By Tamara Dawkins
Not so long ago if you wanted to hear decent live music around here, you didn’t – you went to Toronto. With only a few exceptions, live music happened elsewhere, and you got used to driving a long way to hear it. Over the last few years, though, music has started coming our way. The scene has attracted talents that in previous years might have moved elsewhere. A case in point is singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Drew McIvor, who moved to the southern Georgian Bay region a few years ago to find a thriving scene sprouting talent and venues all over the place.
McIvor lived here before, spending his high-school years in Meaford before leaving for the University of Guelph; in 2008, he returned with his wife and three children, settling on a farm and converting the barn into a concert space. His side-project Latin-jazz combo Mambo Nation performed there for a 100-plus crowd.
McIvor’s rare musical ability first manifested itself in high school, where he wowed his friends with his ability to pick out any tune – ragtime, rock or reggae – on the piano or guitar. As a student at the University of Guelph, McIvor went through a musical coming-of-age and began to listen to world beat, Afro-Cuban and other music. This led to the formation in 1992 of his eight-piece band, House of Velvet, in which he sang and played keyboards. “This was a college pop band but we were listening to a lot of reggae, acid jazz, old hip-hop. We gigged between Guelph, Toronto and London.” The band released a CD that made the college charts. After he amicably departed HoV around 2000, he started up two related bands, Mambo Nation and NiceHaus. “Mambo Nation is an homage to the frenzied rhythms of Afro-Cuban music,” says McIvor, “especially the pre-Revolution stuff. NiceHaus is a musical tribute to the sounds of DJ club culture and electronica, performed live by a revolving cast of musicians.”
Since moving up here, McIvor has segued from the collaborative band format into solo, largely acoustic sets of melody-driven songs, and most recently, back to the band format. Drew’s Electronova is McIvor’s latest combo. He describes it as a “celebration of the sounds of Brazil’s bossanova and 60’s samba mixed with the jump-up bounce of rare groove, jazz and and electronica.” Look for Electronova performing at this year’s Summerfolk festival, among other venues.
Moving north has led to other positive changes. “When I made the move up here, it took the pressure off and I could concentrate more on the music that made me happy, music that I wanted to play for its own sake – not because I needed to present it to an audience.”
McIvor is in a unique position to compare urban areas with the scene up here. “In the city,” he says, “there’s more music than you can shake a stick at and it’s all very well advertised. Up here there’s a lot of music and some of it isn’t advertised at all. Plenty of musicians have made the move away from a city and they’re hiding out in the woodwork. If you keep your ear to the wind you can hear them.”
Having played in taverns and in house concerts, McIvor understands what they mean to musicians here. “Playing in taverns, you have a responsibility to give the audience what they want. But a lot of people are now producing their own concerts in Collingwood, Thornbury, Meaford, Owen Sound and small in-between towns. There’s a growing community wanting to hear singer-songwriters playing what they want to play.”
House concert venues – small, informal spaces, not taverns and not purpose-built concert halls – include Collingwood’s Bay Street School of Art, Thornbury’s Bruce Street Social Club, Meaford’s Irish Mountain Music, Owen Sound’s Second Avenue House Concerts. More pop up all the time.
Lots of taverns offer live music and always have, while several niche bar-restaurants – including Collingwood’s Casbah and Huron Club, Thornbury’s Bridges and Eugenia’s Flying Chestnut – exist as much for specialty live music as for food and drink.
The region’s established concert halls, meanwhile, are angling for bigger fish, with Meaford Hall and Collingwood’s Gayety recently presenting Sloan and Ron Sexsmith. The festival circuit gets a jolt in the arm in August with Peak to Shore Music Fest, held jointly in Blue Mountain Village and Thornbury.
Owen Sound’s Summerfolk and Meaford’s Electric Eclectics have been happening for years and pull in surefire crowds. As McIvor explains, “For every genre that’s popular, people are looking for a new thing, the next thing, and if pop or rock music is hot, people want to hear that. But people also want to hear weird electronic sounds, or folk music. There’s an audience for all of it right here.”
Get updates on Drew’s latest music here.