The Skydiggers: the name is a legend in the Canadian roots rock scene. With a history stretching back to the late 80s when they released their first eponymous album the 'Diggers feats are many. They won a Juno for most promising artist, have changed record labels more than once (suffering through the loss of ownership of their own master tapes,) lost the primary songwriter from earlier albums (Peter Cash,) and remained a force. These guys have been through a lot, and the band is still standing.
The Skydiggers are well known and well regarded in their hometown of Toronto where they've played an annual packed pre-Christmas weekend gig at Horseshoe Tavern for more than 20 years now. It's been more than three years since they've been out here to the west though, and that's a long wait for one of the best live acts in Canada. The packed room at the Railway Club was a pretty clear indication that the band's fans have remained loyal.
Lead singer Andy Maize's trademark wit and sense of humour were on display as soon as the band took the stage. "Our purpose here is threefold" he announced, before elucidating reasons for the evenings show: to celebrate the release of the conservative Canadian press baron from his Florida prison cell, to fix the model train that traditionally runs on a suspended track at the Railway Club and--as if an afterthought--to celebrate the release of their new album Northern Shore.
Also, by the way, to mourn the death of the inventor of cheesie a couple of days earlier. Apparently the purpose was four-fold.
For any band with a 20 year history and a dedicated set of fans the set-list can be a challenge: do you choose the fan favourites from long ago, or feature material from the new record? The Skydiggers did a nice job of balancing both opening with new material from Northern Shore before playing Horseshoe Bay (where the local ferry terminal is) and Feel You Closer, one of the band's more popular early numbers.
Normally an all male group the band is touring with Jessie Bell Smith, whose backing vocals added a nice touch to older material. Smith shone particularly brightly when she soloed on a cover of Deep Water, which was followed by the band's first major hit I Will Give You Everything. At this point, Maize was obviously enjoying himself tremendously on stage and the band played one more song before taking a break.
After a fifteen minute break spent at the briskly trafficked "ye olde souvenir shoppe" selling CDs the band took the stage again and opened their second set with Pull Me Closer which, for my money, ranks among not just the band's best material but as a classic example of how to build a song.
"Richard, this is your request," Maize announced next. Richard, as it turns out, is Maize's father-in-law and I happened to be standing next to him when the opening notes of the male/female duet Dear Henry came from the stage. Originally performed by Sarah Harmer the tune is a tough one live: Maize has sung both parts on occasion, but the pairing of his voice with Jessie Bell Smith's was beautiful and at least one father-in-law was standing there beaming. Good choice Richard: it's a great tune.
The second set turned out to be heavy in the history department with the band's biggest hit A Penny More making for one of those incredible concert moments that you never forget. While Daniel Lapp had been accompanying the band on fiddle for most of this night, he picked up a trumpet for this tune and the plaintive sound added a beautiful touch. As the band entered the final refrain of the chorus's "Higher, Higher, I'll take you where you want to go" the entire crowd joined in unison with the band.
A hard act to follow that one, but they did with Slow Burning Fire. Richard--the father-in-law--leaned over to me at this point and told me it was his favourite Skydiggers song and who am I to argue? As the title implies it starts slow and builds to a crescendo and does it about as well as you can imagine.
Twenty years in the business can be hard, and a lot of bands after that long settle into a comfortable groove and start repeating themselves. Not so this band: the material from the new album (and the last, City of Sirens) stands strong next to time honoured classics. Sounding as fresh as they did when I first started listening to them in high school, it was a pitch-perfect night with a favourite band.
One of these days I'm going to get back to Toronto for those annual Christmas gigs again: they're warm, intimate beautiful performances and if you ever have the fortune to be in that city the weekend before Christmas make sure you go. If not, keep your fingers crossed for a visit from the band to your town. You won't be disappointed.