STOMPIN’ TOM CONNORS – “Live” at the Horseshoe (1971 EMI)
Since this is the first Stompin’ Tom review ever here at mikeladano.com, we need to step back and take a quick look at the bio of a Canadian hero that may be completely unknown to most overseas readers.
Charles Tom Connors was born in Saint John, New Brunswick in 1936. A restless young Connors frequently hitch hiked and got into trouble down the east coast, and at one point wound up in Skinner’s Pond, Prince Edward Island. This is a place that has come to be associated with Stompin’ Tom over the years. I visited there myself in 2002, and saw his childhood home. I took a photo of the street sign of what is now officially called Dr. Stompin’ Tom Road.
Tom’s break happened while drifting through Timmins Ontario. Short on change for a beer at the local watering hole, the bartender told him he’d let him have the beer for whatever coins he had in his pocket, as long as he’d get up and sing a song or two. Tom got out his guitar and that turned into a 14 month stand. Before too long he had recorded eight singles.
Stompin’ Tom sang idiosyncratic Canadian songs. He was not interested in commercialism in music whatsoever. He stubbornly wrote and played often comical songs about the things he’d seen and done hitch hiking around the country. He became known as “Stompin’ Tom” by providing his own backbeat. Like a folk country Angus Young, he would pound his booted left foot on the floor, keeping time. He eventually had to provide his own “stomping board” because bar owners were complaining about damage to their stage. He would stomp right through the board periodically and have to replace it.
In 1971, a concert film called Across This Land With Stompin’ Tom Connors spawned the album release “Live” at the Horseshoe and became a part of Canadian history. The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto was a legendary establishment. Now with four studio albums and one Christmas record under his belt, the legendary Horseshoe set was recorded for posterity and became a television staple for years. This live album is culled from that show, though heavily edited for single-length LP time. The original set was 90 minutes and 30 songs. My dad showed me the special as a kid. I loved it.
When EMI issued the album on CD, they retained the original LP 12 song running time. Even the nicely packaged 1998 Man of the Land series edition is only 12 tracks. The album is a mix of originals and better-known covers.
Newcomers may find Stompin’ Tom’s nasal twang unpalatable, but when that left foot starts stompin’, it’s hard to resist. “Happy Rovin’ Cowboy” introduces Tom’s band to the crowd. He bills himself as from “the potato fields of Prince Edward Island”. Then it’s his hit about the “best man in Ottawa”, Mufferaw Joe. “Big Joe Mufferaw” is a Canadian folk classic and this version from the Horseshoe is definitive. According to the lyrics, Big Joe put out a raging forest fire near Smiths Falls with just five spitballs! Just stomp along!
“Come Where I’m At” is a “Newphie” phrase, and the song beckons you to come home to Newfoundland, “So don’t stay where you’re to, come where we’re at!” It’s not Yoda-speak, it’s just Canadian! Tom then covers “The Green, Green Grass of Home”. “Now it’s almost time I sung an American song,” begins Tom. “This here is a song that made so many singers famous, that I just thought if I turned my golden Prince Edward Island voice to it, I’d prob’ly become famous too!” Probably not — Tom does it with exaggerated twang and irreverent comedic flare. Then, he covers his friend “Gordie” Lightfoot, with “Spin, Spin”, another Horseshoe regular. This time his plays the song “straight” with due respect but still with the stomp. It’s a wonderful upbeat song so feel free to stomp along. “Muleskinner Blues” has one of Tom’s most legendary vocal hooks, and it goes something like “aw wha wha wha wha wha whoo”, though it varies! This is the kind of song that people loved Tom for.
The second LP side began with an ode to all the big drinkers at the Horseshoe, with “Horseshoe Hotel Song”. You can hear them hootin’ and hollerin’ and drinking along. He pokes fun at himself in the tune, claiming he can’t really sing, he’s just another getting slushed at the Horseshoe Hotel. They eat it up, loving every witty line. Another cover, “I’ve Been Everywhere”, is one that Tom could almost claim as his own, considering its hitch hiking subject matter!
The rest of the album is all original. “Sudbury Saturday Night” is a favourite that was later covered by Kim Mitchell. Sudbury is famous for its nickel mines, and Inco was the big one. So the lyrics go:
“Well the girls are out to Bingo,
And the boys are gettin stinko,
We’ll think no more of Inco,
On a Sudbury Saturday Night.”
Once again, this version is definitive. The song is best heard with an audience hollering along. “Big Bus to Nashville” is a pleasant song that name-drops the Horseshoe, and features that boot stomping again. “Luke’s Guitar” is a story about a man who had to choose between his wife and his guitar. Again it has one of those classic Tom vocal hooks, and it goes something along the lines of “Clang-clang a-deedle dang a-deedle”. It’s hard to resist so don’t try and just go with it. Ending the album is “Bud the Spud” from the bright red mud, of Prince Edward Island. According to Tom this came by request about “150,000 times” that night. Because of the filming and recording of the live album, Tom was to stick to a strict set list and couldn’t do requests. However he went ahead and played “Bud the Spud” anyway, and it made the final album! Like several of the other tracks, this recording is definitive.
In the movie Wayne’s World, the character of Wayne Campbell, played by Canadian Mike Myers, claimed that people in the subburbs got copies of Frampton Comes Alive in the mailbox with boxes of Tide. Sadly that is not so, but in Canada, everybody should be issued a copy of this live album with their birth certificate. This album in my ears defines the country that I live in. Others may disagree and they are welcome to do that, but I believe that “Live” at the Horseshoe is a history lesson about the country that we live in as much as it is an amazing live album.