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Review: Stan Rogers – Northwest Passage, remastered

I don’t know about you but, for me, this music is religion. I can’t actually recall how I first fell in love with Stan Rogers and his music but I most assuredly did. And I remember the first – and only – time I saw him perform live with an identical clarity of recall, sadly. Foolishly, I didn’t even have the foresight to have taken pictures…

I certainly do remember the first Stan Rogers album I heard – and it was this one – now lovingly re-packaged and carefully re-released by Borealis Records in conjunction with Fogarty’s Cove Music and Stan’s wife, Ariel.

The funny thing is, I didn’t hear the whole record first. I heard the absolutely delicious “Northwest Passage” used as the backdrop to a Canadian documentary on (go figure) the Northwest Passage. And Stan’s a capella treatment of the song – and the soulful sentiment streaming from it – hit me like a ton of bricks. From there, I tracked his music down – no mean feat in small-town Ontario before the days of the internet – and this was pre-CBC radio in my personal development. I had completely believed Rogers to be a dyed-in-the-wool Maritimer. He certainly looked the part with his rough, burly bulk, that ebullient smile and his Old Dutch-styled beard. Even his guitar tuning lent his music that familiar Celtic lilt so traditional to the music streaming out of our Atlantic provinces. To realize that he was actually a Hamilton native came as a bit of a shock.

To find the song —and the record—would provide me with a treasure trove of feeling: pride coupled with the joy that comes with finding something truly buoyant and uplifting. This record rekindles thoughts of ‘home’ and is capable of always making me feel good whenever I’d hear it.

From the anthemic opening song to the comparably simple, fiddle-driven “The Field Behind The Plow”, Stan’s ability to depict real people, real life and a real sense of our collective history is a talent like no other. From the more aggressive pace of “Night Guard”—underlining Stan’s gift for storytelling—to the comparably laid-back, sensitive delivery of “You Can’t Stay Here”, with its moral backbone, if not fear of human nature, Stan is a study in character—his and those of his subjects. Then there’s “The Idiot” ; it’s everyman’s tale in so many ways. There seems little care to sequence or force any consistent feeling or attempts to package up a certain mood. It’s just good, honest music coming at you, exactly as you like to hear it served up: without a fuss.

Stan makes light of hardship. often finding interest in many things the rest of us take for granted. He then surrounds it with simpatico arrangements that lift a simple song into something far more powerful and important on many levels. And that soft, soothing baritone voice coming from such a relative giant at six foot four is something you never forget.

As Canadians, we often wrack our brains, falling somewhat within the shadow of the ‘everything’s bigger in the U.S.’ disease in our attempts to define who we are and what makes us different. Stan Rogers and his music embody the answer to our search for an appropriate icon. His spirit and skill with words resonate with a sense of place. Our place. And can there be a more representative tome than “Northwest Passage”? Years ago, Peter Gzowski polled his Morningside audience in a search to find an alternative anthem to “O Canada”—and you can guess what he got back.

One of my favourite musical moments came from seeing a favourite artist at the Harvest Jazz & Blues Festival a few years back. The rough-hewn blues man, Bill Homans (aka Watermelon Slim), may project the persona of a hard-living, truck-driving man yet the Handy-nominated, Masters degree-holding Vietnam Vet is also a good judge of a well-written song. He came to the edge of the packed stage and told the story of some music he’d heard which had made a significant impact on his life and he proceeded to sing an a capella version of “Northwest Passage”. As I scanned the crowd to gauge the reaction of this broad spectrum of hardy Atlantic seaboarders having their sacred song served up to them by an American in his army greens, I was amazed to see how many of them were in tears. Visibly so. Blubbering like babies—and me along with them. There’s something more than the power of music at play here.

And then I recall the sickening feeling I got the day I watched the news, observing that fateful Air Canada DC-9, Flight 797 , the plane parked on that Cincinnati runway, its fuselage still belching with the smoke that took Stan and 22 others with it. Snuffed out, cruelly, like an ill-placed candle by an errant gust of wind —and on a mission to spread and share the word, no less. The damn plane was already on the ground, which only added salt to the wound. I equate the date to the way my brain responds to November 22—when JFK was shot—unthinkable events causing an indelible stain.

His was a gift that’s so rarely opened. And when it is, it becomes all the more personal, if not satisfying to the very bone. This is a torch well worth the passing.

Borealis is to be applauded for helping to keep Stan’s good name and music in the public eye, as did Stan’s mother before them. The fourth of five Stan Rogers albums to be re-mastered and re-released, it’s a selfless act by Canada’s most prolific, if not most thoughtful, folk label to mark the timeless importance of this distinctively Canadian talent. The improvement to the overall quality – and impact ­– of the sound is well worth duplicating your collection, offering you a production like nothing you’ve heard before. And Stan sounds all the better for it, helping the legend live on.

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3 comments

  1. avatar
    Peter MacDonald 18 December, 2012 at 07:40

    Three cheers to Paul Mills for lovingly, carefully coaxing the very best from his original mixes to create an even better recording on this re-release of Stan’s music. Paul’s role in Stan’s legacy could never be overstated – he is the glue, the brush and the curing agent.

  2. avatar
    Scott Merrifield 23 December, 2012 at 08:27

    Stan’s death at such a young age was such a huge loss to us all. We can’t help but surmise at the body of work he could still be producing if not for that tragedy. It profoundly brought home to me how fragile life is, and that we must make the most of time, as he most certainly did.
    I am most grateful to Paul, Ariel, Valerie, and Borealis for their roles in preserving and breathing new life into this great musical heritage.

  3. avatar
    Steve McMinn 26 March, 2013 at 16:10

    If anyone’s wondering, as I did, if it’s worth spending money for the new Stan Rogers CDs: IT’S WORTH IT! They sound much better than the original CDs.

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