On the streets of Cardiff, a week and a half ago, I actualised a long-held dream.
I was cycling in the sunshine, just past the Hilton hotel on my way through the city centre for some jumbo oats when I spotted a familiar figure – short, barrel-shaped, smartly dressed in black with round sunglasses, curly hair, and a black fedora.
“Colin Linden?” I said.
“Yes, yes it is,” he replied with a grin.
Colin Linden, for those who don’t know – I sadly suspect there are more than a few in that category – is a Canadian blues and folk musician, an absolute star on the slide guitar and a genuinely warm performer. He makes you feel good when you watch him play. Besides that, he’s a brilliant producer and has written amazing songs that I love to play. A native of Hamilton, Ontario; a resident of Nashville, Tennessee; he has no business on the streets of Cardiff, Wales. (Well, except that he was walking up from the new Tim Horton’s on Queen Street, so maybe he got some inside scoop.)
“Are you playing here?” I admit that, as a parent of three, my gig radar is not what it used to be. So it’s entirely possible that Blackie and the Rodeo Kings – one of my favourite bands on the planet and the act I’ve seen live more than probably any other – were coming through on a tour and I was unaware.
Turns out I was sorta right. Colin is musical advisor for the TV series Nashville, and besides doing music for the show, they take it on tour from time to time. He says it’s proved really popular here in Britain: arenas all the way. (This is like O Brother, Where Art Thou?, with which Linden was also involved. One of the many times I’ve seen him play was with the Down from the Mountain tour that ran through Ottawa’s Bluesfest the summer I was married. Yes, Jason and Kevin, those were inspired wedding presents.)
I should say now that it wasn’t just Colin Linden. With him was a familiar face that he introduced as John Dymond, bassist for Blackie, for Colin when he’s doing solo shows, and also for Bruce Cockburn. I know his music well, though I confess I didn’t recognise him because I thought Dymond was taller. Bassists always seem tall to me.
So it wasn’t just for “meet your hero” purposes that I wanted to meet Colin. I also needed to make a confession. Many years ago, when I worked with CBC Radio in Ottawa, I was associate producer for the afternoon drive show called All in a Day. I booked several musicians onto the programme: as a musician myself, I was invested with the aura of inside knowledge. Colin was coming through for a show and agreed not only to talk on our programme but to play a couple of songs. We got him in and set up, and before launching into the interview, he played a song.
The technician for the programme was a guy I knew well and sometimes played music with. A good, solid guy who knows his stuff to the point of perhaps being a perfectionist. When Colin started playing, the tech complained that the mic was in a bad spot to get the best sound. Part of me thinks, “The best sound?” I mean, this is drive-home radio. Most people will be listening in their cars, stuck in traffic on the Queensway with engines humming, horns tooting. Not ideal conditions anyway.
Nonetheless, he was concerned, and music journalism producer extraordinaire Bill Stunt, who was just hanging out in the studio because he likes Colin, too, agreed. “Do you want me to adjust it?” I said. I got some instructions, discreetly ducked into the studio WHILE COLIN WAS PLAYING and adjusted the mic. Crept back out. “Better?”
The tech adjusted a couple of sliders. Sighed. “Not yet.”
So I went back in, tried to move the mic again. Colin, not breaking a beat, kind of waved his hand at me: enough. So I stopped, ducked back to the control room. He finished the song, did the interview, played another, then left. I was there at the door when he came through, and I apologised profusely. With a smile on his face, he just said, “Don’t ever do that again.”
Off he went. The tech looked glumly at me. Bill Stunt said, “Yeah, you probably shouldn’t have done that.”
Since then, I have harboured a dream of meeting Colin some place that wasn’t a Blackie gig, like maybe on the street somewhere, and I could introduce myself and apologise again.
And I got my chance, a good ten years later, in Cardiff.
The first thing he said was, “Thank you so much,” like I was doing him a favour by ensuring his sound was good. When I impressed on him that I was not merely telling a story but apologising, he said, “Hope I didn’t bark at you too much.”
I told him he was always the most genial of the Rodeo Kings. And it’s absolutely true. I knew of Tom Wilson as a teenager because of his grungey work with Junkhouse. (I dug “Jesus Sings the Blues”, but I would later come to feel that “Shine” is perhaps the perfect Canadian pop song.) I met Stephen Fearing through his gorgeous cover of “Thrasher” on the superlative Neil Young tribute album Borrowed Tunes, and just as I discovered him, my ex-girlfriend took a songwriting workshop with him at a provincial arts festival. We had the weird experience of both introducing each other to him at the same time. His voice is strong and deep, and his fingerstyle playing is top notch.
It was through them that I first learned of Blackie, but for all the CDs I’ve bought and all the shows I’ve managed, Colin is the one who stands out for me. At the second Blackie show I ever saw, Tom Wilson called Colin his hero, and I get what he means.
Now, I’m pretty crap at maintaining this blog, as anyone who subscribes will know. I’m also pretty crap at smartphone culture, as I’ve written before. It did not occur to me to do what most people would do when they meet their heroes: get a selfie. It was in my pocket. He would surely have obliged. I have no selfie as a document of our meeting, and I’m writing this a week and a half later. (Well, we’ve moved home, and I had to go to Turkey last week. I’ve been busy.)
No, what I regret was not saying to the two of them, “You guys in a hurry to get somewhere?” I would love to have bought them a beer. That would have been time well spent. And maybe finally exculpate my mic adjustment.