Wednesday, 23 January 2019


Tumbling Dice

When I fly way back home to Montreal I usually revel in walking her streets. Much of the city has changed throughout the thirty years I’ve been gone yet much remains frozen in time. I was there last week and it was freezing. Trudging to a depanneur for cigarettes and beer was all the activity I was able to muster up. There were other extenuating circumstances, my mother’s funeral for one. But when you’re cold, down and literally blue, that doesn’t mean magic and serendipity can’t muscle their way into your life.

Beyond its astonishing catalogue of recorded music I do not know the full story of Three O’Clock Train. This is hometown bias speaking but the band should be in the same national conversation as Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip. Who’s to say why the dice tumbled as they did? A twisting tale of the rock ‘n’ roll road remains to be told. All I can say with any assurance is that group’s frenetic mash of country, rock and punk was unlike anything I’d heard or seen before in Montreal clubs in the late eighties. No synths, no fey icky-sticky hairdos.

Three O’Clock Train kicked off its latest tour last Friday night, my circumstantial lucky night, in Old Montreal at the Centaur Theatre’s bar. The dead of winter, the northern chitlin’ circuit, tell me what else are you going to do? I figured I could walk to the gig through Montreal’s Underground City until I realized that show time and the open hours of some of my avenues did not coincide. I instead descended into the Metro for the first time in decades. There’s something about olfactory memory: forced canned air, oil, hot rubber and commuters obviously overdue for baths despite the cloak of their parkas. Litter on greasy tiles beside trash bins. I took the Green line, changed to the Orange line and emerged where I knew I would, greeted by the Notre Dame Basilica lit electric blue.

I believe Three O’Clock Train’s founder and leader Mack MacKenzie and I are about the same age. Our musical foundation was our parents’ and older siblings’ record collections, hot wax from the fifties and sixties. I began to buy my own vinyl in the early seventies, my stuff, my sound, and became enamoured with punk about the time I was eligible to vote and buy booze. I’ve a hunch Mack embarked on a similar journey. I have interviewed Mack and have written about him before. We are acquainted ever so slightly. His music resonates with me perhaps because we share a slice of time and place. As Mack sings, “Her name is Montreal.”

Cobblestones, muck and ice but no horseshit, I slithered my way uphill to the stone temple that housed Montreal’s original stock exchange. Inside I secured a bottle of Sleeman’s and a good table. I was proactive regarding the toilets, learned where they were and made sure they were clean because once you reach a certain age complete with certain hang-ups small things become big and so I was hugely relieved by the state of affairs in the facilities; this is fundamental stuff, just as there’s a proper way and no other way to load a dishwasher. Anyway, I’d be able to enjoy the show and leave the frets for Mack’s guitars.

The first set featured ballads and a couple of well chosen covers, notably soaring renditions ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘Bring It on Home.’ Mack’s own songs stand up to a stripped down approach. His observations are sharp; his lyrics are often poignant, sometimes humourous and always clever. His phrasing is clear, concise, a bonus for a word freak such as me. And gee, who else would sweat the fate of the Wicked Witch of the West’s unemployed flying monkeys? “The scarecrow got a Ph.D.”

The night got hotter and faster once the drummer took his place behind his kit. The second half was this fan boy’s fever dream: Did I write the set list? The hits kept coming like rabbit punches in a one-sided hockey fight: ‘Be My Baby (He Says),’ ‘Train of Dreams,’ ‘The Devil Likes Me,’ ‘Love to Rain’ - Bam! Bam! Bam! Let me up, I’ve had enough. New material from the just released Cuatro de Los Angeles EP including ‘It’s Not Worth It’ and ‘Lucky Day’ blended seamlessly with the band’s road tested catalogue. Sometime around midnight Three O’Clock Train ripped through their final number which was ‘Down at the Arcade,’ possibly the only upbeat song Lou Reed ever wrote.

As I slid back down to the Metro station I marveled at the wonder and mystery of it all, life; the synchronicity, the yin and the yang, the nature of coincidence. The day before I’d listened to a Catholic liturgy, delivered a eulogy for yet another immediate family member and had shoveled wet, black earth in the Cote des Neiges Cemetery. Damned if one of my favourite bands wasn’t playing an intimate barroom just when I needed a hefty dose of three-chord medicine. What were the odds? Lady Luck had blown on the dice as they’d tumbled. There exists a sort of grace for us all.   
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