With awful music like Celine Dion, Avril Lavigne, and Bryan Adams pumping through the image-stuffed walls of American television and radio, it is easy to get caught up in the big pecs/big tits, image-first music industry coming from Canada over the airwaves today. Although Avril's not-too-difficult "Complicated" and Celine's stomach churning shrieking have painted a grim picture of today's music industry in Canada, the truth is the total opposite. Canada is a country filled with diamonds in the rough, a vast land consisting of a few big cities and sporadic college towns which filter out fantastic music nightly to people bursting with talent and originality, all wrapped around an undeniable and comforting sense of community. Since the population in Canada is a fraction the United States', there are fewer bands, fewer fans, and smaller clubs, all controlled by a nationwide sense of community and togetherness. A band from Victoria, BC can have a homecoming gig in Hamilton, Ontario, while a booking agent from Vancouver can be welcomed like a family member into a group of heads from Halifax. Along with that, touring in Canada can be extremely daunting, as a band sometimes has to travel at least five hours a day just to reach a new market and a new group of people.

This three-part series will introduce you to the past, present, and future of modern improvisational music in Canada. The top fifteen bands will be described in detail, while websites, venues, and promoters will be profiled in hopes to shed some light onto our love of our music. I present here the love we want to transcend across the border, in hopes to etch memories, share drinks, and enjoy the beauty of live music with as many of you Southlanders as possible. So sit down, grab a Molson or Labatt Blue, fry up some bacon, and saddle in. It's going to be an invigorating ride, eh?


The New Deal, Burt Neilson Band, The Jimmy Swift Band, Recipe From a Small Planet, and Hiway Freeker.

The first installment of this three-part series will focus on five bands, each from different parts of the country, that are truly making names for themselves nationwide. These groups consistently pack sweaty bars and own airplay on college radio, all while making steady inroads in the American scene. Each of these five bands have exploded out of Canada's improvisational woodwork, creating a buzz that produces a noticeable sting wherever they travel. In a somewhat predictable move, I'm going to start with Canada's most prominent international touring act and most brilliant "accident," the New Deal.

the New Deal By Matt Earhart
What begun as an impromptu jam session on an inconspicuous Wednesday night at the storied and recently closed Comfort Zone in downtown Toronto has turned into a international favourite, spearheading a fusion between trance and funk that is highly contagious and extremely danceable. All three members of the New Deal--keyboardist Jamie Shields, bassist Dan Kurtz, and drummer Darren Shearer--were participants in the burgeoning improvisation scene in the mid 1990s in Toronto, fronting bands like the incredible One Step Beyond and the superbly funky Gypsy Sol. The Comfort Zone, known for its relaxed drug rules, ambitious booking practices, and sense of community, hosted free Wednesday night shows for several years, featuring the likes of the Fat Cats and the Burt Neilson Band, among hundreds of other up-and-coming acts.

As the story goes, there was a Wednesday night cancellation in September '98, and Darren, Jamie, and Dan played together to fill the void. Not only was that show recorded and released as their debut album, This is Live, but it also gave birth to the most popular jam band to ever come out of Canada. Days later, the three musicians formed the New Deal, and the rest is history. Having played Bonnaroo, WEMF, Ohm, The New Orleans Jazz Festival, and the Come Together Music Festival, and headlining hundreds of shows in the last five years, the band has grown from a trio of misfit Toronto musicians to a professional touring machine, built under the foundation of Jive Records, a division of BMG.

As 2004 approaches, the band has announced a hiatus from touring to return to Toronto and relax after half a decade of non-stop touring. Already rumours of a Gypsy Sol or One Step Beyond reunion are floating around, but no one knows for sure. One thing we do know is the New Deal is the best accident to ever emerge out of Canada. More info on the band is at

While the New Deal is arguably the most popular touring act today in Canada, they are not the most storied act in the scene. While that title will be infinitely up for debate, one of the main frontrunners is the Burt Neilson Band, a group of jokers that grew out of consistent jam sessions at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. What began on April 20, 1996 under the name Captain Redbeard has turned into one of most impressive and talked-about bands nationwide. The group, originally a seven piece featuring an onslaught of two guitars, bass, keyboards, drums, percussion and trumpet, has since trimmed down to a quartet, focusing on the powerful lineup of original guitarist Mike Filipowitch, original bassist Jeremy Little, original keys master Jeff Heisholt, and new drummer Gavin McGuire.

Burt Neilson Band
Through constant touring that saw them travel coast to coast an astounding twelve times from 1997 to 2002, the release of three critically acclaimed albums, and the accumulation of hoards of fans, Burt Neilson Band has carved out a niche in the realm of danceable, thought-evoking funk. Drawing influences from all over the board, BNB combines power pop, rich tempo changes, complicated time signatures, in-your-face funk, and catchy lyrics to build what some people have described over the years as "Canada's Phish." You cannot help but stomp your feet to the bluegrass infused "Moonshine" or marvel in the mind altering signature changes that dot the jam stalwart "Colleen Cabbage Soup."

Although the band toured heavily until the spring of 2002, the past two years have seen only sporadic touring amidst a call for a hiatus in April of 2002. As 2004 approaches, word from Filipowitch, now relocated in Toronto, is that the spring will see a brand new album, nationwide touring, and a renewed sense of life for the band, leaving the scene holding its collective breath to see what these touring pioneers will be up to next. Check out the quartet at

Jimmy Swift Band
Our next discovery brings us to the east coast of Canada, and the home for a scene unlike any other I have ever discovered. One of the catalysts of the live music community in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, along with Sloan and Thrush Hermit, is the Jimmy Swift Band. Originally known as P.F. Station and fronted by the fantastic duo of Craig Mercer on guitar and Mike MacDougall on bass, P.F. Station went through nearly 20 band member changes over eight years before finding the puzzle pieces that fit to the tune of keyboardist Aaron Collier and drummer Paul Christian. While P.F. Station focused on aggressive, hook-laden rock 'n' roll, the Jimmy Swift Band intermingle the tightly composed rock with intense, spacey jamtronica. When JSB explode into their epic "Now They Will Know We Were Here," the band can take you on a journey through the uncharted, climaxing 40 minutes later with an orgasm of the senses.

When they want to rock, they rock, and when they want to jam, they tear the roof off. To sum it up as easily as possible, the Jimmy Swift Band kicks your ass, plain and simple. Along with that, they have carved out a great scene throughout the East Coast, which has allowed bands like Grand Theft Bus, Fat Jebus, and Slowcoaster to follow suit. With consistent touring in both Canada and the States planned for 2004, watch out for JSB and wear protection when they come to town. More info is at

Recipe From a Small Planet
Now that we have covered a band from Northern Ontario, a band from Southern Ontario, and the pioneers of the East Coast scene, let us travel across the country to Alberta, home of the Calgary Stampede, the 1988 Olympics, and a delicious mix of pop, funk, Latin, and everything in between. Since 1998, Recipe From a Small Planet have been serving up heaping bowls of great music from their headquarters in Calgary, Alberta.

One of the first bands to explode out of the West Coast scene, Recipe have played over 750 shows in five years, headlining festivals like Evolve and the Come Together Music Festival along the way. One of the most harmonically gifted bands I have ever heard, Recipe's luscious four-part harmonies on top of thoughtful, musically rich improvisation are to die for. Consisting of drummer Ben Curties, keyboardist Steve Fletcher, guitarist Jason Crocker, and bassist Pablo Puentes, Recipe From a Small Planet are rhythmically sound, melodically engaging, and harmonically beautiful. Their music makes you happy and their tasteful improvisational style makes you smile.

With 2004 focused on recording and possibly more nationwide touring, make sure you get a taste of this recipe, because there is enough for everybody. You can find their ideas cooking online at

Hiway Freeker
To finish off the band portion of the first installment, I am going to travel back east to the best city in Canada, the always-entertaining Montreal. As an age-old saying in this image-based, materialistic, capitol-driven music industry goes, "Market the image, not the product." While Montreal's Hiway Freeker could succeed under that philosophy, they have chosen to escape from the mainstream and have built an impressive following on both sides of the border because of it.

Led by the sultry, sexy, and incredibly talented Serena Southam on vocals, the band takes heavy funk influences and tinges of disco and rock to create a sound that thrives under Southam's powerful voice. While guitarist Paul Malin, keyboardist Mark Hoeppner, bassist Mike Felber, and drummer Shaun Bronstein lay down a thick groove that bridges funk, rock, jazz, disco, and electronica all at once, Southam accentuates the intensity with sexy lyrics and a demanding stage presence. On top of that, Hiway Freeker plays under three other alter egos: the Bob Dylan Project, Estrada, a celebration of late 70s culture, and the 80s cover band Fantasy. Nights have been known where you get a set from every band, giving the listener a diversified blanket of musicianship, woven in with costume, props, makeup, and theatrics. With more American, Canadian, and even European dates in the works for 2004, Hiway Freeker continues to impress, whether it is 2004 or 1985. As always, check out the band online at

I hope you have enjoyed the first five bands in this three-part, 15-band series. The next installment will come out towards the middle of February. In that one, we will talk more about the past and the future, with bands like nero and Grand Theft Bus taking centre stage. Thanks for reading, and I will see you in the New Year.

Shain Shapiro
JamBase | Canada
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[Published on: 1/23/04]

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