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Monday, 27 April 2015

A Little Love On A March Night In Nanaimo

(I started writing this in mid-March but got side tracked with other stuff in my life.)
There isn’t a lot happening in the city of Nanaimo, BC during the long winter nights. On most weekday evenings you can walk into a number of pubs around town and find less than 10 patrons. With a population of about 87,000 people, many who live in Nanaimo and the surrounding area are over 65 years of age and retired and going to a pub or out for dinner is usually an every now and then thing if it all. With so many retirees around you might think that an affordable restaurant like the Swiss Chalet would be thriving but they packed it in a year or two ago.
There’s not much in the way of industry here. Several years ago the local Harmac Pulp Mill went bust and the operation was taken over by former employees who invested their own cash in the business. Today it is making money and is one of just a few industrial successes in the city. Nanaimo is tough place to make a go of it in business. Most of our economy is based on the service industry, retail, and tourism. The 2 biggest employers are Vancouver Island University and the provincial government. Once their schooling is done many young Nanaimo residents take off for greener pastures in Vancouver and Alberta.
Nanaimo may be a great place to retire to but not so great if one is prone to SAD (seasonal affective disorder).  Some get around the rain and frequent grey days in winter by escaping to somewhere warm and sunny like Mexico for several months. Most of us older folks have learned how to adapt to the rain. We just put some kind of rain gear on and go for our walks with or without a dog. Rain sure beats the hell out of shoveling snow. And contrary to some opinions it doesn’t rain every day here in the winter.
We are aware that a good part of Canada has experienced a relentless winter with one snowstorm after another. It is hard not to gloat when most of Vancouver Island has barely seen a trace of snow this winter and the daffodils have been in bloom since the beginning of March.
Most of us (particularly the older ones) think that Vancouver Island is the best place to live anywhere. The ocean is always close by as is all kinds of wilderness including gorgeous lakes and beaches within a short driving distance. For the past number of years we have had really great summers with long periods of sunshine. For some reason mosquitoes are rare. There are people here who fish, hike, kayak, or even play golf most of the year including during the winter. Where else in Canada could you see killer whales chasing dolphins near the Departure Bay ferry terminal in Nanaimo on a winter’s day?
Still the winter season can drag on even if there isn’t any snow on the ground. The winter doldrums can set in a bit. Yes we have our favourite sushi place that we go to now and then and once in a while we’ll grab a hot dog while at Costco. Every so often we’ll have some folks over for dinner or go over to their place. We’ve gone to see our friend and guitar teacher play at a local pub several times and we spent a February Sunday afternoon watching some jazz down at Crofton about 45 minutes away.
About a month ago I started thinking about going over to Vancouver and us catching some big name group at Rogers Arena. Fleetwood Mac sounded good until I saw the ticket prices. 200 bucks a seat and up in the gods. Ouch! Add on the ferry ride and it would be over 600 bucks for the 2 of us.
I decided to check out our local Port Theatre. We’ve been there a number of times, once to see Montreal jazz great Oliver Jones. It’s a first class theatre. I found out that for something like 44 bucks each we could see blues singer Jim Byrnes, former rocker Barney Bentall, and some guy I had never heard of, John Mann.

Port Theatre-Nanaimo, BC
Over the years I’ve probably seen Jim Byrnes about a dozen times, mostly at the now defunct Yale Hotel on Granville Street in Vancouver. (I wrote a story about the Yale on my blog in April of 2013). The admission at the Yale back then was about 10 bucks. If you have ever spent some time watching Jim Byrnes and walked away disappointed you are clearly messed up. There aren’t a lot of blues greats like Jim around anymore.
I was aware of Barney Bentall but he was a bit after my bar cruising days in Vancouver. Along with his band The Legendary Hearts their biggest hit was probably “Got Something To Live For” in 1987. Canada sure produced a lot of really decent rock bands in the 1980s including The Tragically Hip, 54-40, Spirit Of The West, Honeymoon Suite, Grapes of Wrath, Cowboy Junkies, Pursuit of Happiness, Tom Cochrane, Colin James, Jeff Healey, Platinum Blonde, Parachute Club, Men Without Hats, and The Northern Pikes. 
The concert we were going to see was on Friday the 13th of this March. Indoor parking right next to The Port Theatre cost us something like 3 bucks which is a lot less than indoor parking in Vancouver. As we were taking the short walk to the theatre we quickly realized that the majority of the audience was going to be people 60 years of age and older. There were a few between 40 and 60 years of age but I can’t recall noticing anyone under 40. That’s just the way it is in Nanaimo I guess. Jazz and blues tends to draw older folks here.

Our seats were about 10 rows back from the stage. There were quite a number of guitars set up and ready to go. This was going to be a good evening.
Jim Byrnes

Of the 3 main artists performing this evening Jim Byrnes at 66 was the oldest. Jim was born and raised in the north side of St. Louis, Missouri. He got interested in the blues at an early age and one the house bands in the area he lived in was Ike and Tina Turner. By the age of 13 Jim was singing and playing guitar to blues music. His first professional gig was in 1964.
When Jim was 5 years old he came down with a massive lung infection that left him bedridden and sometimes comatose over a period of 3 months. It wouldn’t be his last brush with death. Two years into college he dropped out, hit the road, and lived the hippie lifestyle. “I was living in teepees and wearing eagle feathers in my hair” he once said. He was drafted and later took off to Canada for 3-1/2 years. Who could blame him? Viet Nam was such a fucking shitty war. His going AWOL didn’t sit well with his parents.
In 1969 on a visit home to see his parents in Missouri he was arrested for desertion and spent 3 months in the slammer. After serving his time he took off again to the west coast of Canada. In 1970 Jim became a father for the first time and did a number of things aside from performing to support his family including commercial fishing and being a shepherd. In 1972 he had another close call with death. He was with a friend on the Old Island Highway on Vancouver Island when their pick-up truck stalled. Jim got out to push the truck and was hit by a car going in the same direction that shoved him under the truck. He was rushed to a hospital in Nanaimo and woke up to find that both of his legs had been amputated.
One can just imagine how devastated he was but after a bit of time he pulled himself together. He was determined not to spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair and learned how to get about using weighted prosthetics. He spent most of the next 5 years working at odd jobs in the American mid-west before returning to Vancouver in 1977 for good.
I (Colin Paterson) was living in Vancouver for a good part of the 1970s. By about 1975 most of the nightclubs had gone “disco”, places like Annabelle’s in the Four Seasons Hotel on Howe Street where there were long line-ups on Friday and Saturday nights. One of the exceptions was a joint called Rohan’s Rockpile on 4th Avenue out near UBC that stuck with R & B and rock. The few times I was at Rohan’s it seemed to me to be a kind of diehard hippie place.
If you were young and single back then and wanted to chase woman you pretty well had to put up with disco. Things started to change in the Vancouver music scene around 1980. It was like a breath of fresh air. Enough of this Abba and Saturday Night Fever shit!
I’m not totally sure how it came about but there seemed to be a need for live music and if it was going to be gritty all the better.  It seemed like all of sudden there were a number of blues bands playing around Vancouver led by guys like Jim Byrnes, Al Foreman, Doc Fingers, and The Powder Blues Band led by the Lavin brothers from Chicago.
Some of these groups played at a little joint in Gastown called The Spinning Wheel. A kind of novelty band called Doug and the Slugs played The Spinning Wheel and they were a pretty big deal in Vancouver for several years. Nobody had a voice like the late Doug Bennett. The blues became popular enough that the bands sometimes played larger venues like The Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street. The Commodore had horse hair underneath its dance floor.
The Yale Hotel, in a rundown area of downtown Vancouver, became the home of the blues in the city. The late Long John Baldry played there a number of times. From what I understand The Fairview pub is now the place to see live blues in Vancouver.
Jim Byrnes had done a bit of acting at a local theatre in St. Louis when he was younger and in 1987 he won a supporting role in the TV series Wise Guy. He was also one of the cast members in the TV series Highlander which ran for 6 years. Both series were filmed in Vancouver.
There are some that say that you have to live the life to be able to sing the blues. Maybe that’s why he is one of the last of the greats. Jim Byrnes has won 3 Canadian Junos for best blues album of the year.
"From callow bohemian to weary pilgrim, here’s a little of the journey so far. The city streets of my boyhood; steam heat rising off the Mississippi; the railroad; grits and gravy; the Cardinals and the Dodgers on the radio; summers in Kentucky and the Ozarks; Jimmy Reed at The London House East, Bobby “Blue” Bland at the Cosmo Hall; Muddy at the Moonlight Lounge and Slick’s Lakeside; the High Plains of east Colorado on a winter morning; the Charlie Company Boogie; all those nights in all those rented rooms; the wind off the ocean; the winter storms; the tough break and the heartache; the dust of Mexico; twilight on the Seine; the evening breeze, the distant thunder, the sweetness of the rain; the light and the laughter in my children’s eyes; the constant struggle and infinite joy of love." - Jim Byrnes.

Barney Bentall

I have to confess that I didn’t know much about Barney Bentall. I had never seen him perform. I don’t recall ever even seeing one of his music videos. I had heard some of his songs on the radio. His band’s peak period seems to have been from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. He was born in Toronto, raised in Calgary, and found himself in Vancouver at the age of 20 chasing a woman who would become his wife and the mother of his 4 children.
According to a bio he wrote he wanted to be the next Stephen Stills back then. At the beginning of his musical career he used the pseudonym Brandon Wolf (possibly because he came from a wealthy family that was well known in Vancouver.There are a number of office towers on Burrard Street in Vancouver that were built by the Bentall Corporation.) He struggled musically for a number of years in Vancouver and in 1984 reverted back to his real name. His band, The Legendary Hearts had a big hit in 1987 with a song called “Something To Live For”. The band went out on the road for about the next 10 or 12 years.
In the 1990s Bentall bought a ranch in the Cariboo area of BC and in the year 2000 he decided to run the ranch himself. He did that for 6 years. In 2007 he jumped back into the music scene. He was no longer just a flat out rocker. These days he has partnered with musicians with various backgrounds including folk (Shari Ulrich), blues (plays some harmonica), and country. Every now and then his old band plays a few dates. He looks like he is in pretty decent shape for a guy closing in in 60 years of age. Hard work on a ranch can do that to a guy. 
John Mann

John Mann-2nd from far right.
If I didn’t know a lot about Barney Bentall I sure as hell didn’t know anything about who John Mann was. I did a bit of reading up. John Mann was the lead singer for a Vancouver band called Spirit Of The West who were kind of known for their Celtic kind of music mostly in the 1990s. He is 52 years old and grew up in Calgary, Alberta.
He moved to Vancouver in the early 80s to study theatre. In 1983 he formed the band Spirit Of The West along with some friends. One of the bands most popular songs was “Home For A Rest” which apparently is a popular drinking song in some places in Canada.
In the late 1990s Mann resumed his thespian career and acted in a number of plays in the Vancouver area including Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men. He has also appeared on a number of TV shows including Da Vinci’s Inquest, Battlestar Galactica, and Smallville.
In 2009 Mann was diagnosed with colorectal cancer and two years later he had made a full recovery. In 2014 he found out that he was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

The lights went down in The Port Theatre except for the stage and Jim Byrnes led off the night with a blues tune. Throughout the night Byrnes told the audience of some of his remembrances including driving around in Waylon Jenning’s Cadillac in Nashville. He didn’t get into the details but he mentioned how his life was saved many years before at the local Nanaimo hospital. Byrnes sat to the right side of the stage while he sang and played his guitar.

Jim Byrnes
Barney Bentall sang a few of his songs including some newer stuff. He also played harmonica backing up Byrnes. At one point in the evening Barney Bentall mentioned that it used to scare the crap out of his band when they had to come over from Vancouver and play Nanaimo. I guess that was back when Nanaimo was more of a wild mill town unlike the retirement community it sometimes resembles today.

Barney Bentall
John Mann was the 3rd of the three to sing. Some in the audience knew that he was struggling because of his condition. He faltered a few times and turned that awkwardness into some laughs. This certainly wasn’t going to be a pity party.

John Mann
It is hard to know exactly what state John Mann was in but one could easily see that he was into his music by his head bobbing and feet shuffling. When he wasn’t singing he was assisted off of the stage by the keyboardist. One of the back-up guitarists (I think it was the bass player) grew up in Nanaimo and once played with a local band called The Windjammers. A few jokes were made about that name by Barney Bentall. A young guy in the group played the mandolin and regular guitar. The drummer was excellent. These guys were professionals!
We went out for a smoke during intermission. (Yeah I still smoke.) A gal outside talked about seeing Rod Stewart or was it Elton John in Las Vegas. Shortly after we got back to our seats, two guys in their forties turned up. They had had a few drinks and started yelling up at the guys on stage. Fortunately they calmed down and they cut out early.
The high point of the second half of the show certainly had to have been when John Mann started to bounce around on his feet on the stage. Barney Bentall joined in and they were both bouncing away. It was one sweet moment.
There were encores at the end of the second set, the band waved and the crowd loved it. It was a great night. We all made our way back to our cars and went home. I started thinking. How did these guys ever meet one another? The mutual respect was pretty obvious. An old lyric from a Seals and Crofts tune from 1973 came into my head…….

“We may never pass this way again…..”

More photos.......









  1. Replies
    1. Ryan....Jim Byrnes is playing at The Queens in Nanaimo this Saturday night Feb. 6th