\ PETERBOROUGH \
There aren’t many of his kind left —but then, they never made many of his kind to begin with.
Joe Hall, who passed away on Friday March 22 at 71 years of age after battling liver cancer for some time, was an highly original titan of a songwriter and performer whose cheeky, bizarre and hugely entertaining presence influenced a generation of Canadian musicians.
Longtime musical companion Tony Quarrington announced Hall’s passing on Facebook March 24 and a subsequent torrent of tributes and laments at the loss has since flooded the thread from a disparate array of fellow talents and fans from across the country.
With Joe Hall and The Continental Drift in the 1970s and ‘80s, before he moved to Peterborough 30 years ago, Hall titillated, outraged and never failed to engage audiences on the Queen West music scene during its halcyon days. From his then-considered daring stage apparel (a kilt-like skirt with workboots and oversized flowing bow tie, for example, can be see in one archived video) to his Zappaesque monologues and asides during songs, he seemed to do whatever came to mind with no regard for decorum or convention, his aim solely on the integrity of his artistic expression.
Often rib-splittingly hilarious, almost always piercingly pithy and sarcastic or satirical in his lyrics, Hall’s animated facial expressions and theatrical stage gambits also added to a sense of unpredictability and edgy risk-taking that kept risqué possibilities always on deck.
In Peterborough, in addition to serving as a kind of veteran mentor to younger performers and working with and recording other artists, he continued to record his own independently produced tracks and in December released his final self-titled album to add to a catalogue that included three from the late 70s and ‘80s and a “best of” disc in 1999..
Despite battling his illness, Hall also continued to perform, including occasional shows at TO’s Tranzac Club and a one with Quarrington and longtime Continental Drift bass player JP Hovercraft in the Acme Art & Sailboat Company gallery in November as part of the Peterborough Art Crawl festival. Kawarthas-area artist and Hall’s pal Joe Stable had put on an exhibition of portraits of the chameleonic frontman, donating half the proceeds to help him complete the final album.
Quarrington, in his Facebook post, calls that Joe Hall and The Continental Drift new release “the best ever” by the songwriter whom he said was the only other Canadian composer “I would seriously compare to Leonard Cohen.”
But it’s perhaps appropriate that Hall’s final public performance took place in an art gallery, since his work also embraced a broader artistic community. His Continental Drift shows were truly Performance Art as well as music, as evidenced in a posted lament from Canadian comedian, writer, producer, actor and musician Dan Redican (The Frantics, “Four On The Floor”, “Puppets Who Kill”, “Sunnyside” among many others) who cut his performance teeth fronting a similar absurdity-laced musical group known as Poopy Dan & His Lunch in the 1970s. Calling Hall “one of my heroes, Funny. Smart. Twisted,” he added that “if there had been no Joe Hall and the Continental Drift, there would have been no Poopy Dan and his Lunch, that’s for sure” —probably no critically acclaimed comedic career to follow either.
Sebastian Agnello, another iconoclastic songwriter who often does Joe Hall covers at his Monday night open stage at Black Swan Tavern in east TO (and who says he’ll perform at least one of them, the hilarious “Middle Aged Guys With Guitars,” at this evening’s 9-1 edition of the event) has been both a friend and fan of Hall’s for over 40 years, calling him “a brilliant, original talent.”
The online tributes from famous and obscure musicians and fans also include a remarkable recounting of a tale from about twenty years ago by Joan Athey that I think is worth repeating here for what it says about the intellectual and literary depths and sensitivity behind Hall’s work:
“I have a huge memory of the time he collaborated with Roger Brant on a rag-taggle tour to Vancouver. It began in 2000 when I caught up with him in person on a visit to Toronto for the first time in probably in 30 years, having moved to the west coast. Danni Starbuck and I headed over to the Free Times to see his show. He performed a stunning piece he had just written “Dollarton Blues” about author Malcolm Lowry’s battle with alcoholism. I lived in Dollarton in North Vancouver! I insisted that he must come to Vancouver on a tour. It turned out he had been thinking about it. So he recruited his old pal bassist Roger Brant who lives in Vancouver and out they came. To make a long story short, I introduced him to Malcolm Lowry’s best friend Harvey Burt. Then I thought - let’s have Harvey meet Joe. AND let’s make a radio show! CBC came to tape the meeting of Joe and Harvey and Joe sang his song for him. Harvey was so quiet sitting in his big chair. After the last chords stopped he got up, went to the mantlepiece over his fireplace where an old Ukulele had hung for as long as I had down Harvey. Turned out it was Malcom Lowry’s.When Lawry died Burt took it into his care. Harvey thought Joe had nailed the sentiment, the pain and the gentle irony all wrapped up in one brilliant song. He presented the instrument to Joe. Gave him a little slip of paper saying what it was and that it was now Joe’s. Joe was so stunned - he very quietly held it like a baby. Later he had it repaired and sometimes it made an appearance at a gig. God bless Joe and speed him on his way. Tony is right - I would compare him to Cohen. “You can’t hide that tragic flaw. From Dollarton town o Panama. The bottle’s empty. It’s the end of an era. And the sun falls down on the Cordillera.”
Now, with Hall’s passing, it would seem it’s also the end of an era for many fans of outside-the-box Rock and Roots music in Canada. One silver lining might be, as one poster of condolences pointed out, that a lot of old videos are now resurfacing, and with them and the memories he created and influence he’s had on a generation of other talents, Joe Hall’s place in the pantheon of Canadian great seems assured.[You can hear the entire final Joe Hall album online through Trent University’s music archive project, and see a video of Hall’s final recorded live performance at the gallery posted by Bill Kimball as part of an obit on the KarawarthaNow online publication published yesterday. Other videos of Hall and the CD band from the 1970s such as an uproarious art-Rock rendition of “Brain Damage Blues” can be found on the YouTube channel of Dave Bingham.]
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