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Soulpepper Theatre Company’s potent 2017 song cycle Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene is currently being remounted at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.

Handout

  • Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene
  • Written and directed by: Frank Cox-O’Connell
  • Genre: Song cycle
  • Performers: Brooke Blackburn, Alana Bridgewater, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Raha Javanfar, Fraser Melvin, Mike Ross, Sate and Emily Schultz
  • Company: Soulpepper
  • Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Runs to Sunday, Nov. 17

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A few years ago, I spent an afternoon with Canadian music giant Bernie Finkelstein in Yorkville, a 1960s bohemian enclave that isn’t that any more. A much younger Finkelstein had cut his teeth in that scruffy, blue-jean scene, running his management company from a phone booth. He went on to create True North Records. He still manages Bruce Cockburn.

Finkelstein showed me what used to be where, and then told me what’s what. “I know how hard people are working today, to make sure this is a better musical generation than before,” he said over lunch. “And that’s fine by me. That’s the way it’s supposed to be." Then he leaned in closer. “But who among us can say the Yorkville era wasn’t special,” he continued. “Neil Young. Joni Mitchell. Murray McLauchlan. I mean, the proof is there.”

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Then he shrugged the satisfied shrug of a person who just said something inarguable. The current “Okay, boomer” catch-phrase dismissal wasn’t yet invented, but if someone wants to throw it in Finkelstein’s face today, they are a much braver person than I am.

Soulpepper Theatre Company’s potent 2017 song cycle Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene, currently being remounted at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, is persuasive evidence that the era was indeed special. On Thursday, 16 songs were performed by an talented, full-throated ensemble of singers and musicians with narration for chronological context. The creators of the show call it a “docu-concert.” I’ll call it a celebration of the songs and spirit of a heavy generation.

Mike Ross and Frank Cox-O'Connell.

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The title of the production (created by writer-director Frank Cox-O’Connell and music arranger Mike Ross), refers to a hub venue run by another Bernie: Bernie Fiedler, a charismatic German who settled in Toronto. He originally sold coffee wholesale, but after being advised there was more money to be made selling Brazilian beans by the cup than by the pound, he opened up one small folk club (The Mousehole) before co-founding in 1964 The Riverboat, a long, narrow room in the basement of a Victorian row house.

The 117-seat space, we were told, was a “listening room,” unlicensed for alcohol and less noisy than the boozy clubs for rock and blues nearby on Yonge Street. The drinking age was 21. On caffeine, the kids were tuned in and hopped-up.

The Soulpepper stage was set up with candle-lit tables, with a backdrop upon which song titles and giant archival photos were flashed. “Back in the old folkie days, the air was magic when we played,” Cox-O’Connell and Ross sang on a duet version of Young’s Ambulance Blues. “The Riverboat was rockin’ in the rain.”

Standout performers included Emily Schultz, who hit all the breakaway high parts of Joni Mitchell’s All I Want. Brooke Blackburn, a big-lung growler and committed electric guitarist, handled the Howlin’ Wolf-famous Spoonful. (The geography was jive, though. Wolf played Yonge Street, not Yorkville.)

Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ was funky and turbo-charged. An all-hands-on-deck take on Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald transformed the story-song into a psyche-folk dirge. And by singers Schultz, Alana Bridgewater and Sate, Mitchell’s Woodstock was a siren-song anthem, taken back by the ladies from dudes Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young.

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Alana Bridgewater, SATE and Emily Schultz.

Daniel Malavasi.

The scripted set-up of Woodstock had to with city officials and police clamping down on the city’s flower-power neighbourhood at the turn of the 1970s. Perhaps Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi – “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot” – would have a better fit for Yorkville’s down-falling days.

There were mistakes with the narration. Co-host Cox-O’Connell put The Bitter End folk club in Los Angeles and The Troubadour in New York instead of vice-versa. It was probably a flubbed line, but when Ross, the other co-host, said The Riverboat’s Fiedler was “still Gordon Lightfoot’s manager to this day,” well, that’s just wrong. He was never Lightfoot’s manager.

The Riverboat club closed in 1978 with a concert by Murray McLauchlan, whose Child’s Song ended the main part of this stirring Soulpepper production. Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds (strangely identified as 4 Strong Winds in the program) was rendered as a sing-along encore – a sort of Canadiana Kumbaya. A seasoned audience walked away from the theatre a little taller than when they went in. As if to say, “The boomers did okay.”

Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene continues to Nov. 17. (Soulpepper.ca)

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