Being an adolescent rock musician in Canada during the ‘80s meant that many of your heroes were homegrown. MuchMusic featured a slew of new Canadian acts that would later become legendary. Yes, you emulated the Beatles and learned Who covers for your basement band. But you also had Blue Rodeo, The Hip, and 54-40 songs in your repertoire. Singers like Bryan Adams, Gord Downie, Kim Mitchell and Jim Cuddy were just as big on your radar as any American or British singers. And when they came to town it was an important event. You went, you studied their moves, and you went back to the woodshed to keep practicing.
One of the influential artists in this canon of ‘80s and ‘90s Canadian Rock is undeniably Barney Bentall. Along with his band The Legendary Hearts, Bentall had a string of roots rock hits that rivaled or surpassed many of his peers. One after the other, these superbly-crafted gems graced the airways in grand succession: “Something to Live For,” “Come Back to Me,” “Crime Against Love,” “She’s My Inspiration,” “Do Ya,” and more. Bentall was our northern version of Tom Petty. The tunes weren’t exactly complicated poetry, but they spoke to you; the music wasn’t Rush, but it still had solid arrangements and interesting changes. It was quality Canadian music, and Bentall enjoyed the fruits of his labour – playing to packed houses all across this vast country and enjoying true bonafide rock royalty status.
As the ‘90s creeped toward the new Millennium, we started to hear less and less of Bentall. Unbeknownest to many, his disappearance from music was voluntary rather than the cause of waning success: he started a cattle ranch. Being a husband and father, this was no doubt a refreshing change from the fast pace of recording and touring that can sometimes wreak havoc on one’s personal life. Not knowing this at the time, I just assumed he’d gotten sick of the business in one way or the other and just got into something else. Turns out I wasn’t too far off, really. Meanwhile, I continued to enjoy his hits as they received regular rotation on classic rock radio and in the setlists of local cover bands.
About a week ago I got a call from my good friend and fellow musician Cory Tetford, who is originally from Newfoundland but now lives in Nova Scotia. He said he was coming to St. John’s for a few days and needed to borrow a guitar and an amp for a few shows he was doing….with Barney Bentall. I perked up right away. Wow, I thought. That’s pretty friggin’ awesome. (Digression: I was once in a band that opened for Bentall at the Delta Ballroom in 1994, although it’s all a blur and it turns out he remembers way more about the gig than I do.) Cory had gotten to know Barney through playing with Alan Doyle, who had Barney’s son Dustin doing the opening slot on his tour in support of Doyle’s first solo album, Boy on Bridge. Somewhere along the way Barney and Cory became acquainted, which led to Barney asking Cory to accompany him on some shows here in St. John’s for a private event as well as a club gig at the Ship Pub.
Cory dropped by the house last Thursday and we retired to my music room to make a bit of noise and suss out what he’d need for the shows. He took my Gibson J200 and my old Fender Tremolux amp, which he thought would be perfect for Barney’s stuff. I said to him, “You know, Cory, if this were 1993 and you’d gotten this call you would have had to wear a Depends diaper for three days afterward.” He laughed and agreed. “I know,” he said. “I still feel blown away by being asked to do it.” And of course he very well should be. As we age, sometimes we lose that giddy feeling that comes with musical opportunities. But here we were, both very much adolescent school boys again as we discussed the excitement of Cory playing with one of the legends of Canadian music. I congratulated him on the gig and sent him on his way with the gear, telling him I’d see him at the show Sunday night at the Ship.
I had my own gig on the weekend, playing cover tunes at Martini Bar on George Street with my buds in the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band. The place is usually packed, which makes for fun gigs with lots of energy and good vibes. Toward the end of the third set on Saturday night I found myself knee-deep in a lead solo during ZZ Top’s “Gimmie All Your Lovin’” when Cory popped up next to me side-stage, making all kinds of faces and shagging around – in typical Cory fashion. After the song was over, I went over to say hi and he whispered in my ear, “Hey man, is there any chance of getting up for a jam?” I was just about to pass him my guitar and let him sit in the with boys when he continued: “Look behind me. It’s Barney. He’d love to play a song with you guys. I looked behind Cory and there indeed was Barney Bentall, smiling ear to ear and giving a good-natured nod. Yikes. I said to Cory, “Yes…by all means, let’s do it.” I went straight to the microphone and proudly announced: “Ladies and gentleman. We have a special treat for you tonight. Canadian rock legend Barney Bentall is going to join us!”
The crowd erupted in surprise as Barney and Cory walked on stage. I handed Barney my guitar and he thanked me, going straight to center stage and adjusting the mic stand while greeting the audience. An old pro. I just stood there off stage, quietly admiring him. How many hundreds of times had he fronted the Legendary Hearts like this, all over North America and elsewhere? It made me feel like a rookie in relation to all he’d done. Cell phones were held high to take pictures and shoot video as Barney and Cory settled into their unfamiliar instruments. After a minute or so of informal deliberation about keys and such, the band launched into “Something to Live For.” The place went nuts.
At this point I have to mention Bentall’s appearance. A tall man, he is as lean as he was in his 30s and looks in tiptop physical shape. He’s understandably lost a bit of hair since the early ’90s, but he still has his trademark sideburns. He’s now 57, and I guarantee you he bears no resemblance to most men his age. Not that it would have mattered had he shown up a completely different individual physically, but to see him after all these years still looking vibrant and vital just added to the excitement for us and the crowd. Finishing the song and basking in the thunderous applause, Bentall leaned over to Cory and they quickly figured out another classic to play: “Come Back to Me.” We all got on stage for this one, proudly chanting the chorus next to him as the audience joined in. He looked around at all of us and beamed, saying into the mic, “Man, these guys are good.” What an experience. Here we all were, jamming with a major Canadian hitmaker and musical influence; better yet, he had shown up to the club with one of our good buddies.
After the second song was done, Barney and Cory exited the stage to handshakes and hugs all around. The band did our last two numbers for the night, and the DJ took over as we packed up our gear. We each got a chance to have a moment with Barney, who is as nice in person as his persona projects in his music. He has no pretense whatsoever, just an aura of goodness and enthusiasm. After a short time we all bid our farewells and went home, saying we’d see him and Cory tomorrow night at the Ship.
The next night when we got to the Ship, our guitarist Chad Murphy’s father Allan had secured us the front row of tables. It was 4/5 of the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band, along with my wife Michelle, Allan, and Chad’s sister Alanna. Around 9pm Cory walked on stage, followed closely by Barney who looked pretty much exactly like he did the night before: blue jeans, brown Blundstone boots, black t-shirt, and black vest. His brown leather jacket hung nearby on a guitar stand. It was a simple, stately look totally in line with the Barney Bentall we knew in the Legendary Hearts era. He had two acoustics – a newer custom model in standard tuning and an old Martin orchestral in DADGAD (folk tuning). Cory had his trademark Orange Gretsch, a pedalboard of tricks, and my Tremolux. Together they launched into a pair of newer Bentall songs.
I wish I had to take a pen and paper with me to make note of specific lyrics and titles, but being in fan mode I’d sort of forgotten that I’d be writing about the show. I can best describe the songs as emotional and haunting, which is a bit of a departure from Bentall’s hit output of yore that featured a mostly upbeat rock style. This is not a complaint, of course. It is crucial that an artist develop and transform his/her style; otherwise, there’s nothing there but rote memory and rehash. So it was fitting that Bentall start the show with songs that represent who he is now as opposed to who he used to be.
Having said all that, Bentall is also not blind to the reality that people also came for the hits. So several songs into the set, he gave the crowd “Come Back to Me” as an early treat. It incited a big singalong that planted a huge grin across Bentall’s face as he let the crowd take over. Also, to our utmost delight, Bentall acknowledged us on the mic by saying, “It was great playing with the Quidi Vidi Dirt Band last night. Too bad we didn’t have that same setup here right now!” I looked across the table and it was all wide smiles from the guys.
Throughout the rest of the first set, which lasted about an hour, the pair played some more of Bentall’s newer stuff and a classic or two. Bentall repeatedly acknowledged the greatness of his onstage companion, saying that Cory is an inspiration to play with and an incredible talent. Cory’s reverb-drenched, swelling Gretsch vibrato tone wove its way around Bentall’s material like a silk scarf around a marble statue. Cory hadn’t had any time to rehearse much of the spontaneously-arranged show, so he relied on pure instinct and improvisation to accompany the songs. The result was astounding, and several of his solos and passages were acknowledged by roars of applause.
On break, Bentall realized he’d forgotten his CDs at the hotel. Our bass player, Andrew Boulos, was Johnny-on-the-spot with a car and drove him to the hotel to retrieve the CDs. Boulos posted a photo on Facebook of him and Barney in the car, with the caption “Barney Bentall and me cruising for chicks.” Classic.
During the second set, Bentall played some Bluegrass material from his new band The High Bar Gang, who are currently working on a new album. Of course, he treated the audience to a great acoustic arrangement of his first and biggest hit, “Something to Live For,” the song that started it all way back in 1987 when MuchMusic introduced Bentall to the country.
After the show we all went backstage to thank him and Cory for an unforgettable night of music. Once again, I was struck by Bentall’s forthright generosity and kindness. He gave me his latest CD Flesh and Bone (2012) and told me to get in touch if I wanted to chat about the new album.
Hopefully Bentall likes Newfoundland enough to return more often. He’s penned two tunes about the province already – one about Signal Hill and one about L’anse Aux Meadows. And he played a Ron Hynes cover during his show. As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to love the guy.