09 Apr The Night An Astronaut Came to Play
Every single Songwriter Series show that we have presented since May of 2015 has been a terrific evening of music, for one reason or another. Each time my co-host Brett Caswell and three singer/ songwriters take the stage at the Temple Lounge you never really know what to expect. Perhaps one reason is that, as the curator of these ‘guitar pulls’, I am trying to mix it up. I think it’s important to book music artists from various genres, different backgrounds, and different generations. In Season One of the series (May-Dec. 2015) we featured more than fifty singer/ songwriters performing all kinds of music including rock ‘n roll, outlaw country, pop, afro-cuban jazz, americana, alternative rock, texas country , indie, soul, alt-country, folk, Celtic, trad-country, roots, alt-folk, and bluegrass. It is in this spirit of musical diversity that we launched the Second Season of The Songwriter Series on March 22.
The first artist I booked to launch us in 2016 was folk-roots artist David Leask. David is a veteran singer/songwriter whom I first had the pleasure of seeing perform in the 90’s during a showcase at Canadian Country Music Week. He’s definitely a folk artist and, originally from Scotland, many of his songs draw from his Celtic roots. Next up was Jonathan Byrd, an Americana artist who hails from North Carolina and has developed a strong following across Canada. And finally, I was able to confirm pop singer, songwriter, and multi-talented musician Emm Gryner. She’s from my hometown, Sarnia, ON, and I have been following her career since the late-90’s, so I was thrilled that she had agreed to perform on our stage.
The day of the show was just like all the others, except for the fact I was a bit more energized and excited than usual because we had taken a three-month hiatus. I arrived at Donaleigh’s at the usual time, late afternoon, but Jonathan and his sideman, Johnny Waken, were early and eager. They were already on stage setting up their gear. Soon after our trusty sound tech Stephen Van Stiphout arrived and assisted them with plugging in and turning on amps, mics, pedals, etc. Brett Caswell lugged in his keyboards and guitars and was excited to be back at it, time for another cool guitar pull. This talented musician, songwriter, and producer has been co-hosting this series since the 1st show and hasn’t missed one yet. Caswell is in the enviable position of having performed now with a who’s who of North American music artists from old friends of his like Carleigh Akins and Neil Quin, veteran artists Gurf Morlix and Ron Hawkins, and younger songwriters including Tim Chaisson and Jessica Mitchell. Brett not only performs his original songs but knows when to jump in and play keyboards or guitar with the guests. Sometimes it is the improvised nature of the guitar pull that creates magical moments.
Soon after Brett arrived, David Leask made his way to the back room and now we were just waiting for Emm. So Jonathan, Brett, and David got their sound checks out of the way and shortly after that our audience began to arrive. By the time Emm made it to the venue the room was 2/3 full and, as usual, there was a palpable energy in the room, an anticipation of the great music to come. Most of the live music lovers at each of our shows has been to The Songwriter Series before. They return because every ‘guitar pull’ is unique, special, and always entertaining. The songwriters’ share not only their music but also the stories behind their songs.
About 20 minutes before show time Brett approached me, barely able to contain himself. Now this is not unusual because Brett is always full of energy and positive vibes, especially before taking the stage at each Songwriter Series show. But before I could ask what was up he blurted out, “You won’t believe this. Emm just told me that Chris Hadfield, the astronaut, is coming to the show tonight. And she wanted to know if it would be alright if he played a song with her tonight. I said, ‘of course,’ and she said they were thinking of doing Bowie’s Space Oddity. I said, let’s do at the end of the night. She said ‘sure.’ Oh my God, this is blowing my mind.” And off he went, bouncing into the crowd, chatting with friends, walking on a cloud.
In my experience of producing music television and promoting live shows it never ceases to amaze me the situations in which you find yourself, often spontaneously. I can recall country star Keith Urban jumping onto a coffee table in the lobby of Calgary’s Palliser Hotel at the CCMA’s during a small, intimate guitar pull I had set up after the Awards telecast, or my friend Jill dragging me to to a small club in Printer’s Alley in Nashville to see a brand new unknown band called The Dixie Chicks. The music industry has provided me with so many of these great memories but never did I ever think that I would be involved with a show that featured an astronaut. But not just any astronaut, the first Canadian to walk in space, the Commander of the International Space Station, and the first astronaut who really brought space life to the people of earth through social media. So cool.
The first set that night was great. It was a real eclectic group of artists and genres. The stage was crowded and Johnny (Jonathan’s sideman) had to share my microphone (I am the MC of each show). It was as close as I have ever been to a performing musician (so close he put his arm around me during the first song!). As is usually the case at these shows, the first set is a time when artists who have never been on stage together feel each other out. For the most part they sit and respectfully listen. A highlight for me was Emm’s performance of her wonderful song ‘Almighty Love,’ a tune U2’s Bono once told an interviewer he wished he had written.
After taking our usual 15-minute intermission it was time for the second set. At some point during the first set Chris Hadfield had arrived and was sitting at a table, stage left. The majority of the audience had no idea he was in the room. Brett, David, Jonathan & Johhny, and Emm were fantastic. Brett was joining in with each of them on guitar or piano. The audience was loving these talented musicians with their mix of deep heartfelt songs, uptempo tunes, and hilarious stage antics (Jonathan and Johnny). It was the first time anyone had played a Saw on our stage (it was Johnny, you had to be there). At the end of two rounds it was time for Emm to perform her final song. She sat down at the keyboard and, as is the case with all of the songwriters, she introduced the song with the story behind the song.
She told us about the two years she spent touring with the late, great David Bowie (she played keyboards and sang background vocals) and, in addition to being an incredible music artist, what a kind and generous man he was. She explained how fortunate she was to have been involved in the recording of astronaut Chris Hadfield’s famous version of ‘Space Oddity.’ Chris Hadfield was also from Sarnia, and the two had been friends for years when he asked her to help him record Bowie’s song. Emm tried to discourage him from covering ‘Space Oddity’ because it is such an iconic song, but he was insistent. So she got in touch with Bowie, who gave the ‘spaceman’ approval to record the song, and with Emm recording some of the instruments at a studio here in Ontario and Chris recording his parts while at The International Space Station, the song came together (the video of Chris Hadfield’s version has now been viewed more than 31 million people on YouTube). At this point in the evening I believe most folks were expecting Emm to just play the song. But much to their surprise she invited the retired astronaut onstage. “Ladies and gentlemen, to perform ‘Space Oddity‘ with me, please welcome Colonel Chris Hadfield.”
The place went crazy. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen more mobile phones switched to camera mode at one time. Chris Hadfield strapped on Brett’s guitar, thanked the audience for the huge ovation, but before he performed the song he just wanted to say that one of the proudest moments in his life was when he had heard Bowie’s reaction to his version of ‘Space Oddity.’ Bowie said it was the most poignant version he had ever heard of his song. With Emm on piano and Chris on guitar the two performed Bowie’s song about a man in space to a full house in downtown Barrie, ON. It was a touching performance and one that no one who was in that room will soon forget. Live music is alive and well in Barrie and more special memories are still to come (not promising anymore world-famous astronauts though).