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A Spy In The House of Rock
by Stephan MacLeod


Sydney's Rock Ranger and Slowcoaster arrived in Charlottetown late on Thursday to play at Baba's Lounge. Both bands are roommates in the famed House of Rock located somewhere between the Tar Ponds and Holy Angels Senior High School for girls in downtown Sydney.

The House of Rock is home to a group of artists and entrepreneurs hell bent on turning industrial Cape Breton into a cultural Utopia. Steve MacDougal, the lead vocalist and guitar player for Slowcoaster, leaves little doubt that they will succeed in their mission, but first they must worry about how they can afford to pay the rent. Jay Smith of Rock Ranger [See photo above and song below] once went six months without electricity last year. And none of these musicians owns their own gear: They play all their shows on borrowed equipment.

The House of Rock made Charlottetown the first stop on their tour of the Maritimes together for the month of August. They encountered a few problems early on in the tour: The van, for which Rock Ranger drummer Mike Morrison traded his motorcycle, made strange sounds on the highway, announcing that the steering could go at any moment; they barely arrived in time for the last ferry to Prince Edward Island from Pictou, Nova Scotia; and Rock Ranger's bass player is missing. Luckily Mikey LeLeivre from Slowcoaster has filled in on bass for Rock Ranger in the past, so, like a pair of underwear in the House of Rock, both bands will share Mikey tonight.

Actually, Dan Baldwin, the bass player for Rock Ranger, is not missing. He's camping with his girlfriend. He was unable to join Rock Ranger because he has an important meeting on Friday that he could not miss. Slowcoaster played up his absence during a spontaneous performance of "Amazing Grace" at Baba's near the end of their set. While Mikey played the hymn softly, Steve requested the audience's support in getting Dan out of jail.

Switching gears from Rock Ranger's ballsy rock jams to Slowcoaster's laid-back, funky soul would be a challenge for most bass players, but Mikey had no difficulty. I doubt that anyone could tell that the last time Mikey played bass with Rock Ranger was over a year ago, or that he was unfamiliar with the many changes and riffs in their songs. Making grimacing faces and stomping away on the hardwood floor like a madman, Mikey easily fit into the Rock Ranger line up.

While the bands sound like they are from two completely different planets, there is energy in their performances, a dry sense of humour, and an all around attitude that link these Cape Bretoners together, yet allows them to go in distinct and separate directions musically.

After Slowcoaster finished their set, they joined Rock Ranger at the bar for a marathon of beer and tequila. When the bar was ready to close, the guys were jumping around while chanting "Buzzy's! Buzzy's! Buzzy's!" I wasn't sure what they were talking about, but I assumed it had something to do with a house party being thrown by a guy nicknamed Buzzy. So the band paid their $160 tab, and we were off to Buzzy's place.

Buzzy lives in a beautiful old house in Downtown Charlottetown, a short walk from Baba's. He throws parties every weekend and invites whatever band that happens to be in town over to jam. Jay loves playing with different musicians and will grab whatever instrument is lying in front of him to join in on a jam session. The rest of the guys also enjoy performing in living room parties - the House of Rock hillbilly supergroup, The Squatters, was a joke born out of such circumstances - but tonight Mike and his girlfriend Jody are avoiding the crowded living room. Devon Strang, the drummer for Slowcoaster, is racing aimlessly around the streets of Charlottetown on a ten-speed he found in Buzzy's garage, and Steve is explaining some of the House of Rock's plans to solve Sydney's Tar Pond problem to me. One involves moving the entire downtown several miles outside of town across from the campus of the Universtiy College of Cape Breton.

At the party, a lot of people are talking about the big Guided By Voices show taking place in Halifax the next day. Jay is particularly excited about this concert. I ask him if he's familiar with their music, but he only knows one song, "Glad Girls." When he croons it on electric guitar I instantly recognize the melody, and I begin to share Jay's enthusiasm for this band that I know nothing about. I mention to Mike how my brother got a free ticket to the show waiting for me, but since I have no money and no way of getting to Halifax that Jay can have it. Mike tells me to keep the ticket, and to join them on the van trip to Halifax the next day.


In the wee hours of the morning, I'm driving Mike's van since I'm the only one who didn't drink. The sun is coming up, and Steve wants something to eat. We find a Subway that's still open and everyone orders food stuffed with toppings that we know we shouldn't eat at this hour of the day, but cannot resist. Mikey performs some gymnastics in the line-up for sandwiches then yells foreign obscenities at the cute French girls leaving the restaurant upon our arrival.

After eating our subs in the parking lot, Steve tells me that everyone has decided that we need to go to the nearest beach immediately. I don't know much about the beaches in Prince Edward Island, and the nearest one that I actually know how to find is about twenty minutes outside of town. So we go to that one.

By the time we arrive at Brackley Beach, it is 6:45am. Everyone is still a little drunk or hungover, but a quick splash in the water has remarkable sobering effects. I borrowed Steve's extra pair of swimming trunks, and almost everyone has found appropriate clothing to adapt to the beach except for Mikey. So Mikey undresses on the shore and slowly walks into the ocean buck naked. We are not alone on the beach, there was at least one couple of senior citizens enjoying a beautiful morning walk on the beach, but they are gone now. I have little doubt that it had something to do with the big naked guy. Jay chokes on salt water while laughing at Mikey. We are a sea of bobbing heads giggling, and yelling about how awesome the water feels.

On the drive back to Charlottetown we are listening to Cape Breton's most purile punk bands, The Unwanted Guests, sing a song called "Abortion Bucket."

When we park across the street from my mother's house, Mike is concerned about waking her up. I assure him that she is probably already awake and ready for work by now. My mom asks me if anyone wants some breakfast as she prepares to leave for work, but I tell her that we already ate at Subway. I'm pretty sure Jay doesn't want any more food after he threw up out van window in front of Baba's earlier tonight. After I give him some Rolaids, everyone finds a place to sleep and shake off the sand from the beach on various couches and blankets on my mother's living room floor.

Mike doesn't bother going to sleep because he has to take the van to a garage soon and get the steering checked. It only cost him thirty bucks to fix, which is a relief because the band didn't expect to spend a huge chunk of their travel budget on last night's bar tab. It's also a relief that the steering is alright on the van. Now there's less need to worry while driving 120 km/h on the highway to Nova Scotia.

We have to get to Halifax by 6:30pm so Slowcoaster can do a soundcheck for a show they are playing in a tent on Halifax Harbour. The show is part of a series of showcases sponsored by a Maritime brewery. It was obviously planned by people unfamiliar with the bands being booked because Slowcoaster and Rock Ranger are supposed to open for some local celtic-rock band. Last night, Halifax's most outrageous metal band, The Heelwalkers, played the showcase and almost scared the sponsors, and bar owner into calling the entire series off after the band played too loud, and the lead singer humped some guy standing in the audience. When we arrive for the soundcheck, a representative from Music Industry Association of Nova Scotia (MIANS) is waiting and she promptly warns Slowcoaster to behave appropriately for the show.

Slowcoaster are smart and know not to step on the music industry's toes when confronted with a situation like this, but when the MIANS rep left the van, the morale of both bands went down. They had enough difficulty dealing with the fact that this show was nothing more than a chance for a beer company to slap their logo around a tent while musicians lent their credibility to the event. But it was a gig that would pay $500 to each band up front, and it was also associated with a larger battle of the bands, of which both bands are in the semi-finals. If either Slowcoaster or Rock Ranger wins this battle of the bands, the House of Rock will benefit from a much-needed shopping spree at a large music store, and studio time. Playing the show according to the rules of the sponsor is a tough pill for either band to swallow, but these high paying gigs are needed to fund their tour.

Slowcoaster play to a relatively unreceptive crowd. Despite the show being sponsored by beer company, the drinks inside the tent are not free for the band, and not cheap either. To the credit of the organizers, there was one feature of the show that Steve particularly appreciated: beer bottle-holders were installed on the mic stands.

After the Slowcoaster played, and before Signal Hill took the stage, I escaped to The Marquee with my brother and some friends to see Guided By Voices. Small beverage holders would prove futile for containing the amount of alcohol consumed by the members of GBV during their set. After the first song, guitar player, Nate Farley, drowns himself in half a bottle of Jack Daniels while lead singer, Bob Pollard, guzzled a bottle of Bud Light after each song.

Besides the great music, the highlight of a Guided By Voices show is watching the liquor consumption catch up with the band. Nate Farley looked wrecked by the third song when he tried to kiss bass player, Tim Tobias, on the lips in the middle of the tune. Surprisingly, the band survived over two hours of drinking and playing. Jay from Rock Ranger was impressed and vowed not to be outdone by GBV at Rock Ranger's gig the next night at The Attic.


Before playing The Attic, it was Rock Ranger's turn to showcase at the beer tent on Halifax Harbour. Like Slowcoaster, they had been warned in advance about their on-stage antics. For the most part they held back the random screams and wild behaviour typical of a Rock Ranger performance, but by the time they played their finale, "Shotgun", they were ready to let out all their frustrations on an unsuspecting audience of celtic-rock fans. Jay and Mike were hollering away through much of the song, and as the song built up to a climax, Devon dropped to the deck and started spinning around in a dance that was like breakdancing, only less graceful.

After Rock Ranger finished everyone was keen on getting away from the Beer Tent, Signal Hill, Halifax Harbour, and the smell of raw sewage. While the band headed off to see The Heelwalkers before the show at The Attic, I walked down the boardwalk to see "The Princess Bride" projected on the side of a building as part of a fundraiser for the Atlantic Film Festival. The smell of the harbour got progressively worse as the wind swept across the boardwalk.

I felt like taking a shower after the movie, but I headed straight for The Attic since it was getting late. It was a wise decision to skip taking a shower before going to The Attic because Slowcoaster and Rock Ranger's performances made me feel dirty. Slowcoaster kicked things off with a tremendous amount of energy. Both bands were inspired after seeing The Heelwalkers to new and exciting levels of debauchery. When Rock Ranger took the stage, Jay took of his shirt revealing the word "Heel" sloppily spelt on his chest with marker. "Walkers" was faintly visible, but disappearing under the sweat and spilt beer.

Each member of Rock Ranger was doused in a foamy spray to Devon. Throughout Rock Ranger's set, members of Slowcoaster ran on stage to spit beer all over the place. At one point, Mikey grabbed the mic from Jay and did the vocals during a blues jam. The insanity taking place on stage was reflected on the dancefloor with people swinging around to the sleazy sounds coming from the band. Jay balanced himself on top of a barrier between the stage and the dancefloor to play a solo while being held up by members of the audience and getting soaked with more beer.

The show eventually deteriorated into an amazing punk concert fuelled by an audience of Cape Bretoners transplanted in Halifax; and spot-on covers of the underground anthems they grew up on played by Rock Ranger and guests. The highlight of the show was when Jay invited Harry Doyle on stage to sing a song by Tilted, a band that was once at the forefront of Sydney's indy music scene. The spirit of that scene -one that grew older and moved away to get jobs - was, if only briefly, revived.

Rock Ranger and Slowcoaster were born out this scene, but they are combining the energy and DIY ethics of Sydney's underground with experience and education in order to transform the typical bar band into something more creative and unexpected. Having them open for a celtic-rock band like Signal Hill is the perfect way to demonstrate how differently these musicians from Cape Breton operate compared to the lumbering dinosaurs of bar music, and Stan Rogers covers. The audiences exposed to this new breed of entertainers in Atlantic Canada are often shocked by the energy and talent emerging from this group of artists. To most bar owners and patrons, these guys have appeared out of nowhere. But for the friends and fans in attendance at The Attic who knew Mike Morrison when he drummed for Mastodon Ridge and Sunfish, or for the hardcore kids who used to listen to Dogfight when Devon played drums, they always knew what the House of Rock was capable of.

Tonight they are all reminded of a past they shared as Harry Doyle sings a song to which they all know the words.

Stephan MacLeod has never fallen down. Drunk.

* * * * * 

For Your Listening Pleasure

Artist: Rock Ranger
Province: Nova Scotia
Song: Doghouse
MP3 File: +++

Artist: Slowcoaster
Province: Nova Scotia
Song: Violent Sister
MP3 File: +++


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