I saw my friend Stan Rogers perform countless times over an eight year period beginning in 1975 when we first met at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Toronto. I saw him at concerts, club dates and festivals all over Canada and the northeastern U.S. and some of those times were shows I produced at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the 1970s and ‘80s. His first Golem dates were in February 1976 and his final dates there were in December 1982.
Stan was scheduled to return to the Golem in September 1983 but his life, along with 22 others, was tragically cut short on June 2 that year in an Air Canada airplane fire at the Cincinnati airport.
I remember how thrilled and proud Stan was when his son Nathan was born in 1979 and, as I noted in my review of Nathan Rogers’ album, The Gauntlet, I know how proud Stan would have been to see the man and the artist Nathan has turned out to be.
I mentioned how often I’d seen Stan perform because Nathan, who is now the age Stan was when he was killed, was in Ottawa at Centrepointe Theatre this past Saturday, November 17, performing a concert in tribute to his father, and before the show I was kind of worried about how Nathan would approach both the material and the larger-than-life legend about his father that developed in the years and now decades following his death.
I needn’t have worried. Nathan, who physically resembles his father (although he’s much thinner), approached the concert and the material with a relaxed sense of humour and arrangements that both respected Stan’s own from 30 and more years ago and brought in his own contemporary musical approach. Nathan, for example, played many of the songs at a somewhat brisker clip than Stan did. And although Nathan’s voice is somewhat higher and thinner than Stan’s was, the genetic similarities in the timbre is unmistakable.
Most of the set list was devoted to Stan’s better-known songs. As Nathan noted, there are certain songs that you just have to do in a Stan Rogers tribute concert. Among the de rigueur numbers were such classics as the inspirational “Mary Ellen Carter,” which remains my favourite Stan Rogers song, “Northwest Passage,” and “Barrett’s Privateers,” which certainly garnered the most audience participation of the evening.
Among the other highlights were “Lies,” “The Field Behind the Plow,” “Tiny Fish for Japan” “Make and Break Harbour,” “The Jeannie C,” “Free in the Harbour” and “Canol Road,” which he prefaced with a story of a bar brawl Stan had in Jasper, Alberta, circa 1978. I remember Stan telling the story back in the day – but Nathan had a great epilogue centred on his own visit to the same bar 30-odd years later.
While I mentioned that Nathan’s arrangements remained essentially faithful to Stan’s, the two best moments for me came when he departed wholly from Stan’s approach. Nathan took “Northwest Passage,” which Stan performed a cappella, and added a band arrangement based on his guitar playing, to end the formal concert. And then, in what was surely an inevitable encore, he sang “The Flowers of Bermuda,” which Stan used to play in an exciting, fast, band arrangement, as a beautiful, slow a cappella ballad.
While most of the concert was devoted to Stan’s marvelous original material, there were also a couple of covers – Archie Fisher’s beautiful “Dark Eyed Molly” and Royston Wood’s comical “Woodbridge Dog Disaster” – drawn from Stan’s repertoire.
With the exception of “The Flowers of Bermuda,” which Nathan performed solo, he received excellent back-up throughout from guitarist JD Edwards, fiddler Andrew Bryan and Ottawa bassist Stuart Watkins.
The audience – most of whom, like me, were old enough to remember seeing Stan play these songs back in the day – loved the concert and the standing ovation was well-deserved.