Saturday, August 18, 2012

Story Time: Welcome to Canada!

In the mid-1970s, I was touring with a band that was backing up a Vegas-style singer on the hotel/nightclub circuit. Robert York was a really sweet, guileless fellow who always paid us on time, and he had a lovely voice. Robert was perhaps not the brightest fellow I'd ever worked for, but that was part of his charm. As an example, he billed himself as "Robert York, the Singing Baritone." He couldn't understand why I giggled whenever he uttered that tautological tagline

At that time American bands had to post a bond on their instruments when they crossed into Canada to work. The amount of the bond was equal to one-third the retail value of all of your music equipment when it was new. This applied to all equipment that had not been manufactured in Canada, and supposedly was to ensure that we would not sell our filthy American gear in Canada . As you can imagine, this created quite a hardship for many touring entertainers, and you generally had to prearrange the bond with a Canadian bondsman (at a substantial fee) well before you got to the border.

We were just wrapping up an engagement in Idaho Falls, and our next venue was a two-week stint in Lethbridge, Alberta, to be followed by 3 or 4 months playing some of the nicest hotels in western Canada. I had heard from other touring musicians that there was one remote border crossing called Kingsgate where the guards—all long-haired music fans—were sympathetic about the bond problem to the point that they would let American bands cross without the bond. The only problem was, this crossing was nearly 300 miles out of our way, and so remote that if it wasn't true, we'd have to backtrack an additional 300 miles to go to another crossing. I managed to convince Robert and the other guys to take a chance and give it a try.

We got to the Kingsgate crossing about 6:00 in the evening. Sure enough, there were a couple of Canadian hippies in their official uniforms. They seemed really happy to see us. "Hey now! An American band, eh? Come on in and have some coffee, eh?" We started chatting with them, while Robert started filling out the considerable pile of paperwork involved in allowing us to work in Canada.

"Hey, you know we're supposed to have you guys put up a bond on your instruments, eh?" None of us said anything, but shot nervous glances at each other. We didn't have a back-up plan. The hippie guard went on, "But we think that's a bunch of political BS from those hosers over in Ottawa, eh? We never make the Yank bands do that; just don't spread it around, eh?" We silently relaxed, and went on chatting with the guards, letting them play with our instruments and listening to their self-deprecating, eh-punctuated jokes. Robert kept on filling out the immigration and work-visa forms for all of us.

After about an hour, all of the forms were filled out. The head hippie-guard said, "OK, then, all we need now is to see everybody's ID, and you can get on to your 'gig,' eh?" We all pulled out our driver's licenses and started showing them to him. Everything went smoothly until he got to Robert. The guard looked at Robert, looked at his ID, looked at him again, looked at his ID again, and said, "So… who the hell is Riley P. Farkas?"

Robert smiled in that sweet, clueless way we had seen many times before, and replied in his lovely singing-baritone voice, "Well, Riley P. Farkas is my legal name. Robert York is my stage name. See, it's printed on all of these 8x10 publicity pictures. Would you like one?" Our Canadian pals suddenly were not so friendly anymore. The head hippie-guard said, with barely controlled rage (an emotion I'd never seen before in a Canadian), "You stupid **** Yank! You wrote your **** stage name on all these official papers, eh? What do they teach you in school down there?" Then he grabbed the inch-thick pile of official papers—all duly signed by the fictitious Robert York—and tore them in half. "OK, start over; and this time, mister FARK-ASS, you put down your real, legal, honest-to-God, stupid Yank name, eh? Oh, and you better see about getting that bond arranged. Since we're gonna have to explain why we voided twenty-five official forms, we have to do this by the book, eh?"

Robert called his agent in Calgary, who found a bondsman the next day who was willing to drive the bond paperwork out to the lonely little Kingsgate border crossing. By the time we got across, we had been there for nearly 20 hours, through two shift changes, eating candy and the Canadian equivalent of Slim Jims from the vending machine, and had listened as each shift of Canadian hippie border guards told the story to the great amusement of the next crew of Canadian hippie border guards. We made it to Lethbridge just in time to set up and play our first set. On our first break, Robert said, "Gee, Steve, you sure were wrong about that border crossing. Those guys didn't seem friendly at all!"

Crooked Still

Here's a band with a big budget for rosin:

Seriously, isn't it cool to see a band like this with a cello player? I heard this group on the always interesting Montana Radio Cafe.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

The Beeb

On January 1, 1927, the British General Post Office created a new company for the purpose of radio broadcasting. The company was given the prosaic name, "the British Broadcasting Corporation" and adopted the motto, "Nation shall speak peace unto Nation."

Over the years since its creation, the BBC (or "The Beeb" as it is affectionately known) has grown into a world-wide cultural phenomenon. Many Americans would be surprised to learn that the BBC is primarily funded through a mandatory fee on TV sets. If you own a TV in the UK, you have to pay an annual fee equivalent to about US$200 per year (they cut you a discount if your TV is black-and-white or if you are blind). BBC operates a number of television channels and radio stations throughout the UK, each serving a different audience.

When I was a kid growing up in Kansas, I had a cantankerous old short-wave receiver in my room, and I often stayed up late at night tuning in stations from around the world. As often as not, I'd hear the calm, measured tones of a BBC announcer though the static and squeal in my headphones.

In the modern era, the BBC has brought their incredibly diverse broadcast content online in a big way. I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that whatever your taste in music is, The Beeb has you covered, and you can tune it all in on your PC! I'll just hit some highlights for you here, and encourage you to explore the BBC online to find your own favorites (or favourites).

A good place to start exploring is the BBC Radio "On Air Now" page. From there you can branch off to each of the fourteen individual BBC Radio channels. On each channel, you'll find a listing of all the 'programmes' on that channel, and each program can usually be streamed online for a week after its broadcast date, although some are available longer.

Radio 1 is the youth-oriented channel. You'll find pop and rock music there, with some live concerts and artist interviews. Radio 2 is more adult-oriented and diverse. A peculiar and very entertaining show on Radio 2 is the long running (since 1952!) "Friday Night is Music Night"  – a live concert featuring the BBC Concert Orchestra and singers from all genres; one week you might hear an operatic soprano, the next week, Alanis Morrisette might perform. The theme and playlist are never revealed ahead of the broadcast, which surprises and delights the live audience. Also on Radio 2 is Desmond Carrington's program "The Music Goes Round" which features a different theme each week, and music related to that theme from all eras, up to the present. A recent theme was "insects." Desmond always finds great tunes to fit the theme.

June has found some unexpected gems on BBC Radio. How about a Scottish jazz show? "The Jazz House" on Radio Scotland features very hip music and interviews, hosted by the knowledgeable Mr. Stephen Duffy. Radio Wales has "A String of Pearls" with Dewi Griffiths, featuring music from the 20s through the 50s.

It used to be said that the sun never set on the British empire. The same could certainly be said of BBC Radio. The BBC Asian Network features Desi music, interviews with Bollywood stars, Sikh devotional music and much more. I have heard Punjabi rap on that channel! The BBC World Service  exists in parallel with BBC Radio, with its own diverse selection on documentaries, discussions, and cultural programming. When I listen to one of these programs, and hear the calm, measured tones so typical of BBC presenters, I flash back to the days of my old shortwave radio (but now there is no static!).