By Todd Marsh, Dave Mahalik and Owen Cunningham
There’s a bunch of bands who’s names you see every weekend playing around but you never hear them on the radio. They’re “unknown”, they do it after work, on the weekends, lugging gear up and down the stairs twice a night just to play some music and have some fun and maybe make a little money. Who are they? Why do they do it? What’s it all about? Todd Marsh talked to Cory Keeping and Sheldon Aucoin, bass player and guitarist, respectively for popular bands Reckless and Eyes Wide Open about playing in bar bands.
It’s Friday night around 9:00pm. The band’s just getting ready to fire up their first set. A few of the regulars are hanging out for happy hour or just finishing their meals before the kitchen closes. The first set or two is usually played to the bar staff and whatever regulars haven’t left yet, but by the third or fourth set, the place is hopping, people are boogying the night away in their half-drunk hypnotized state to the tunes they know and love the best. The band plays each song without a break, keeping the dance floor packed, not forgetting to throw in a couple of ballads for two strangers to meet or for two strangers to meet again.
The popular public belief is that Cape Breton Island is a land where music is simply a way of life and that Celtic music and fiddles reign supreme. While it is true that on any given night of the week here in the post-industrial suburban centre of Sydney, North Sydney, Glace Bay and New Waterford there is live music at one of the local bars, chances are it’s not going to be of the expected Celtic/fiddle genre. Sure the Rankins, Natalie, Ashley, Bruce Guthro, the Barra MacNeils, Rita and Gordie Sampson are touring all over the world and have had hit records, television and radio shows, but it’s bands like Spyder, Reckless, Dakota, Eyes Wide Open, Rhythm’s Road and IMI who are out there playing, night after night, who provide musical entertainment for the locals. And it’s not cutting-edge, mind blowingly innovative original material that rules the land, it’s the top of the pops, played to perfection that draws the crowds. With styles ranging from country to pop to rock to whatever music that’s going to get them hired by the barman who wants to see them bringing in lots of people who want to drink, these are the musicians in the trenches keeping Cape Breton Island’s musical tradition alive.
“I have been playing since 1990 when that new thing came out where you could play under-age,” says Reckless bassist Cory Keeping. “I was 18 when I first started in the bars but I started kind of really full time around 1991 with Bruce Guthro and Small Town Heroes. We did the local bar scene, quite a bit of traveling to Halifax and some of New Brunswick, just making a living. That’s all I did at that time, for like four years, just kept working at it, just loved doing it.”
Keeping just came off a tour of the Maritimes and Ontario with Bruce Guthro. He works in the rental department at McKnight’s Music and has a steady gig playing with Reckless, one of the regulars on the scene.
The bands tend to come and go but the faces remain familiar as players move from one band to another, start up new bands or regroup old ones. Guitarist Sheldon Aucoin has been around since 1989. As an 18 year old, he hit the road with Broken Dreams, touring as far as Ontario. After a couple of years he ended up in Vancouver where he started a band and played small gigs around there, Seattle and Los Angeles before returning home.
“I was there about two years then I got back here and formed Reckless. I played with them for about a year and a half. It was a good band, the band smoked, but it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I always wanted to put my own band together and create the sound that I wanted.”
And that’s what he did. Eyes Wide Open started playing in the spring and has been attracting a lot of attention ever since.
“We started off with a set list and tried to do everything that no one else was doing,” he says, explaining that to be different they would do songs by the same artists as the other bands, but would pick different songs from the same recordings. Eyes Wide Open’s repertoire stands out on the bar scene because of this approach and because of Laurel Martell, the band’s main singer. Aucoin says her powerful voice gave them a lot to choose from when picking songs to do.
“We just took everything that was on fm radio. All the modern rock stuff. We put as many tunes as we could together at first. We didn’t want to rush it but we did wanna get out and play. But it seemed like there weren’t any songs we couldn’t do. Laurel’s vocal capability allowed us to do anything. So if we heard a song on the radio, it wasn’t like, do you think we can do it? We knew we could do it cause we knew she could sing it no problem. So we were fortunate that way.
“The set list is just starting to grow now. Some of the tunes we picked, like a lot of the older stuff, just to fill the gap. We’re replacing them now with every song that comes out on the radio, like every song that’s in the Top 10 we’ll do and we’ll keep it that way. Every time a new song hits the top forty, we’ll do it. We try to keep it fresh, everytime we play, like at least two new songs every two weeks.”
Playing around the same circuit for the same crowds can get stale pretty quick if you don’t come up with a way to keep the crowds interested. For Eyes Wide Open that means following the latest trends on the charts, but Reckless takes a slightly different approach.
“With our set list, we try to play all different types of music, that way we kinda capture a little bit of everyone,” says Cory Keeping who agrees that replacing songs is important too. “If we’re gonna drop a country song, we try to replace it with a country song. If we were gonna drop a Celtic tune, we would try to replace it with a more modern or different Celtic tune, that way you keep them interested and they don’t get bored with one type of music all the time.”
With more than a dozen bars in the area featuring live music, a band can build quite a following. Bands like Spyder have been around for twenty years and others, like the legendary hard-rocking Texas Tall Boys, played as many as two hundred gigs one year without stepping foot off the island. Each bar is different and each band must establish its own crowd. As the new band in town, Eyes Wide Open is developing its following.
“The first night we played the Steel City they didn’t know how to take us,” Sheldon says. “We went in there on a Tuesday and we didn’t do so hot. But on Thursday we went back and it was jammed and we just played there on Tuesday passed and it was packed. We had two encores. And it’s all new faces, a completely different crowd. So I think we’re bringing different crowds into different bars now.”
And he notices the difference reflected in the reaction to their music depending on where they are playing.
“We play at Daniel’s and nobody dances, we thought something was goin’ on y’know. We were getting paranoid. But everybody just sits and watches and then we get applause. I mean down at Herman’s we get applause and it’s very hard to get applause down there cause it’s more of a social thing? people aren’t there to pay attention to the band, right? We play the Capri quite a bit now and we have some college dates and that. That’s who we appeal to, more of the younger crowd.”
As one of the busiest bands around these days, Reckless have established their place on the scene and get quite a bit of work. Says Cory, “Cape Breton is probably the centre point of the most work. In Cape Breton there’s a lot of work compared to other places and I find, from what I’m hearing, the money is a lot better here. So if you can play on a full time basis and make a living at it then I’d have to say that the bar scene around here for playing is excellent.”
“Right now there are a few places to play,” agrees Sheldon, but he sees room for improvement. “I like a lot of the bars that we play in now, but I think it could be a little better as far as money goes. I don’t like the fact that one guy says this band is better ’cause they play rock or country. I’d like to see a bar that’ll take in any kind of act. I think there should be a blues bar or there should be a bar that has a blues night, a country night, a rock night. It should be more like that. Very seldom do I ever see a country or blues band go into Herman’s. It’s all rock and half the time they’re not that hot. I think Herman’s should be looking at more of the local acts. I mean, Jesus, this is Cape Breton. We’re here and we can’t get into the damn club.”
Eyes Wide Open recently did a three night stint at Smooth Herman’s, but in order to get booked into the cabaret, Aucoin had to go through a booking agent in Halifax.
“That shouldn’t be,” he says. “I had to pay that man 15% of the money to get into Smooth Herman’s. I mean everybody would love to play Smooth Herman’s just to get the exposure. And there’s lots of bands around here that would do great in Smooth Herman’s. Reckless, Spyder would go over in Smooth Herman’s but they cater more to bands from away than they do to bands around here.”
Whether it’s an afterwork and weekend diversion, part of a dream to be famous, a way to keep in shape musically, or a job to make some money while working on original music, playing in a bar band keeps the music happening. Cory Keeping sums it up best. “Not too often you get to do something that you like and make a living at it. I’m not gonna become a millionaire, but I’m gonna have fun tryin’.”