Getting Real (and Royal) in Thorold

Phil Soper I was curious to see whether a room full of real estate agents would see the maps I begin my presentations with a little differently from other audiences. It wasn't a radical difference but the answer to what feature was missing from the series of maps (people) came very quickly from the agents and support staff at the Royal LePage Niagara January Kick-off.

The thing that really made yesterday's presentation click, though, was the fact that Royal LePage is celebrating its own history as they mark the 100th anniversary of the company founded by pioneering Toronto home seller Albert E. LePage. Hosted by the Niagara Real Estate centre, yesterday's event was all-in – complete with birthday cake and recognition of community and charitable works by company members. And when it came time for someone to play the guitar, I was delighted that the honour went to someone who was already a fan of Six String Nation, Royal LePage president Phil Soper (pictured).

Amazingly, Phil arrived with his own mic and pedal system (clearly he's done this before!). And while he joked about having a wilder musical side as a younger man, over the course of two tunes (one original and one cover) he clearly showed original chops and a barely diminished rock and roll roar in his voice. Great job!

After the presentation we moved the celebration to the lobby of the John Michael Conference Centre in Thorold ON, where Six String Nation photographer Doug Nicholson was ready and we shot portraits with most of the attendees. We'll have those up on Flickr in due course so check back in a couple of weeks.

Special thanks to hosts Margie Spence and her team, including Deanna, Val, Brad, Ryan, Val and Cal. And thanks as always to my good friends at the National Speakers Bureau.

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Early Risers

Ben Cummings in the studios of CKSY, ChathamThe emcee for the Justin Hines show last night at the John D. Bradley Convention Centre was Blackburn Radio host Ben Cummings of CKSY in Chatham. He was fascinated by the story of Voyageur and the Six String Nation and asked if I'd be willing to get up early for an interview down at the station, just around the corner from the Convention Centre. No problem! In fact, I arrived before anyone was available to unlock the front door so I went and got a coffee and came back. Ben is doing the whole announce-operate thing so common in radio these days (no engineers or producers in the room) and had us up and running in a couple of minutes. The interview will air tomorrow (Sunday) morning on CKSY – hopefully with a little Justin Rutledge or Mack Edwards music to follow.

After the interview (and remember, still with only popcorn as a meal since Friday breakfast!) it was off for breakfast at Eli's Trackside Diner with Mike & Brenda Neuts and Jim Burgess from down the street at A Life Full of Books. Thanks to all for their hospitality!

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Retro Sweet!

Retro Suites Hotel bartender Joseph LingWe haven't known each other long, but I get the feeling Mike Neuts knows me pretty well. For last night's concert at the Convention Centre in Chatham he could have put me up at the adjoining Holiday Inn Express but just intuited I'd much prefer the RetroSuites Hotel downtown. The main building was built as a Baptist Church back in 1850 and converted into the Merrill Hotel in 1890. Over the years it fell into disrepair but was bought by vintage automobile collector, dealer and exhibitor Rob Myers and his wife Cathy, who reopened the hotel as the RetroSuites in 2002, annexing other parts of the corner block since then. Every room is a different design and every nook and cranny of the hotel features either Cathy's original work or paintings, posters, sculptures and objects from their considerable collection – including the original 12' tall tin soldiers from FAO Schwarz in New York.

I'd had no lunch or dinner yesterday by the time the Justin Hines show got going and by the time we finished signing books and CDs and meeting people after the show it was pretty late. Arriving back at the RetroSuites around 11:30pm, I found the Chilled Cork kitchen long closed but remembered the rooms at least had a microwave and free popcorn! Bartender Joseph Ling (pictured) set me up with a glass of wine to accompany my popcorn and asked about my taxicab-yellow Calton guitar case. Turns out he's a player so I was only too happy to show him Voyageur before retiring from a long day.

Thanks to all the staff and management at the RetroSuites and to Mike for introducing me to the place. We'll be back!

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Justin Smiles for Myles

Justin Hines with Voyageur and Myles NeutsIn spite of the first real cold weather of the season, threats of a snow storm and soft pre-event ticket sales, Ballroom A at the John D. Bradley Convention Centre in Chatham ON filled up nicely for the Justin Hines concert in support of Mike Neuts' MCBN Children's Association – founded in memory of his son Myles Neuts (pictured behind Justin in the accompanying photo). I'd been familiar with Hines as a songwriter and recording artist for some time and was looking forward to meeting him in person. I was early for soundcheck, joined soon by Justin's band – including guitarist/producer Justin Abedin. Before the other Justin arrived, I familiarized the band with Voyageur and Abedin decided to play it during the first set. His choice of repertoire just happens to be one of my favourite songs of all time, Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill.

Hines arrived a few minutes later and I gave him the tour as well. He announced the band honoured to be able to use the guitar during the show. Of course, Justin has quite a story himself but one of the great things about his show is the way he incorporates the stories of other extraordinary people he's encountered along the way – from an 8-year-old autistic singer to Joplin Missouri tornado survivors to a Harley-riding granny. That storytelling during the show prepped the audience for my own storytelling about the Six String Nation before the second set.

It was great to meet the Justins and co. at this event and to see so many friendly faces from my previous appearances with MCBN. Thanks again to Mike and Brenda Neuts, Joanne Lefebvre and everyone who turned out to make the show a success.

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Happy Birthday Don Ross!

Don Ross live in Elora ON with Voyageur Don Ross is one of the great guitar players. He's also a great guy and a great friend to the Six String Nation project going back to before Voyageur was even built.

Back in 2006-7, I commissioned a piece from Don. He performed an early version live on CBC Radio's Fresh Air program in advance of a concert event we did together in Orangeville and I've since seen Don play the piece on Voyageur on a number of other occasions, including at Hugh's Room and at a concert he did with Tony McManus in Elora (pictured) – each performance the piece morphing slightly and settling into its essential state. He recently committed that settled version to tape for his latest album, Upright & Locked Position. It's a huge honour for me that he titled the piece "Voyageur".

Today is Don's birthday and he'll be celebrating with a performance with his wife Brooke Miller at The Maze in Nottingham, England. May I suggest that everyone reading today send Don a little birthday present by going on iTunes and downloading VoyageurIt'll be a gift to Don and a gift for yourself of what's already been a gift for me many times over.

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Birthday Presence

Sarah Calvert performs for Carol Blackburn and friends Our friend Jonathan Dorfman was looking for a way to surprise his wife Carol Blackburn on her 40th birthday and Sarah and I offered to host the party here. While his folks looked after the kids, he'd pretend they were coming by to pick us up for a small dinner out while 20 of her friends were already gathering at our place. We hid everyone's coats in the laundry room and sshhh'd ourselves as they climbed the stairs. The surprise worked like a charm and it was a lovely evening with old friends and new and some great food (including a huge tray of samosas from my friend Khalid Bukhari at the nearby Shala-Mar restaurant).

Among the guests was Sarah Calvert – a member of Carol's book club. In the course of introducing ourselves, we discovered that she'd been at the recent OCFF Conference in Mississauga and missed my keynote address – hearing from friends that she would have loved it. So she'd been wanting to meet Voyageur since then and there it was behind a curtain just a few steps away!  At the appropriate point in the evening we announced a brief performance. I brought out the guitar and handed it to Sarah C, who performed one original and a Radiohead sing-a-long – a very special capper to a very special evening.

While a handful of people stayed 'til the wee hours swapping stories and drinking bourbon, Sarah had to leave after her mini-set because she was due on a plane early this morning for a rendez-vous in Fort Hope Ontario (about half way between Winnipeg and James Bay) with other Friends of the Nation Kev Corbett and Manitoba Hal to take part in a workshop in that northern community for the amazing ArtsCan Circleorganization.

So happy birthday Carol and safe travels Sarah, Kev and Hal!

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From Lapel Poppies to Tall Poppies

Veteran Don Stewart gave us a great reason to recall the poppies of "Flanders Fields" this past Remembrance Day but today I want to talk about another kind of poppy.

If you don't know the phrase "Tall Poppy" it refers to those outstanding people who dare to rise above the crowd only to be cut down on account of being so visible. It's sometimes considered a hazard of being Canadian and sometimes more in some parts of the country than others. Laura and Rod Weatherbie of Charlottetown were at the top of their game in the web biz in PEI and were feeling that awkward "exposed neck" kind of feeling and decided to make different kinds of standouts of themselves in Toronto and had decided to call their firm Tall Poppy. Since that move, they've blossomed into a thriving downtown boutique agency offering a full suite of services in web design, print, strategic planning and more to a wide selection of corporate and not-for-profit clients. And back in 2005, they took on Six String Nation as a labour of love and an expression of their own enthusiasm for the project.

Under Tall Poppy's guidance, this website has undergone a number of iterations over the years as the web publication landscape has grown and changed. The only part of the equation that wasn't really growing was me. Sure, I knew a little bit and had grown reasonably comfortable blogging and tweeting and updating my calendar – but for most little changes, I'd have to call them up while they were dealing with paying clients and bug them to add this or move that or get rid of this page or change that one. I felt like a bit of a bother, frankly. Well, whether I've gotten smarter or the technology's gotten simpler, we're at the stage now where I can handle a lot more myself and hopefully make this site more useful, more integrated with social media and easier to use for our visitors.

So if you notice the website looking a bit different, that's because my friend Guillaume Semblat – who offered to help because he pointed out quite rightly that there really should be a version of the website in French – got me up and running with some simple tools that will allow me to stop bothering the good people at Tall Poppy every time a change needs to be made. The French version will be coming soon and we hope you'll enjoy new features of the site as they come on stream. I also hope that we can continue to use the remarkable "Guitar Explorer" feature – designed by Tall Poppy – that so many teachers and students have found so useful. That is still in Flash so it won't work on Apple mobile devices but everything else should be fine. Please be patient as we work out the inevitable bugs and correct the inevitable errors.

And if you are looking for a terrific firm to help with your business identity and presence, don't hesitate to get in touch with the good people at Tall Poppy, whom I want to thank profoundly for their years of volunteer service to the Six String Nation.

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For Our Veterans on Remembrance Day

Don StewartThe shoulder tiles and insignia of the Princess Patricias Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment on Voyageur's strap are there to represent all the Canadian Armed Forces. And we're proud to have put the guitar into the hands of many men and women from across the services at events at the Canadian Forces College and elsewhere - and, in fact, to have adopted the official nickname Voyageur at the suggestion of Lt. Col. Susan Beharriell (ret).

But we're especially proud on this Remembrance Day to have recently met the President of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre Veterans Residents Association, Don Stewart, aged 88, originally from the Okanagan Valley, BC. At age 16, Don lied about his age and enlisted in the Canadian Navy Volunteer Reserve and soon found himself a crew member on the Duncan Park and on patrol in the Ganges near Calcutta where the ship was hit and sank. Although Don survived the sinking, he was confused with another "Stewart" and his parents were informed of his death.  Meanwhile, Don was in a Japanese POW camp in Malaysia where he contracted malaria and earned the bald pate he's worn ever since. His return to Kamloops was a real surprise for his folks!

After a career in engineering, Don was visiting his son in Toronto when he took ill. He credits the Veterans Centre at Sunnybrook with his recovery and ongoing good health. Our photo shoot coincided with some controversy in the media about the Veterans Centre. You can see a statement in response to those stories here. But for now – on this day – we offer the respect of the Nation to Don and those like him who sacrificed youth, life (and sometimes hair!) in the service and defense of Canada.

Thanks to Amber Hall and Ana Seara at Sunnybrook and, as usual, Six String Nation's extraordinary photographer Doug Nicholson, for this beautiful addition to our portrait gallery.

Click to see the full set of portraits from the session with Don.

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Thank You BC!

It turned into a longer trip than it had begun. A presentation for the Northern BC Tourism Association in Prince George became PG and a school presentation in Coquitlam; that became PG, Coquitlam and another presentation for Esri Canada in Vancouver and another Coquitlam school visit was added after that.
In the midst of those activities I managed to squeeze in an encounter with Jordy and Maria and Geno of the Shooters Group, a meeting with Elissa and Sue from Coldsnap, an email exchange with artist Peter Van Thiesenhausen after spying one of his "Watchers", some much-needed quality time with friends Paolo and Natasha with their adorable toddler Mela and always lovely grandma Mariella, a weekend in Victoria to visit my sister Annalisa, partner Neil and nephew and niece Callum and Anika, a house-call to the Bachand residence/studio/instrument-workshop, coffee with Marsha, coffee with Mark, coffee with John and Randy, tea with FionaBarry and Ursula, cognac with AlexPaul and Michael and a variety of experiences in transit - from calming to frustrating to sublime. In almost all of these encounters there were fresh ideas and projects bubbling to the surface so  I wanted to acknowledge all of those people and experiences and say to the rest of you reading in BC that I hope to see you again in the spring!
Pictured: Yue Minjun's A-mazing Laughter sculpture at English Bay in Vancouver.

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Hellish Road to Heavenly Music

Iris Hung, Gleneagle, CoquitlamI'd left myself a good hour yesterday to get to Gleneagle School in Coquitlam from my meeting in the east end of Vancouver figuring the extra time would be needed at rush hour. Only I emerged from the Starbucks to find... or rather, NOT find.... my rental car with Voyageur in the trunk – it had been towed! With some advice from a nearby store cashier, I figured out who to track down the vehicle. It took about 45 minutes to get the car and get back on track. But the track – Highway 1 – was clogged from construction. The GPS now had me arriving an hour after I'd hoped but that was still an hour before the event start. Although the traffic was stop and go, I felt better seeing the signs for Coquitlam and the GPS telling me to take the exit in 300 meters. Unfortunately, that exit was behind a concrete construction barrier and I soon found myself on the world's widest bridge on the way to Surrey BC! Suffice to say that I arrived at the school with 15 minutes to spare and everything set up smoothly with the help of teacher Bryan Jackson – who organized this visit as a Me To We fundraiser at a school parent-teacher night – and student Katie up in the booth. A very attentive and appreciative audience heard me through my failing voice (an oncoming cold) and were rewarded with two terrific student performances to round out the presentation: Andrew de los Reyes (already fluent after only months of guitar classes) played a City & Colour song and Iris Hung (pictured) played a well-crafted original song. Thanks to Bryan Jackson and his family, who also attended, principal Gerald Shong and guitar teacher Doug Mancell. And, of course, thanks also to everyone who attended (and missed their curling dates!)

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