Carolyn Mark – Absolutely free
She found Beaver Point by chance. A friend’s brother had just been certified as a professional plumber, and they threw him a celebration in Salt Spring. Carolyn provided the entertainment. But the gorgeous sound wasn’t the only thing that caught her attention; packed tight with free-spirited locals, the collective odor was a bit ripe. “I thought, ‘I want to play in here again…but without people.’ Rather than do a show, I wanted to record there.”
In keeping with that theme, on a summer night late in June, Mark opted to hold the Victoria release party for her new CD not in some dark, smoky club, but at the tiny Orange Hall, a venue best known for hosting bluegrass jams and yoga classes (alas, not simultaneously). The small structure appears to be a converted church; the windows still have leaded glass. Fifty or so chairs, the sort that would make Charles and Ray Eames smile at their mix of design and practicality, are lined up in rows. Clotheslines have been strung across the stage, festooned with foil-covered dollar signs and stars.
Mark, Rigby, Davies and assorted guests run through the bulk of Nothing Is Free, plus a sheaf of songs from her back catalogue: “Edmonton”, “Fuzzy Slippers”, “Two Days Smug And Sober”. Just before intermission, the star announces that lemonade, tea and cookies, and watermelon are available downstairs. Folks make their way down to the basement for refreshments, or spill out onto the lawn.
The next morning, Mark explains her choice of venue. Growing up in Sicamous, the community hall was the center of social life; during a recent tour, she performed at several halls in rural Ontario and was reminded of her affinity for that vibe. “I love being the only band in [a small] town, so everyone comes out, of all ages,” she says. “If you only play in bars, everyone is 20.”
For an artist like Mark, who peppers lyrics with references to left-field touchstones such as Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?, a roomful of distracted hipsters can leave something to be desired. Instead, at Orange Hall, a college-age kid in a Clash T-shirt sits next to his bearded dad, and both seem equally to enjoy watching Mark romp between the piano and her guitar.
At the end of the night, she leads the crowd through “Not A Doll” (“Everything happens either not at all/Or at the same time”), breaking the halves of the room up to sing it as a round. It’s an experiment, but it works. Then, as patrons continue warbling, she marches out the front, down the steps, all the way around the outside of the building, and back onstage via the exit, for the big finish.
Such showmanship comes easily to Mark. Whether dolled up in a veiled hat and false eyelashes, or sporting a vintage party dress paired with Converse flattops, she always appears at ease onstage. She can smile through any calamity: Busted strings, flubbed lyrics, plague of frogs, you name it. “Some people make [performing] look like it’s really hard,” she shrugs. “They seem to get more attention.”
If you really want to enjoy Mark in her natural habitat, drop by Logan’s Pub, on Cook Street in Victoria, almost any Sunday afternoon. Every weekend when she isn’t on the road, for longer than she can remember (“five years!”), Mark has hosted the Hootenanny, a sort of loosely organized open-mike-cum-variety-show. It has its own backdrop — a quilt made by photographer/artist/musician J. McLaughlin — and a rotating cast of performers who get paid in beer tickets.
This week, they include a rail-thin Goth kid in PVC trousers, a Steve Earle wannabe, and McLaughlin’s spooky duo, Hearse. Mark pops in and out with covers of Patsy Cline, Nancy Sinatra, Canadian group Canned Hamm, and Hank Snow (“another great Canadian who moved to America”). It might be in a bar, but the Hootenanny definitely feels like a community gathering.
Nor is the Hootenanny strictly confined to Logan’s. In cahoots with Kingston, Ontario, bluegrass upstart Luther Wright, plus Jenny Whiteley and ersatz cabaret act Hank & Lily, Mark has crisscrossed Canada with a touring version of the Hootenanny. At various intervals, Sarah Harmer, Oh Susanna, and N.Q. Arbuckle have also bolstered the ranks of this East-meets-West (Canada) extravaganza. Mark even dreams, only half-jokingly, of someday breaking ground at Hootenanny Acres, somewhere in the backwoods of British Columbia, so fans can come to her, a la Buck Owens and his Crystal Palace.
“It is very rewarding,” Mark says of their traveling circus. From its ramshackle beginnings, the roadshow version has become increasingly tight. “We have matching outfits and everything,” she adds. They even have not one, but two, theme songs: “Cuanto Le Gusta”, a number plucked from Carmen Miranda, and “Hootenanny Express”, originally popularized by the Canadian Sweethearts, Bob Regan and Lucille Starr. “It’s become more like a TV revue…and I really like that,” muses the diehard “Muppet Show” fan.
Indeed, a la Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo and company, Mark seems happiest when navigating that odd zone between chaos and choreography. Following the Orange Hall show, she invites folks back to her Fernwood home. She has lived in this house for ten years, and it is something of a local landmark: The bunk beds in the front room, the battered upright piano, the shrine to Nashville star Ronee Blakley (including a dry-cleaning hanger signed by the actress), her collection of celebrity LPs, the perilous stairs that lead to the basement rehearsal space.
As the night marches on, all manner of friends and colleagues roll up the front walk. The guy who recorded Nothing, Myke Hall, is here. So is the plumber’s brother, the one responsible for inviting Mark up to Beaver Point Hall in the first place. Despite having titled both an album and a cookbook Terrible Hostess, Mark is anything but, making sure that the wine keeps flowing. This community is an eccentric one, and she is clearly a main pillar of it.
Carolyn Mark may not have been raised in a cult, but she turned out to be a charismatic leader nevertheless. Her mother, the same woman who read Eugene Ionesco scripts to her young daughter, isn’t quite sure how it happened. But Mark is. “I have offered up my theories to her, like, ‘If you had let me do more things as a kid, I wouldn’t be such a maniac now.’ She just says, ‘You were always a maniac.'”
Oh well. At least now she has playmates.
ND contributing editor Kurt B. Reighley is “a big shot from Seattle.” He is also responsible for “El Toro’s macaroni & cheese” recipe in Miss Mark’s Terrible Hostess cookbook.