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Dr. Pinkham’s Medicine Show

Many Roots Music Canada readers have probably heard about Dr. Pinkham’s Medicine Show – featuring Allison Brown, Leah Morise, and Manitoba Hal – as the three artists (in this case, two) cris-cross the country. Our reviewer caught the show in Hamilton.

One week prior to the G20 Summit, I was enjoying a very average morning across the Lake—in my fair city of St. Catharines, listening to Fresh Air on CBC. My attention was grabbed by the alluring quality of London, ON singer/songwriter, Allison Brown (not to be confused with Alison Brown). Wonderful arranging, clear production, and great instrumental accompanying, including a well-played ukulele in the mix, all made her recording most noticeable. I quickly went to the web to find out more.

I learned that Allison Brown, Manitoba Hal, and Leah Morise are touring much of Canada as Dr. Pinkham’s Medicine Show, “a roots music variety concert,” and would be playing in Hamilton the following night.

So somewhat impulsively, my wife and I spent a Sunday evening in Hammer Town eager to receive some inspiration for our week.

The bar’s web site said, “doors open at 7pm, concert at 8.” We arrived at This Ain’t Hollywood —a long standing bar and eclectic live music venue in Hamilton’s north side— at exactly 8pm, hoping to find a good seat for the start of the show.

One tall, slim gentleman sat alone near the front. The bar tender was not to be seen and two ukuleles sitting on a table beside the lone individual were the only indication that we might be in the right place for a folk concert. Soon we were sitting down with Hal and Allison and a few other fans (absent Leah was reportedly testing results in Dr. Pinkham’s secret laboratory).

The stage was still filled with equipment from another band, so we couple fans relaxed and conversed with the star musicians. Eventually, the matinee band retook the stage and played an unexpected closing set.

So this was the prelude to our most recent folk concert outing: some of Hamilton’s most avid rockers screeching tunes. Little did I know at the time that these very drunk blues and rockabilly musicians were bonafide Hamilton “stars” and top session players.

The sound man asked Alison and Hal at 9:25, “do you guys want to get started right away?”

“Yeah, we should; a couple of our people need to leave at 10.”

What can I say? We had a babysitter with an 11:30 curfew. And we thought we could catch the first couple hours of their show, and leave after having had enough!

Well, we were wanting more when we were returning to St. Kits at 10:15. We had purchased two great CDs, one each from Allison and Hal.

The big sound and power of that little uke compliments very well Hal’s lithe vocals and hulking stature, and Allison’s vocal quality gave the perfect womanly feel to the duo.

I missed Leah, though. Hal’s musical manliness might be better balanced with two vocal partners rather than one.

Unfortunately, with the low numbers of listeners, the “Pinkham’s” concept was mostly lost on me, and likely on many of the mostly semi-conscious in the audience. But Allison’s acoustic, un- miked version of All the Birds was the complete elixir I needed to feel many troubles melt away.

The Medicine Show itinerary is impressive: 21 shows over five weeks across as many provinces with little time for rest, other than as that of a passenger driving from place to place. As I write this, the trio is completing travel of over 2000 Km to their 6th gig in 10 days.

The medicinal quality of Dr. Pinkham’s musical elixirs must be some powerful!

When I saw Alison and Hal in Hamilton they were none the worse for wear. I highly recommend people get out to see this trio as they head across Canada. If Dr. Pinkham’s musicianers come near to your town, don’t skip the opportunity to see what too many Southern Ontarians missed.

Allison Brown’s “Top Ten Folk Records of 2009”

Scott Vernon is a percussionist and music instructor based in St. Catharine’s, Ontario.

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