Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
TORONTO — On March 21, Tom Wilson headlined at Massey Hall in front of 2,750 fans. Less than three weeks later, he is tuning his guitar in the living room of a home in a middle-class neighbourhood in midtown Toronto, about to play to 31 people, many of whom can’t believe their fortune. The performance that ensues gives new meaning to bringing down the house.
On “concert nights,” the home takes on the persona of a venue. It’s nicknamed “The Growler,” tickets are sold, amplifiers are brought in, the musicians have their own “backstage” space in an upstairs bedroom, CDs and other paraphernalia is for sale, and there are no encores until the audience delivers loud applause and calls for “more, more, more!”
Wilson doesn’t hold back anything, either. The singer/songwriter with a wide range of tunes plays for an hour, including a two-song encore that starts with a cover of “Ring of Fire.” His voice resonates with clear, dead-on pitch like what you might be treated to in a studio session. As always, his showmanship is as much a part of the entertainment as his music. His self-effacing comments and hilarious stories of rock ’n roll life never fail to win over a crowd.
During this set on Good Friday, Wilson reveals that Colin Linden nearly showed up, too. Linden, Wilson and Stephen Fearing form Juno Award-winning Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, who finally headlined a gig at Massey Hall after 15 years together. Although it would have been a great bonus to see Linden, the audience is more than satisfied with Wilson and his band members, who on this night include his son as well as long-time collaborator Ray Farrugia. The trio are paid with the money brought in from ticket sales.
It’s Wilson’s second time making the trip up from Hamilton, Ontario to play “The Growler,” and he says he’s open to more. “These people are great,” he adds. “Really, we come back for the food.”
One of the owners is from Mexico and apparently spoils the band with fabulous cuisine prior to the show. The homeowners, who will remain anonymous because operating a “concert venue” out of their house may not fly with some authority figures, also offer bed-and-breakfast stays to the musicians.
SECRET HOUSE CONCERT THRILLS TOM WILSON FANS
One of the owners says he learned house concerts such as this one were possible while living in British Columbia, where he saw an advertisement for an intimate Victoria show featuring John Mann of Spirit of the West. “I sent off my $25 for a ticket, not knowing if I’d ever see anything in return, but I got my ticket in the mail and drove my bike to Victoria, and it was amazing. It opened my eyes that this stuff really goes on.”
Throughout Canada, house concerts featuring bands that have some notoriety either in local or national scenes are a growing phenomenon. It’s a matter of economics in an environment where musicians have to look for as many outlets as they can for income. While finding musicians who want work may not be hard, snagging one with as much clout as Wilson is a real coup. It speaks to his cool as much as anything. Many musicians might agree to play a house gig, but may balk at going into a home that doesn’t belong to a record exec or friend of a friend or one that isn’t in a neighbourhood like Toronto’s Rosedale where you could probably count on at least one or two millionaires/potential patrons in the audience. In this case, the homeowner of “The Growler” says he simply asked Wilson after a club concert if he would do it. Wilson agreed, and he’s not the only one who has said yes.
Mann has played at “The Growler” and so has Harlan Pepper, an impressive Toronto rock-and-folk quartet that includes Wilson’s bassist son, Thompson.
“We’re working on getting a couple of others in here before too long,” says the homeowner.
The neighbours don’t mind. In fact, several of them are in the audience. And even though the equipment is powerful enough to impress members of Spinal Tap, the home surprisingly absorbs much of the sound. Although you can hear the band from outside, it’s not any louder than most backyard parties and the show wraps up by 10 pm.
“This is incredible,” one neighbour said. “They’ve hosted a few of these and you can’t believe musicians of this calibre could be here, in a living room.”
MORE ABOUT THE GROWLER CONCERT SERIES
Tickets: To order tickets, you need to get on the mailing list or contact the homeowners. If you’d like more information, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will check with the homeowners if they would like to pass on more information to you.