Seeing Canada From Away

Happy in Toronto at NXNE

For the fourth consecutive year I’ve traveled to Toronto for the North by Northeast festival (NXNE); to see my client; and hold some publishing meetings. I am having a great week and have been posting frequently on Twitter and Facebook about the great events I’ve attended, and on the sister blog to this one,, where I wrote about comedian and podcaster Marc Maron’s rousing keynote remarks.

Late last night I lucked in to an impromptu show at the great venue the Cameron House w/one of my musical heroes, Matt Mays. He had been invited by frontman Sam Cash to sit in with his band the Romantic Dogs. Matt began by leading the band, and the audience, in Neil Young’s “Helpless.” Matt and I spoke afterward, exchanging heartfelt appreciations. I conveyed my condolences for the sudden loss last year of his bandmate Jay Smith. He thanked me for remembering his old friend. I told him about Honourary Canadian and he told me he was already a reader of the blog. Thrilled to hear that, I gave him my card for which he thanked me and said it would be going in “a special place.” Here’s a shot of Sam and Matt from last night:

I’ll also be posting more here about NXNE after I return to NYC next week.







Taking a Page from Honourary Canadian

As readers of this blog may have noticed, I started a second blog in 2013, called Honourary Canadian: Seeing Canada From Away. After starting this blog in 2011, I was often posting about Canada, and a couple years in, decided to start a second site devoted to Canadian topics, where I’d offer my views of Canada for Canadians and others interested in the country. I aspire to the perspective and the work of Alistair Cooke, who broadcast and wrote knowledgeably and sensitively about America, after moving to the US from England. Like this site, at the new blog I write about Canadian books, publishing, live music, media, and politics, with the cross-cultural perspective of a respectful outsider. I’ve been sharing HC links here from time to time and integrating the two sites one with another, for instance setting up a feed so the latest posts from each site are readily visible and linked to on the other. The two blogs are sort of like siblings, with this one the older brother.

I’m posting here today to let Great Gray Bridge readers know I recently published a new entry at Honourary Canadian called Why I Started This Blog and Call It Honourary Canadian, which explores my lifelong interest in the neighbor to the north. I invite you to read it. It’s a memoiristic piece that chronicles many trips I’ve made in Canada since childhood, beginning with Expo ’67 when I was just twelve years old; authors whose books I’ve read and published; bands I’ve seen live and become friendly with; and reflections on differences between the US and Canada, and the media in both countries. Along with the essay, I’ve included dozens of scenic photographs, book covers, band photos, and scans of letters I received from Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, with whom I had a lengthy correspondence when I ran Undercover Books in the 1980s.

At the top of this entry is a shot of that new post, which will give you a sense of what the new site looks like if you’ve not visited yet. Just as I found a visual touchstone for this blog from a scenic landmark—the George Washington Bridge, aka the Great Gray Bridge, and the little red lighthouse—I found visual inspiration for the new site in a true wonder of the world, the majestic Percé Rock (aka le rocher percé or ‘pierced rock’), a huge rock face on eastern Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, a veritable lobster tail jutting in to the Gulf of St. Lawrence where it meets the Atlantic Ocean. Below is a pic of what that post looks like. If you enjoy awe-inspiring scenery, I recommend you check out the whole post, which includes many photos I took during a visit there in 1988. In fact, I invite you to visit Honourary Canadian, and have a look around. 

Sam Roberts Band Launches New Album, “Lo-Fantasy,” at Mercury Lounge

SATURDAY MORNING TV UPDATE: On Feb 15 the Sam Roberts Band will appear on CBS This Morning as part of their ‘Saturday Sessions’ series. According to press materials, they should go on at 8:45AM.
—-Sam Roberts Band
Had a blast Tuesday night as the Sam Roberts Band of Montreal blew into town for one night to launch their terrific new album “Lo-Fantasy,” drawing a boisterous crowd to a sold-out Mercury Lounge. It was my first time hearing them live, after years of enjoying their music on CBC Radio 3. They are a tight rock n’ roll machine, starting with a tremendous rhythm section of of bassist James Hall and drummer Josh Trager, who played on a clear see-through kit allowing the audience to peer through the armature and really see him bashing away on the skins. I stood directly in front of Hall and Trager, and for the first half of the show I thought maybe that was why they sounded so good, then I decided, nah, they’re just great players. At center-stage was frontman Roberts, a small guy and a powerful rock n’ roll package–a handsome man and a lithe performer who bursts with vocal energy while striking insistent guitar chords, and moving around a lot on stage. On the far side of him from me were a keyboard player, lead guitarist, and saxophonist. The 6-piece outfit ripped through the 11 songs on the new album. Several I had heard already, like “We’re All In This Together”–with good lyrics expressive to me of a communitarian ethic. There’s an extended video of it below, and the process of making the new album. Once they worked through the new record, they took a bow and left the stage. It was clear though they’d be back for more. When they came back out for encores, they really gave the crowd full value, by playing another four songs, all from earlier albums. The sound was a mix of pure pop propulsion–most songs were uptempo, driven by the bass and drums–with Roberts’ vocals and strong riffs and tasty licks from the other three instrumentalists.

Lo-Fantasy Sam Roberts BandYesterday was Paperbag Records‘ official release date of “Lo-Fantasy.” They put out many of my fave Canadian bands, like Elliott Brood, Cuff the Duke and Rural Alberta Advantage. Sam Roberts is well known beyond Montreal and Canada, with the current tour taking him and his band to many US cities between now and March 28: Chicago; Grand Rapids, MI; St. Paul; San Francisco; San Diego; Seattle; Portland; Boston area; Washington, DC; and Philadelphia, where they’ll be playing World Cafe Live, a show that I’d bet will end up on public radio here in the States.

As good as Sam Roberts Band turned out to be, I also liked the opening act, Heaven’s Jail. I walked in as they started and was glad I had arrived on time. Love when that happens at a live show, walking in on the first notes to a new sound that’s immediately likable. Going to hear live music ought to be as much about discovering new bands as hearing longtime faves. Mercury Lounge did a smart thing booking them as the stage-setter for the evening. Based here in NYC, they’re a basic drums/bass/lead guitar trio, and so offered a clean sonic appetizer that went down real easy. For reference, their sound reminded me in the vocals of Warren Zevon, and in their bright jangling guitar-driven riffs they made think of the Felice Brothers from upstate New York who I heard open for Josh Ritter last year. Heaven’s Jail also have a current album, “Angelmakers,” which you can hear at their bandcamp page. I look forward to hearing them again.

After the Sam Roberts Band left the stage for the last time, a lot of the crowd melted away in to the cold NY night. I had already met some great people during the course of the long evening–like Emily Curran, a NYC schoolteacher who had seen Sam Roberts several times–so I stuck around, eager to meet other folks who’d enjoyed the evening, either from among the audience or the musicians. It being a release party it’s no surprise there were lots of music industry people on hand, like Ben Liemer of music distributor The Orchard who I really enjoyed talking with. Next I recognized two of the three members of Heaven’s Jail, and so chatted with them–Francesco and Ethan, guitarist and drummer. I complimented them on their set and we launched in to a spirited discussion of our rock n’ roll upbringings. I mentioned mine in Cleveland, and the great shows I was able to see in my early days as a live music fan, beginning with a Canned Heat and Cream bill back in the day. These conversations–plus one in a group with Sam Roberts’ brother Tom, who I learned lives in NY, and with his friend Jim, a bass player, capped off a fun night.

Via this link are more pictures from last night’s show, two black & white publicity shots of the Sam Roberts Band, and two videos of them performing.
Cross-posted at my blog Honourary Canadian.



#FridayReads, Feb 7–Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s Novel “All the Broken Things”

Monday Feb 10 Update: Wow, I loved All the Broken Things, Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s exquisite novel. Such a rich story of an orphaned boy, his sister, and the carny world of bears and barkers that both assaults them and supports them. They weather all that is arrayed against them. I give this extraordinary novel my highest personal recommendation.

All the Broken Things
#FridayReads, Feb 7–Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s novel All the Broken Things. This is an amazing and compelling novel set in Toronto in the early 1980s, about a Vietnamese immigrant family of three, former boat people–mother Rose, teenage son Bo, 4-year old daughter Orange Blossom, known as Orange, who was born with profound birth defects owing to Rose’s exposure to the Agent Orange that the US used to defoliate the countryside during the war. The killing chemical was manufactured in Ontario, a factual point that Kuitenbrouwer makes in an Author’s Note. I’ve found the writing in this so good, the sheer sentence-making and storytelling, that though I had read terrific reviews of the novel, prompting me to to order a copy, when it arrived I was expecting to only glance at the opening page and then put it aside until a moment when I thought I would have more time for it. Suffice to say, I didn’t put it aside at all, and now a day later, I’m on page 134. The book is commanding my attention, drawing me in, like the wrestling bear does Bo, the teenage boy of the tale, who willingly folds himself into the animal’s embrace.

Bo is the is fulcrum of the tale. He, far better than Rose, is able to handle Orange and comfort her. But he’s having a very hard time in middle school, picked on by a kid who yells ethnic slurs at him and wants to fight. Bo obliges this kid, and acquits himself well in their after-school battles. One of these scrums is observed by a carnival promoter who thinks Bo may be able to help out in his sideshow that features a bear, Loralei, who is trained to wrestle people. The Author’s Note also make the point that bear wrestling was at one time legal in Ontario, even common on the carny circuit. Just as Bo has an uncommonly intuitive way with his sister, he also has a gift with bears. Kuitenbrouwer’s descriptions of the tactile and empathic relationship between boy and bear could be outlandish, but instead are wholly believable. This is the book’s first paragraph:

“1984, BEAR
Look at the bear licking Bo’s toes up through the metal slats on the back porch. Bo is fourteen years old, and the bear not a year. The bear is named Bear. When the boy spreads his toes as wide as he can, Bear’s mottled tongue nudges in between them and this tickles. Bear craves the vanilla soft ice cream that drips down Bo’s cone and onto his feet. Bo imagines it must be glorious for Bear to huddle under the porch–her favourite spot–and lap and lick up the sweet cold treat. He imagines himself tucked in down there pretending to be a bear, and then how wonderful it might be, after a day alone, to have someone drip vanilla ice cream right into this mouth.” 

From Robertson Davies’ Fifth Business to Ellen Hunnicutt’s Suite for Calliope: A Novel of Music and the Circus, a book I edited and published, to W.C. Fields’ 1939 film “You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man,” I have long had an affinity for carny stories, and All the Broken Things belongs in that good company. I want to know what happens next for Bo and his fragile family, and will be spending much of the next few days finding out. Writer Jonathan Bennet has also discovered the charms of this book, in a great appreciation here
All the Broken Things
[Cross-posted on my blog Honourary Canadian.

Rural Alberta Advantage, Another Great Indie Band from Canada

Had a great time last night at a live music show put on by the Toronto trio, The Rural Alberta Advantage, my first time hearing them live after enjoying them the past few years on CBC Radio 3. They played a sold-out show in front of a boisterously appreciative full house at the Mercury Lounge on the lower east side of Manhattan. I have a full post with pictures at my other blog Honourary Canadian. Here are shots showing all three band members, first Amy Cole, keys with Nils Edenloff, guitar and lead vocals, then Paul Banwatt, drums. I hope you enjoy the rest of the post over there.Mercury Lounge Jan 24 2014Mercury Lounge Jan 24 2014

In a Moment of Difficulty for a Friend, Thinking of Lt. General Roméo Dallaire

December 15 Update: Just after publishing the post below, the fine radio program CBC Sunday Edition carried a lengthy interview with Roméo Dallaire which I linked to on the sister blog to this one, Honourary Canadian. It was a very moving conversation.
Shake Hands with the DevilIn 2005 when I was an editorial executive with Carroll & Graf Publishers of the Avalon Publishing Group I brought out the U.S. edition of a Canadian bestseller, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Its author was Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, a career officer in the Canadian forces, a national military that more than most in the modern world has cultivated a strong tradition of serving as peacekeepers helping to end conflicts in lands distant from their own. In 1993 Dallaire was commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force in Rwanda when that country was swept in to genocide and ethnic cleansing by Hutu militants. The member nations of the world body refused to resource Dallaire’s mission adequately, even after he presented them with a military plan weeks before the genocide that would likely have blocked the carnage before it ever began. Horror ensued. Dallaire and fewer than 500 soldiers (he’d asked for 4,500 more troops) sheltered and saved approximately 25,000 people, yet 800,000 Rwandans died. Dallaire returned home to Canada from the Rwandan mission a nearly broken man, suicidal and afflicted with severe PTSD.

In Canada, where the tragic failure of the mission under Dallaire’s command was well known, the book from Random House Canada struck a huge chord and it had already sold over 100,000 copies when I acquired the rights. Many US publishers, including Random House in New York, had declined to publish the book here. I knew why they had–in the States, Dallaire was hardly known at all. As an acquiring editor at publishing houses for more than twenty-five years, I had never minded a situation like that. I welcomed the challenge, and loved working to promote an author, who on the merits of his/her book and their compelling personal story, deserved to be widely read and better known, thus allowing the book, with a solid foundation, to be built up in to a big success. Going in, I knew I needed to help the book find as large an audience as possible in the US, or better yet, bring as big an audience as possible to the book. I commissioned an original Introduction by Samantha Power, who’d recently published the Pulitzer Prize winner, A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide. We also caught a break when publication coincided with release of the movie, “Hotel Rwanda,” in which Nick Nolte played a Hollywood version of the general. The movie portrayal, though very inaccurate, did elevate Dallaire’s notoriety, and enabled us to generate major reviews and book him on shows like Charlie Rose, and many NPR programs.

Samantha Power of course is now serving as US Ambassador to the UN. Ironically, when Shake Hands  was published, the Washington Post asked former US Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright to review it. I considered this a very interesting, even a daring assignment by the Post book editors. After all, the Clinton administration’s failure in Rwanda along with other countries was still fresh in mind, raw and painful. To her credit, in her review Albright gave Dallaire and his book their due. While conceding she’d been a part of many failures in Rwanda, she also pointed to flaws in the world system that leads to failures like Rwanda. Almost a decade later, failures like this still occur–look at the current civil wars in Syria and the Central African Republic. These recurrences are the sort of thing that torture Roméo; they can tip him in to a new flare-up of post-traumatic stress.

Despite the severe illness, Dallaire has rebuilt his life and psyche and gone on to do very important work in conflict resolution. I accompanied him to several of his NYC interviews, sitting in the back of taxicabs and in green rooms with him. We became friends, and I found him a dear person. Despite everything Roméo had endured–and the treatment and therapy he’s still engaged with regularly–he has a good sense of humor with an almost merry glint in his eyes. I mentioned this to him and he said, “I’ve always tried to be like that. A commander without a sense of humor will not be respected by his troops.” He’s a soldier-humanitarian, kind and sensitive, Gandhi-like in his way. From the position he holds now as a Canadian Senator–where a major scandal has been coincidentally been raging the past few months–he has moved on in his life to advocate for the end of the practice of armies conscripting child soldiers. The Carroll & Graf edition of Shake Hands  sold well over 60,000 copies the first year after I published it, and it’s still selling well today.

With the 20th anniversary of the genocide approaching next year, and four recent suicides of Canadian veterans of the Afghan War, Dallaire had a traffic accident this week due to severe insomnia and sleeplessness he’s been enduring as these events prey on him. He was uninjured but shaken by the crash. The same day he made a statement of apology to his colleagues in the Canadian Senate, ironic since so few others there have been anywhere near as forthright in admitting their own missteps. I shared my concern for Roméo in a few tweets earlier this week.


Loving “Bonfire Etiquette,” Amity Beach’s New Album

Bonfire EtiquetteAt Honourary Canadian, the sister blog to this one, I’ve written up a new  album by Amity Beach,  a young Ontario pop band that I discovered at NXNE in 2012. I really like their new songs a lot. This is my post where I’ve published a full report. And this is a link to the single, “Born in the Daylight” from their page. I hope you like it, too. I recommend the whole album, which you can sample at their tumblr. Really gets better the more you listen to it. Highly recommended.