“It was rock and roll to me. He might as well have been the King. Now I could walk a thousand miles, and it would be like I stood still. Spend my whole life trying, and I’ll never fill those shoes.” Words penned by Dave Gunning, from his song, “Big Shoes” (We’re All Leaving, 2009), about Canadian iconic folk musician, Stan Rogers. It was during a 1981 concert, a double bill with Stan Rogers and John Allan Cameron, that would heavily inspire eight year old Dave Gunning, and set him on a musical course of the singer/songwriter/storyteller he would become.
And thus, began tonight’s introduction to Dave Gunning, inside the NAC’s intimate Fourth Stage Theatre on a rainy Ottawa Saturday night. He told the tale of his early musical influences as a child growing up in Pictou, Nova Scotia. The fact that it was rock and roll to him meant that while his school buddies were listening to AC/DC, he was drawn to the music of musicians like John Denver. He may have felt somewhat outcast as a shy teenager, as he describes in his song, “Made On A Monday” (We’re All Leaving) – “with spare pieces that don’t work right – with square wheels and a check engine light…”. In this case, the nice guy finished anything but last, with ten albums under his belt, and a multitude of earnest, skilfully written songs born from his own life experiences, as well as those of others that have had a personal impact on him. They are full of warm, soul searching reflection, rich in beautifully crafted cascades of chords, with the ever present Celtic undertones indicative of Maritime traditional folk music. His lyrics are those of a storyteller, having an infectious rhythmic flow, with clever and thoughtful words, and sung with heartfelt passion. In between each and every song, Gunning would warm up the audience with another story about the inspiration for his next song. He told his witty, and often times, hilarious yarns, while simultaneously tuning up his Stonebridge acoustic guitar.
The audience responded to the ebb and flow of material with laughter, clapping of hands, stomping of feet, singing along (which he constantly encouraged), and at times in contrast, breath-holding silence.
One such story that struck an emotional chord with me, was of an elderly couple, who were celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary together, and staying at Cape Breton Island’s Keltic Lodge, where Gunning was performing that night. He couldn’t help but notice how the two were still so in love, clinking their wine glasses, and acting like they were on their first date. He later sat down with them and listened to their trials and tribulations of their marital journey over the last 50 years, and how they managed to stay together throughout it all. Unable to sleep that night, affected and inspired by their story, and the gentle sound of the ocean waves, he wrote what would become the song, “Saltwater Hearts” (Two Bit World, 2004). A few years later during one of his performances, he would tell the audience this same story, after which a woman jumped up from the back of the venue and shouted, “Excuse me, but I think you’re talking about my husband and I!” She then made her way up to the front of the stage, where he recognized her immediately. She came closer, leaned in, and proceeded to tell him that she had just lost her husband, leaving Gunning absolutely breathless. After collecting himself, he simply told her he hoped she would like the song he was about to perform for her for the first time, chalking that moment up to one of the most profoundly tongue-tied and awkward stage experiences of his life to date. At this point, I too, had a lump building in my throat, and when he began into the song, I was unable to restrain the waterworks. Fumbling for kleenex in my purse, I glanced around to see I wasn’t the only one affected by his story.
The emotional musical ride continued, highlighting many songs from his 10th and newest CD, No More Pennies (2012). Songs like “Coal From The Train”, tells the story of his ancestors who worked on the trains, and how they would shovel a little coal now and then when no one was looking, off to the side of the tracks, where the lesser fortunate who lived in dilapidated shacks could find it easily. Another, “These Hands”, a song inspired by a Pete Seeger documentary, and co-written with George Canyon, contributed to personal reflections of how to make a positive difference to society. The song went on to win an ECMA for Song of the Year in 2013, and was also made into a children’s storybook with illustrations by Meaghan Smith.
Joining Gunning onstage throughout the evening’s performance, was renowned musician, Allie Bennett on bass and backup vocals, providing precise, yet subtle accompaniment. His playing and vocal harmonies were spot on, lending a gentle touch to perfectly compliment the music. With nearly forty years in the music business himself, Bennett has over 125 album appearances, being one of Canada’s most prolific session and studio musicians. He has played and toured with the likes of John Allan Cameron, The Rankin Family, Rita MacNeil, Natalie MacMaster, Bruce Guthro…just to name a few. He is also a skilled fiddle player, with two albums to his own credit, It’s About Time (2004), and Full Circle (2013). He co-produced Gunning’s album, A Tribute to John Allan Cameron (2010), which received the highly honored East Coast Music Association Award for Roots/Traditional Solo Recording of the Year. He was awarded another ECMA for Musician’s Achievement in 2005. Gunning allowed Bennett to perform a few of his own fiddle numbers during each of the two sets. He played a collection of spirited reels in typical medley style, along with tributes to Cape Bretoner fiddle pioneer, Winston Scotty Fitzgerald, and to the late Raylene Rankin. It was clear there were fellow Cape Bretoners in the crowd, who were already familiar with this accomplished fiddler, adding their own percussive sounds of clapping, stomping, and encouraging hollers into the mix. Dave Gunning took his turn to offer his accompaniment on guitar, graciously taking a few steps back to allow the spotlight to shine on Bennett’s playing…a true show of gentlemanly stage courtesy.
And finally, tying the evening up nicely, came an energetic song about the great Canadian pastime of hockey, “Game Goin’ On”, co-written with David Francey (No More Pennies). The song also won first place in CBC Hockey Night in Canada’s Song Quest earlier this year. The audience, with their voices now warmed up, chimed in on the chorus, “Down to the rink, to the pond, to the river, there’s a game goin’ on, goin’ on forever.” After a night that seemed to fly by with such a collection of stories and songs, I was left very inspired and affected by this man, who seems older than his years. He shared with us through song, the pains and pleasures of life experience, historic events, political topics, the greatness of our country, and his vision of the human condition. His songs will become the legacy from which others will find inspiration, leaving them with the task of even bigger shoes to fill.