Wednesday November 25, 1998

On the road with Stompin' Tom
Warm Moosehead, motels & strange croquet
By BRUCE MOWAT -- Hamilton Spectator

To call the tour a success would be selling it short.

Over the course of four months, guitarist Mark LaForme, bassist Larry Murphy, drummer Danny Lockwood and multi-instrumentalist Steve Petrie played some 38 shows in front of more than 60,000 people across Canada.

Highlights of the tour, which wrapped up Oct. 29, included shows where the mosh pit activity was particularly gnarly, a Massey Hall concert in Toronto where ticket scalpers did brisk business and a July 1 Ottawa festival gig which also featured The Philosopher Kings, Sloan and The Tea Party.

Don't try racking your brains trying to figure out which alterna-rock sensation the aforementioned Hamilton musicians play with. All of these guys are veteran country, rock and blues players in their forties, see? No, we're talking about something bigger than rock, more alternative than alternative, a looming figure in the psyche of Canadian music. We're talking about Stompin' Tom Connors, the legendary guy from P.E.I., who hired the four Hamilton musicians to back him up in the spring of this year.

How does one get a job backing up a legend? Networking, of course. LaForme had been a longtime veteran of the country-music circuit, having scored a number of radio hits such as That's Easy For You To Say during the '80s. About two years ago he was playing an old-time country gig with Larry Mercey of the Mercey Brothers when Connors climbed onstage to do a guest spot.

Apparently, all parties must have had favourable impressions of that evening, because one spring evening this year LaForme got a call from Connors at 11.30 p.m. asking him if he was interested in backing him up for his tour.

"At first, I thought to myself 'this might be somebody's idea of a joke,'" recalls the 44-year-old LaForme, who first cut his teeth in the rock world with Next, the Crowbar spinoff group led by Roly Greenaway in 1975. "But then I figured, 'who would bother doing that?'"

The Job Interview
"Do you like beer?" Connors asked LaForme. Apparently some musicians, when posed this question, hemmed and hedged about the issue, giving such answers as "well, the occasional," or "just on the weekend." Wrong answer.

"Yes," said LaForme.

He got the job.

The initial rehearsal took place in Connors's home entertainment room. The first 15 minutes were spent running through such classics as Bud The Spud. Satisfied the band could indeed play, the next seven hours were spent "socializing."

"He's very big on getting a feel of camaraderie with the people he works with," says Lockwood, who replaced original tour drummer Steve Sinnicks after the Maritime leg of the tour was finished. Afterwards, Connors gave the band a tape of some 60 songs to be learned for the tour.

"The set list would vary from night to night," recalls Murphy. "Certain songs would be picked for the regions we were playing in, like that song Roll On Saskatchewan. You'd always have Bud The Spud and Sudbury Saturday Night, but after that, it would vary. No two shows were the same."

"He's kind of like an old blues player. He has his own sense of timing," says LaForme of Connors's music. "He'll add a bar or drop a beat, and you have to watch him for that."

"You gotta watch the boot," adds Lockwood.

"Whenever he made an error or forgot a line, he'd tell the audience 'This ain't no Milli Vanilli show, you know,'" adds Murphy.

July 7/98, Coldwater Mosh Pit
Coldwater is a small town outside of Orillia in Simcoe County. Population: 800. Number of people in attendance at the show there: 1,400. Mosh Pit Activity: Lots, with many kids going airborne for the occasion.

"You'd see all kinds of people at the shows," says LaForme. "Everybody from six-year-olds to 90-year-old grandmas. Punk rockers with purple hair and guys in suits. I've never seen anything like it."

STOMPIN' TOM VERSUS The Country Music Industry
Connors wasn't asked to play at the Country Music Week conference the second weekend of September in Calgary. But, as fate would have it, his Sept. 13 Calgary date at the Jack Singer Auditorium coincided with the event. "Tom doesn't like those people because he thinks they're trying to Americanize the scene," says Murphy.

As it turned out, Connors & company drew 1,800 fans to their show as opposed to the 600 people who attended the CCMA dinner that night.

"And there were people sneaking out of that show to go to ours," adds Murphy. On stage, Connors was heard to make the remark, "We weren't invited, but we came here anyways."

When's he on tour, he dislikes "distractions," says LaForme. "He hates TV, and aside from reading reviews, he doesn't read newspapers."

"He loves all sorts of games and he loves winning them," adds Lockwood. "Scrabble, chess and checkers. And while you might win occasionally at Scrabble, he'd always beat you at chess and checkers."

"And then there's croquet," continues Lockwood. "He has his own rules for the game, which you could describe as 'full-contact' croquet. On off-nights, we'd set up the 1,000-watt lights and play outdoors."

"He's very well read, and he likes to talk about religion, politics and history," says LaForme.

Beverage: Moosehead Beer. "Warm, straight out of the box," according to LaForme. "At restaurants, he'll ask that the beer be warmed under the taps for a few minutes."

Accommodation: Connors prefers motels over hotels because "you can pull the trucks right up to the door." Food: Connors doesn't like to eat a lot of solid food on tour.

"Anytime we'd try to get him to eat, he'd say 'aw, yer just tryin' to slow me down,'" says Lockwood.
He did, however, take a regular bowl of soup for nourishment.

On tour, Connors is a nighthawk, often staying up to greet the dawn. This was the time for games, chit-chat and to soak the aching feet that spent a good 90 minutes pummelling a plywood board.
"But you know, he'll outlive all of us," says LaForme. Adds Lockwood: "He has the stamina of Superman." Woe, though, to the person who tries to rouse him before he's ready. "Anybody who tries to wake Tom up before he's ready gets the boot thrown at him," says Murphy.

"He does that at every show, sometimes for as long as two hours," says LaForme. "He always talks to the people, too. And he always made sure they get introduced to us."

The Oct 23 Kitchener show at Lulu's where audience response reached Beatle-esque levels of vocal screaming. The Oct 27 Hamilton Place show, where, according to LaForme, "Tom gave it all for us, because he knew it was our hometown show."

"Not really any, aside from the usual road burn," says Murphy.

"Being away from your family for three months at a time was hard," says LaForme. "But when I first told my wife, she said I should take the job. "Hey, it's like being called to serve for your country."

Note: Honest, I tried to get Stompin' Tom to talk about the band, but he wasn't available for interviews. Too bad, because it'd be a Great Moment In Canadian Culture: Bruce Farley Mowat talks with Stompin' Tom. And LaForme says he has all kinds of funny stories about them ...

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