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
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
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
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.
has never fallen down. Drunk.