Pic: Pink Monkey Studios
Pic: Pink Monkey Studios

Notes From A Working Musician's Covid Notebook

Celebrated West Coast singer-songwriter Shari Ulrich semi-regularly writes an e-letter to her fans explaining what she has been up to and to tout upcoming Side Door live streams and even a few live shows she has started to promote. She is an eloquent and colourful storyteller who is adept at explaining the nuances of what it is like to be a performance-based artist who loves the exchange that comes from communicating with audiences and fellow musicians from the stage. What follows, in part, is from a newsletter she sent to her list earlier this week. To sign up and find out more, link here.

Last Sunday I did my first indoor concert in 6 months, with Cindy (Fairbank)  and (daughter)Julia (Graff) as well, at a new-ish venue in Gibsons (Landing) - High Beam Dreams. Gibsons happened to be the first place I settled when I came north to Canada in 1971. My boyfriend, Bob Montgomery, and I were in the middle of a tour doing lighting for a theatre company out of San Francisco (this was long before I discovered music), when it was abruptly cancelled. We were adrift with a whole world of options open to us (in North America anyway).  We were 20 years old, happy hippies in love, in a Ford Econoline van and fearless about the future.  We had done one show in Alberta before the tour ended and were enamoured with the country.  Having lived through the peace movement in the San Francisco Bay Area (though that sounds melodramatic, but they were in fact shooting members of peace marches on college campuses!), we were decidedly less enamoured with our own country at the time. But more than that, we were struck by the difference in the way Canada felt. There was space, the people seemed to be kinder, and even in Alberta, there was a quaintness about it that was appealing.   So off we went.  The border guard reluctantly let us across, and we headed straight for Halfmoon Bay on the Sunshine Coast - recommended by a friend. Needless to say, we were smitten. The area is beautiful, to say the least - at that time, hundreds of miles of winding coastline with funky villages and houses sprinkled along the main highway that runs through it all.

 Still with no plan, after a few days we found ourselves in a pub chatting with the locals.  “Hey man, if you’re looking for a place to live, there’s a commune in Gibsons - maybe you could go there”.  The next day we showed up at “Delphi”, a scrappy but lovely 20 acres of land on North Road, and we were interviewed by the main couple who had started the commune.  He was a practicing lawyer, whose income was the main source of support for the group, and she a former RN who ran the school for the children living there.  (Decades before homeschooling was a thing.) There were about a dozen adults and 7 or 8 children. There was nothing cult-like going on – no religious tone – just a bunch of folks who were drawn to an alternative way of living.  In fact, it’s too bad that people insane with power and religious fervour have tainted the idea of communal living.  We were green before the colour was de rigour or anyone thought about recycling anything or the crushing stomp of our carbon footprints. The property had the original 50’s style bungalow, the “main house”, as the main eating and gathering place for everyone.  And then there were the individual houses.  Building them was our main activity – and let me add, a building inspector certainly never set foot on that land. They were essentially walls of what we called “beaver barf” – the poor man’s plywood – framed by poles of trees harvested from or found on the land.  They were perched on rounds of logs – no cement was ever involved – and up they went.  Usually two stories, no insulation, an airtight wood stove and voila! It was a miracle none of them ever fell or burnt down. (Though I’m sure they have since!)

Bob and I were lucky to score the geodesic dome – framed by poles (I don’t recall ever seeing a 2x4 on that property!) with plywood triangles in between, and insulation covered by tie-dyed fabric – which created a large sunburst pattern.  There was a tiny A-frame on either end of the dome.  We had an old sawdust burning wood stove for heat.  It was charming and we loved it. The rest of the story will be in the book!

 So Gibsons remains in my heart as a critically formative time and place for me, and I always love returning. It forged my love of ferry travel to and from home and my friendship with Leith has sustained me to this day. The photo above was taken by her in her home in Victoria where I always stay when I’m there.

The show was at a new venue (High Beam Dreams) and the owners of this converted church were well ahead of the curve in providing all the safety measures and more that were required by Vancouver Coastal Health. And what a JOY to play for live humans!

Concerts have been a hodgepodge of experiments.  In July Barney Bentall and Tom Taylor and I did 3 shows for the Harrison Festival outside on a working dairy farm to 3 separate appropriately socially distanced audiences of 35 and 150 attentive cows. The joy of playing with my beloved brothers to appreciative humans in that beautiful setting felt so damn good. 

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In August I did a backyard house concert in North Van with my trio of Cindy and Julia. My first since March. It was a humid hot day and the host took great care to set it up safely, providing additional shade and gorgeous flowers from his garden. A perfect setting. That is until the show started and the neighbouring family, with whom I subsequently learned the host had been at war for 6 years, thought it a great opportunity to lob a grenade over the fence by dribbling basketballs and starting up the gas weed eater.  This was not a fluke – it was intentional. I hoped my host would intervene but he shrugged saying he was powerless to stop them. In disbelief, I climbed the high fence to beg them to stop and was surprised to see two handsome young men – boys really - being the bearer of the arms.  They were undaunted. I tried to resume but I was so thrown by the mean-spiritedness of the sabotage of our humble little concert – watching this eager audience trying to pretend they could listen over the deafening din, I couldn’t hold back the tears. Well, first of all, I’m an ugly crier, but more importantly, if I even slightly tear up, I lose all control of my voice. By the 3rd song, it was clear that there was no point in trying to continue. I offered the audience free CDs and prepared to surrender. But the audience’s reaction was “NO!”.  So I climbed the fence again and the wielder of the weed eater saw my tearful face and in sudden concern asked if I was okay. I’m not sure what words I used to plead my case on behalf of the fine people behind me, but I was fueled by my Mother Bear defence of Music and my knowing to my core that kindness begets kindness. I invited them over to listen, and though they felt walking into the enemy territory was too risky, my plea worked and they laid down their arms.  Merciful silence. We were able to resume and I was so relieved and grateful.  Before leaving I dropped a CD in their mailbox thanking them and hoping it might be the start of some peace between neighbours.

In the following days, though it felt like a triumph of good over evil, there was a residual sadness in my heart. I pondered how this family would come from a war-torn country to Canada to make a new home in a peaceful country and foster that behaviour in their impressionable boys; how the two families could carry on such animosity for so long; and that all it takes is the first reaction to an aggressive overture to complete the ignition of a war. Both participated, both suffered, and an innocent little backyard concert in these weird times was in the line of fire.

 I’ve heard since that a couple of olive twigs have been offered from my host, so maybe this will change the tide. I’m sure some of you have tales of nasty neighbours and it can make one’s life beyond unpleasant. Home should be a sanctuary. Period.

Humans…. constantly making things so much harder for one another than they need to be.

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 In our new world, I will confess I rather miss the early days in March and April when everything stopped. I’ve heard others say the same. There was a sweetness and choiceless-ness about it that has since worn off as we hover in limbo. With my brother and another dear friend in facilities due to convalescing from surgery and a head injury respectively, I am keenly aware of the disparity between the loopholes of high risk created by partying youth in clubs and on beaches, and the strict rules prohibiting even a smile to be exchanged between sequestered patients and family members. The toll on those utterly isolated, virtually imprisoned in facilities, quickly declining due to lack of connection to their loved ones and the invaluable support they can provide to an already stretched healthcare team is torturous and heartbreaking. That illusion of immortality that has been ever thus for youth (oh, the tales I could tell about my own!), has never been so dangerous.  I’m pretty sure all of our kids care about us not getting sick as much as Ryan Reynolds does about his mom. 

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