Friday, 2 March 2012

The "Save PCVS Concert": top-flight music from down the street and around the world

What could be better than an evening of musical entertainment by today’s crop of PCVS student talent, as on display at this past year’s holiday gala?

Only an evening of music by yesterday’s PCVS students who have gone on to professional success nationally and internationally.

The seemingly endless, overflowing stream of talent at last Sunday’s “Save PCVS Concert” at Showplace, comprised almost entirely of PCVS graduates, provided abundant affirmation for the place of the school at the core of our culture-rich city. Never was the Showplace slogan of providing great entertainment “from around the world and down the street” so appropriate, as widely-known PCVS alumni displayed the fruits borne of central Ontario’s de facto “center of excellence” in collaborative studies and the performing arts.

The evening was hosted by alumnus Sean Cullen [class of 1984], the comedian and actor whose career began with the manic stand-up musical comedy trio Corky and the Juice Pigs back in the late nineteen-eighties, has traversed CBC radio and television, and recently took him to the Stratford stage to play the clever slave Pseudolus, whose hijinx in the Stephen Sondheim musical comedy A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum are aimed at achieving his freedom. This time it was “freedom” for PCVS students and the central Peterborough community from KPR’s autocratic folly that were the order of the day, as Cullen put his sharp tongue and quick wit to use in satirizing the attempt to close PCVS. “If only you were big and sprawling and filled with asbestos,” Cullen remarked with facetious wistfulness in mock-soliloquy to his old school – “then they’d have to take care of you.”

The Silver Hearts were the first group to take the stage. The veteran ten-piece ensemble set the tone for the evening with several strongly sung numbers in their signature “old-time” blues and jazz based style. The feelings of lead guitarist Wyatt Burton [1996] about his alma mater  were evident in his soaring slide-work enveloped by eerie, modulating electronic sustains provided by his old classmate Jesse Pilgrim [also 1996] on theremin. Burton later put his feelings about the importance of PCVS to the Peterborough community into words, telling the Examiner how proud he was to be on the bill. “There has always been access for kids to be close to other downtown organizations and it established such a strong arts program,” said Burton. “It is a safe haven for those who may be different to go and be themselves and feel comfortable. . . . If the school closes, the big loser will be the kids.”

Recent graduate Jos Fortin [2006], accompanied by his brother Dan [2002] on standup bass, combined original songs delivered in his easy, expressive voice with rapid, rhythmic, fingerpicking on his acoustic guitar. Dan’s jazz sensibilities on the bass lent a subtle sophistication to his younger brother’s folk-pop style with refreshing low-register counterpoint whose concise phrasing never distracted attention from the songs themselves.

Drummer Josh Fewings [2001], whose organizational energy played a major role in bringing the evenings cavalcade of stars together in near-seamless fashion, also performed with his group The Avenues , a quartet featuring the crisp country Telecaster stylings of Sean Conway alongside the voices, guitars and banjo of Chris Culgin and Benj Rowland [2001] familiar to those who frequent the Saturday morning Farmer’s Market. Fewings called PCVS “an integral part of downtown” Peterborough in an interview with the Examiner.

Fewings, Rowland, Conway and Culgin: the Avenues

It’s impossible to speak too highly of Brock Stonefish [2002], the gifted blues guitarist and singer-songwriter of First Nations background. Stonefish’s powerful, emotive voice resounded through Showplace, making the microphone seem superfluous and never letting go the audience’s attention for a moment of his short set. Stonefish’s intuitive sense of harmonic changes within the blues idiom never fail to convey complex feelings around his understated lyric vignettes. His song “Residential Redemption” put the PCVS situation in a greater historical and moral perspective.

James McKenty’s rock ‘n’ roll trio The Spades features a rhythm section comprised of PCVS grads Tommy Street on drums and Josh Robichaux on bass [both 1999]. Without their bassist for the evening, The Spades as a “power duo” still managed to rock out and harmonize nicely for a short set which wrapped up the first half of the concert.

Yes, that’s right – we had already heard enough big name acts to fill an entire day at the Peterborough Folk Festival or a week of nights at the Red Dog, and the concert was only half-over –driven entirely by PCVS alumni

The Spread the Net fundraising campaign in which PCVS is actively involved, spearheaded originally by political satirist Rick Mercer, aims to aid African economic development and save lives through the simplest and most effective anti-malaria technology – the bed net. Ten bucks buys one bed net, and the 600-plus audience members were encouraged from the stage by PCVS teacher Cam Douglas, who has spent years working in Africa, to each “buy a bed net” before they left the hall. The “Spread the Net” campaign has been a perfect fit for PCVS, which has a long-standing involvement with a “sister school” in Zimbabwe, a tradition of djembe-drumming groups, and an African Connections club, and now has become the victim of senseless, autocratic political decisions of the kind regularly lampooned by Mercer, who has also spoken out spoken out about the catastrophe of teen suicides and bullying.  

The PCVS Spread the Net committee were out in full force at the concert, and their efforts were rewarded. Just five days later, PCVS principal Denise Severin would be in tears as djembes rang out in the filled-to-capacity PCVS auditorium while Douglas counted up the amount of money raised by the school community over the course of the campaign – over $52,000, enough for more than 5000 bed nets. You can watch video of the assembly here. Some students donated their paychecks when staff pledged to match them. Mercer, who also promotes civic engagement among youth, is already interested in the PCVS case and has pledged to visit the school which contributes the most to the cause.

After video presentations documenting the campaign to keep PCVS open, The Three Martinis joined Cullen on stage for a riotous set combining acerbic humour with silly fun, improvising humourous Broadway-style songs on topics suggested by the audience. Martini front-man “Martin Fish” then sang an original rock anthem in mock-Springsteen style earnestly summing up the powerful feelings of the audience and entire PCVS community regarding the beating heart of the school.

Kate and Janelle in the PCVS stairwell

Current PCVS standouts Kate McDonald and Janelle Blanchard [2010], whose YouTube rendition of the Neko Case song Star Witness” attracted the attention of the songwriter and then went viral this past autumn, filled the room with their sweet, distinctive vocal harmonies for too brief a time, and left the stage to extended applause from an audience wanting more.

The great Rick Fines celebrates his 50th birthday tonight
with a concert of his own at Showplace

PCVS neighbourhood resident Rick Fines [1980], whose ingenious songwriting and mastery of the blues guitar have made him a popular performer and collaborator throughout North America, wasted no time getting the packed house to raise their own voices to help him sing his clever piece “Riley Wants His Life Back.” Rick was accompanied by his longtime hometown collaborators Rob Phillips on piano, Richard Simpkins on bass, Al Black on drums and Gary Peeples on guitar.

Serena Ryder [2001], the night’s headlining act, as a teenage girl made the trek all the way from Millbrook to PCVS every day to be part of the downtown Peterborough cultural scene. The Juno-award winning singer-songwriter couldn't hide her emotional connection with her alma mater as she treated the crowd to some new material on her own, and had guitarist and singer Dave Tough from the Silver Hearts up for a couple of duets. Ryder has been an outspoken supporter of PCVS throughout the recent campaign. “I honestly believe that I am the musician I am today because of PCVS,” she wrote last April in a letter to the Examiner.  

Serena's voice inspires her audience - and vice versa

The show concluded with a massive singalong of the PCVS school song with most of the performers onstage and the audience led by Cullen in doing just what the song’s lyrics call for: letting the “song of victory ring to the rafters strong and free.” But the community energy just felt like it was getting going, with “after parties” at the Garnet and the Montreal House. As one KPR teacher not affiliated with PCVS remarked, good things can only come of such a concentration of artistic talent and community devotion as was gathered at Showplace this past Sunday evening.

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