It’s always been an elusive challenge – to try to put words together in an attempt to define “the Canadian sound.” For me – and it is personal – this challenge was best met in the sound and feelings I derived from Stan Rogers. Not because he died young and not because he achieved more status than some. But because of his words and his ability to stir something in my heart that made me feel…Canadian. And like most, I pigeonholed Stan as an east coaster because of those words – surely the mind responsible for an epic song like “Northwest Passage” had to have come from a man of the sea – rather than the Hammer-born boy he was. But, in the end, it didn’t matter. The feelings were the same no matter where he hailed from – the pride spilled out either way.
And so it is with Dave Gunning. Shy, self-deprecating and hilarious in his low-key way, he is instantly larger-than-life in his ability to tell a story, to arouse a flood of emotion through his colorful descriptions of everyday life and in his ability to infuse a sense of history through material which demonstrates a love for common people. His delivery is equally powerful – although he’d be mortified by any comparison to Stan or fellow east-coaster John Allan Cameron – both of whom are major influences of Gunning’s since having seen them together in his very first concert.
After a warm greeting to the gathered faithful on February 1st at Acoustic Harvest/Robinson Hall on an icy-cold, blizzard-blessed evening, Gunning began with “Big Shoes” from We’re All Leaving, his hard whisper of a vocal blending nicely with his acutely expert abilities on acoustic guitar. Happy to credit his co-writers on every occasion, the song “Hard Workin’ Hands,” co-written with Ron Hynes, registered the power of a good song – with harmonies happening automatically in your head, despite the fact the song is being delivered by a lone singer. More hilarious stories ensued, with “Made On A Monday” serving to define Gunning’s own procreation in explanation for “things not working out exceptionally well.” Feeling the need to insert “a hanging song” into the program, “Before the Morning Sun” – co-written with James Keelaghan – proved anything but mournful, further demonstrating Gunning’s understated guitar skills in the bargain. From a story involving co-writing a song with George Canyon, Gunning reworked it into what became – on this occasion – a tribute to the late Pete Seeger, leading the audience in a spirited sing-along (the first of many) with “These Hands,” one of the first songs from Gunning’s latest CD, No More Pennies. Next up, from the same release, “A Game Goin’ On,” the song co-written with David Francey which had just scored big by winning the CBC/NHL’s Song Quest competition, Gunning’s driving guitar and high-energy delivery going far to explain its perfect fit to the game we love.
A short break – rendered more enjoyable as Gunning spent some time talking to fans – was followed up with Gunning’s hilarious observations from having attended Stompin’ Tom’s funeral and memorial. Clearly another musical hero, Gunning paid tribute by playing Tom’s wife, Lena’s, favourite Stompin’ Tom composition, “Song Bird Hill,” as he had done in Peterborough. Gunning noted the destruction of the environment by a paper plant in his own Pictou area, his conservation efforts inspired by Connors’ lead. Again, it’s stories of people, places and local events that provide the grist for Gunning’s mill. No more so than the evening’s greatest song, Gunning’s own prize-winning “Prince of Pictou” – which plays with historical elements and local hearsay to create an unforgettable character and one of the saddest stories ever told. The backgrounders into the beginnings of each of Gunning’s songs, as he provides them, have the power to illuminate each lyric in his song, rendering each one all the more gratifying. Like the simple story about a crooked clothesline post which lead to “Fade on the Line” – a song relating a dilapidated house to a lost love, mirroring the spectre of a deteriorated relationship. Or a song originally co-written about the migration of east coast workers to Alberta with Matt Andersen for Andersen’s latest release (“Alberta Gold”), evolving it into a similar theme for his own “Living In Alberta.” A song to celebrate the extreme cold of the Maritime winters, “When the Cold Weather Comes,” nicely set up a beautiful story surrounding poverty in the east coast with “Coal From the Train.” Here, railway workers – including his grandfather – would routinely shovel excess coal off the train cars for those hoping to gather it up to help offset the intense cold in their ramshackle homes. Emotions are tugged at, chests are pounded and out of the highs and lows of Gunning’s depiction of real life, you’re treated to a night of entertainment not easily forgotten. When you take songs of this calibre and record them, as he has, with the added hues of carefully selected instruments, the solo experience – from whence they came – proves all the more out-of-the-ordinary. Acoustic Harvest, indeed.
Opening the show was a too-young-to-be-so-talented artist named Mira Meikle who, quite shyly, approached her electric piano and sat down in what seemed – understandably – a form of suspended animation. In an instant, three songs emerged from her tiny frame – her voice and accompaniment immediately announcing a special gift to be reckoned with. Three songs later (available for listening on her website) “Strongman,” Chameleon” and especially the rock-solid “You Always Lose,” the seemingly far-reaching references she’s been receiving – to such giants as Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Laura Nyro – aren’t so far away after all. More like Josienne Clarke, June Tabor or even Diane Birch, perhaps but at the tender age of 13, she’s got room to move. Currently under the care and tutelage of David Bradstreet, her name won’t be a secret for long.
Photos: Eric Thom