Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

July 30, 2018

Violet's Giving Flowers Away

Last Sunday's mass shooting on the Danforth left me shaken, perhaps more so because I live in the neighbourhood next door. I heard about it half an hour after it happened, and for the rest of the night I was riveted to live news feeds as the horrific details trickled in. On Monday afternoon I had an errand to run near there, and I walked along Danforth Avenue in a daze, just trying to process my feelings.

By then, the focus of the coverage had shifted to how the survivors comforted and assisted the victims until the paramedics arrived. Human stories of raw love and compassion began to emerge from the mayhem. I was especially touched by the tale of nine-year-old Violet Thomson, an area resident who'd hand-picked flowers from her garden and was handing them out along the Danforth. When asked why, she simply replied, "because of what happened last night." Here's Violet getting ready to perform her good work (photos by Albert Leung/CBC) ...



... and giving flowers to a police officer on the scene.



Now, it so happens that in the few days preceding the shooting, I'd been working on a new song. As is my usual process, I worked out the chord sequence, strung the individual parts together and overlaid a wordless melody line. As for those lyrics, I hadn't planned on writing about the tragedy; that is, until I read about Violet and saw these touching images. So, with heartfelt gratitude to Violet Thomson, Md Ashaduzamman, Linda Falagario and those whose names didn't make the news, here's a song inspired by their love, courage and compassion, "Violet's Giving Flowers Away."




Took a walk along the city’s spine
Trying to reclaim what’s yours and mine
Shaken as we are, waiting on that morning star to heal this scar

I’m not saying I know there’s enough to go around
But on this blackest night, here’s where compassion was found
She cried and sutured his wound, as ammo polluted the room
And Violet’s giving flowers away on the Danforth today

Saw this sign that’s louder than the gun
“Love for all and hatred for none”
I pray with heavy heart when innocents get torn apart before they start

I’m not saying I know there’s enough to go around
But on this blackest night, here’s where compassion was found
He held her, begging, “stay with me," but angels fly too easily
And Violet’s giving flowers away on the Danforth today

When it all shakes down
Let’s remember our dear Greektown
Where love went down

I’m not saying I know there’s enough to go around
But on this blackest night, here’s where compassion was found
She held her and said, “you’re not alone," but angels have to go home
And Violet’s giving out flowers on the Danforth today
Violet’s giving flowers away from her garden today

© 2018 Vern Nicholson (SOCAN)
 

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June 29, 2018

Notes from the "Road" (Part 2)

Well, I did it! My inaugural micro-tour is complete. Let's begin with the final statistics:
  • Duration: 5 weeks
  • Shows played: 17
  • Unique venues: 13
  • Songs played: 47 (17 originals, 30 covers)
  • Songs repeated: 0
  • Songs debuted: 16
  • Song most frequently covered by other performers (Ben E. King, "Stand By Me"): 3
The audio highlights are now up on my music page, and using those as a roadmap seems as good a way as any to delve into the people, places and experiences encountered along the way. So, off we go. Fasten your seat belts and welcome to the tour!

"Days of Secret Seeing" (Stop 3—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, May 12, 2018)

Don Heights is a fabulous, welcoming venue that's well off the beaten path—a first-floor suite in a faceless office building that doubles as a Unitarian Church. When I got off the Don Mills bus at Wynford Drive, I muttered, "Wow. Welcome to Nowhere. Now entering The Middle." But location is the only downside. For $5, you get coffee, tea, cookies and two solid hours' worth of entertainment. Despite the family-friendly environs it's an older crowd, mostly church people I suspect, and the feature performer gets a half-hour set at the beginning and end of the evening.

I was first on the list, and hey, I didn't have a hard act to follow at all, as pianist Mark Lams opened the evening with jaw-dropping renditions of Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart. (He later closed the show with a Joe Zawinul tune, which left me even more impressed.) So: Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart ... and Nicholson. Gulp! Adding to my nervousness was the fact that I was debuting this tricky number (for me ... easy-peasy for Mozart), but I pulled it off to warm, supportive applause. I was happy to exit after one successful song and relax for the rest of the night.

"Box of Rain" (Stop 5—Free Times Café, Toronto ON, May 14, 2018)

The venerable Free Times is one of Toronto's most well-established open stages, and this was my second visit. That wasn't the original plan. My sources told me Lola in Kensington Market had an open stage on Mondays, but when I got there I was informed no, it's on Wednesdays. Had a terrible time hunting for a place to lock my bike, and the Market is one of the most bicycle-friendly areas in the city. Finding no bike parking in Kensington Market is like finding no hay on a farm. That was almost enough to send me home, but I thought, hey, the Free Times is just three blocks away, so I scooted up there in time for sign-up.

I was frankly intimidated by the sheer talent on display this evening. We opened with Charles, a brilliant flamenco guitarist; Lexi, who riveted my eyes to the stage with her great songs, razor-sharp riffs and confident, bellowing voice; Yoko (no, not that one) whose vocal technique was so staggering I wanted to ask, "What are you doing here? Massey Hall is that way"; and finally, a spiky-haired guy in blazing red suit, tie and shoes who walked onstage with a ukulele and stomp box and said, "It's snazzy time." Here's to you, Mr. Snazzy. Great job! What I'd give for a tiny bit of your showmanship. Perhaps inspired by the competition, I rose to the occasion with this sped-up Grateful Dead chestnut that I announced had been "put through my power-pop blender." Kudos and thanks to host Glen Hornblast for the pristine sound you hear on this recording.

"Lost Villages Wail" (Stop 7The Cavern, Toronto ON, May 20, 2018)

Yes, it really is a cavern in the basement of a hostel, and when I walked in a friendly young chap introduced himself, shook my hand, and asked if I knew of any good metal bars. Meanwhile, a keyboard-heavy post-punk band was setting up. One of them might have been the host/sound man; I'm not sure. By now, Grandpa here was feeling just a tad out of place, though I was hip enough to pick up on the Franz Ferdinand influence as they played their opening set. Each open stage has its own unique culture, and despite the fact that this wasn't a fit for me I'm all in favour of venues that cater to the youngsters. There are enough places for old fogies playing Eric Clapton songs.

Anyway, I closed my four-song set with this new tune, was received politely, stuck around for a couple more performers and made my way into the good night. Lest you think that was a hasty exit, the solo blues harpist who followed me must have felt more discombobulated: the applause had barely begun when he hopped offstage, up the stairs and out the door all in one motion. Lightnin' Hopkins!

"I Need Your Company" (Stop 9Fat Albert's Coffee House, Toronto ON, May 23, 2018)

Say no more: this is the one. Fat Albert's is Toronto's longest-running open stage, having operated continuously since 1969, though it's moved around a few times. Now well-ensconced in the United Steelworkers' building, Fat's offers a friendly stage, an older crowd of mostly musicians, and a decidedly folk and singer/songwriter bent. You know it's your kind of place when you can sing along to all the covers people play. Fat's charges $2, I think, to offset the rent, coffee and cookies.

Saw a few performers here that I first met at Don Heights, which isn't surprising; it's a similar vibe. One guy came up and did a solo instrumental on the tambourine, which I found a bit odd. I played this obscure Guess Who song and to my delight, a fellow guitarist named Dave came up afterwards and said he recognized it—in fact, he bought the original vinyl in '68. (See what I mean? My kind of place.) This song has more jazz chords than I'll play in a lifetime. For a couple of years in the late '60s, Randy Bachman had a serious love affair going with major sevenths.

"Late Night" (Stop 10Steve's Music Lounge, Toronto ON, May 24, 2018)

"Cozy, comfy space, fabulous sound, awesome host, friendly staff, great musicians. And it's all live-streamed if you can't be there in person. One of the best open stages in Toronto." Yes, I liked this place so much that I gave it the glowing Facebook review you just read. A purpose-built room on the second floor of Steve's Music at Queen and Spadina, this gem's only drawback is that not enough people know about it yet.

As usual, I signed up to play first. Whenever possible, I like to get my performance over with so as not to allow the nerves to escalate. Thankfully the camera is quite unobtrusive, so it's easy to forget that your performance is being live-streamed. Jessica, the aforementioned awesome host, is not only a kick-ass songwriter and performer but a fellow Steely Dan fan, and on this night she played a killer version of "Peg." I was given a generous four songs, one of which was this moody Syd Barrett tune that I think came off rather well.

"I Welcome You (But Do You Welcome Me)" (Stop 11McThirsty's Pint, Peterborough ON, May 27, 2018)

This show marked the only time during the proceedings that I felt like I was on tour. Not surprising given that it was my first out-of-town gig. Sour Landslide played Peterborough in the early '90s, but I hadn't been back since. I biked down to Union Station, took the GO train to Oshawa, then a connecting bus to Peterborough and a two-block walk to the venue. Travel time door-to-door was 3:11—again, very tour-ish.

I'd forgotten how dead these small towns are on Sundays. The convenience store adjacent to the bus terminal closed at 6:00, the Mr. Sub where I ate dinner at 7:30. I'd also forgotten how seedy the city cores of these places can be. After encountering a couple of aggressive panhandlers, I headed straight to the venue. I'm not terribly comfortable hanging out in a bar, but loitering outside wasn't a viable option on this night. While I'm at it, downtown bars in small towns can be horror shows in and of themselves. But McThirsty's, though I wouldn't call it upscale, felt reasonably safe. And the pop was cheap, too ($2.50).

Ryan, the host, ambled in around 7:30 and told me the show would start at 9:00—an hour later than I'd expected. The last GO bus back left at 10:16, and after I explained my predicament he graciously agreed to let me go on first. (At this point, I have to say that without exception, all the hosts I've met have been kind, helpful and congenial, going out of their way to make me and the other performers feel comfortable. Thank you all for your service!) Ryan generously gave me five songs, and I responded by playing my best overall set of the micro-tour; ironic given how jittery I'd felt since I stepped off the bus. This is one of my newer songs. Working title: "Theme for an Imaginary Spaghetti Western," with apologies to Jack Bruce.

"Street Choir" (Stop 12La Rev, Toronto ON, June 2, 2018)

Though I'd had nearly a week between shows to recuperate, recharge and rehearse, I arrived at this Saturday show in The Junction tired, grumpy and out of sorts. The venue is way out in the west end, start time 2:00, traffic on Keele Street backed up due to construction. Don't they know most musicians are just finishing breakfast at 2:00? The smallish crowd at this Mexican restaurant seemed like they were just getting going, too. Nevertheless, I was able to summon forth a spirited rendition of one of my favourite Van Morrison songs, even deftly navigating the always-tricky F#m in the chorus.

La Rev was, I'd say, the most laid-back, loosey-goosey venue of the tour. When I walked in, a guitarist was playing Merle Haggard songs accompanied by a guy on a ragged-but-right out-of-tune piano. Not my cup of tea, but well done. Later, a singer-guitarist named David regaled us with a shambolic thing he called "The Like Medley," featuring brief snippets of such classics as "Like Me Do," "Crazy Little Thing Called Like," "Like Me Two Times," "That's What You Get for Liking Me," "All You Need Is Like" ... you get the idea. It sounded funnier than it reads.

"Lady Air" (Stop 13Grinder Coffee, Toronto ON, June 3, 2018)

We now come to the most pleasant surprise of the micro-tour, and a literal surprise it was, too: I'd planned to play the Supermarket on this Sunday night. A couple of hours before showtime, I was in the midst of firming that up when I stumbled on a listing for this Leslieville café. As we say in football, I called an audible at the line of scrimmage and, in a teeming rainstorm, made my way here by bus instead.

You may have noticed by now that coffee shops and coffeehouses are my favourite places to play. Not that I'm a coffee drinker, but I'm even less of a drinker drinker, as in not at all. I prefer the cafés and community venues because people aren't there to drink but to listen, and I find them safer, more welcoming environments. Even when things go slightly askew, as when a neighbourhood gal stepped up to perform a hilarious song of hers called "My Special Hedgehog Friend."

This was Grinder's first-ever open stage, and I sure hope they'll do it again because it was a terrific atmosphere. The place was packed and the crowd quite enthusiastic, as you'll hear when the last notes of "Lady Air" ring out. I also, in homage to the coffeehouses of the '60s, played a rendition of the folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" and invited the (youngish) crowd to sing along. No one did because nobody knew the song. The times they are a-changin', Gramps!

"Groping to Victory" (Stop 15Steve's Music Lounge, Toronto ON, June 7, 2018)

By this point, I'd noticed that one of the micro-tour's main objectives had indeed been accomplished: namely, curtailing my stage fright. Repeated exposure really does help, as does performing to small crowds in friendly, low-pressure environments. Also by now, I was running out of new venues to try and returning to cozy, familiar places. That helped, too. Had my second "grandpa" moment in a week when some youngster told me he was having a heck of a time booking shows for his dubcore band. Sure. I can see how that would be a real challenge. Oh, and what's dubcore?

Steve's was very sparsely attended this evening. Not sure if this was due to the provincial election or not; the sound man blamed the designer chocolatier that had recently opened a few doors down. I managed a fairly energetic version of this number despite having to sit on a stool. For some reason, your standard issue folk-singer stool puts my guitar at an awkward angle. If I ever get to the point where I can draw up a rider, it'll have two items on it: chair and music stand.

"Away from the Numbers" (Stop 16—Don Heights Coffeehouse, Toronto ON, June 9, 2018)

In addition to the usual coffee and cookies, cake was served tonight and it was yummy. This evening also brought the latest instalment in what for me is a worrying trend: people doing karaoke at open stages. What's my beef? Well, one, it takes them forever to call up their backing tracks on their laptops, phones or what have you; two, it feels like cheating, like it's not a real performance; three, in my experience most of these folks cannot carry a tune. At least one host agrees, laying down the law like so at one of my earlier stops: "No singing to YouTube on your phone. This isn't karaoke night. You want to perform a cappella, fine, but this is an open stage. It's for musicians." Amen, brother.

Don Heights is easily the most eclectic open stage I've encountered. On this night, in addition to the aforementioned karaoke, there were poets, ranting politicos, a blues guy who played with his guitar flat on his lap, a torch singer and an opera singer. At the night's end, a guy came on who was a real live wire, a crazed beatnik poet spinning free verse over furious, almost violent strumming and banging. (Do not lend this man your guitar!) I loved his intensity, and though my material isn't quite as unhinged I like to keep things pretty peppy myself, as you can see from my song choice tonight. We are the mods! I'd rather have performed this on a Rickenbacker guitar through a Vox amp with Bruce Foxton and Rick Buckler backing me, but I made it work solo acoustic. In the last chorus, I managed to do the lead and backing vocals and somehow sound like two people—but there's no trickery, honest. It's all me, in real time.

And that concludes our tour. Hope you've enjoyed this little snapshot, and hey, maybe you can join me in person next time. As an ambivalent performer, I'm really proud that I saw my commitment through. Next time, I think I'll take it a bit easier and build in more off-days. Once again, highlights are posted on my music page, and I'm already pencilling in dates for the autumn micro-tour on my shows page. Thanks for listening!

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May 20, 2018

Notes from the "Road" (Part 1)

Greetings from the Linden Tree Spring Micro-Tour! I'm six stops down, ten to go, and with this break in the action today I'd like to reflect on how things have gone so far.

The parameters first, for those who are scratching their heads, muttering, "Micro-tour?" I'm playing 16 open stages in a month, the dates scheduled around my three-night-a-week work schedule. It's a way of performing to as many people as possible in a concentrated time frame, with the bonus of eating in my own home and sleeping in my own bed. To further add to the intrigue, each gig features a fresh batch of songs: there are no repeats. And if that's not enough, at every show I debut a new song—either an original or a cover.

Here are the raw stats to this point, for those who like to geek out over that sort of thing:
  • Shows played: 6
  • Unique venues: 5
  • Songs played: 15 (7 originals, 8 covers)
  • Songs repeated: 0
  • Songs debuted: 6
The micro-tour is an experiment. Among other things, I wanted to find out if it would lessen my stage fright. The answer is a qualified yes. From talking to other musicians and reading my heroes' biographies, I've come to see that stage fright is rarely if ever banished. The best I seem to be able to do is make peace with it, feeling the fear and doing it anyway rather than letting it paralyze me. But even with my small sample size, I'm finding that repeated, regular gigging reduces its intensity a bit. Low-pressure shows for small audiences, which all these are, certainly help.

Another burning question: do I actually like performing? It's no secret that the studio is my preferred habitat, and no amount of gigging will change that. Again, I give a qualified yes. (Apologies for waffling; I'm a Libra. I'm wired that way.) Hearing that applause—sometimes enthusiastic, sometimes tepid, always there—once the final note rings out is gratifying. I'm also in awe of the power musicians, especially singer-songwriters, carry: our words and music can move people, often in ways we don't expect. It's exhilarating to experience that in real time, in a gritty room with real people.

On the flip side, the unpredictability of live performance makes it challenging and arduous. There are simply too many wildcards. To an extrovert, I'd imagine that's exciting; for an introvert like me, it's overwhelming. The smallest thing can throw me off completely, not to mention the major disasters. Break a string? Guitar strap falls off? Music flies off music stand? Some loony staggers onstage and starts raving? That third verse has deserted you? Doesn't matter. You have to recover and get through it somehow. If I mess up in the studio, I can go back and fix it. Onstage, there's no "stop" button till it's over, and forget about rewind, baby. You're trapped in the moment, be it good, bad or ugly. That said, there's a palpable sense of relief (and dare I say victory) once it's over. Whatever I had to face, I made it through. Regardless of the outcome of that particular night's 10,000 variables, I almost never regret playing a gig.

It's telling that I can only evaluate my shows after the fact, from a recording. While I'm performing, there's so much going on internally that it's near sensory overload. I've learned that my internal experience in the moment isn't an accurate gauge of how I'm going over or how well I'm playing. I'm just trying to get through it as it races by.

I also embarked on the micro-tour to see whether it would feel like a real tour. So far at least, I'd say no, not really. That singular focus characteristic of touring is absent. I'm still working part-time, shopping, taking out the garbage, feeding the cat, and so on. The constant gigging means I have less time for the tasks of daily life, but it doesn't exempt me from them. And even though I've not played most of these venues before, the micro-tour is, with one exception, set entirely in my home city. As such, it lacks the element of novelty: new roads, new faces, new places, truck-stop food, gruelling travel, strange hotel rooms, unfamiliar beds. This isn't necessarily a bad thing! But even I could use a bit more adventure and a bit less routine. Maybe next time I'll build in a few more out-of-town gigs and dinners out.

So, that's the broad overview, but please stay tuned—in my next post I'll share with you some of what I've experienced along the way, along with thoughts on my performances. And if you'd like to follow along, either in person or vicariously, all the dates are on my shows page.

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April 16, 2018

Welcome to Siberia

If this is spring, I want a refund.

Temperatures remain frigid—it's so bad that tomorrow's high of 2° C is below the normal low for this time of year, 4°. This weekend's ice storm was so abominable I stayed inside for two days. I'd hoped to use the downtime to catch up on a few baseball games, but that didn't work out so well. All my favourite teams were snowed out or rained out the whole weekend, including the Blue Jays in Cleveland.

Today came the ultimate indignity. Now that the ice storm had petered out to a steady, cold rain, I thought I'd take in the Jays-Royals game tonight. After all, we're so smart up here in Toronto, prepared as we are for lousy Aprils. Our stadium has a roof. No postponements here. Take that, Cleveland!

Uh ... hold that thought. This afternoon brought chunks of ice flying off the CN Tower, with police cordoning off adjacent walkways near Rogers Centre in the interest of pedestrian safety. But Ma Nature wasn't done with us yet. A fragment of ice struck the stadium roof and tore a hole in it over the right field corner. Further flying debris caused leaks in left field. They've repaired the hole, but evidently enough issues remained with the roof that tonight's game was postponed. They'll play two tomorrow, assuming (1) they can patch up the roof in time; and (2) the ice shards stop flying (given tomorrow's balmy high, they sure as hell won't melt).

MLB is on pace to set a record for April postponements. Pretty much everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, it's been resolutely miserable. The White Sox and Twins were set to a play a four-game series in Minneapolis starting Thursday; three of the four were snowed out. As for the games they could get in, such as in Boston (game-time temp: 34° F/1° C) and Chicago (38° F/3° C), players resorted to ski masks, sweaters and hoodies in the futile quest to stay warm. Earlier this week, games in Denver and Minneapolis were played in the 20s Fahrenheit, which is minus single digits Celsius.

I'll give the last word to Kansas City manager Ned Yost, whose team narrowly escaped their own mishap with flying ice on the ride in from Pearson Airport: "If you come to a dome and get banged, something ain't right."

No, it ain't, Ned. Welcome to Siberia.

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March 24, 2018

Music as Micro-Career

Having just experienced the birthing of a solo album from conception to release, I've been reflecting lately on what it means to be an independent artist in 2018, and more specifically, how I see myself and my career trajectory.

Though to me it's not really the point, my music now generates a small amount of revenue. (It generates expenses far more magnanimously.) Still, I'm not yet approaching even the middle rungs of indie music success and am not sure I'm willing to do all it would take to get there. So, I must be a hobbyist, right?

Well, no. Hobbyists don't pour vast sums of their own money into mixing, mastering and artwork to create a professional product. Nor do they press hundreds of CDs, mail half of them around the world, track college radio airplay or design a cracking website in order to showcase and promote their work, all of which I've done in the past year.

This limbo-land I find myself inhabiting—my music being neither a hobby nor a full-blown career—has led me to redefine what I do as a micro-career. Now, I'm not using the term in the way your local employment centre might. For me, a micro-career is more along the lines of Robert Fripp's conception of "a small, mobile, intelligent unit." Instead of trying to smash through my limitations (financial, social, technical, musical), I'm working with them. With, not within. At times I stretch my comfort zone; at other times, I pull back. The material rewards may be few, but the artistic integrity is beyond price. To put it less weightily, I'm doing what I can, when I can, as I can, and letting that suffice.

The first fruit of this re-visioning is my upcoming micro-tour, scheduled for May-June. My last proper tour was over 20 years ago, and it brings back (mostly) fond memories; but I'm simply unable to tour on that sort of scale now, nor do I really want to. I find the prospect of booking shows daunting and long-distance travel is impractical, even more so for a non-driver. But I do miss the thrill of playing several gigs in a concentrated time frame, not knowing what the next venue or audience would bring. Drawing on Toronto's vibrant open stage scene, I've "booked" a micro-tour that'll let me experience just that—minus the endless highway, tedium, expense and pressure. On micro-tour, I can even eat meals at home and sleep in my own bed.

I'm still fleshing out what a micro-career in music looks like in other ways, and should I gain further insight you'll hear from me again. Perhaps (for me, anyway) its defining characteristic is this: I can forge a modest yet artistically rewarding career path on my terms, as I am able, and that feels immensely liberating.

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February 19, 2018

Yes, Sir, Let's Admire That One

If you follow baseball in Canada at all, you know who I'm talking about. The title alone gives it away. That's how deeply and ubiquitously the voice of Jerry Howarth permeated baseball culture in this country. With last week's retirement announcement, the baseball world has lost one of its golden voices.

Stephen Brunt's warm, insightful tribute, which I urge you to read, says it best: "What will summer sound like now?" For legions of Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians, myself included, Jerry was the Voice of Summer for 36 years, especially after assuming the Jays' lead announcer role when his long-time partner Tom Cheek died in 2005.

Baseball and radio are made for each other, and as a primarily auditory person, I'm wired to lap it up. The best broadcasters keep the listener informed,  entertained and when necessary, amused. Beyond that, the cream of the crop—and Jerry is certainly one—are gifted storytellers, taking on the persona of a wise, kindly uncle who slips in a life lesson or two amidst the grand slams, gold gloves and chin music. Sometimes I think the reason I've spent so many summers with Jerry, all 162 games' worth, is more about palling around with the uncle I never had than the race for the pennant.

As we sit on the cusp of spring training and a new season of Blue Jays baseball, we don't yet know who will take the reins as lead radio voice. But we do know who we'll miss. To the man who opened every broadcast with a warm "Hello, friends," I say farewell, friend, God bless, and enjoy your well-earned retirement.

On a related note, Leo Cahill, legendary '60s and '70s coach of the Toronto Argonauts, passed away earlier this week. Flamboyant, outspoken and quick-witted, Leo was a larger-than-life personality on Argonaut teams that had more than their share of outrageous characters. I can't recall any coach or GM, save perhaps the Leafs' Harold Ballard, who so thoroughly dominated the local sports scene. Cahill's brilliance as a coach was often overlooked, and as a recruiter he had no peers. Among his many accomplishments, Leo lured Joe Theismann away from the Miami Dolphins to lead the 1971 Argonauts to the Grey Cup, a game which left quite an impression on a certain 10-year-old.

Cahill never won a Grey Cup, but as a CBC colour commentator he got to call the second half of the Argos' 1983 victory, the one that broke Toronto's 31-year championship drought. And it's somehow fitting that the Boatmen won the last Grey Cup game played during his lifetime, last November's 27-24 victory over the Calgary Stampeders, the very team that beat Leo's squad in '71. Ironically, the heavily favoured Stampeders blew the 2017 game in a manner eerily reminiscent of the 1971 Argos.

Goodbye, Leo, God bless, and thank you. We won't see your like again anytime soon, and whenever I don my Mike Eben jersey—which arrived in the mail the day you died—I'll remember you, double blue forever.

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January 22, 2018

Words and Music Are Everywhere

Now that the CD is out, I've returned to one of the things I love best: songwriting. And I'm here to tell you that songs can come from some pretty odd places.

In November I took a train trip to Cornwall, and between Via's attendants handing out Remembrance Day poppies, the music I was listening to on the way (Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967), a piano sitting in a downtown square with jammed keys and a bit of research on the Lost Villages, I came up with a tune called "Lost Villages Wail." (It's not really about the Lost Villages—they provided me with good metaphorical meat, though.)

I generally write chords first, then melody, then words. If nothing comes spontaneously I go back to my "bits," those fragments I've recorded that on their own are little more than promising parts lasting no more than 10 seconds. If I'm lucky, I can string two or three together in the same song, but more often than not I create the music from scratch around one strong bit. And again, if I'm lucky, sometimes I get a melody so evocative that the words practically write themselves. That's what happened with December's new song, "The Lord's Glue."

This month's new song, "Let Love Strum You," springs from a truly bizarre source: a lumber outlet jingle I heard on a baseball broadcast. I pilfered the chords and melody verbatim, made it my chorus, and wrote the rest of the music around it. For the lyrics, I drew inspiration from this poem by John O'Donohue that I saw in a church bulletin. Nothing was used verbatim; I simply borrowed a few of his words, then filled in the rest. In fact, the tone of my lyrics differs considerably from that of the poem.

Words and music—they really are everywhere if you look. And all this is coming reasonably soon, I hope, on my second album, Days of Secret Seeing.

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December 18, 2017

The Westbury Wolves Official Playbook

After the frenzy of the CD release, I've been spending my much-needed downtime watching classic Grey Cup games from the '60s and '70s on YouTube. The '60s games were educational because I'd never seen them, but the early '70s are where the memories really start to kick in. The first CFL game I ever watched (on TV) was the 1971 Grey Cup. We had a new colour TV and rotary antenna, and Dad patiently explained the rules to my brother and me as we watched our hometown heroes, the Toronto Argonauts, snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a heartbreaking 14-11 loss to Calgary.

Fast forward through a lost 1972 season to November 11, 1973 and the Eastern Semi-Final at CNE Stadium. This was my first live game, again with Dad and my brother. Toronto, having finished in second place with a 7-5-2 record, hosted the Montreal Alouettes. We sat in the Grandstand, Section P, I believe, about 20 rows up. With two minutes left in the fourth quarter and the score 10-7 Montreal, the Argos have the ball on the Alouette 24. QB Joe Theismann, in what would be his final game in the CFL, drops back to pass. He finds rookie tight end Peter Muller open at the goal line—for the game-winning touchdown—and Muller drops the ball. The Boatmen tie the game on a field goal, but Montreal rolls over them in overtime, eventually winning 32-10. (Saving grace? The Als would lose the following week to the eventual '73 Grey Cup champion Ottawa Rough Riders.)

Around this time the neighbourhood kids and I started playing touch football, on the street, with modified CFL rules. For one, your average city street lacks goalposts, so we used the hydro wires attached to the telephone poles in lieu. (They were way up there and we were all lousy kickers, so I doubt many field goals were made.) Said telephone poles, about 30 yards apart maybe, also demarcated the goal lines, so our "field" was a tad shorter than the CFL's 110. A regulation CFL field is 65 yards wide; our street, including the sidewalks, might have been 10. If I recall correctly, the sidewalks were in bounds. Mrs. Shaw's lawn was definitely not, as she took great screeching pains to point out whenever the ball landed on it. (Hey, cool it, Mrs. S. At least we never broke your window.) I couldn't throw or kick, but had good hands and was a reliable tight end. Why, in my 12-year-old mind, I could've shown Peter Muller a thing or two.

All our offensive plays were pass plays. Running wasn't allowed, mainly because it would've been pointless in such a confined space. We mostly played against each other but on rare occasions, we'd challenge the kids who lived east of Bicknell Avenue. For these games we had to call ourselves something, hence the Westbury Wolves. And despite the sheer brilliance and cunning of our playbook (see below), as I recall we got our butts kicked whenever we ventured outside the neighbourhood for a not-so-friendly match.

So gather round, kids, and listen carefully, for Grandpa here is about to reveal the best-kept secret in the history of touch football—the Westbury Wolves Official Playbook. If you or your kids play touch football, give these a try. One or two of them might even work once in a blue moon. And if you've never heard of the CFL greats who are their namesakes, do look them up.

And speaking of namesakes: Hedge, Ec, Birdeen, Kojak, Cyc, Stick, Fuzz, the One-armed Bandit, The Ed, Dan & Don, this playbook is dedicated to you. (Yes, one of these is me. No, I'm not telling you which one.)
  • Mike Eben: Run forward seven yards, then back two or three.
  • Zenon Andrusyshyn: Line up wide left or right. Run forward seven yards, then cut outside.
  • Peter Dalla Riva: Run a curl pattern in the shape of a question mark, starting from the bottom.
  • Johnny Rodgers: Run forward three yards, stop, jump, then streak downfield.
  • Tom Campana: Run forward five yards, cut in sharply for two yards, then cut back out (like a T-shape).
  • George McGowan: Similar to the Dalla Riva, but instead of closing the question mark by curling in, run straight across the field.
  • Rhome Nixon: Run forward two yards. Accept the short pass from the QB, lateral back to him, then streak downfield.
  • Tom Forzani: Line up wide left or wide right. Run a 45-degree slant about five or six yards.
Fast forward, oh, 44 years, and the Argos are back on the CNE grounds, their new home a stone's throw from long-since-demolished CNE Stadium. What's more, the Double Blue are your 2017 Grey Cup champions, victors over Calgary, who themselves snatched defeat from the jaws of victory with a series of improbable blunders. I've rekindled my passion for football and splurged for a season ticket in the cheap seats. See you next June, Section 220! And, um, Coach Trestman? Feel free to borrow from the best.

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November 11, 2017

We Have Liftoff

With much merriment, Linden Tree near the Water was officially launched last Saturday night. Some 30 songs and many servings of cheese and crackers later, I'm still recovering. 😅

I'd like to thank Trinity-St. Paul's Centre and their helpful, courteous staff; the Metro at Bloor & Robert for the fine food and drink; my helpers for the evening, N.C. and C.W., without whom I couldn't have possibly pulled this off; and especially, all those who were able to make it out. It was a pleasure to play for such a friendly crowd, and as a result, my usual performance jitters were absent.

Missed out? No, you didn't. Not really, because the whole show was recorded and we even managed to shoot some video. It'll take a few weeks to sort through it all and work my post-production magic, but look for highlights on my music page as soon as I can get them up there.

In the meantime, you can purchase the album in my online store. Also available there: a 7" single featuring "That '70s Lifetime" and "Lady Air." Thanks for your support!

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October 09, 2017

Pulling It All Together

It's less than a month to release day! And about that ...

Linden Tree near the Water CD Release
Saturday, November 4, 7:00 p.m.
Chapel, Trinity-St. Paul's Centre
427 Bloor St. W., Toronto, ON
Free Admission & Snacks—All Ages Welcome

I'll be playing a ton of music for you on guitar, dulcimer, mandolin and harmonica. If you can make it out, it'd be a pleasure to meet you.

Now to the topic at hand: releasing an independent CD is a huge undertaking and finally, the legwork I've done over the last year is paying off. Yes, it's been a full year since I started researching blogs, magazines, podcasts and college radio stations that might be receptive to my music. The submission process is, to put it charitably, a one-size-fits-none affair. Some want physical CDs; some want downloads or streams; some insist that you submit through their online interface. A few come at you with such exacting, convoluted demands that it makes you wonder if they want to hear your music at all (answer: probably not).

Tip #1: Address Your Packages in Advance

This means well before you have anything to put in them. I blew out a long weekend in August doing just that, but because I did so I picked up my CDs Thursday and completed my mailout Monday, 165 discs in all. I'd have endured at least a week-long delay had I not addressed the envelopes beforehand.

Tip #2: Make Your Music Downloadable and Streamable

Industry people will go ballistic if you e-mail your songs as attachments. More to the point, they won't listen to them. Instead, use Dropbox (it's free) for all your downloadable assets (bios, one-sheets, music, artwork, photos) and SoundCloud (also free) to stream your album. Make it easy and painless for interested parties to hear and download your music.

Tip #3: Send Your Music to the Right Stations

Fair enough, but how do you decide which college stations are "right"? I used a few criteria:
  • Does the station play my genre of music? Take a deep dive into their program schedules. Yes, this will take bloody forever—that's why you do it a year in advance. For me, keywords in show descriptions were acoustic, singer-songwriter, folk—and on the fringes, Americana/roots and power pop. But don't stop there. Read the blurb carefully and ask yourself: is my material really a fit? In my case, some folk shows feature exclusively Celtic, traditional or old-time hillbilly music. Pass. And Americana/roots may mean one thing to me, but if (as was often the case) in the DJ's mind it meant country, rockabilly or bluegrass, I passed.

  • Lean toward the home team. Of course, the stellar quality of your music ought to trump everything, but I suspect that for unknown indie artists, your best chance of getting airplay is via the "I'm local" angle. I'm lucky. I live in a major city with tons of college towns within a 100-kilometre radius. I made sure every last one of them got a CD, even the tiny, low-profile ones. I also live in Canada, where stations must play a percentage of Canadian content, usually 35%. Your home country should obviously be perched atop your target list, but this is especially true if your country has something similar to our CanCon mandate. (Special note for Canadians: make sure your MAPL logo is filled out correctly and placed on your back cover and the disc itself.)

  • Has the station made any "best-of" lists? These higher-profile, well-run stations, if they're a good fit for your music, ought to be on your priority list. I can't emphasize the "good fit" aspect enough. If a top-ranked station plays mostly urban/hip-hop/EDM or punk/metal/noise, no matter how great they are or how vast their audience, why would you send them your folk CD? As for which lists to draw on, the Princeton Review is a good source and is current. I also scoured the Pigeons and Planes Top 25, even though it's a bit out of date. There are others as well. I've yet to see a list that includes non-US stations.

  • What's the station's reach? Ideally, you want to target stations with reasonably strong signals in major markets. As a longtime radio geek, I was all over this one. Radio Locator features coverage maps, frequency info and more; it's also a good resource if you can't find the station's mailing address any other way. You can make 20 inquiries a day, I think, for free. After that, you either splurge for a paid subscription or wait till tomorrow. (Guess which is my preferred method?) Finding US stations is easy; the search engine is more cumbersome when it comes to Canadian radio.
Now in a way, the title of my post is misleading. What I've outlined here is but a small slice of all I'm having to coordinate in order to put my CD out. I'm a tad obsessive, I know, but the fact is I have 10 to-do lists going. Hey, it was either that or have one list with 437 items on it.

Speaking of must-dos, creating a solid artist website—your online home and hub—is a topic worthy of its own post. I've no time for that now, but I cordially invite you to check out the new and improved vernnicholson.com. It took the better part of three months to construct, and I'm delighted with how it turned out.

As always, comments or feedback welcome, and I wish you all the best in your quest to get your music heard.

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