Sunday, May 08, 2016

Leacock "Tales and Tunes," June 3-5, 2016

Coming up fast:  Ottawa Storyteller Gail Anglin and I will be reprising our successful collaboration with the fabulous North Winds Brass at three local venues on the first weekend of June.  Gail and I will tell stories by Canada's humour hall-of-famer, Stephen Leacock, and the North Winds Brass will please your ears with a variety of tunes from Joplin, Maurer, Lamb and others appropriate to the period (broadly speaking, between the Wars).  That brass ensemble sound is really amazing!

Here are the places and times:

St. James the Apostle Anglican Church, Carp (3774 Carp Road), June 3rd., 7:30 PM

Rideau Park United Church, Ottawa (2203 Alta Vista Dr.), June 4th., 7:30 PM

St. Marks Anglican Church, Ottawa (1606 Fisher Ave), June 5th., 2:30 PM

Tickets are available at the door:$20 for adults, $15 for Students/Seniors, $10 for children 12 and under (who have a good attention span...).  Hope to see you there!

"Fun, Fire, and Smallpox … in Canada’s timber capital" (Not to mention music!) OST Tent Show, May 27-28, June 10-11, 2016

I will be joining with singers Gail Anglin and Jill Shipley and musicians Al Ridgway and Anne Hurley to provide the musical dimension for the spring Tent Show of the Ottawa StoryTellers.  To complement the colourful tales from Ottawa's past, we will be performing some classic pop tunes of the early 20th century.  OST will be pitching the big tent in four locations across the city  on May 27 & 28 and June 10 & 11.  We hope to see you there!

"At the turn of the 20th century, Ottawa was coming of age. We had one of the grandest hotels on the continent, years before the Chateau Laurier was built. We had an opera house and several fine theatres, which featured international stars, and we rivalled New York for innovative technology. This was also the world of the lumber barons, H. F. Bronson, J. R. Booth, and E. B. Eddy, with their massive stockpiles of dry timber, and nearby, the rough wooden houses of the mill and yard workers. On a fine spring day in 1900, all of this would be destroyed in hours by a fire so huge you could see the smoke in Kingston.
Early Ottawa was ravaged by fire, by disease, by scandal, yet every time, she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and, often with a laugh, carried on."
OST's travelling Tent Show, Fun, Fire, and Smallpox recounts that time in stories and music in four delightful settings across the city.
All shows at 7 Pm.
-        May 27: Cumberland Heritage Village Museum, 2940 Old Montreal Road, 613-833-3059
-        May 28: Billings Estate National Historic Site, 2100 Cabot Street, 613-247-4830
-        June 10: Fairfield House, 3080 Richmond Road (nr. Bayshore shopping centre), 613-726-2652
-        June 11: Pinhey’s Point Historic Site 270 Pinhey Point Road, Dunrobin, 613-832-1249
Tickets are $15, available at the door or by calling the venues. All venues accept cash or debit/credit cards.
Ages 14+
Running time is approximately 90 minutes plus a 15 minute intermission (with free refreshments!)
For more information, or call Pat Holloway at 613-731-1047

Sunday, May 01, 2016

Song talk #5: Trekkie’s Honeymoon

I’ve been assured that “Trekkies’ Honeymoon,” from my CD Practical Man, qualifies as a “filk song.”  In case you are not familiar with the phenomenon, here’s what Wikipedia says:  
Filk music is a musical culture, genre, and community tied to science fiction/fantasy fandom and a type of fan labour. The genre has been active since the early 1950s, and played primarily since the mid-1970s. The term (originally a typographical error) predates 1955.
I love that the name is unabashedly derived from a typo.  And yes, a song with multiple references to the Star Trek universe does seem to meet the criteria –though I have to say I never thought of the writing as “fan labour” (which sounds pretty onerous, and much too earnest for a satirical tune).  The roots of the song go deep into my childhood, when Captain Kirk and his crew first came whooshing inexplicably through the vacuum of space and onto our little black-and-white 1960s TV screen.  The original Star Trek has been in perennial reruns for so many decades, and its terms and images are so deeply embedded in popular culture now, that it is difficult to convey the excitement and wonder the series evoked for a child at the time, even when seen in shades of grey.

Years later,  the legions of fans who had kept the faith through the long, lean time after the show’s abrupt cancellation were rewarded with a chain of Star Trek movies and  Star Trek: The Next Generation, plus various spinoffs.  By that time my interest in Federation space, Klingons and warp drive had levelled off into something partly nostalgic and entirely recreational –and it had never been, dare I say, fanatical.  I would never have memorized (or argued about) the technical specs of the Starship Enterprise, or learned Klingon, or pursued a degree in Vulcan studies. For one thing, I lacked the stamina for such “fan labour.” For me, Star Trek was about fantasy, not work; still, I have to admire the energy and creativity (and labour!) that many true fans invest in fan fiction, artwork and cosplay.  (For those born before 1980, Wikipedia will tell you that “cosplay,” a contraction of the words costume and  play, is “a performance art in which participants called cosplayers wear costumes and fashion accessories to represent a specific character.”)

The immediate inspiration for “Trekkies’ Honeymoon” was a newspaper story about the latest Star Trek cosplay wedding.  (I don’t think anyone was using the term “cosplay” at the time, but you get my drift: bridal party dressed in starship crew uniforms, with the bride and/or the groom in Klingon face prosthetics or Vulcan ears, and the ceremony performed by a Federation Admiral on a mockup of the bridge of the Enterprise.  About as far as you can get from a Quaker wedding ceremony...) 

Reflecting that “the course of true love never did run smooth,” I found my mind drawn irresistibly to what might transpire later that night, after the last shuttle had departed.  The various double entendres diverge rather sharply from the spirit and intent of the late Gene Roddenberry, the creator of Star Trek, who, as far as I can tell, was a pretty decorous fellow.

Our wedding night's a Holodeck of passion
In a hotel suite rigged up like Deep Space Nine
We're in full Star Trek regalia
But the thing may be a failure
If you don't beam over here and say you're mine...

In recording the song, James Stephens, Alex Vlamis and I had a blast playing with the musical references of the Star Trek universe, and adding a Klingon chorus at critical points. The song is fun to do as a live solo number with just me and my guitar, but Alex’s brilliant piano takes it to the next galaxy.

Fortunately, most Trekkies (and recovered Trekkies) have a sense of humour.  If I could just write a dozen more filk songs, maybe I could even work up a tour of the filk circuit (comic book and sci-fi conventions, cosplay events...)  Unfortunately I think the only other one I can claim is “Aliens Are Landing In Our Yard,” and that is really more of a kid’s song.  So trying to pass myself off as a filk musician would be akin to masquerading as a polka meister, having written only “The Polka Of Death.”
So now you've got my ring on
Won't you let me be your Klingon...

Saturday, March 12, 2016

My Invisible Award

A few weeks ago, I shared the stage with three very talented singer-songwriters who are also friends of mine.  In introducing us, the emcee was very generous with her praise.  Among other things, she highlighted the fact that my three friends had each received a prestigious award in recognition of their achievements. I was last to be introduced. Our host said some very nice things about me as well, but there was no missing the fact that I was distinctly lacking in the awards department.

Now, I am not a jealous man. I was not in the running for any of the awards my friends received, and I’m well aware of how fully they deserve them.  I generally view my lack of prizes with considerable equanimity. There’s no denying, however, that on this occasion I felt a certain momentary awkwardness as the only Non-Award-Winner in a lineup of Award-Winning Singer-Songwriters.  Accordingly, when it was my turn at the microphone, I thanked our host, acknowledged my fellow performers, and said, tongue-in-cheek, “I can see that I’ve gotta get me some awards!” It got a laugh, which was all I was after; then I forgot about it.

The evening went very well, with the four of us taking turns sharing songs for a smallish but attentive audience.  I played “The Dance That You Saved Me” and "Newborn Girl” from The Devil's Day Off, "Western Lodge" from Made of Sky, "This Love Is A Weed" from Practical Man, and maybe a couple of others.  At the end of the show, the host came up to thank everyone and wrap things up; first, however, she took the time to read aloud a note that had been handed to her by an audience member, addressed to me. 

I have been a bit shy about sharing that note here, because I feared it might look as if I was fishing for awards or, even worse, somehow resenting my friends’ success, which is really not the case. In the end I realized that the note was important to me; it made me feel good, and I’ve decided to share it.  Here’s what it said:

“To get an award you need to apply or be nominated.
I can only believe, after listening to you tonight, never having heard you before, that you didn’t apply and your friends may have been busy!
Your poetry is unbelievable! As [our host] would say, “Incredible!”
“Apricot light”?!!? As a photographer, I have never heard that dusk light described so absolutely perfectly. BTW, that’s just one example of the beauty that is your song.

I want you to have an award. I have no award here tonight to give you. I wish I did.
I don’t know if will make any difference to you, BUT you made a lovely, wonderful, emotional difference to me.

Thank you,

An audience member.”

In thanking the writer for this generous praise, I said “this is an award”; and I hope that doesn’t sound like mere hoohah.  The invisible award that happens when a single person listens to a song of mine and loves it will always be precious to me.


Saturday, January 09, 2016

Song Talk #4 "Underground Parking Lot Attendant" (from Made of Sky, Mylodon Music,1999)

 I must confess that I have never worked as an underground parking lot attendant. When I wrote this song (many years ago), underground parking lot attendants were a bit more common than they are today.  I have no idea whether these folks experienced the kinds of thoughts and emotions described in the song –but it wouldn’t surprise me. It’s always been to me an archetype of the low-status job: an opportunity for the underqualified to be underpaid, underground, understimulated, and underappreciated, for unending boredom flavoured with exhaust fumes.  Nowadays, if the function has not been taken over by a machine, it is most likely to be filled by a recent immigrant whose otherness and lack of fluency in English or French make better jobs hard to obtain.  When I was a student, it’s a job I might well have applied for, but the horror of doing it for a lifetime was the trigger for the song. 

On one level, “Underground Parking Lot Attendant” is straight social commentary about what working-class people endure just to make a living.  People heading out in their cars give little thought to the nameless stranger who collects their parking fee:

Thirty-two floors of concrete between me and the sky
Carbon monoxide makes the brain cells die

There is also a sustained thread of courtroom imagery in the song which provides a clue to its genesis.  The attendant is “riveted like a prisoner” in a little glass booth. (I was thinking of the bulletproof booths in which some extremely dangerous or controversial prisoners appear during their trials.)  He feels judged and condemned by the free and prosperous car owners, the “gentlemen of the jury” who pass him by on their way to the open air:

How can you reach a verdict when you can't see the scars
of the defendant?

More than anything, the song appears to me now as a young man’s cri de coeur about having to surrender most of his waking hours and energy –most of his life– to working for a living.  Since leaving Eden, humankind has never stopped resenting work; especially work that is not of our choosing. As the UPLA reflects bleakly,

I take the money and I give my youth.

“Factory Lad (Turning Steel),” written by Colin Dryden in 1969, explores this melancholy theme in perhaps a comparable manner:

But he made a speech and he said "good-bye" to a life time working here,
As I shook his hand, I thought of hell - a lathe for forty years.

(As Dryden quipped years later at a concert I attended, it struck him as ironic that as a young man the thing that had scared him most was secure employment...)

When we recorded “Underground Parking Lot Attendant” for the CD Made of Sky, producer James Stephens recruited Danny Artuso to do the haunting electric guitar work.  The deliberately adagio tempo reflects the way time drags underground, and was anchored by drummer Peter von Althen and by Martin Newman’s sombre upright bass.  For me the biggest revelation was what pianist Ian Clyne brought to the closing minutes of the song: a moody and yet playful, bluesy exploration that, along with Danny’s dreamlike guitar arpeggios, kept the song from becoming too gloomy.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pictures from the December 10 "Devil's Day Off" Concert

My friend Jake Morrison, a professional photographer, honoured me by taking pictures at my recent concert at the NAC 4th Stage!  Follow this link to view a selection.
The concert was a blast, if I do say so myself.  The technical support at the NAC is of course excellent, the cabaret setting at the 4th Stage is perfect for a small band, and a lot of friends and colleagues turned out for the event.  Many thanks to musicians James Stephens, Alise Marlane, Dan Artuso, and Alex Vlamis, who made every song shine!

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Song Talk #3: “The Ballroom Is Empty”

In honour of my upcoming "Very Late Launch" concert on December 10th (see previous post), I am devoting this third "Song Talk" article to a song from my latest CD, The Devil's Day Off.

A few of my best songs have come out of a process (or tradition) called the Great Canadian Song-Along. This annual event, a celebration rather than a contest, has been run in Ottawa for many years by a collective called Writer’s Bloc. Songwriters sign up a few weeks in advance and undertake to create a new song for the event (or maybe two songs if they are lucky and determined), based on a handful of themes (“topics”) provided by the organizers each year. Over two evenings, the participants then perform their songs at a local venue.  (Originally the venue was the late lamented folk club and watering hole known as Rasputin’s, the incubation chamber for a lot of great music and storytelling over the years.) There is no judging and there are no prizes, just a lot of mutual appreciation. Participants range from seasoned guitar-picking geezers to fresh young faces performing an original song on stage for the first time. It’s a joyful celebration of the songwriter’s craft, and of the vibrant songwriting community of Ottawa. There is always something intriguing about the kaleidoscopic variations in the songwriters’ interpretation of the “topics”; in 2015 what they had to work with were these:

 * holding my breath
* inside out
* no love lost
* you can’t take it with you
* bad

 I think you’ll agree that these topics (a fairly typical crop) leave the songwriters a considerable amount of room to maneuver.  Some of us feel that imaginary points can be scored by working as many of the topics into one song as possible, but that’s really not necessary.  For some there is also a bit of songwriter machismo over whose song was written latest, with the winner (maybe David Keeble…)  just polishing up the final verse as he/she heads for the microphone to perform. But a last-minute approach is neither compulsory nor common; indeed, there are as many approaches and styles as there are participants.

What Song-Along is, above all, is an excuse to write and perform new songs. In my experience, the combination of a deadline and the prospect of performing focuses the mind wonderfully.  Preparing for one of these events (the 2010 Song-Along, I think), the topic that grabbed me was “ghosts.” Now I have written a couple of funny Halloween songs in my time, and I might easily have gone down that road. However, on this occasion what emerged was a vivid, melancholy story-song about memory, imagination, and long-lost love.   

"Phenakistoscope 3g07690d". Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Commons -
A simple alternation of chords on the guitar got me thinking about a circular melody in waltz time. (I’m kind of a sucker for waltzes.) As sometimes happens, the first phrase came quickly and contained the seeds of the entire song:

the ballroom is empty
except for the moonlight
no one has danced here for years

So it’s already a song about loss; it is night, in a building that is literally abandoned, but holds the traces of vanished luxury and the memories of generations of dancers and musicians.

fragments and shards
of a crystal decanter
cast infinitesimal gleams

(It’s not often I get the chance to work in that wonderfully delicate word, “infinitesimal”; in fact I’m pretty sure this is the only time so far…)

So where are the ghosts? As so often happens, when the time and the place are suitable, they are summoned out of memory:

out of the silence
I conjure an orchestra
couples whirl out of thin air
pressure of palm
at the small of your back
and I’m holding you close
with my cheek in your hair

A solitary man in an abandoned building suddenly re-experiences, very vividly, sensations and emotions from a time long gone. What else is a haunting, really?

As a Song-Along creation, “The Ballroom Is Empty” had its first outings with only my modest solo guitar accompaniment, and it worked pretty well that way. On the new CD, however, it finally got the full ballroom treatment I had imagined, with Alex Vlamis capturing the feel (and the necessarily variable rhythm) perfectly on the grand piano.  James Stephens added the haunting strings, Brian Sanderson worked his horn magic, and Alise Marlane provided some ghostly feminine resonance.

Like many of my story songs, it’s a bit longer than the standard 120 seconds of a pop tune; still, I always feel a touch of regretful nostalgia when the dream (or the haunting) ends, and daylight banishes the sweet illusions:

unbroken cobwebs across every doorway,
with mildew and ruin possessing the hall 

A fellow participant in that year’s Song-Along, Jeremy Owen, had kind words for me when he heard the song for the second time:

“The highlight of this magnificent evening, for me, was Tom Lips whom I knew but didn’t know that I knew. Tom wrote and performed a song about ghosts for this year’s Song-Along that completely sunk my ghost song’s battleship and some small part of me has been singing it ever since. Happily, he played that song again this night and it was like seeing an old friend.”

Thanks, Jeremy.

Friday, October 02, 2015

Tickets Now On Sale for December 10 Concert!

I'm excited about this concert coming up at the National Arts Centre's 4th Stage. It's a great, intimate venue for a concert (cabaret-style), with excellent technical support and sound. Most of all, it's a rare opportunity for me to perform with three of the finest musicians I know: gifted fiddler and multi-instrumentalist James Stephens (who is also the brilliant producer of my 3 CDs), guitar genius Danny Artuso, and keyboard virtuoso Alex Vlamis.  These three gentlemen made stellar contributions to my latest CD, The Devil's Day Off, and together I think we can give you some of the feel of the CD, along with the unique joys of live, real-time music (but you should still buy the CD!).

It's about a year late to be calling this concert a CD launch, but really that's what it is. For various reasons, my plans for an earlier launch fell through, with the usual consequences, i.e. the CD has not really been on anyone's radar.  On the positive side, now I get to perform in my favourite Ottawa venue (which always has to be booked far in advance).  We've kept the ticket price modest, in the hope that people will have enough cash left to buy CDs (perhaps as Christmas presents for the music fans on your list...)

If you've read this far, thanks for your interest in my music, and I hope to see you on December 10th!