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Family BBQ

We had a wonderful time yesterday hosting a bbq with many family (and one honourary family member) on both sides over for an evening of good cheer and conversation (as well as loads of good food and drink). I didn’t take any photos, but Sheila managed to snap a bunch throughout the evening. Here’s a selection…

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More banjo practice – a strange little tune

This weird and hypnotic minor key tune is called 41st Ave. Unlike many of the tunes I like to play, this one is not really old – it’s a contemporary tune. I learned it in a workshop taught by Cathy Barton Para at this year’s Midwest Banjo Camp, about the music of Grandpa Jones, Ramona Jones and the Jones family. Cathy told us this tune is by Mark Jones, who is the son of Grandpa and Ramona.

I’m playing my Dogwood banjo tuned to aDADE.

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Miss Sharon Jones (the documentary)

On Tuesday evening, Tuffy P and I, along with our pal Candy Minx, who is visiting from Chicago, headed up to the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema (the joint formerly known to Torontonians simply as The Bloor) to see the Barbara Kopple documentary featuring a year in the life of soul singer Sharon Jones.

I should put my cards on the table up front and say that even though lots of people think of me as a banjo and accordion freak,  I’m a big Sharon Jones fan. The Dap Kings are a great band and Sharon Jones does up the whole soul thing just right. While I was road-tripping through middle-America earlier this summer, Tuffy P scored us tickets to see Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings at the Toronto Jazz Festival at City Hall. What a great show that was!

The film documents a devastating period in Sharon Jones’ life. At the peak of her career, with a new album near release, the big C looms its ugly head and Sharon Jones found herself sidelined with stage 2 pancreatic cancer. Surgery. Chemo. Recovery. And in February of 2015, an amazing return to the stage.

Barbara Kopple gives us a glimpse of Sharon Jones outside of that charmed world of the music business and we see the performer struggling with her disease, her mortality, the effects of the treatment and her fears about the future. We also glimpse a practical financial reality – the band has no work when Sharon can’t perform.

Miss Sharon Jones is a difficult film to watch. We see a very tough and determined Sharon Jones getting back to the stage, realizing that even in recovery, there is no guarantee she is out of the woods. In fact we know – watching today – her cancer is back.

Excellent documentary. Recommended.



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Banjo Practice – Big Sciota

I recorded a bit of banjo practice today on my iphone. This is a tune called Big Sciota, except when it’s called Big Scioty, or Big Scioto. Whatever you want to call it, the c is silent. This tune is named after a river in South and Central Ohio. Apparently at different times the river has had other names as well.

I’m playing clawhammer style on a Dogwood Banjo, tuned to standard A.





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New menu on my stories page

I’ve added a new menu to my stories page. It was easy to see all the stories as they sat in the blog format back when there were only a couple of them, but now that I’ve posted a dozen Lazy Allen Stories, the new menu gives readers the opportunity to choose a story by title or go through the stories one at a time without having to scroll all the way down.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ve been writing a set of short-short stories I call the Lazy Allen Stories. Each of these stories is a very quick read. As I’ve been writing them, they are developing in a serial format.

The narrator is Lazy Allen. The stories are set in 1982. Lazy works in a bottling plant in Toronto with his old friend Staashu. He used to make his living playing accordion in polka bands but that was ancient Canadian history. Staashu was a musician too, who played in R&B bands. These stories are in Lazy’s voice. Some of them are about the old days with his band Lazy and the Rockets. Others are about working life at the Bottle & Can. Still others are about a new project Staashu has dragged Lazy into – a polka-punk band called NPK – The New Polka Kings.

If you aren’t among the select few excellent readers who have already  dropped by to check out these little stories, the shameless self-promotion department encourages you to do so immediately, if not sooner.


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The Infiltrator (a brief movie review)

We caught a matinee screening of The Infiltrator today. This film, set in the 80s, stars Bryan Cranston as Customs agent Robert Mazur, undercover as corrupt businessman Bob Musella – helping cocaine cartel nasties launder their money in order to bust the lot of them. Diane Kruger did an excellent job as Musella’s charming undercover fiancee. This film is a true story, based on Mazur’s autobiography.

This flick moves right along, very suspenseful, well scripted and performed. If you like crime drama, you should enjoy this one.


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No Beer in Heaven

This post is inspired by a Tweet from my friend Vin.


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Atongo Zimba…

The Polkaholics….

Митко Таралежков и Бат’ Невен

UND Fighting Sioux Band



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Bananas Foster – the new Lazy Allen Story is up

I’ve posted the latest installment of The Lazy Allen Stories. It’s called Bananas Foster. I hope you enjoy it (and the others in the group as well).

For those of you who haven’t read any of these short-short stories, I’ve been posting them more or less regularly since October of 2015. I originally developed the characters and some of the plot ideas with a novel in mind. Somewhere along the road, I found myself mired in novel muck, and decided to put that aside and write some short-short stories featuring the same characters. These were to be stand-along stories. As I’ve been writing them, though, they have been evolving into kind of a serial, which works well with the blog format I’ve stuck them into.

You can read the latest story, or any of them on their own. If you like them, I encourage you to scroll down the stories page and start reading them as a group from the earliest (The Bottle & Can) to the most recent.

If you’re really head over heels about these stories and want to back this project, visit my Patreon page.

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More forest drawings and a story about making charcoal

Here are more little drawings I made while off on a little adventure in “cottage country” with the Newfs. Click on any image to enlarge. Apologies are in order for the inexcusably poor quality photos….I snapped them on a cabin table with an iphone while the rain poured down outside. I’ll get around to doing more fastidious documentation one of these days (maybe).

These drawings were all done in the woods. There were mosquitoes involved. I’d go into the forest with the dogs, find a place to settle down and draw, then started to work. It was hot and humid and there was a storm coming on. At first there were no bugs at all but after a few minutes of drawing a small number of mosquitoes would find me and go back to tell their pals the party had started. I suppose the level of detail in these drawings partly reflects the changing ferocity of the bugs.

At the same time, the choices I made in these drawings also reflects the medium. I did these with some beautiful homemade soft charcoal sticks on hot press watercolour paper. The paper is just 12X9 inches, and on each sheet I created a border using standard blue masking tape, which I removed after applying fixative to the finished drawings. The charcoal sticks ranged in size from 1/8 to 1/4 inch.

I don’t have too much to say about these drawings except to say that I completed a set of smallish, shaped encaustic paintings and strongly felt I had reached the end of something, although I’m not clear in my own mind what that really means. I decided to stop painting for a time and go out and draw in the world for a while.  The first ones were larger pencil drawings I did in our garden. I don’t know where this little drawing adventure will take me and for now I’m not worrying about it too much. I’m just drawing.

For years, Sheila (AKA Tuffy P) and I, along with our Ron Bloore and Tim Noonan and Ardis Breeze, went out painting and drawing in the landscape together. I’ve written about this before on this blog. We called it Sunday Painting. Somehow or another Bloore was the glue that kept this going I suppose because when his health no longer allowed him to go out drawing, the regular trips to the woods stopped. Some of Bloore’s Sunday drawings are hanging around our house these days, and when I look at them, I can remember where we were when he drew them, and a hundred stories around those trips. I think looking at these drawings may be part of the spark which brought me outdoors with blocks of paper and a bag of drawing tools.

By the way, from the shameless self-promotion department, I’ll be having a solo exhibition at Yumart Gallery at 401 Richmond St in Toronto opening September 10. It will feature the new encaustics, a selection of older paintings which for one reason or another continue to strongly resonate with me, as well as a few of the recent pencil drawings.


Let me tell you a story about the charcoal I mentioned. Many years ago, back in the 80s, an old friend (a wonderful artist named Robert Bowers) and I, worked on the problem of making really great drawing charcoal. Good charcoal typically came from Belgium at the time, as I recall, and was really expensive. It was Robert’s idea to become do-it-yourself charcoal makers. I often thought if he hadn’t become an artist, he would have been a mad inventor. Maybe the two are not that far apart. Robert had a good general idea about how it was made, but but our early attempts were only marginally successful. We got better at it with each batch.

The best wood turned out to be driftwood willow gathered at Hanlan’s Point beach on the Toronto Islands. This was way back before Hanlan’s became a nude beach, complete with the nude beach snobs (who recently have been behaving rudely to non-nude bathers). Robert, who could be very funny,  dubbed the place the “Vernal Twiggery”. Even back then, though, it turned out this was a meeting spot for lonely souls looking to hook up, so we had to be careful our quest for willow twigs didn’t unearth any friggery in the twiggery, as we called it at the time.

We’d go over to the island with a bottle of wine, a picnic lunch, and our charcoal making gear, and gather twigs on and about the beach. We’d  bring along the official Canada Fine Art Charcoal kilns, which were two very large tomato cans. Of course every kiln needs a kiln lid (tin foil with holes punched through it). Charcoal is not burned wood. It’s wood which has had the liquids and gasses distilled out of it. To do this without burning the wood, you have to heat it while restricting the supply of oxygen available. We would dig Canada Fine Art Charcoal kiln pits (translate: we’d dig down a few inches into the beach sand), and start a little fire. While the fire turned to hot coals, we’d cut willow twigs to length and stack them vertically into the kilns until each kiln was as full as possible with twigs. I suppose it’s possible to calculate the best temperature of the fire, but we figured it out as we figured everything out, by trial and error. Next we’d put the kilns on the fire and fasten the lids. As the fire heated the wood in the kilns, gas was released. We would light the gas coming from the holes with a match. As soon as those flames went out, we’d close the secondary lid (translate: add a piece of tinfoil without holes), and using a couple bigger sticks, remove the kilns from the fire. We learned that after the the flames went out, the wood was in danger of burning if we didn’t seal up the lids and get the kilns off the fire.

We learned  that if the charcoal cooled too fast, it tended to break, but if we had more sand pits prepared, inserted each hot kiln in a cooling pit and surrounded it with beach sand, the amount of breakage was reduced to close to zero.

We may possibly have made the best artists’ charcoal on the planet. It’s soft and has a wonderfully broad dynamic range and it’s a joy to draw with. I kept a few bags of it and have been slowly using it up over the years. I still have enough for quite a lot of drawings all these years later. I’ve been out of touch with Robert for quite a few years. I hope he’s doing well out there wherever he is. I wonder if he still has some Canada Fine Art Charcoal, Number 1 Grade A Premium?