By Dick Shaner
May 2006, Carla MacNeil, violin in hand, and Stephen Stanley walked on stage at a low-key gig at Mitzi’s Sister in downtown Toronto. In Carla’s own words, the night was a “glad you missed it” affair, but the week of rehearsal leading up to the gig had been enough to get Stanley excited enough to dig into a major change of musical direction. “I knew that I wanted to introduce a violin into the new songs, but I hadn’t bargained on finding someone to share lead vocals with.”
Instantly, the idea of forming a post-Low band was dropped, the new duo was where it was going…
Stanley first came to prominence as a founding member of Toronto’s indie faves, Lowest of the Low. During their celebrated career the band released four CDs, sold more than 100,000 records, and toured endlessly. Perhaps their high-water mark was the release of their 1991 certified gold album Shakespeare My Butt, which ranked sixth on Chart magazine’s best Canadian albums of all time and received the coveted lifetime achievement award from Toronto’s 102.1, the Edge, along with being inducted into the Canadian Indie Hall of Fame in 2007. Stanley released his first solo disc “That Thin, Wild Mercury” in 2003 and supported it by exercising his renowned performance muscle in various venues throughout Ontario.
While Stanley first learned to play guitar at age 13 in a class with six senior citizens, MacNeil, who grew up in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, honed her craft under more auspicious guidance; namely East coast music royalty Kendra MacGillivary, Sandy MacIntyre and Dwayne Cote. These internationally celebrated musicians each shaped MacNeil’s approach to her instrument of choice. A million square sets and kitchen ceilidh’s later and MacNeil moved to Toronto in 2001 for a brief stint with pop band Tenzing Norgay.
The duo’s music might best be described as East Coast Alterno-Folk. That is to say, East Coast as in Greenwich in the early sixties (you know, Dylan, Ochs, Van Ronk) but that’s just a jumping off point. MacNeil refers to it as “traditional enough that I get a little homesick at certain points of our set, but rock enough to keep me in Toronto.” It seems Stanley could never really abandon his Lowest of the Low roots after all.
With a new, exciting sound in mind, Stanley began to write songs that fit the duo’s style, and more so, songs that suited MacNeil’s sweet ethereal vocals. The “glad you missed it” gig soon became a dusty memory, and two year’s worth of extensive gigging in Toronto was well underway. Some high points included a set opening for UK legend Lloyd Cole at the Mod Club, a 4 day collaboration with Australia’s Mick Thomas of Wedding, Parties, Anything, and a now annual, weekend set with Ron Hawkins at Graffiti’s in Kensington Market infamous for drawing a batch of cops due to overcrowding.
Stanley & MacNeil first recorded the track “Take Me in Your Hands” for the Rheostatics tribute record, “The Secret Sessions” in 2007, and have recently completed their debut album,” Non Barking Dog” set for release November 2008. The album was produced by Ron Hawkins from the Low who will join Stephen and Carla on-stage on Saturday, November 22 at the Tralf.
In what is being described as “an incestuos evening of band-swapping and musical cross pollination.” Stephen and Carla MacNeil will open the show at 8PM with their new band, Too Many Sisters, and songs from their new album, Non Barking Dog. They’ll be joined by Ron Hawkins and Dylan Parker, both from the Low, and Jason Tait (The Weakerthans) on drums.
Then Ron headlines, with the same band, including Alex McMaster on strings, playing songs from his solo CDs, The Rusty Nails and maybe a Low song, or two. Tickets are $20.
Stephen and Carla will also be doing an in-store performance at Record Theatre on Friday at 5:30PM at the 3500 Main St. (University Plaza) location, and WBFO is taping it for their “Buffalo Avenues” program.
You can get a feel for the new stuff by visiting www.myspace.com/stephenstanleymusic. Pay special attention to “The Same Old Joint” and “V” which Stephen wrote about his daugher, Violet.
By Dick Shaner