Thursday, March 18, 2021

Crocks N Rolls: Five Bucks at the Door

Frank Loffredo
photo by Brent Linton

The Story of Crocks N Rolls

Directed by Kirsten Kosloski

I once co-wrote a book about Canadian music from 1985-95. It talked about a lot of people, a lot of places from coast to coast. After watching Kirsten Kosloski’s new documentary Five Bucks at the Door (link to full film below), I realize I could have set the entire book in Thunder Bay, at a bar called Crocks N Rolls. The main character, as it is in the film, would be the club’s owner, Frank Loffredo.

If you were a touring Canadian musician in the late '80s and early '90s, you played at Crocks N Rolls. You had to. The distance between Toronto and Winnipeg is 21 hours. Sudbury and Winnipeg: 18 hours. Hell, even between Sault Ste. Marie and Winnipeg is 14 hours. You have to stop in Thunder Bay

You’d be happy to see it. And the approximately 300 freaks and weirdos who live there, surrounded by thousands of hockey players and hunters, were more than happy to see you. Frank Loffredo is the guy who ran it, booked it, and literally slept there to keep it going. His wife (and mother to their three children) worked late shifts at the bar before getting up at seven in the morning for her day job as a nurse. Loffredo wanted to create a community, a refuge for both local outcasts and travelling artists, located at the tip of fabled rock’n’roll roadway Highway 61. He succeeded.

Kosloski grew up as a nerdy, shy kid who taped CBC’s Brave New Waves late at night and listened to it on the bus to school the next day--so she’s already someone after my own heart. The first night she goes to Crocks N Rolls, when she’s 16, her life changes. The fact that she was allowed in is itself a miracle: all-ages shows in bars were hardly the norm anywhere else in Canada. (I had to grow a beard to have a similar experience in Toronto, at the same age.) There, she sees all kinds of freaks: NoMeansNo, Bob’s Your Uncle, Jr. Gone Wild, Change of Heart, Bob Wiseman, Rheostatics, the Inbreds, 13 Engines, Furnaceface, Acid Test. Years later, she interviews them all for her film.

Even if I didn’t write a similar book, can I possibly be objective about this film? I’m between the ages of 45 and 55, had my life changed by Brave New Waves, went to see way too much live music, and my main goal in life when I was 25 was to tour Canada. Which I did--but Crocks N Rolls happened to close the very week my band left on tour. So we drove from Sudbury to our next gig… in Regina (ouch). But the fact I never entered its doors doesn’t diminish the effect this film has on me. This is as nostalgic as I can possibly feel about a place I’ve never been to.

This film is clearly a love letter to the wonderfully weird side of Thunder Bay (which is a welcome respite from the avalanche of horror stories out of the city in recent years; for better or worse, that aspect of the city is not addressed here). The queers, the punks, the metalheads, the jam bands, the tree-planters: all were welcome, with girls to the front. But it’s also an ideal microcosm for every Canadian city that isn’t Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. If you’re lucky, your town had that one club, or one arts space, or one radio station or record store, that acts as a hub, a lifeline and a pipeline to the outside world. Some use it as a launching pad for escape; some use it to empower a local existence. God bless those like Loffredo, who stick around, who make something happen, who don’t give up on the place that they live.

Kosloski brings the story to life not just with candid chats with Loffredo and the artists mentioned above, but with a wealth of photos and original animation. She also puts herself in front of the camera, a technique I normally find grating unless absolutely necessary--which she is. She’s the heart of this story, even more so than Loffredo; without her testimonial, his story would be far less effective. And her (perhaps too long) tribute to Brave New Waves is perfect (and therefore not a single second too long): the national radio show helped her imagine a bigger world, and Crocks N Rolls brought it to her directly. I grew up in a suburb of the biggest city in the country, and even I know what it feels like to find those lifelines. She makes a strong case for how much more important those things are when the next town is an eight-hour drive in any direction.

I loved this film. If you’ve read either Have Not Been the Same or The Never-Ending Present, or listened to Brave New Waves during the Brent Bambury years, or watched Bruce McDonald's trilogy of Roadkill / Highway 61 / Hard Core Logo, I can guarantee you’ll love it as well. (You’re also likely to be a dear friend of mine.)

I have a few minor quibbles: there’s some minor repetition in the storytelling (not uncommon in current docs), and there’s some Thunder Bay inside baseball that’s not fully explained: Who is that guy? Why was his band important? But to be fair, those locals don’t resonate for me only because I know all the other talking heads extremely well, some of them personally. If you came to this film cold--as a mainstream music fan, as a non-Canadian, or even as a Canadian under 40--the composite portrait is still effective. And while obviously it would be great to have had more video footage, Kosloski does a fantastic job with photographs--and the fact she doesn’t have much video makes the whole time period seem further away than it actually is, therefore more exotic. (The amazing photos, by Brent Linton, are in vivid B&W.)

It’s such a tired cliche of historians talking about events from 30 years ago to provide qualifiers about how “of course, this was pre-Internet”--but it’s a tired cliche that’s entirely necessary, especially here. This really does seem like ancient history now. As Sook-Yin Lee points out in the film, it’s ephemera in dire danger of fading away entirely. 

So thank you, Kirsten Kosloski, for capturing Crocks N Rolls. It’s unlikely we’ll get films or books or oral histories about similar venues across the country unless it’s the Commodore Ballroom or Massey Hall, but maybe that’s okay.

Maybe the story of Crocks N Rolls says it all.

A Calgary Herald story by Eric Volmers is here.

Watch the whole glorious goddam thing here:

Thursday, March 04, 2021

2020 catchup

Yes, I'd like to forget 2020 as much as everyone else. But in the first two months of 2021, as I pored over various lists posted by my favourite writers and outlets (shout out to Bandcamp, the venerable Said the Gramophone and the always-fascinating Aquarium Drunkard), there was a lot I'd missed. And next to nothing interesting came out in Jan/Feb this year anyway, which allowed me to spend more time with this music.

The list I made in November is here.

Here are 10 records I only recently discovered that blew me away:

Alias Ensemble – A Splendour of Heart

I’m not on the Daniel Romano bandwagon, by any means, though I should be: we have many mutual friends, people I admire in turn admire him, and in theory I should be a fan of his various projects—but I’m not, for entirely subjective reasons. Yes, it’s impressive that he released at least 10 records in 2020, and I wish I could say they struck some chord with me, but they didn’t. This is an exception, perhaps because the lead vocals are all tackled by Kelly Sloan, or perhaps because it bears no resemblance to the indie rock, retro-country, or punk rock that Romano normally pinballs between. This is British Isles folk music, which is also not normally my thing, but this record is so goddam charming it’s impossible for me not to fall in love with it. If I had to compare it to anything contemporary, it would be Dublin band Lankum, though there’s a lot more sunshine on this record than there is on that Irish band’s incredible 2019 album The Livelong Day. Kelly Sloan is a stunning singer, the harmonies are even better, the string playing (and accordion) is all very strong, and on top of all that the production is perfect, neither slick nor raw.




Eddie Chacon – Pleasure, Joy and Happiness

That title pretty much sums up how I feel about this record. A comeback record by a guy I’ve never heard before, this is laid-back, synth-y R&B with a Shuggie Otis vibe that sounds entirely out of time and place. The “Long Hot Summer”-ish synth bass on “Hurt” just kills me. Song title of the year: “My Mind is Out of Its Mind.” Great profile in the New York Times I stumbled upon after falling in love with this music.




The Garrys – Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages

A new soundtrack for a silent film: this has been a trend for decades, and it’s mostly been a pleasant experiment in the moment—you had to be there. This, however, by three women from Saskatoon working with a 1922 Dutch documentary about the occult, easily stands on its own. Elements of Dirty Three, spooky Sadies, and the Morricone side of Godspeed are all run through an Echoplex, with some trombone and accordion thrown in for good measure.



Matthew Halsall – Salute to the Sun

British hippie space jazz with harps and kalimbas and, yes, even some fucking rainsticks, with song titles like "Joyful Spirits of the Universe" and, I shit you not, "Mindfulness Meditations." Part of me should hate this with a passion, but it's really goddam gorgeous and I was listening to it constantly in December and January. Though obviously inspired by Alice Coltrane, Halsall's smooth trumpet is a much gentler instrument than Pharoah Sanders's saxophone, for better or worse. In a year like the one we just had, I'm perfectly fine with gentleness. Now excuse me while I meditate.



Nyssa – Girls Like Me

How did I miss this? Totally up my alley, quite literally (she’s in my Toronto neighbourhood). Nyssa is a modern pop singer with serious old-school vocal skills, the kind that would have once put her in Pat Benatar/Annie Lennox territory. Her songwriting is full of pop hooks, big choruses and is illustrated with home electronics (with some pedal steel on the side) that could easily be scaled up to Springsteenian stadium level in less subtle hands—but they're inherently more charming because she never succumbs to the super-obvious and corny grand gesture. It's the kind of record I'd love Lady Gaga (I'm a fan) to make. "You're not going to get what you came for," she sings. Nyssa has been in bands since she was a teen, from the community that spawned Frigs and Ice Cream, but from what I can tell this is a entirely self-produced affair. Fans of US Girls should take note; there's plenty of social critique in the lyrics here, not surprising on an album that opens with the line: "Start this story with a dead girl / that's what makes it just like the others." Would love to see Nyssa on a double bill with Winnipeg artist Boniface, whose record earlier in 2020 mined similar sonic territory of classic-rock-through-modern-pop sounds. As a guy who lived through the 80s, I'm wary of twentysomethings in period-specific clothes, but everything here is pitch perfect and rings true—clearly part of a continuum and entirely contemporary. And outside of Dominique Fils-Aimé, I feel unlikely to hear a better vocal performance among this year's potential Polaris Prize picks.


Population II – A La O Terre

Psychedelia from franco Quebec par excellence, somewhere between Kikagayu Moyo and Dungen, if that means anything to you. Yes, the guitarists are both excellent, as they’d have to be to pull this off, but it’s the rhythm section here that really makes this work. I’m also wondering if I prefer non-anglophone psych because then I can ignore the lyrics, which are usually downright embarrassing in English.



Shopping – All or Nothing

Is it time for yet another revival of early ’80s post-punk pop? The genre got mighty tainted in the last 20 years, with too many watered-down replicas of the Slits, ESG and Gang of Four paying more attention to fashion than tunes. This band has a monstrous bass player and British-accented women singing like the second coming of Delta 5. But also: great songs. I’m prone to liking bands like this on aesthetics alone (see: Bodega), but I do believe this is a step above.



Teenanger – Good Time

This Toronto pop band sounds like a 21st-century version of Queen Street West in 1984—Pukka Orchestra, Martha and the Muffins, et al—and that’s fine with me. Even better: the mixing and mastering job on this record sounds like a million bucks—which nothing in Canada ever did in the ’80s.



Widowspeak – Plum

Enchanting, dreamy pop with an anchor of a rhythm section that ensures the songs don’t drift away, like a more muscular Mazzy Starr. “The Good Ones” is positively sublime. 



Sven Wunder – Eastern Flowers

To satiate my recent hunger for Turkish psych music, I spent 2021 waiting for new albums by Altin Gun (Dutch-Turkish) and Gaye Su Akyol (actually Turkish) and then found this record by a Swedish guy (not remotely Turkish) whose other 2020 record was comprised of Japanese music. Make of that what you will, this is a great record.



And 10 more that really stuck out:


Tony Allen and Hugh Masekela – Rejoice!

What, did we have to wait until both giants were dead before this album saw the light of day? Anyway, regardless of timing, this is utterly—and entirely predictably—awesome.


Analog Players Society – Tilted

With Donny McCaslin (Bowie’s Blackstar) on sax, the Bad Plus’s Orrin Evans on piano, bassist Devron Douglas (Ravi Coltrane) and drummer Eric McPherson, this is an inspired one-off where they tackle three songs: one by Monk, one by Joao Gilberto, and one original. I’m a bit confused as to the nature of this project, which usually revolves around a different duo entirely, but this is certainly an inspired collection of gentlemen.  



The Chicks – Gaslighter

I’ve never listened to a full Chicks record before now, for whatever reason, though I’ve obviously admired them for various reasons from afar. This, however, hooked me right away; sonically, it sounds much less like mainstream country than I expected, and it’s also not a super-glossy pop record. I’m totally projecting here, but it sounds like three women who don’t give a shit what anyone expects them to do anymore. “Julianna Calm Down” and “March March” are the tracks that did it for me.



Chouk Bwa & the Angstromers – Vodou Ale

A few years ago, I loved the debut by Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band working with Belgian producers. Last year I loved the Ugandan band Nihiloxica's record, which was recorded by U.K. producers and came out on a Belgian label. Now there’s this Haitian band also working with Belgian producers. Do I need Belgian producers to make this music accessible to these North American ears? Not sure, but I do like this record quite a bit.



Aquiles Navarro and Tcheser Holmes – Heritage of the Invisible II

This Panamanian-Canadian trumpeter and NYC percussionist use samples, field recordings and electronics to take a little trippy trip as a duo away from their regular gig in Irreversible Entanglements.



North Americans – Roped In  

Meditation music from acoustic guitarist Patrick McDermott and pedal steel player Barry Walker, with contributions from like-minded peers Mary Lattimore on harp and guitarist William Tyler. It’s music for dreaming of the continent’s open roads that we’re advised not to travel right now.



Eric Revis – Slipknots Through a Looking Glass

Sparse and funky jazz on acoustic bass with plenty of tickles and tinkles.



Roots Magic – Take Root Among the Stars

Italian jazz band, who sound Mingus-y to me, tackle songs by Skip James, Ornette Coleman, Sun Ra and others.



Skinny Dyck – Get to Know Lonesome

Homespun Albertan country music recorded to ¼” tape in a Lethbridge living room. The name is gimmicky, but the music most definitely is not.



Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud

I’ve been lukewarm on this critical favourite until now. This is a very strong record, though I think it sounds a lot better if you’re listening to it in the American South; it sounds like the soundtrack to a North Carolina road trip I haven’t taken in a few years now. See also: H.C. McEntire’s Eno Axis.