The best stories musicians tell journalists don’t always find their way into the articles written about them. They’re often quirky accounts of meeting musicians more famous than themselves. Sometimes the backstage tales are too scandalous to repeat. Other times there’s just no space or context for these offbeat brushes with greatness to be told. The following three doozies fall into the latter category.
Singer-songwriter Ron Sexsmith jams with Robert Plant
In 2016, I was invited to take part in the Lampedusa: Concerts for Refugees benefit show at Toronto’s Massey Hall. It was the only Canadian stop on the North American tour, with Emmylou Harris and others, including Robert Plant.
I had met Robert before. The first time was in New York, through Gord Downie, when the Tragically Hip opened up a concert by Plant and Jimmy Page at Madison Square Garden in 1995.
It was a song-circle set-up at Massey. Because Robert was always really nice to me, I was glad that I’d be sitting next to him. At the soundcheck, I asked him if he was planning to sing any Led Zeppelin songs. He said, “Oh God, no.” But I told him that just in case he wanted to sing Dancing Days, I had it locked and loaded.
Everybody can play Stairway to Heaven, but Dancing Days is relatively obscure. So, he was really surprised when I suggested it. He said, “You know Dancing Days?” There was a guitar player with him, and we just launched right into the song. I could tell Robert was really into it.
Unfortunately, Steve Earle, who was running the show, shot down the idea of doing the song. But at least I got to play it with him at soundcheck.
It’s funny. Here’s this rock star, Robert Plant. They don’t make them like him any more. You just feel the heat coming off him. And yet he had no airs about him. I actually think he was flattered that I knew the song.
Folk singer-songwriter Shawna Caspi watches Sarah Slean’s washroom Weezer
In the late 1990s, I was living in Ottawa. I found out that Sarah Slean was playing at a students’ residence at Carleton University. I was a big fan of hers, and still am. I showed up at this co-ed residence and somehow got in. I don’t think I was supposed to be there. I was still in high school.
It was all very casual, in a common room, with students lounging on couches in their pajamas. Sarah played solo, on her keyboard. For her encore, she got up and asked us to follow her, which we were more than happy to do. She led us into one of those big residence bathrooms, where we all just stood against the wall.
She had brought a tiny acoustic guitar with her. She played Weezer’s Butterfly, and the sound was amazing. That big bathroom echo. It was strange, but so intimate and so memorable.
Blues artist Paul Reddick calls out harmonica-blues legend Junior Wells
It was in the early 1980s. Junior Wells was playing Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern, but he barely showed up for the first set. He seemed drunk. Downstairs I saw him in his dressing room. When I peered in, he kind of told me off. I turned to him and told him, “Junior, do your job.” He lunged at me, but his guys pulled him back.
Looking back, I was an idiot for saying anything to him. I was 20 years old and foolish. I expected a lot from Junior Wells, and had paid to see him. Now I regret putting him in the position of expecting anything from him.
Artists like him lived hard lives. Who knows what motivated Junior Wells. He was one of those enigmatic artists, you know? I later found out that when he would screw up, he’d go back and give a free show to make up for it.
Years later, I visited the the famous Checkerboard Lounge on Chicago’s South Side one afternoon. There was a guy at the bar with a bottle of Tanqueray, reading a magazine. It was Junior Wells.
A homeless man came in with a plastic bag full of pencils and crayons and notebooks he was selling. Junior told him to dump it all out on the bar, which he did. Junior gave him $10. It was impressive. I didn’t say anything to him, though. It was a moment you just had to leave alone.
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