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Music Jason Collett’s Basement Revue is as ambitious as ever. Can a cult curiosity become a mainstream hit?

The Basement Revue, the intimate annual series combining literature and music, is about to stage its biggest incarnation ever. But can the celebrated artistic forum successfully cross over?

Jason Collett listens from behind the stage during the Basement Revue at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2014. (Photos by Darren Calabrese for The Globe and Mail)

The Dakota Tavern, a subterranean, country-themed bar in Toronto’s west end, has been sold out for days. This might strike some as strange considering most of the 130-odd people in the joint, who’ve each paid $25 a ticket, have no idea what they’re about to see. It’s a brisk Tuesday night in early December, though those who haven’t glanced at a calendar lately would know the month by the festive lights strung over the bar, the garlands and red stockings hanging at the back of the stage, the small Christmas trees atop the upright piano, and the bulky winter jackets draped across the backs of chairs and shrouding bar stools. Nashville by way of the North Pole. Even the steer skulls look festive.

A few minutes past 9:30 p.m., Jason Collett, a red Gibson J-45 in hand, steps onstage.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he says. “Welcome to the seventh annual Basement Revue.”

Author Claudia Dey takes the stage to perform a reading.

It’s actually the eighth edition, but no matter. Jason Collett’s Basement Revue, taking place every Tuesday this month, has evolved into one of Toronto’s most celebrated artistic forums – a now-biannual series of concerts defined, says Collett, by “a literary element and a complete rock-and-roll sensibility.” On the first night of this year’s run, Collett kicks things off with a short set of acoustic tunes, then introduces Montreal writer Jacob Wren, who reads a passage from his novel Polyamorous Love Song, concerning an experimental filmmaker. Over the course of an often raucous two-and-a-half hours, upstart Hamilton folk-rock outfit Harlan Pepper, novelist and playwright Claudia Dey, veteran rocker Tom Wilson, poet Aisha Sasha John, sibling electro-pop duo Brave Shores and beloved Maritime singer-songwriter Al Tuck – one of Collett’s personal favourites – all grace the stage.

“It’s like an advent calendar,” John says of the Revue. “It’s like, I don’t know what’s going to be in there, but I know it’s going to be good.”

Others know it, too. What was originally envisioned as a one-off residency has become one of the most sought-after tickets in town and a holiday tradition like The Nutcracker and eggnog.

Part variety show, part vaudeville theatre, part improv act and part poetry slam, the Basement Revue is a cross-disciplinary carnival where anything can happen, and often does. The list of past participants reads like a who’s who of CanRock and CanLit, from Stars and Broken Social Scene to Sheila Heti and Vincent Lam. A couple of years ago, Michael Ondaatje performed with Feist; last year, Margaret Atwood took the stage with country-rock quartet The Sadies. Collett’s guiding philosophy is simple: “I think it’s a beautiful thing to sit in a room full of people and go to the same place together.”

This year, due to circumstances beyond their control, the Revue will attempt to fill the largest room in its history for a “star-studded” charity event to raise awareness for missing and murdered aboriginal women, which will also serve as the launch of a significant new anthology featuring many of the country’s finest writers. It is the most ambitious – and important – show in the Revue’s history. “We’ve never done anything quite like this before,” Collett says.

In an unprecedented move, organizers have also decided to reveal the performers ahead of time. There’s a chance it might backfire. The Revue has earned its reputation thanks in large part to an intimate venue and the element of surprise. Can it transcend its reputation and become something greater? Collett isn’t sure.

“Part of the point,” he says, “is to just take some chances.”

It’s a Monday morning in mid-November, a little more than two weeks before the season’s first show, and Collett, a veteran singer-songwriter and habitual member of Broken Social Scene, is sitting at a table in the Drake Hotel nursing a coffee. Beside him is Damian Rogers, the poet and editor who curates the literary half of the revue’s programming. Leafing through her notebook, she rattles off a list of potential readers she’s tempted to invite. “Just ask them all,” Collett says. Although tickets are on sale, the events are not fully booked. “We’re still trying to figure out who we’re going to plug in,” Rogers says. “Some of it feels like it happens last-minute.”

In addition to the weekly Revue, Rogers and Collett have organized an annual “big show” since 2012, which also takes place in December. It was here, during planning sessions that sometimes stretched on for hours, that they first discussed the possibility of using this year’s larger show to raise awareness of missing First Nations women. “It was a bit of a hurdle to figure out how appropriate it was to curate that kind of thing,” Collett admits.

Singer-songwriter Al Tuck, right, and Aaron Comeau perform.

A solution came in the form of Joseph Boyden, whom they’d invited to last year’s Revue. He wasn’t able to attend, but he agreed to co-curate the Dec. 18 Revue, which was scheduled to take place at Adelaide Hall, along with Juno Award-winning electronic trio A Tribe Called Red.

“All of us were just like, ‘Oh my God, it’s obvious what we have to do,’” Boyden recalls. “And it wasn’t about even trying to make any kind of statement. With Rinelle Harper – that was what set me off. Tina Fontaine and then Rinelle Harper, back-to-back.”

Plans for the show were well under way when Harper, a 16-year-old aboriginal girl, was sexually assaulted and left for dead on the banks of the Assiniboine River in Winnipeg last month. Coming three months after the murder of 15-year-old Fontaine, Boyden says he was compelled to use the show to address what he calls “a horror story” and “one of the most pressing issues in this country.”

“Our country is only as good as how we treat our most vulnerable,” he says. “And we’re not treating our most vulnerable in a very good way.”

In late November, Boyden wrote an e-mail to his friends and fellow writers.

“The murder of Tina Fontaine and the attempted murder of Rinelle Harper is obviously devastating,” it read. “There’s an ongoing crisis in our country, and yet our current government refuses to act, saying that this is a criminal issue, not a sociological one. Yes, it’s certainly criminal, but it’s far more than that. As artists, I think it’s time we take responsibility and do what we can.”

He asked those receiving the e-mail to consider donating a piece of unpublished writing – “it can be a few sentences, a poem, a piece of non-fiction, a chapter from a novel you’re currently working on, basically anything you wish to share.” He had no idea who, or how many people, would respond.

On Thursday, at the Basement Revue, Boyden will launch Kwe: Standing With Our Sisters, an anthology featuring the work of more than 50 writers, musicians, artists and activists. (“Kwe” is Anishinaabe for “woman” or “life-giver,” explains Boyden.) Contributors include Ondaatje, Atwood, Thomas King, Sherman Alexie, Gord Downie, Michael Crummey and Tanya Tagaq Gillis. The 100-page book is published by Penguin Canada, which covered the entire cost of production. A limited number of print editions will sell for $10, while a digital version, available from all major online retailers beginning Dec. 16, will cost $2.99. All proceeds will be donated to Amnesty International’s No More Stolen Sisters project.

“This anthology came from my absolute sadness, shock, anger and horror that this is going on and nobody’s really speaking about it,” Boyden says. The fact so many people responded to his call, he says, “gives me great confidence and faith in where we’re going as a nation.”

Everything was set. The artists were booked, the anthology was in production and tickets were on sale. And then, on Dec. 4, Collett received an e-mail informing him that, due to a fire, they could no longer hold the Dec. 18 show at Adelaide Hall. They had exactly two weeks to find a new venue.

They could either downsize to a smaller site, cutting into ticket sales, or risk moving the show to a larger room. “This late in the game, in this season, there’s no lateral move to a comparable-sized venue – everything’s booked,” explains Collett, who says he never considered cancelling or postponing the event. Instead, they booked the Opera House, on the city’s east side, which, with a capacity of 850, is 25-per-cent larger than Adelaide Hall.

“I think it keeps us on our toes to keep raising the bar,” Rogers says. “Although this particular bar, we didn’t really raise it quite this high by choice.”

Harlan Pepper perform.

They also made the unusual decision to announce the lineup, which includes singer Jennifer Castle, authors Naomi Klein and Lee Maracle, and visual artist Shary Boyle, but in keeping with tradition, they have a number of surprise guests waiting in the wings. The proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to a local organization, No More Silence.

“It was something that really struck a chord with me,” says Leanne Simpson, a Peterborough-based poet who will be performing at the event. “As an indigenous woman, and artist, and academic, and activist who’s worked on this issue, I was really excited to see them taking this initiative. Because I think it’s really important that the conversation around gender violence, and colonialism, and the 1,200 missing and murdered indigenous women and girls that we have in Canada right now, continues. And I think an artistic response on the scale of this one is a really important contributor to the conversation.”

Boyden, speaking on the phone from Paris, is audibly upset when discussion turns to the topic of the murdered and missing women. But, he says, he doesn’t want Thursday night’s event to be a sombre affair.

“I want people to walk away with an incredible and powerful experience of hope.”

Collett, from time to time, thinks about bringing the Revue to an end. What usually happens is, like this year, it winds up growing even larger.

Singer-songwriter Doug Paisley breaks from playing to read an excerpt from Stompin' Tom Connors' book Before The Fame.

During Tuesday’s show earlier this week, Collett doesn’t look like a man who’s in a hurry for it to end. For much of the night he sits on the edge of the stage, his chin in his hand, a beer at his side, eyes fixed on the performers. There are readings by poets Susan Holbrook and Linda Besner, as well as appearances by The New Mendicants, BSS-fixture Brendan Canning, Kevin Hearn of the Barenaked Ladies and songwriter Doug Paisley, who embraces the spirit of the Revue by also reading passages from the biographies of artist William Kurelek and singer Stompin’ Tom Connors. “This is as close as a musician can get to anything literary,” he says.

At the end of the night, before the bar empties out onto Ossington Avenue, Collett returns to the stage to introduce a final surprise performer (it turns out to be Hayden). Collett carries a black notebook with him, in which he writes introductions for all performers. He opens the book, then pauses a moment. I can feel the audience waiting, wondering.

He knows it, too. He smiles, looking like a man about to tell his friends the best secret in the world.

Singer-songwriter Hayden, left, packs up his gear as Broken Social Scene member Brendan Canning plays the piano following their performances.

THE ENDURING MYSTERY OF THE BASMENT REVUE

Jason Collett launched the Basement Revue in 2007. He was two years removed from the release of his third album, Idols of Exile, had written a handful of new songs, and was anxious to test them out. On a whim, he booked a residency at the newly opened Dakota Tavern, which has since become the unofficial headquarters of Toronto’s music scene.

“I had no intention of making this an annual thing,” says Collett, who also organized a songwriter-focused showcase called Radio Mondays in the early aughts, a series that could be considered the spiritual predecessor of the Basement Revue. Not only has it become “an annual thing,” but Collett and Damian Rogers (who replaced original literary curator Kevin Connolly) now also organize a springtime version of the Revue during Luminato, a Toronto arts and culture festival.

The composition of the performances has changed over the years in a trial-and-error attempt to find the ideal lineup; there was a time, for instance, when comedians took part. The Revue is now split between writers and musicians, though it’s obvious the writers are playing the literary equivalent of an away game.

“I’m putting people in front of an audience which, for the most part, has never heard of their work,” Rogers says. “As much as I’m thinking about the audience, I’m also thinking about the writer. I don’t ever want it to be a bummer for somebody, to feel like they weren’t being listened to.”

That rarely happens. Rogers and Collett are proud of the audience they’ve cultivated over the years, which, although likely more familiar with the musicians, is respectful of the writers. It helps that the Revue has always taken place at the cosy Dakota, which helps foster the feeling that ticket-holders are witnessing something special.

“This is an extension of a dinner party, and we’re always trying to retain that intimacy,” Collett says. “You’ve got your friends over, and it’s late at night, and, inevitably, the guitars come out and stories are told.”

A guitar lays amidst cords on the stage as Brave Shores performs.
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