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That time James Gordon played a peace concert in VA

Already a singer-songwriter, author, musical theatre performer and politician, James Gordon can add one more item to his resume: Roots Music Canada columnist.  He’s graciously offered to share some entertaining stories with us from his lengthy career in the arts.

I have to admit that during the long drive towards Richmond, VA and a benefit concert for the Richmond Peace Education Center, I was skeptical about the gig’s potential.

For one thing, my last visit to Richmond had left me with a not-so-peaceful feeling.

Minutes after arriving from the airport, my trusty bass player by my side, we’d entered a restaurant just at closing time and asked the waitress if we could still order food.

She’d called back to the cook, who came out from the kitchen with a menacing look on his face and a large gun protruding from his pocket.

“Long as it’s somethin’ real easy, I’ll fix it for y’all,” he;d drawled.

Who were we to disagree with this excellent suggestion?

I’ve also mentioned to you before, gentle readers, that I’ve often received a surprisingly hostile response in the United States to even MENTIONING peace in a song, let alone doing an entire concert for a cause that I never would have guessed would be so controversial.

Nevertheless, I was pleased to be given the opportunity to perform some of these neglected works, and I was trying to be optimistic as I approached Richmond again, this time with my fine fiddling friend Marion Linton.

The show was in Poe’s Pub, named after Richmond’s own Edgar Allan Poe.

It was right beside a park dominated by an enormous statue commemorating the civil war. A nice juxtaposition for a peace concert I thought.

The first thing we noticed as we pulled up to the pub in the lovely Miss Sue Baru was that there was no poster or sign on the building that advertised a concert for that night.

Humbled by the realities of the show business, I have given up expecting a banner across the main street announcing my arrival (though it’s happened!), but I usually like to see some indication that an audience might show up to see me!

Inside, the place was deserted except for a sleepy bartender and an enormous bouncer the size of Prince Edward Island.

This was not a good omen.

As a general rule of thumb, I’ve learned that any bar that feels that its clientele requires the services of a bouncer is also the kind of establishment where folk music is not going to be the genre of choice.

As I craned my neck up to meet the gaze of this giant, he sensed my trepidation. He grinned, directed us towards the stage and said “Just here to keep the peace.”

As we set up our equipment, the organizer from the Peace Center came in, welcomed us, looked around at the empty bar and said, “I sure hope we get some people out, but you know, it’s really hard to get anyone interested in this kind of thing around here.”

Perhaps concerned that we would take the expected low turnout personally, he said, “Don’t worry, we’ve been going for 25 years and we hardly ever get anyone out to anything!”

I felt much better.

The organizer then retreated to the door, where he stationed himself in the shadow of the bouncer to take an admission charge from the audience he wasn’t expecting.

He had one young assistant with him, who was assigned the task of keeping watch over our lonely CD display.

Since this display was near the stage, this lucky student also ended up filling another important role.

For most of the evening he was the audience.

There WERE a few people gathered around the bar, though this was quite removed from the area where the performance was to take place.

When showtime arrived there were actually 3 or 4 people seated in a manner that indicated to us that they intended to listen to our performance.

At the bar, they were gazing into their beer mugs or at the game on the TV. ( Games on TV are always more popular than folksingers in bars.

Once in Thunder Bay, ON I played in front of a giant screen that featured the holy grail of Canadian entertainment – THE HOCKEY GAME.

They wouldn’t turn it off while I played, so eventually in frustration I said to the bar manager, “Either that TV goes or I do.”

“See ya later” he replied!

My rule about playing to a small crowd is that if there are more people in the audience than on the stage, then the show must go on.

At showtime, the audience outnumbered us by one, if you counted the CD guy. This was good enough for me, and looking at our list of anti-war songs never before sung in the United States we decided to go for broke.

(This was easily accomplished after driving for two days, paying more the three dollars per gallon for gas, and receiving fifty percent of the proceeds from ticket sales!)

We launched into the U.S. debut performance of “Casey Sheehan Didn’t Die For Nothing.”

There was a brief eerie silence at the end.

No bottles were thrown. No booing. The bouncer didn’t rush the stage. There was a hesitant smattering of applause, which is all a musician can hope for in these troubled times.

We were safe.

We played our little Canadian hearts out for two sets, using the occasion to practice for the rest of the tour (which thankfully featured full houses and enthusiastic response), and occasionally during the evening when we diverted the attention of those sitting at the bar, our crowd’s ranks threatened to break into double digits.

The concert had lived up to its billing. It was very peaceful.

I rewarded the CD helper for his labours with a copy of my latest release, though not a single soul had ventured over to the merchandise table.

We accepted the promoter’s kind offer of a fine meal and comfortable lodging for the night, and early next morning headed for greener pastures in North Carolina.

Would I return to Poe’s Pub?

To quote Edgar Allan himself:  Never more.

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