Concert Review: James Gray Tribute
August 19, 2013, The Dakota Tavern; Toronto, Ontario, Canada
By David McPherson
When a musical soul is taken from this earth, does anybody hear?
In the case of former Blue Rodeo keyboardist James Gray — who passed away on August 5, 2013 of a fatal heart attack at age 52 — the answer is a resounding yes.
For the past two weeks, the sad news of Gray’s death echoed throughout the Canadian music community. It hung like a dark cloud in the music bars he played. The list of souls he touched is endless. On Monday night, many of these friends, family, former bandmates, and fans, bared their souls and paid tribute to Gray at Toronto’s favorite musicians’ hangout: The Dakota Tavern.
A touch of “Gray” witnessed this tribute as his accordion (photo above) stood watch throughout, perched atop the Dakota’s house piano.
The doors opened at 7 p.m. The music started not long after. By 8:30 p.m., the venue was already at capacity. The musical tributes did not stop until the wee hours.
Derek Downham, The Beauties’ drummer, along with Glenn Milchem, Blue Rodeo’s timekeeper, co-organized the event. Downham also served as the evening’s MC. The proceeds from the $10 cover charge, along with sales of Steamwhistle, are being donated to SHINE (Jim Fay Music Bursary) in Gray’s memory. Monday was the first of a two-night affair.
For the next seven hours, friends, family, and music-lovers paid their respects to this musical soul taken too soon. Everyone had a Gray story to tell and a few songs to share; there were too many performers to name drop them all here. The diversity of the night’s music – from classic rock to reggae, country-soul to folk – showed the versatility of the keyboardist’s talents and the variety of genres and music scenes he touched.
Daniel Joseph (Sugarlips), dressed all in black, was one of the early acts. The one-man band let his various harmonicas do the talking: playing harp solos to many classic rock songs backed by a drum machine.
A little later, The Doorsmen – a Doors cover band that Gray played with – paid him tribute with some classic rock, offering note-for-note versions of “Light My Fire” and “Riders on the Storm.”
The Gray Brothers were another early evening highlight. One of his brothers penned a song for James in less than an hour after learning of his sibling’s sudden death; he offered it on this night. The tune, “Sweet Brother James,” was a take on the James Taylor classic “Sweet Baby James.” The heartfelt lyrics from the chorus sums up this admiration for his lost brother.
“Goodnight Sweet Brother James/You can now safely rest on a bed of success.” The boisterous crowd, until then engaged in recalling their own Gray memories crammed against the bar, got quiet to listen to this ode.
Shortly after 11:30, the family tribute portion of the show continued when 1960s folk band The Travellers took the stage. Led by Gray’s dad Jerry on banjo and lead vocals, the veteran musicians got the packed house singing along to their Canadian version of Woody Guthrie’s classic “This Land is Your Land,” and to Bob Dylan’s anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.” They closed their energetic set with a cover of the title cut from Tom Paxton’s debut record “Ramblin’ Boy.”
Greg Keelor (pictured below), the co-founder and frontman of Blue Rodeo, along with Jim Cuddy, took the stage around 12:30 p.m. He revealed that over the years he and Gray had smoked more than 1,000 joints in each others company.
Keeler proceeded to lit a joint on stage in honor of his departed friend. A haunting rendition of The Talking Heads’ “Heaven is a Place Where Nothing Ever Happens,” followed.
After Keelor left, the rest of his Blue Rodeo bandmates: Jim Cuddy, Colin Cripps, Bazil Donovan, Milchem, and current keyboardist Michael Boguski, took his place to sing a couple of songs. Justin Rutledge even joined them for a rousing rendition of “Train Leaves Here This Morning.”
The night’s finale was left to NQ Arbuckle who was joined by friend and Six Shooter Records label mate Luke Doucet. Those who remained danced under the mirror ball and got lost in the music for a while longer.
Doucet, wielding his famed Gretsch White Falcon, scorched through his own “Blood’s Too Rich,” and played along to many of NQ Arbuckle’s songs. Miranda Mulholland joined on fiddle for the last few tunes. The set ended with a final sing-a-long to “Goodnight Irene New Year’s Eve.”
While his accordion remained on the top of the piano long after the last patron left as a physical reminder of the musician’s death, somewhere up there James Gray is surely smiling, content knowing his musical influence on the Canadian music community will long live on.