Band on the Run: Fleece Me with an Ambler’s Flocks

is a quaint little town just north of the Ottawa-Hull region, nestled in the Gatineau hills of Western Quebec. I was there this weekend to support my friend Garnet Rogers, the Canadian folk icon himself, as he recorded his three consecutive concerts at the equally iconic Black Sheep Inn. Garnet asked Lyndell Montgomery (my band mate) and I to sing back-up harmonies with him.

(Speaking of music legends, he even has personal accounts about the artist to whom this blog title is a tribute. Post a comment if you got the reference!)

It was Lyndell’s birthday this weekend (the 27th) and we couldn’t think of a better place to celebrate it: the stage beside water. Not only is Wakefield a pretty town sitting right beside the Gatineau river and full of hiking trails, kayak rentals and fresh air to breathe, but celebrating her birthday in that setting while also on stage – a stage whose back window actually overlooks the water – seemed like the perfect combination of favourite things.

We arrived to find a pile of friends all gathered around a dog. . .

The dog’s name is Apache and she’s the sweetest natured dog I have met in a long time. I learned quickly that the dog’s pets (er, parents) are a lovely couple from upstate New York named Elliot and Toni. Elliot Michael, an old friend of Garnet’s and a guitar collector and music store owner from Ithaca, was a guest on stage for several songs on electric guitar. When he casually pulled out an instrument that was worth more than my house (and I’m not exaggerating!), I perked up my ears and was treated to talent that was tinged with vintage resonance like I’ve never heard.

Just listening to the soundcheck that day, I knew that this was going to be a weekend of solid music. It was rockin’ but also full of space and rhythm that holds you up. I closed my eyes and just took in the layers that were happening simultaneously on that stage – took it in as easily as afternoon sun.

The weekend unfolded just like that, naturally and easily. We had brought out bikes and so we cycled and took in the farmer’s market (bought some preserves and veggies), went swimming at a beautifully private spot, made a big Sunday brunch and basically just chilled out. What a treat to be in a place this beautiful, let alone for three full days with no need to drive to a new venue every night. This puts “being on tour” in a new light; no complaints!

On the Sunday afternoon, I took myself for a stroll of the main street. I have played the Black Sheep many times throughout my career (in fact, we are scheduled there on September 28th), and I have never had the time to wander around this town except to find food for supper in that small window between soundcheck and show time.

Across from the venue is this fantastic pier that was built for Canada Day this year (July 1st). It’s pieced together from various pieces of reclaimed lumber and looks a bit like a pile of toothpicks ready to topple, but apparently it was filled with over sixty people on Canada Day. When I heard that, I figured its structural integrity had been tested and so I hopped on and looked around. Of course, the upper level doubles as the jumping off place and there were two young girls sitting there chatting when I came up, contemplating a late-afternoon plunge.

They’re the ones who gave me the low-down on the pier, actually, and we had a good chat about the party on Canada Day. Their eyes danced and widened when they talked about it, as though it was the best party they had ever known. I smiled. I remember those parties. I remember when there was a “party of the summer” and that party became legendary until September, and sometimes beyond. They were replaced the following summer by new parties, of course, but I had clearly asked them to talk about their current legend and it was a joy to watch them stumble over each other as they recounted the craziness of that night.

And then, like most teenagers, they suddenly got shy at how much they had said and became mute. I took my cue then and left, wishing them a good night and thanking them for filling me in on what I’d missed.

I walked then the length of the main street and back again. The rest was filled with tourist shops and cute stores with cute names. They all had painted signs and hanging plants and flowers, overflowing with colour. Even the corporate bank had its flowers. Everything was trimmed and rugged at the same time, which gave it that rustic charm that is so common in small tourist towns. And, it works. I was charmed. I have the photos to prove it.

When I got back to The Black Sheep, the room was buzzing. Garnet has a following, that’s for certain. Three full nights of you-can-hear-a-pin-drop attendance and open ears.

The Black Sheep
is a renowned music venue with a long history. People flock to the place, no pun intended, and are willing to drive long distances to catch a show there. CBC, Canada’s amazing public broadcast radio station, often features live concerts from The Black Sheep and these live concerts are broadcasted across the country. Nationally and internationally touring musicians regularly play The Sheep as they’re heading through the Ottawa-Montreal area en route across Canada. To say the least, people know this place.

There must be some magic in that old stage. . . that isn’t quite level under the musicians’ feet. Maybe it’s the proximity of the river, the pull of the Gatineau hills, the reflection of life in these parts in all its working class reality that is kicked up from the dusty black-and-white tiled floor when you walk in. Maybe it’s the view of the river and trees through the windows that makes the music played in that room sound fuller, more alive, more lush.

After three days there, though, I really began to feel part of the score that plays behind its long and mysterious story. I felt even more part of it then ever before even though I have played there before many times. For instance, a woman at Garnet’s show on Sunday saw me singing with him and came up to me afterwards to tell me that she had seen me in the grocery store that weekend. Another guy came up to me and I recognized him from the farmer’s market. He was selling relishes and honey mustard and I had taste-tested his wares. He told me that he would happily swap one of my CDs for preserves if I came back to the market the next morning because he loved my voice. Another couple who Lyndell and I found out are “friends of friends” (aren’t we all connected?) invited us to come for a swim at their dock on the Sunday.

I felt welcomed into a community.

Top that welcome off with the chance to hang out with musicians who I hadn’t seen in awhile including David Woodhead on bass, David Matheson on keys and our long-time drummer (or Garnet’s, depending on the gig!) Cheryl Reid on drumkit. It was not a chore.

So, our job was to sing harmonies. Lyndell and I took up the torch as the backing vocalists and we were thrown into the ring on Friday after just a quick run-through backstage. We hadn’t heard the songs before, but we jumped in with both feet.

We didn’t have official parts for any of the songs but Lyndell and I have played together long enough that we naturally grab certain pitches and harmonies and stay out of each other’s way, vocally. Still, it was tricky. By the second night, we were actually singing parts we’d worked out during the day and by the third night, we had it down to a science (well, mostly!) Luckily, they never stopped recording. They got it all.

I have no doubt that the next Garnet Rogers record will be one that will have captured the crescendo of energy throughout the weekend – a weekend of both leisure and legacy.

Friendship and music.

With Apache as our witness.