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Last night at the Phoenix

Somehow or another Tuffy P and I independently discovered Shovels and Rope on the YouTube machine. As it turned out, whatever kind of music it is they play, we both like it a lot. We even bought some music (in that adorable obsolete format called CDs).

As you may or may not know, not much gets past Tuffy P. She pretty much sees and knows everything. I don’t try to understand it; I just accept it. One day I was marking something on the calendar in our dining room – the paper one with pictures of Newfie dogs which organizes our lives – and noticed “Shovels &Rope” written in for the 11th.

“How come Shovels & Rope is written on our calendar?” I asked.

“Oh yeah, wanna go?”

“Of course.”

They were playing at a joint called The Phoenix. I believe that last time we were there (and this is going to seriously date us), it was called The Diamond Club. This is one of those places where people much younger than us stand for hours, crowded in front of the stage, and don’t complain about how their dogs are howlin’. We decided to go anyway.

Doors open at 8:00. That’s music talk for the opening act might start around 9:00 and the headliner will come on around 10, unless it’s someone with a bad attitude or unless it’s New Orleans (which has different rules). Had we thought about it, we would have showed up around 9:45 so we wouldn’t have to stand around as long.

Instead, we got there at 8:00. They don’t let you go straight into the club. Instead they herd you the roundabout way in to force you to pass the merchandise table. We didn’t make that pitstop. The club was, as I recalled, a big rectangle with high ceilings, various bars and a good-sized stage.

Tuffy P pointed to the staircase leading up to a balcony area and said, “let’s go up there.” We did, and what do you think we found up there? Padded bench seating, that’s what we found. Wahooo! We took a comfy seat at the front of the balcony and I headed to the bar to get us each a beverage. We watched as hundreds of people crowded into the main floor, where they remained for the whole show. It seems Shovels & Rope have quite a following here in Toronto. Who knew?  I believe you know you’ve finally grown up when you have little interest in standing up in a club for an entire evening. Just sayin’.

“Who’s the opener?”, we asked our neighbours. “Some guy with 3 names,” was the reply. It turned out to be Matthew Logan Vasquez, a guy from Austin who showed up with a bass player and a drummer and plenty of ego. He started off by saying “Hello Toronto Motherfucking Canada.” It wasn’t a really great start. Buddy had a twangy sound with an edge about it. Pretty good tunes. Lots of guitar effects. Turns out he was pretty good, even if he closed his 40 minute set with a longish tune (and I use the word loosely) – let’s call it a rocker – he sent out to the late Lemmy.

They did a quick stage set-up and Shovels & Rope came on at about 10:00 and played for an hour and a half. For those who don’t know, Shovels & Rope are a duo from South Carolina. If you were forced to categorize what they do, you might say they play folky-dolky country rock with a punky edge. You could say that but it wouldn’t do them justice. Shovels & Rope are a married couple act – Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. They’re in their mid-30s and they have some (all good) recordings under their belt.

Shovels & Rope don’t bring any back-up musicians with them, but they tart up the sound by playing multiple instruments. At one point they were both playing keyboards, but Michael was playing guitar at the same time, strumming every few beats (I’m not sure how he managed that) and Cary Ann was playing drums with her left hand while playing the keyboard with her right. They switch off between guitars and drums. Sometimes Michael added in harmonica on a rack, and for one song played mandolin. They get a lot of sound out of two people.

Their songs are remarkably good, and their performance is super-enthusiastic and full of joy. The feeling they get across is they love to play, they love the music and they love the audience. It was a great show! Go see them if they come to your town.

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After the show

I’ve been a painter for a long time, but I never get used to exhibiting my work. Making paintings is a very private thing for me. I don’t normally bring people into my little basement studio, and I feel very uncomfortable showing people unfinished paintings. Then somehow or another I decide this group of paintings is complete and I haul them out for an exhibition. As much as I enjoy seeing the work up on some clean walls, and showing the new pictures to people, it always feels weird.

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The Things we used to Do (encaustic on wood, 2016)

This last exhibition is unlike any others I’ve had. This year I made 6 small, shaped encaustic paintings, and then decided it was a completed set and it was time to do some drawing. I bought myself a set of pencils and an eraser and a block or really nice hot-pressed paper and started making pencil drawings in our garden. drawings2.jpg

In recent years any drawing I’ve done has been on paintings. This wasn’t always so. For several years, I went out drawing weekly with a group of painters. I usually did charcoal drawings on these outings. Some of the others did watercolour paintings.

Usually my exhibitions are fairly cohesive because they consist of a group of works I’ve worked on together, works which inform one another in all kinds of ways. My recent exhibition at yumart was different. It included the encaustics I mentioned as well as 4 of the new drawings. I continued to draw, by the way, right up to the start of my exhibiton, switching from pencil to charcoal and from garden to forest, somewhere along the way.

Yumart is in a larger space than it was at the previous location where I last exhibited. I thought this would be a good opportunity to put the new work in context by including a few older paintings, works I’ve never exhibited before but which continue to resonate with me in some way. These works were from 1984, 1994, 2001, and 2011 – spanning a lot of time, a lot of painting, and a lot of ideas.

After an exhibition, I typically avoid painting for two or three months. I look at my work and wonder, how did I create these things? How do I start again? Is it even possible to make more paintings? Even after all these years, painting is still very mysterious to me. There have even been some occasions when I’ve decided to stop painting. It turns out this isn’t so easy. Like a fiend with his dope and a drunkard his wine (as Merle Travis would say) eventually I’ve found myself back in the studio –  just for a little taste – which has usually resulted in a whole new cycle of work.

This time around, I’m getting right to it. It seems I have a head full of paintings, and a direction in mind which will be a departure from the approach, themes and motifs I’ve been exploring for some time. This should be fun.

Filed under: Art
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What’s so special about train songs, anyway?

I posted some train songs earlier, as I do from time to time. The train song may be the perfect folk song genre. Trains bring you to your baby; they get you away from your baby; they take you to the Promised Land (let’s just call it the Big Rock Candy Mountain); trains ushered in the industrial age, but in doing so, they created legends like John Henry, who fought the modern world and won, even though it killed him. Outlaws rob trains; heros drive trains (sometimes too fast, leading to a whole sub-genre of train-wreck songs).

Trains represent hope for a future, the opening up of the west and all that jazz. They also tell us a story of unbridled ambition and exploitation. And, they tell the stories of the traveling nation, hobos, tramps and bums, riding the rods, railroading across the Great Divide.

When U. Utah Phillips, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, recorded Daddy What’s a Train in the early 70s, he was lamenting an America that no longer needed the train, not the way it used to anyway, and he was sad because a whole generation didn’t know what it was they lost.

My family has a tie to railroad history in Canada. Grandpa – that’s my dad’s dad – came up to Canada from Chicago, to Montreal and then Toronto. He opened the Queen’s City Leatherworks in the early 20s when my dad was a boy, and he made gloves for the rail workers in the Junction (a rail town, amalgamated into Toronto in 1909…it was such a rowdy place that alcohol was prohibited, and it remained dry until 1998), a business which would persist into the mid-60s, long after the heyday of the train in Toronto. We just called it the Glove Shop. It was a place to live and a place to work. It was a way of life.

I had a pair of Grandpa’s one-finger gloves when I was a boy. My dad gave them to me and told me they were the toughest gloves ever made. They were like mittens but with one finger to give a rail worker the perfect combination of warmth and utility. They flared out half-way up my forearm, and I can tell you they were warm and they were tough. I loved them because they came from Grandpa’s glove-shop.

One day dad brought home two surprises for me – a spool of the tough thread they used to sew gloves at the Queen’s City Leatherworks – and a kite. The spool was one of those industrial-sized spools. Dad said it held a mile of thread. He said son, let’s go fly this kite out of sight. And we did too.

When Grandpa Lou wasn’t making gloves, he was making violins. In my books that makes him a super-hero. He taught that trade to my Uncle Gene, after whom I was named. My father was more of a rounder. He took up sax and clarinet and horse-betting and poker. He’d say son, just remember, poker is a game of skill and don’t let anyone tell you any different.

So many of the stories I was raised on, all my father’s wonderful crazy stories, were tied to the Junction and the trains and the Queen’s City Leatherworks. Maybe that’s why when I hear Hank Snow singing about a train it transports me back to my youth. By the time I was 6 or 7 years old, I knew all the words to the Wreck of the Ol’ 97, and I’ve never forgotten them.

Dad taught me a lot of important things about the world we live in. There are two Hanks, he’d tell me, Snow and Williams, and Snow is the important one.

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Train People

Sometimes nothing will do but I have to listen to train songs. I hope you understand.

Railroad Bill. They don’t name people after trains much these days. Here’s Hobart Smith.

A brakeman double-tough…

Here’s the late U. Utah Phillips, Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. This song makes me think of my dad who grew up in a family business making gloves for railwaymen in the West Toronto Junction.

Here’s, here’s a tune I’ve posted before. It deserves a lot of play, though. It’s Rosalie Sorrels covering her friend Utah’s wonderful Starlight on the Rails. This song sends shivers down my spine. A defining performance of a truly great song.

Mr. Fireman won’t you listen to me, I got a pretty mama down in Tennessee, keep movin’ me on….. When Mr. Snow said they were trying out this new song, I wonder if he realized he had one of the all-time great country songs. I’ll bet Hank and the Boys knew full well it was one of great ones the first time they rehearsed it.


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The Generous Forest


Hydnum umbilicatum – a hedgehog mushroom

The Newfs jumped into the car and we drove up to the Enchanted Mushroom Forest this morning. After a dry summer with few mushrooms, the forests have been generous in recent weeks.

The particular forest we headed for is an easy drive from the city, and produces reliably when we’ve had plenty of rain. There are a couple specific spots that fruit both varieties of hedgehog mushrooms, Hydnum repandum and Hydnum umbilicatum. They both have teeth, rather than gills or pores under the cap. Today I found a few Hydnum umbilicatum, so named because the top of the cap appears to sport a belly-button shaped dimple. In this forest the umbilicatum also have a more orangy-tan colour on top of the cap, compared to the repandum.



I also found quite a few Hypomyces lactifluorum – lobster mushrooms. Both these mushrooms are excellent edibles.

There were plenty of other mushrooms around. I saw some Amanitas and some others I could not identify. There were also lots of that weird fungi, Entoloma abortivum, known commonly as abortive entoloma. I didn’t see their usual companion though, the honey mushroom.

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The Fall

The 13th installment in my series of short-short stories, The Lazy Allen Stories, is now up on my stories page. It’s called The Fall. I encourage you to take a few minutes and check it out. All the stories are listed in the menu at the top of the page should you want to read more.

I post these things and I don’t hear much back. I’d love to know what you think.


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Family Selfies, construction safety and Hollywood North

Yesterday was our 15th Anniversary. Time for some family selfies. Tuffy P dug out her wedding dress and slipped in on over her plaid shirt. Perfect for a rainy evening.

In this photo, Georgie gets whacked by Jacques….


….and here The Partners are the stars of the show


Yesterday got off to a strange start. The construction crew across the street left a gasoline can sitting beside the road outside their construction fence, and another one sitting on the porch of one of the unfinished houses, an invitation for a neighbourhood fire. I’m looking forward to the day when these guys finish and get out here. I’m really getting tired of all the construction.

Through the morning, the street filled up with an extensive film crew, who are shooting a feature film called Legacy. They set up a base camp on Twenty Third Street, with trucks parked up most of the length of the street. On Twenty Seventh they were filming up the street and filled every available parking spot on both sides of the street from Lake Prom up to Jasmine. Off-duty police were stationed at top and bottom of the shoot, controlling traffic. I suppose there is some value to the City to have films made in Toronto, (and hopefully the neighbours whose lawns and homes were invaded were suitably compensated) but between the film gang and the construction crews, our quiet street was quite a zoo yesterday. They didn’t pack up until after 11.

We were gone for a while – we went out to Anatolia for some delicious Turkish food to celebrate our anniversary. When we came back there was a tractor-trailer on the street with an NYPD police car on the trailer. It was really chaotic. People were wandering about the middle of the street, other people jockeying vehicles around. I suppose this is exciting to some people, but I’d just as soon they filmed elsewhere.

Back in the day, when I lived in the old casket factory building on Niagara Street, there were film crews around all the time. One morning I was sitting on the sofa in my studio, reading a novel, with my cat William purring on my lap, when we heard them out in the hallway. “OK, QUIETTTTTT. READY……ROLLING”. At that point, William jumped off my lap, ran over to the door and let out a blood-curdling scream. “What the hell was that?” “I don’t know. TAKE TWO. QUIETTTTTT. READY…..ROLLING.” William let out another screech on cue. This happened 3 or 4 times. Then somebody had a bright idea, and tried to bribe him by sliding a slice of ham under my studio door. I snuck over to the door and tugged the ham in as it was offered. “OK, QUIETTTTT. READY….ROLLING.” Again, William let out a scream so loud you would hardly believe it came from a cat. He was having a great time. Finally they switched to PLAN B. When I left my studio there was sound baffling covering my door and the wall along my studio. What fun.

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Death of a Fisherman

Everybody who fly-fished the river knew him. His old pick-up with camper would be parked at the side of the road and John would be inside waiting for the evening hatch. He was always happy to have a visitor, to chat for a while before he started fishing. There would usually be dodgy coffee, made with river water.

John was an old school fly fisherman – he loved his long bamboo rods and his tiny wet flies. He’d tell you the right way to fish, even if you didn’t ask.

The camper truck won’t be parked by the river any more. John passed recently, at a trout stream of course. Last evening the usual cranks who haunt The River got together streamside, along with John’s daughter, to see him off. It was a lovely evening and a fitting tribute.

Tight lines John P. RIP.


Filed under: RIP
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The Parcel by Anosh Irani

I came to read this book through an unlikely coincidence. I was walking to a restaurant to meet up with some folks I worked with before my retirement from the workaday world. I was a little early, and along my walk came across a “fiercely independent bookstore”. How could I not stop in? I walked into the store and my eyes immediately fell upon a book called The Parcel. I was on my way to meet up with one current and two former Canada Post employees. It seemed to me that reading a book called The Parcel was just right.

I bought the book without knowing a thing about it, and continued on my way to see my friends. I didn’t know what to expect from the book but I never could have expected the book I came to read. The term “parcel” was used to describe a young girl sold into sex slavery. The book told the story of Madhu, who was a “hijra” – a eunuch in Mumbai’s Kamathipura red light district. Madhu was as beggar and a former prostitute. She also had a role in preparing children for sex slavery.

This book is very difficult to read. Irani takes us into the mind of Madhu, and ventures into her past (we learn that as a hijra, the “third sex”, Madhu was “he” prior to castration and “she” after), and as ugly and sad as her world is, she and her life are presented with great compassion.

This is a book I likely would not have chosen to read, had I paid any attention to what it was about, instead of buying it on impulse based on happenstance. I’m glad I read it though. It is a very unusual novel, a compelling, fascinating and horrifying read all at once.