The melodic rocker David Celia has held down the Friday supper-hour show at the Cameron House for a few years now, but, unlike other holders of weekly residencies, he keeps things fresh by rotating material from his various albums. He has a talent for colourful adjustments to his arrangements – a kazoo solo today, a piano solo next week and a guitar solo a month after that – and he has a deep, eclectic selection of cover tunes at the ready.
Regular fans of his sundown shows have heard much of what he has to offer over his extended stint at the Cameron, but Celia, a 43-year-old singer-guitarist who performs with bassist Tim Jackson and drummer Cleave Anderson, formerly of Blue Rodeo, most always delivers something fresh.
Recently, he presented his audience with Building an Amplifier, a song from 2000 he'd dusted off because the song's subject, the beloved Toronto guitar-amp repair technician John (Buzzy) Burak, died this spring. The tune includes a line about "oscillators and capacitors," which gives the song the same one-of-kind quality Burak himself apparently possessed.
"He struck me as a timeless guy who could have easily been from the 1930s, though his accent sounded like one from a proper 1970s hoser," Celia said after his show. "He told me stories about how he was one of Fender's first authorized repairmen in Canada. Even people like Eddie Van Halen had their stuff sent to him for repair."
Celia went on to speak at length about Burak and his regular visits to the repairman's shop, Sound FX. Born in 1951, Burak was a carefully spoken man with a mustache as thick as his prescription glasses. He worked on tube amps with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, removing the smoke long enough to deal with the coffee he drank during his all-night repair sessions.
"Buzzy would stay up with me as late as I wanted to hang around," recalled Celia, a multitalented musician and songsmith. "I always left happy because not many people knew about tube amps any more. People like him mean so much to guitarists like myself. We're starving for good tone."
Burak might have been starving himself. According to Celia, he eventually had to let go of his shop and move into his mother's house, where he worked out of her garage. "He told me he wanted to be closer to his mom, but I think he may have been charging so little for his work, he couldn't afford his shop any longer," Celia said.
"He'd charge me $70 for a repair and I realized he wasn't making much money for himself," Celia explained. "He'd just say, 'Well, you guys don't make a lotta dough. You gotta feed yourselves, perhaps your family and all that. So just give me 70.'"
It was 2000, and Burak was still charging musicians on a 1970s scale.
In 2001, Celia presented Burak with a freshly wrapped CD of Poor Folks Welcome, an album he recorded with his band at the time, Invisible Inc. The record included the song he co-wrote for the repairman, Building an Amplifier. Burak put the album aside. For years, Celia would see the CD in the shop, unopened. After a decade or more, Buzzy finally mentioned the tribute track, saying that it was a "nice song."
"He didn't say anything else, but from his body language I could see that he was flattered," Celia said. "He was not one to show too much conceit or pride."
Celia saw Burak as guru and a craftsman, not a mere fixer.
"It was just amps he was fixing, but he was a master at it," Celia said. "Any medium can be an example of how to care about things so they work better in this world."
One could probably say the same type of thing about Celia. He's a working musician who tours the world, but he doesn't make much money at the Cameron, where a jug is passed through the crowd for pay-what-you-can contributions.
Celia is a rock singer-songwriter, a genre not as much in fashion as it was, say, in the 1970s. His songs are catchy and well constructed, with a nostalgic feel-good groove. He's a tube-amp guy in a solid-state world. Don't say they don't make them like they used to, because Celia's own craft is proof that sometimes they still do.
David Celia plays July 21 and 28, 6 to 8 p.m. PWYC. Cameron House, 408 Queen St. W., 416-703-0811 or thecameron.com.