Wed, Oct 23, 2013.
Faithfull listeners of CBC radio will probably have heard some or all of a tribute concert recorded back in 2012 for the late songwriter Gene MacLellan. It's been played several times, and a couple on CBC TV as well. The good news is that tribute show is now available on CD, so you can own this bit of history as well. Featuring an all-star cast of PEI musicians, plus an honorary one in Ron Hynes, the concert featured performances of MacLellan's best-known tunes, and even some unreleased material from his deep catalogue.
Let's head back to that night in January of 2012, and I can paint a pretty good picture, as I was lucky to be in the audience that night. The venue was Charlottetown's historic Zion Presbyterian Church, right across from Province House, the birthplace of Confederation. The large sanctuary was packed, almost a thousand people, many of whom would have been there 17 years earlier, at MacLellan's funeral. There was a lot of excitement about this concert, because it was something that many Islanders felt should have taken place years before. Over the years, plenty had been said about MacLellan's influence and talent, but not all at one time. In the intervening years, his reputation has only increased, especially among new generations of songwriters, and the many performers on the Island he had befriended and mentored. Everyone wanted this show done, and a lot of hard work by Music PEI finally made it happen.
The show was hosted by MacLellan's daughter, Catherine, herself an award-winning folk singer/songwriter, who would win five Music PEI awards the next weekend. In the last couple of years, Catherine had started performing some of her father's songs in concert, and had recorded her own version of his most famous one, Snowbird, on her latest album. It was one of three numbers she played that night that appear on the live recording. It was a night for family and friends as well. In the crowd was Catherine's mother Judith, her brother and sister, and all their kids, making this the first time all of Gene's kids and grandkids were together. As well as the musicians, people that had known MacLellan spoke to the crowd, reminding them of his remarkable qualities. Anne Murray, who's international success was achieved largely by MacLellan's words, provided a video tribute. Wise, I thought, her presence would have overwhelmed the event, and this kept the focus on MacLellan.
The musicians included Island star Lennie Gallant, who told the crowd of the time he was lucky enough to have MacLellan join him as a special guest at a big show on the Island. He sang The Call, another hit for Anne Murray, and did a lovely duet with Meaghan Blanchard on Shilo Song. John Connolly sang a beautiful version of Thorn In My Shoe, and Dennis Ellsworth & Haunted Hearts livened up the show with Continental Blues and Face In The Mirror. A guy who had known MacLellan when he was a kid, Scott Parsons, sang his Just Want To Be Loved By You, and Ron Hynes contributed his own well-known tribute to MacLellan, Godspeed. The show finished with the whole cast there to sing Put Your Hand In the Hand, a #1 hit in Canada and the U.S. for the group Ocean, a song so popular, people think it's an old Gospel number.
As good as the performances were that night, and as well-recorded and presented as they are here, I hope there's more than just enjoyment that comes from this release. It would be great for more people to hear Gene MacLellan's songs. That's been happening of late, everyone from David Myles to Jeremy Fisher to Jim Cuddy has been singing him live, and singing his praises. He's one of Canada, and the Maritimes' most important songwriters.
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Bob Mersereau has been covering music, and the East Coast Music Scene since 1985 for CBC. He's a veteran scene-maker at the ECMA's, knows where the best shows and right parties are happening, and more importantly, has survived to tell the tales. His weekly East Coast music column is heard on Shift on Radio 1 in New Brunswick each Wednesday at 4'45. He's also the author of two national best-selling books, The Top 100 Canadian Albums (2007) and The Top 100 Canadian Singles (2010).