By Keith Sharp
Since Streetheart last played at Toronto’s legendary El Mocambo Tavern, much has happened. You need to go back in time by 43 years to 1979. The Winnipeg-based band had just released their second album, ‘Heaven Over Hell,’ John Hannah had just replaced Paul Dean on guitar (who moved on to help form Loverboy), and they were about to win a Juno award as Most Promising New Group and would later launch a national tour with a newly reformed AC/DC initially serving as their opening act.
Fast forward to Friday, August 5th, 2022, and Streetheart is set to return to the venue under the neon palm, but naturally, much has changed within the ranks. Lead vocalist Paul McNair has replaced original frontman Kenny Shields, who passed away July 21st, 2017, keyboardist Daryl Gutheil and bassist Ken (Spider) Sinnaeve are the only surviving members of the original lineup; guitarist Jeff Neill replaced Hannah in 1981 and drummer Chris Sutherland joined in 2019 after playing with the band in the ’90s before he moved to Toronto to join up with Kim Mitchell. He was the band’s fifth drummer, replacing Bruce Crump, Billy Carmassi and Herb Ego on drums after original drummer Matt Frenette departed in 1979 after he followed Dean out of the door to join Loverboy.
But according to Neill, the band’s spokesman, Streetheart has enjoyed a recent renaissance that has seen them become a regular on the Western Canada festival and casino circuit. They’ve even ventured into Eastern Canada, performing with Chilliwack at Orillia’s Casino Rama earlier this year.
Yes, it’s been a challenge for former Harlequin bassist/backing vocalist McNair to replace Shields’ whose trademark vocals on tracks like “Action,” “What Kind Of Love Is This,” and “Look In Your Eyes,” as well as his classic covers of tracks like The Rolling Stones’ “Under My Thumb,” The Small Faces’ Tin Soldier” and Them’s “Here Comes The Night” marked Shields as one of Canada’s most dynamic frontmen.
However, McNair has taken up this challenge with style and respect for the legacy of the band, much to the approval of even the band’s most loyal fans.
“We knew Paul from him playing with Harlequin, and our fans were familiar with him,” noted Neill from his Winnipeg residence before Streetheart headed out to play at the Rockin The Fields of Minnedosa festival in Manitoba. “He’s never tried to replace Kenny; you don’t do that; what we were looking for was someone who could sing a very difficult catalogue of songs, and there’s not a lot of singers who could do it.”
When Streetheart executed a Tribute To Kenny in Winnipeg August 28th, 2017, they reunited the original band, which featured Dean and Frenette, with a host of guest vocalists, and it was McNair’s rendition of “Action” and “Under My Thumb” which grabbed Neill, Sinnaeve and Gutheil’s attention. “Paul did the bulk of the vocals that day and did a great job.”
“When Kenny died, Daryl, Spider and I got together to decide what to do next and whether we should continue,” Neill explained. “But we were so impressed with Paul that we felt we owed it to Kenny and our fans to carry on.”
As bands from the 70s and 80s attempt to continue their legacy, it’s become almost the norm for younger group members to replace the original artists. In the case of Adam Lambert replacing Freddie Mercury in Queen or Brian Johnson replacing Bon Scott in AC/DC, such moves were necessitated by the demise of the original lead singers. Yet bands like Foreigner, Journey and Styx have all been revitalized by newer and younger performers taking over the singing duties
Even in Canada, Al Harlow has reformed Prism after the death of original frontman Ron Tabak and his replacement Henry Small while Trooper has recently undergone a complete overhaul with the two surviving lead men; singer Ra McGuire and guitarist Brian Smith, stepping down to be replaced by vocalist David Steele and guitarist Steve Crane.
“It’s the fans’ love of the music and their desire to continue to support that music which means that sometimes the music is outlasting the artists’ ability to continue to play it,” noted Neill. “When Kenny (Shields) was ill and had to cancel dates, I would cheer him up by saying; we never had a plan to last 40 +years. You have people 65 years old trying to sing the same songs that they sang when they were 20; try doing that with a hockey player!”
In reflecting on the band’s legacy, Neill is aware that Streetheart has always battled the stigma of being perceived as a Western Canadian band. They thought they had their big national break when Warner Music Canada tried to cash in on the popularity of their first two albums by setting up a national tour with AC/DC opening. But AC/DC’s overwhelming presence, powered by their `Back In Black’ release, soon forced promoters CPI to reverse the order and Streetheart never really achieved national popularity.
“It’s safe to say Streetheart has been underappreciated over the years, but anyone who has seen us play live will be impressed by our energy,” Neill observed. “And with Paul in the band, we are performing songs we couldn’t even attempt before.”
Moving forward, Neill notes they took advantage of the pandemic to write more than 70 new songs, and they hope, eventually, to get around to releasing new material. “We’ve always talked about moving the meter. But we do recognize that our fans are our bosses; they make everything possible, and if they want new material, we will give it to them.”