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Blues for food: Matchstick Mike's Maritime musical road trip helps the hungry

Matchstick Mike Bidlake and Travis Furlong have raised thousands for Maritime food banks on their Blues For Food tour that was inspired by personal experiences.

A man with a guitar takes the fight against poverty on tour

Blues musician "Matchstick Mike" Bidlake says he's had a lifelong love affair with music, and now he's using his talent to help those in need through a fundraising tour. (Nick Purdon/CBC )

It's not hard to see why people call him "Matchstick."

Mike Bidlake is 6-foot 6-inches and skinny. The musician also has so much energy it seems like he could catch fire at any moment — energy he's channeling toward helping the less fortunate in the Maritimes.

"Poverty affects me hugely. I just take it on, you know," Bidlake says.

On his Blues For Food tour, a 17-show, 16-night musical odyssey he dreamed up to raise money for food banks in some of the poorest towns in the Maritimes, Bidlake isn't just the headliner. He also booked the venues and the hotels, and does the driving (in his wife's silver SUV).

Mike Bidlake, a.k.a. "Matchstick Mike," plays "I Don’t Get Bit by the Same Dog Twice" in a hotel room in Miramichi, N.B., on night seven of his Blues for Food tour. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

The other member of the Blues For Food tour is Moncton's Travis Furlong. He's almost a blues song himself — Furlong has hit the other side of 50, has been playing shows across Canada for more than 30 years, and has seen his share of ups and downs.

The tour — kicking off in New Brunswick, winding through P.E.I. and ending up in Nova Scotia — isn't exactly glamorous. Both Bidlake and Furlong are paying most of their own expenses so they can raise as much money as possible.

Out on the highway, as Bidlake drives to the next gig in Miramichi, Furlong is the in-car entertainment. He strums his steel guitar in the back seat.

"This guitar is my broad axe. It cuts through all the crap in life," says Furlong. "If I am not feeling good, I grab a guitar and play."

Bidlake drives as Furlong plays his steel guitar in the back seat. 'This is a friend,' says Furlong about his guitar. 'All of my guitars are an extension of me.' (Leonardo Palleja/CBC )

Struggling town

Miramichi, famous for its beautiful river, is a tough place to make a go of it. In the past 10 years the local zinc mine closed and so did one of the town's pulp and paper mills.

The town is part of a larger story. New Brunswick is the only province in the country where the population is declining. The people who are still here are resilient — but some of them need help.

When he's not on the road raising money through his Blues For Food project, Bidlake heads up his own band called The Chain Smokin’ Alter Boys. They've been playing together and touring for 13 years. (Nick Purdon/CBC )

That night at Mike's Pub, Bidlake hammers out a rendition of Johnny Cash's Folsom prison blues, a favourite. Bidlake says he was 4 years old, growing up in a suburb of Fredericton, when he figured out how to use his parents stereo and discovered Cash.

"It was my first freedom, to wake up before my parents and play records. I discovered that music affected me differently than other people," Bidlake says. "I was emotional. It was the most incredibly cool experience to have this awakened inside. It began a love affair with music."

Bidlake talks to the audience at Mike's Pub in Miramichi. (Nick Purdon/cbc)
At the end of the show, Bidlake takes a cash box and walks around Mike's bar asking people for donations.

At one of the tables Estelle Hayes, 65, and Dwayne Hancock, 50, hand over $20. Hancock works as a debarker at the pulp and paper mill in Miramichi — but he says he hasn't always been so lucky.

"When we were a young couple, a young family, there were times that we had to use the food bank ourselves," says Hancock. "It hurt my pride to have to go to the food bank, but nothing hurts more than hunger in the belly. Now every time we go to the grocery store we give back."

Dwayne Hancock, 50, and Estelle Hayes, 65, enjoy the show at Mike's Pub. Hancock remembers using the food bank himself, and so now he gives back when he can. (Nick Purdon/CBC)
Bidlake delivers the cash box to a table at the back of the bar where Jean Matchett, who runs the local food bank, is watching the show.

​Of the 17,000 people who live in town, she says about 10 per cent use the food bank every month. 

"People don't want to be at the food bank. People don't want other people to know that they are at the food bank," Matchett says.

"But when they leave, you see their different attitude on their face. I just try to make them feel welcome. They are friends, they are part of my family."

Jean Matchett runs the food bank in Miramichi. She says 400 families use it every month - around 10 per cent of the population. (Nick Purdon/CBC)

Bidlake smiles as he counts the money for Matchett. The final tally is $425.

"It worked, it worked," Bidlake says, and they hug.

"I know the people of Miramichi are very generous, I see that every day," Matchett says. "So it doesn't surprise me to see people in here [giving]."

Love affair with music

Bidlake playing guitar as teenager at his home in Marysville, N.B. He says he discovered Johnny Cash's song 'Folsom Prison Blues' when he was just four years old. (Mike Bidlake)

Bidlake has played for hours for the audience at Mike's Pub, and it's not until around midnight that he has a moment to himself. Still, when he takes a seat on the bed in the hotel, out comes the guitar.

Take an old rockabilly and get him to gargle pebbles for 10 minutes and you'll have Bidlake's voice. The lyrics as he starts to sing, "I'm just a man out roaming the open road," might as well be about the fundraising tour — a more than 4,000 km road trip. 

"It feels great to be tired at the end of the day, with a sore throat and sore fingers. It feels good to know I'm tired because I was trying to help somebody," he says. 

Bidlake's love affair with music hasn't been lucrative. As a working musician in New Brunswick he struggles to make ends meet, but it's a path he follows by choice. 

In his 20s Bidlake wanted to get rich, and like many Maritimers he went west to seek his fortune. He landed in Calgary in the early 1990s and worked in the high-stakes world of commercial real estate.

"There was a lot of money to be made. But a lot of things were happening. I was drinking a lot," he says. "That was a theme throughout a lot of my life. This alcohol thing.

Bidlake delivers boxes of food to the food bank in Miramichi. (Nick Purdon/CBC )

"But I realized that no matter how much money I made I wasn't going to be happy," Bidlake adds. "For me to be happy I needed to pursue my dream, what my guts were telling me."

When he turned 30, Bidlake says he "woke up." He got sober and returned home. "I'm a Maritimer and I need to be close to my family."

He threw himself into his music and 'Matchstick Mike' was born.

Lou's Pub, Bathurst

As Bidlake sets up for the next show in Bathurst, N.B., he opens up about why poverty affects him so much. 

"It was instilled in me at a very young age that we take care of people who can't help themselves," he says. 

"We didn't have a lot of money either, but I remember my dad getting an income tax cheque back and he took my sister and I to get ice cream."

Bidlake tears up over the memory of a homeless man knocking on the window of the car. The stranger asked for a smoke and Bidlake's father went and bought him a pack.  

Bidlake and Furlong with some of their gear outside Lou's Pub in Bathurst, N.B. (Nick Purdon/CBC )

"That stuck with me my whole life," he says. "Taking care of people who are less fortunate, or need a hand, is a very cool thing."

Furlong knows first-hand what it's like to need a food bank. He turned to one when he was younger.

Travis Furlong has been playing the blues for more than 30 years. He says the Blues For Food tour is personal for him, because he needed to use food banks when he first got married. (Nick Purdon/CBC )
"When I went to the food bank and stood in line, I felt like a failure," Furlong says. "But  when you are working hard and doing everything you can and you gotta reach out for some help, there's no shame in that."  

Bidlake and Furlong put their hearts into the set, but the night in Bathurst is a flop. Not only is Lou's Pub half empty, but most of the people have never heard of Blues For Food.

At the end of the night Bidlake counts the money inside the guitar case he left at the foot of the stage: $23 and 25 cents.

Lucille Belliveau, 69, and Albert Mazerolle, 70, enjoy the music (and each other) in Lou's Pub during Bidlake and Furlong's set. (Nick Purdon/CBC)
The tour has hit rock bottom.

Then the biggest surprise of the night. The waitress, Celine Arseneau, donates all her tips — $210.

"A lot of families don't have a lot. And it is harder this time of the season," says the 37-year-old mother of four.

"I myself had a hard time with my kids. Sometimes we had to have a handout, and the food bank was there for us. And it was there for a lot of other families."

Celine Arseneau is a waitress at Lou's Pub. She donated all her tips - $210 - to the Blues For Food tour in support of local food banks. (Leonardo Palleja/CBC)
Bidlake beams and they high-five. 

"That's awesome ... this girl gets a big hug from everybody in the joint," Bidlake yells to the half-empty bar.

In the end, the Blues For Food tour raises $3,678.55 and almost 800 pounds of food over 17 shows. And it's not lost on Bidlake that if people on the edge of needing help themselves can give so much, then the tour could be an inspiration for everyone.

"Travis and I are already talking about doing another tour next year," he says. "Bigger and better."


Nick Purdon

Current Affairs Correspondent

Nick Purdon is a Current Affairs Correspondent with CBC News' The National. You can follow him on Twitter at @nickpurdoncbc

With files from Leonardo Palleja