The second set at the Ren featured the musical, and comedy, stylings of Mike Ford. This guy has grown from street-busking legend to the 21st Century's Gordon Lightfoot.
The first time I had a chance to talk to Mike he was just wrapping up his sixth song onstage at Massey Hall, back in 1992. Moxy Fruvous were opening for Bob Dylan during his two night stand. Fortunately I'd clued into the burgeoning new music scene in Toronto (Canada really) that featured artists like The Barenaked Ladies, The Waltons, The Rheostatics (they are still out and about) and the aforementioned, Moxy Fruvous. The thing about Canadian rock/pop that's different from American pop/pulp is...the artists up here are way too smart for their own good. Take a look at The Hip. I mean they are made for the American market...until they decifer the lyrics...what'd'ya mean? debunk an American myth? (This assessment does not apply to the Americans I have met personally, who are all liberals...well, liberals to me, in their own country they are considered commie-scum.) But I digress. Where were we? Right, talking to Mike Ford. Anyway, those radical Dylan fans were growing tired of having their notions challenged and were three songs into chanting "we want Bob", "we want Bob". Privately, in my section of Massey Hall, I was telling those around me those hecklers were nuts...they were missing what was going to be the best part of the evening. So after song 6 some open-minded-60's-type-Aquarius-7th Sun/Son-radical yells "Get off the stage!" From my seat in the balcony I yell back: "Nevermind that, sing another song." (I knew full well they were only 6/7ths through their massive repertoire and we were going to get the hilariously acerbic Gulf War Song next.) Someone from the Fru-crew; it mighta been the other guitar player who leads on King of Spain, it might have been the long-haired guy with the French name, it definitely wasn't the silent bass playing Murray Foster, but for purposes of this story and because the statutes of limitations on my memory have long run out, we're gonna say it was Mike Ford, shot back, "Thanks Dad." So it was I came to be introduced to him some 15 years as he's at The Ren in support of a couple New York friends.
Mike opens with the traditional barn-burner, Ain't No More Cane. Though I've heard him do this once before I must have been more impaired that evening because tonight, at the age of 50, I learned something new...another place Bob Dylan stole another song. This rendition includes the line "Said, Alberta why don't you let your hair hang down/ You let it hand right down until it touches the ground." Terrific chain gang song with plaintive wail and indignant, ney bombastic, proclamations. It's not a lament for a nation, but it's a decent lament.
The Seaway tells the story of miles on the interior seaway of the Great Lakes and the ports of call along the way. It honours those who take those jobs no one knows exists and are repaid by discovering a world few get to see.
Well warmed up and into his third Chocolate beer, Mike figures it's time to stretch it out a little and we get the manically fast chorus of Huge on the Luge. Think John Prine if he'd grown up north of the 49th. Try this, really fast: "He was huge on the luge/when his cheeks went rouge/no fluke with a touque/subzero subterfuge/look at grandpa cruise/like a demon on the booze/not a stooge like scrooge/really huge on the luge." Admit it, it feels good. That, my friends is Mike at only quarter-speed.
Playing to the Dylan-fans he knows are always in attendance when his friends Mike Skliar and Ken Ficara venture north from the 5 boroughs, the next tune we get tries to f*ck with our heads. As the opening chords ring you think, "alright, spanish harlem incident! Bob don't play this much nowadays." Then the words to I Dreamed I Saw St Augustine (Spanish Harlem Incident dub) pour out. Neat trick. I've seen Bob play one song and sing another. Just not on purpose.
Now when I said Mike is a 21st century Gordon Lightfoot that might have been a disservice...and not to Gordon Lightfoot. I speak only of the very Canadian, topical or historical, nature of the songs, I'm not speaking to anyone's talents, for that, I'm not qualified. The next four songs lead us on a wild ride through Canadian history, from the excellent Louis & Gabriel, to a song about American-born urbanist Jane Jacobs, on to the mythical Voyageurs and closing with an homage to the rebel, D'Arcy McGee...where I learned another thing!
Louis Riel pissed off a lot of people in Ontario. There's a lesson in there for the PQ somewhere. Mike places him squarely where he belongs in our pantheon: a man before his times...or at least a man out of time. I remember being conflicted about Riel in grade school. Seems he should be a hero...but he did some bad things. A tough call for those who write the text books. (For you Americans think of John Brown.) Riel, and his friend Gabriel Dumont, were complex men in a complex land. The story, as told here, is more interesting than anything i got outa school.
Jane Jacobs. What can I say? Bet she knew Scarborough was gonna suck long before they renovated the Town Center.
Les Voyageurs is a campfire song that would have fit well in an aquatic Blazing Saddles. Except I would do that to the horses.
The final song in this segment, really a showcase for Mike's Canada Needs You Vol. 1, is D'Arcy McGee, a tale of a rebel who sought to find his way in Canada when our nation was forming, and met his end on Sparks St. and the hands of some even more whacked-out rebels, allegedly, the Fenians (think Siin Fein in diapers). Now that's a little ironic as they once were friends. What I learned here was that D'Arcy was a poet and songwriter, a la Joe Hill. No wonder our students think Canadian history is boring...we're missing the chance to make it exciting.
The next portion takes us into Mike's Stars Shone On Toronto album...more or less.
The Great Hall gives props to the majestic Union Station from where you can board a train to all-points-Canada. As long as you're not going to Sault-Ste-Marie.
Saskatchewan, a minor song from the soon to be released Satellite Hot Stove album, gives about all the due owing to that flat piece of land. You can tell which songs you write for the wife and which ones you write for the boys.
Eco-song Tank is reminiscent of the zany energy of Moxy Fruvous, a gentle, or not so gentle, shot at those who need an SUV (tank) to take Brittany to braces and little Brandon to the bank."
And it's back to the Fruvous catalogue for Heat-Seeker Boy, a cautionary tale about the fickle finger of fame.
Next is the title song from Stars Shone on Toronto, a song about the Great Blackout of 2003. I do remember that night...but not like Mike relates it. I was scheduled to leave at 4:00 am in the morning to drive south to Pennsylvania for a Dylan concert at Bushkill. Leaving work that fateful afternoon I knew I needed gas and was not at all upset that power was temporarily out and the stations weren't pumping. We spent the night eating melting icecream, not unlike the song, but could not relax enough to get the 'back to the earth' feeling this song evokes. We should have one day each year where all the power, around the world, is shut off so we can see the firmament, turn of the Playstations " and live a little more like people way back when." Except for the hospitals.
From "Canada Needs You Volume 2" we get a song about the slaughter that was Vimy Ridge, the third largest gathering of Canadians on that fateful Easter weekend. Not sure of the title but I'll go with "Creeping Barrage".
Man, how many more of these songs are we gonna need to write if we haven't learned in almost a hundred years? I'm glad Phil Ochs ain't alive today...he couldn't take this state of affairs. A bit of the John Brown feel to this song...Dylan's John Brown, not the abolitionist one.
Next, a WORLD DEBUT, from the forthcoming Satellite Hot Stove, Open For Business (how I learned to love Thomas Daquino and Allan Gregg of Decima Research and stop worrying) (Macadorian Homesick Blues). Now I'm not an industry guy but I'd shorten that just a tad. This shit is too good. I can't post it here because this is gonna pay for Mike's grandkids university. It's another nimble word dance that Mike almost nails, then recovers nicely by repeating a verse he stumbled into at machine-gun speed. Do not miss this when it's released this summer.
Mike dives into the catalogue of the Arrogant Worms, Kingston comedy/song legends, for the hilarious We're Not Americans(?best guess). Well, hilarious if you're not an American. But what is an American? Aye, there's the rub.
Another song from the unreleased record, and it's nice of Mike to try them out on us because they sound great, Maurice, pays homage to the Rocket. I'm not big on hockey songs, not counting The Hockey Song and maybe Clear Track, Here Comes Shack and, ok, 50 Mission Cap...hey, do Canadians write songs about anything BUT hockey?
Mike takes one more run at vocal gymnastics with the meth-fueled I've Been Everywhere (Canadian Dub). OK, maybe meth has nothing to do with it but it's still a toe-tapping romp.
Show closes with another unreleased song, The Easter Gap, a song for Torontonians who stare out into the lake.
Great show. A ton of songs, a handful of debuts and more entertainment for the buck than we deserve.
Thanks to Randy at the Ren, Mike and Ken, Mike Ford and Mr MikeL Productions.