closed it’s doors very shortly after that night after 13 years of supporting great music in the Lakehead. There was typically a good fight in the street afterwards, and it felt like it took us forever to pack up all our stuff once it was all done. I’m sure the 3 guys that helped me move my Hammond at the end of the night were feeling as little pain as I was.
That night was one of my all time favourite stage moments… the kind of night I still strive for, hitting on a part of performing that I’d never experienced before. I was 20. I had all my hair. And I now I had a new band that I felt like I could do anything with. I think we all felt like we’d hit on something special.