Friday, July 31, 2015

R is for Serena Ryder, Sam Roberts and The Rheostatics

     In this, our "young turks" edition of Canadian performers whose names begins with an "R", I will start with the ladies and give you a singer who has been a strong presence in the music scene for a number of years but who is now, just beginning to make her star turn on the national stage and that is, Serena Ryder.

     Serena Ryder has been performing for audiences since she was a little girl of six or seven.  Performing in Legion Halls and community events around the Millbrook and Peterborough areas, Ryder grew proficient in playing guitar and in marrying that sound to the poetry of the words she was expressing in the form of her original songs.  Serena Ryder came to the attention of Peterborough-area music producers and then, in turn, to performer, Hawksley Workman, who signed her to his label.  She has been described as having a deep, raspy singing voice and has been compared to "a young Aretha Franklin."

     Serena Ryder has won 6 Juno Awards in categories ranging from "Artist of the Year", "Album of the Year", "Video of the Year" or "Songwriter of the Year."  She recently penned the song, Together We Are One for the recent 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and appeared live during the closing ceremonies with Pitbull and Kanye West.  She has enjoyed many hits in recent years such as,  Stompa, Weak in the Knees, What I Wouldn't Do and A Little Bit of Red.  Serena Ryder is definitely poised to have a breakout year in 2015 and the folks at the Millbrook Legion Hall couldn't be prouder.


     In 2003, a strange new respiratory disease swept through parts of Asia and then, because of an infected traveller contracting the disease in Hong Kong and bringing it back to Canada, Toronto experienced an outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or, S.A.R.S.  Forty-four people died from S.A.R.S., most of them, in the Toronto area.  In order to contain the contagion, The World Health Organization officially deemed Toronto as being unsafe for tourists to visit.  This designation caused the largest city in Canada to lose hundreds of millions of dollars in tourism revenue.  Toronto's local economy reeled, almost as much as the medical community did.  So, when the S.A.R.S. outbreak finally stabilized, immediate attention was turned to revitalizing tourism and letting the world know that Toronto was a safe place to visit.  One of the ways that was deemed best was to hold a high-profile event, such as a concert. Thus, under the leadership of The Rolling Stones, AC/DC and Canadian comedy star, Dan Ackroyd, a large concert was planned for Downsview Park in Toronto. This concert became known as "SARS Stock".   The first performer of the day was a young man from Montreal named Sam Roberts.

     Sam Roberts grew up as a part of Montreal's burgeoning music scene, along with The Dears and Stars.  By the time The Sam Roberts Band came to play the S.A.R.S. benefit concert, he was already riding high on the success of his debut album called Brother Down and the two hit singles that emerged from it, Brother Down and Don't Walk Away, Eileen.  Since then, Sam Roberts has produced a steady string of commercially and critically successful albums, with hits such as Where Have All The Good People Gone, Hard Road and Bridge to Nowhere.  The Sam Roberts Band has won 6 Juno Awards, including "Album of the Year", "Artist of the Year" and "Video of the Year".
     Sam Roberts plays good, solid pop-rock tunes that speak to his love of Canada and of his craftsmanship as a songwriter.  While he has enjoyed a consistent rate of success, it was his great job launching the S.A.R.S. stock concert that is, perhaps, his most important and memorable moment as a Canadian musician.  Thanks, Sam!

     Finally, I will close out the "young turks" edition the letter "R" with a band that are, definitely, not young but, instead, have made a career of being inventive and unconventional, the iconic and influential, Rheostatics.  If I was a true cool kid with my finger on the pulse of the Canadian music scene, I would tell you that I knew The Rheostatics when they were playing shows at The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto and making a name for themselves with their obscure, quirky takes on such famous Canadian songs as Gordon Lightfoot's Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.  But, during the 80s and 90s, my musical awakening was just beginning and my first real sense of who The Rheostatics were came from the opening line of The Tragically Hip's live album, Live Between Us, when lead singer, Gord Downie, famously declared, "This is for The Rheostatics...we are all richer for having seen them tonight."

     The fact that The Rheostatics were opening for the hugely commercially successful band, The Tragically Hip, is noteworthy on several levels. First of all, The Tragically Hip, like many Canadian singers and bands; especially those from Ontario, were hugely influenced by The Rheostatics.  To include them on a stadium/arena tour was to, not only acknowledge a musical debt of sorts but, also, to showcase the band in front of larger audiences than they had ever played for before, as if to say, "Come on, folks!  Don't you realize how great these guys are!?"  Already a cult band, The Rheostatics never craved commercial success.  They seemed content to be artistically excellent and to go against the grain of mainstream musical tastes. In fact, they have had only one Top Forty hit in their career; a song that won them a Genie Award (Canada's Motion Picture Awards) for Best Song for the movie, Whale Music.  The success that they achieved as a result of Whale Music nearly broke up the band. So, to be included on a national tour with The Tragically Hip, was a creative and intellectual experience like no other.

     The Rheostatics produced two albums that critics and fans routinely rate as being among the top dozen or so albums ever made in the history of Canadian music; Whale Music and Melville.   Whale Music was based on the book of the same name by author Paul Quarrington.  The "hit" song was called Claire and goes to prove the literary bent that was so characteristic of the band's approach.  In fact, one of the key members of The Rheostatics, Dave Bidini, has gone on to achieve a fair measure of fame and success as a writer of books and as a newspaper columnist.  To those who saw The Rheostatics live, for example, at their once annual eleven-night gigs at The Horseshoe Tavern which became known as The Fall Nationals,  the essence of who The Rheostatics were was best seen and experienced at their live shows.  A mixture of poetry, Canadiana, rock licks, sweat and defiance mingled with the smell of cigarettes and marijuana and the feel of sawdust and beer-soaked floors.  The Rheostatics are, arguably, the band that most closely conveyed the Canadian identity through their songs and live shows. Nary a hit but, a presence that reverberates across the land.
     Hopefully, you are richer for having read about them, too.

     A final big tip of the hat to these awesome performers whose name begins with an "R":

Robbie Robertson (solo artist and, of The Band), Punk/New Wave provocateurs, Rough Trade, Country star, Deric Ruttan, Singer/Songwriter, Ian Robb (of Fiddler's Green), Aboriginal Drag Queen/anti-bullying advocate, Iceis Rain, Alternative band, Rusty, Rockers, The Rainbow Butt Monkeys (later, Finger Eleven), Alt-rockers, Rymes With Orange, Alt-country singer, Justin Rutledge, Family pop stars, The Raes, Acadian HipHop band, Radio Radio, Two-time U.S. National Fingerstyle guitarist, Don Ross, Rappers, Rascalz, the first band I ever got drunk listening to, Rational Youth,  Alternative band, The Rose Chronicles, 80s rockers, Rubber (later Harem Scarem),  Indie band, Rah Rah, legendary rock band, Red Rider (with Tom Cochrane) and, finally, the band and the song that started this series all off, Rueben and the Dark.  It was Bow and Arrow that I listened to as I sank into my easy chair, decompressing emotionally and intellectually from the end of another school year and the return of my own life to me.  From Rueben and the Dark, I found Lowell and Love You Money and then, Hayden with Nowhere We Can't Go and then, shortly thereafter, came the desire to turn my free time into the productive project that you are viewing now.  Inspiration gives rise to creation. I hope you are liking my work.  :)  

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