A Super Show in Sawdust City @GHOperaHouse

Grady Kelneck with Voyageur The Gravenhurst Opera House is of one of Ontario's true hidden gems. Designed by architect John Francis Brown on a commission from Mayor Charles Mickle (Miranda Mulholland's great-grandfather!), this remarkable building hosted its first theatre production in March of 1901. Over the decades it's been both used and abused but a critical renovation following the building's forced closure in 1993 has made it a cultural anchor point in the Muskoka Lakes region. Standing on the stage or in the house feels a bit like standing under a giant overturned canoe and those wooden ribs of the building make for a great acoustic experience as well as a great visual one. Curator Krista Storey and I had been talking for a few years about doing something there and this past weekend's OMEA conference up the road in Huntsville spurred us to bring some ideas to life.

And what life!
The "performance pocket" near the end of the presentation usually runs 4-10 minutes - typically giving time for 1-3 performers to bring Voyageur to life. Especially for community shows like this one, I do encourage the organizers to consider building a longer show if they want to give more local artists the opportunity to play the guitar and from that suggestion Krista built a line-up befitting the magnificent stage we'd all share:
We'd encountered Angie Nussey back in 2008 at an event in Sudbury where she got to play Voyageur privately during her photo session but to hear her in her real element on the stage was a whole other experience. She's a terrific songwriter with such an easygoing presence and is apparently - for good reason - a fan favourite at the GOH;
Sean Cotton had also played Voyageur in 2008 - passing it between him and Catherine MacLellan on stage at the Ottawa Folk Festival. For this show Sean accompanied himself with a specially mic'd empty guitar case as percussion and performed two songs - one about the mysterious disappearance of painter Tom Thomson and one written specially for the occasion called "Six Strings Strong". We must vow to either get Sean into the studio to record that or - better yet - reconvene everyone at the GOH for a live recording!
Sue Wood, whom we first met at an event in Mount Albert ON back in 2011, demonstrated a gorgeous voice reminiscent of a younger Joni Mitchell and - fittingly - started off with a beautiful rendition of Mitchell's "Stardust" (with no radical retuning!) leading into a delightfully cheeky original;
Andrew Currie's position as a go-to musician, teacher, retailer, producer and instrument collector extends beyond Gravenhurst to bands and industry folks around the province and across the country. He used his two song set to pay homage to two songwriter friends from the region, including the late Bob Dean. He also presented me on stage with some tape that adorned his vintage Elka bass pedal unit as it crossed the country with the Tragically Hip on their final tour last year. For now, I've mounted it onto the strap but its location may make it vulnerable to falling off so I'll be looking at alternative spots for it. In the meantime, it was a tremendously thoughtful gesture from an enormously talented gentleman and I'm grateful for it;
Aaron Kowalchuk is Gravenhurst's answer to Jimmy Bowskill - a tremendous blues talent at an outrageously young age. His father told me he's been playing guitar since the age of nine. He played in tribute to a local veteran (more about that later this week) and his presence was both a reminder of the depth of talent in the region and a glimpse of the future of music in the community; and finally (though he played second in the order, insisting that he wasn't up to the calibre of his onstage compadres) there was Grady Kelneck (pictured). I knew Grady was from a musical family because when we were introduced by email he let me know that his very musical parents had had their portrait taken with Voyageur in Orillia back in 2010 and sure enough there's his dad, Ike - who died unexpectedly back on April 25th - hamming it up with the guitar, playing it like a piano. But that barely scratched the surface of their musicality. Ike's father - Grady's grandfather - Henry Kelneck had been a furniture and musical instrument store owner and popular bandleader in Timmins ON when he helped launch the career of an itinerant musician passing through town and playing for beer money: Stompin' Tom Connors. So instrumental was Henry in Tom's development that Tom wrote a song about him, "Polka Playin' Henry", which you can hear here. But those of us in the GOH heard it even better, coming as it did through the keening voice of Henry's grandson carrying generations of music with it as his hands moved up and down the fretboard made from J.R.'s Bar in Charlottetown - another place that nurtured that Canadian legend. I think my favourite of Grady's stories as he played was that when Stompin' Tom asked someone to go get a guitar amplifier, what he really meant was a two-four of Moosehead beer!

Thanks again to Krista and all the musicians as well as house manager Kelly Hamilton and house tech Martyn Green. Thanks also to Bryan White and Amy Taylor, portrait station volunteers Linda Trotte and Laurie Ryan and everyone who came out to the show and to have their portraits taken. A very special thanks also to our good friends at D'Addario Canada and to Sgt. Ted Hudson C.D. (retired) - more on them later in the week.

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