The Toronto-based “Friends” boast six versatile musicians, four fine singers, three songwriters, a brilliant joke teller and the occasional Fiery Dragon. This totally uncategorizable collection has been together, in one form or another, for over forty years, and has played countless clubs, concerts and festivals across Canada and the northern United States. Nobody, not even the Friends themselves, can predict what might happen during one of their concerts, but it always includes humour, powerful vocal harmony, great musicianship, social commentary and an irresistible urge to dance.
The Friends were recipients of the 2003 Estelle Klein Award, given by the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals for service to folk music in Ontario.
More clues may be found in the following low-down on the players:
From Paisley, Scotland, for many years a resident of London, Ontario, and now back in the UK. Sings Scottish and English songs, is the man behind the booming bass harmonies, plays melodeon, concertina, mouth organ and Jew’s harp, and tells incapacitating jokes. Former artistic director of London’s Home County Folk Festival and a high school teacher in previous life, Alistair has three solo recordings on his own Prospect label.
Ontarian by birth (“we only bring him along so we can apply for grants…”), Grit is an internationally-known guitar maker and inlay artist in real life. He plays a bewildering assortment of instruments, and has some notoriety as a writer of wicked parodies and songs on subjects as diverse as dieting and apartheid. Grit has two solo recordings on the Fogarty’s Cove label, one on Borealis, and has played on more records than he can remember, including those of the late, great Canadian songwriter, Stan Rogers. In recent years he has been a major player in the development of Borealis Records into Canada’s premier folk label, and in the emergence of the Canadian Folk Music Awards.
In 1997, He received Canada’s prestigious Saidye Bronfman Award For Excellence, the first and only instrument maker to be so honoured. He is a recipient of the Estelle Klein Award, from the Ontario Council of Folk Festivals, this individual award adding to his share in the previous honour given to the Friends. Most recently, Grit was honoured with the Order of Canada for services to Canada’s folk music community.
The Friends, of course, do their best to keep him humble…
Originally from SW Ontario, Jeff has recently returned to the band after a long globe-trotting absence, including a short spell in a Saudi Arabian jail (don’t ask). Now living a mostly respectable life in Ottawa, his piano playing adds a wonderfully playful character to The Friends’ tunes and songs. He also plays with Ottawa’s great D’Arcy McGee band.
An Englishman, now living in Ottawa, Ian’s singing is well-known among afficionados of British music this side of the pond. His occasional spasms of songwriting have produced some gems which have far out-travelled their author. Of course, he doesn’t travel that much…
Ian is a member of the much lauded harmony vocal trio Finest Kind, and has recorded about a dozen albums over the years with various band, and as a solo. He was awarded “Best Singer – Traditional” at the 2003 Canadian Folk Music Awards.
Good fiddle players with a sense of humour are hard to find, so when Glasgow-born Laurence turned up at Fiddlers’ Green, the band had no hesitation in slipping him the Queen’s shilling, and signing him on for life. Besides, as an ex-CBC producer and sound guy, he is the only member of the band capable of meaningful conversation with sound engineers.
Ian is the most recent addition to the band, having replaced Ian Clark in 2006. He lives in Paris, Ontario, and until recently was the creative eminence behind the Port Dover Harbour Museum, on the Lake Erie coast of Ontario. He is also celebrated in these parts as the writer of many wonderful songs about rural Ontario and its characters. An alumnus of such great bands as Muddy York and the Dawnbreakers, Ian plays mostly guitar and mandolin with the Friends, but is also an honoured member of the Gary Larson band from hell, one of those masochistic enough to excel on both bagpipes and accordion. Ian was a recipient of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his contributions to Norfolk County culture and lore.
From Glasgow, Scotland and for most of his adult life, Toronto. Co-founder of Toronto’s Fiddlers’ Green folk club. Definitely the mouthpiece of the band, Tam sang and played guitar, banjo and mandolin among other things, and was possessed of an unmistakably Glaswegian ability to find humour in anything, even his own erstwhile day job in the Metropolitan Toronto sewage treatment plant. “It may be shit to you, but it’s bread and butter to me”.
Tam Kearney passed away in March 2013, and hundreds of old friends and fans sang, laughed, told stories and celebrated his life at his memorial, held on Tam’s birthday, St Patrick’s Day. An obituary was posted on the Sing Out! Magazine website.
In June 1995, the Friends sadly lost long-time band member, David Parry, to a heart attack. David was a great singer with a huge repertoire, and an incomparable story-teller. For more information on David, please read his obituary, first published in Sing Out! magazine.
There is currently no fiery dragon in this band, it having been slain on April 23rd.