Updated: May 19
It’s playoff time. Just as hockey is a synonym for winter in Quebec, spring means playoffs. Or used to. Winter still means hockey but, for a couple of decades, during playoffs, Canadiens, or les Glorieux, as they are sometimes called, were less than glorious and have watched the playoffs on TV from their summer homes scattered around the globe. Those that care about young, globetrotting men flying around with sticks in their hands and meat cleavers strapped to their feet are resigned to assigning blame and remembering the days when the home team rarely lost.
The playoffs begin this week for the Canadiens. They’ll play Toronto Thursday and no one gives Montreal a chance. Which brings to mind an extraordinary time 10 years ago when the underdog Canadiens captured first place and then went on to beat Pittsburgh in the first round and the normally unbeatable Washington in the second round. The city was again proudly hockey mad.
Hockey games were date nights. Bars and clubs with TVs were overflowing. Couples lined up on the street to share a cold pitcher of beer, charred protein and melted cheese-like substance over nachos, watch a game on a multitude of screens and hoot and holler.
On the night Montreal did the unthinkable a decade ago and put away the Capitals in the seventh game, I was booked to launch my first CD at a club chosen by the record label in East End Montreal, never an Anglophone bastion.
If you wonder if two solitudes in Quebec remains a fit analogy, climb on stage with a five-piece band, almost all Anglo, and face 200 Francophone hockey fans high on a lot of beer, a little dope and the Canadiens, coached by Guy Carbonneau, a former star for the home team. He was rewarded for this feat the next season by being fired, despite looking great behind the bench in beautifully tailored black suits. Might be he looked too good for a hockey player.
After the shocking dispatch of Washington, customers at my coming out party, so to speak, suspiciously eyed the stage being set up by a bunch of techies and Anglos doing sound checks and wondering what the hell I was doing there, a sentiment I fully shared.
I had never played before an audience. I had never performed in front of people who didn’t want to be performed to. I had never competed against hockey and alcohol and I had never played with a band behind me.
In the recording studio, we laid down tracks one instrument at a time. Some of the players on the CD I had never met. The band behind me were players I knew, some of whom had played on the CD, some were friends joining in for fun. My backup up singer was a clerk at a music store I had met that afternoon buying strings. She told me she was a singer. I asked if she wanted to sing backups that night. She said, sure. I sent her MP 3s and while they set up the stage we disappeared into the basement and ran through the songs.
She had lovely voice, learned her parts immediately, did a great job and went on to a career of her own.
Among the euphoric and hockey mad were a sprinkling of friends and a few colleagues from the theatre to offer moral support. Who knew better the fear audiences instil?
The guys behind me were pure pros. Good guys, great players. This was my first show, their 10,000th. Thing about fronting a band and singing is you are actually supposed to listen to the band, not your heart beating in 4/4 time like a snare drum. And, of course, remember lyrics, songs and how to sing them and play along and try not to wet yourself.
Drums and bass are your white lines on the highway, keep you in time. Rhythm guitar behind you needs to know where the singer is going next, which is difficult when the singer doesn’t know where he’s going next.
Which is likely to happen when singer is being eyed by a couple of hundred happily wacked people who have no idea why this Anglo was disrupting their hockey vibe playing English songs no one had ever heard before. This Anglo also had no idea what he was doing there.
My friend Marilyn had the best advice of the night. “Can you just go and have fun?” Turned out, no. I was petrified and tongue tied and just put the pedal to the stage floor and blew through 10 songs, my inner voice harmonizing with, “You’re making a fool of yourself.”
Ten years and a few hundred shows later, the Habs are again underdogs in the playoffs against a superior Leafs team and the faithful pray for a miracle. Ten years later, I’m still writing and singing songs. And performing a 10th anniversary show. Covid-induced solo.
This time, there is no visible audience, only tiny cameras. I will not see smiles or frowns, not see the iPhone freaks who record shows and pass their phones around the table rather than see the 3D version in progress. I won’t see lovers kiss, hear applause, see people leave, the bored snooze.
Ten years ago, there was no Zoom, no Covid, there were a lot of rooms to play, and Napster had been shutdown. In 10 years, streaming has become sport in every home and the music biz has pretty much disintegrated. And if the Canadiens win Thursday, fans will jump up and down and go to bed smiling.
But, when I tune up Friday for the online anniversary concert of that first post-playoff show and the first CD, hockey will not be on the radar. I’ll have a show to do and my knees won’t be shaking and the audience will be three cameras and two techs wearing masks.
In 10 years, most everything has changed. Except the Canadiens’ chances.
To listen to Sherman’s Friday show, or snooze through it, Friday 8 p.m. www.cafemariposa.c