Still delivering ‘Saltwater Joys’

Ninety-five per cent of me had been looking forward to this moment for months.

That’s a sharp contrast to the last time I caught Newfoundland’s Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers at Sydney’s Highland Arts Theatre, 19 months ago. I hadn’t seen them in a decade, and I was steeling myself for the possibility that the years had caught up to them and I would have to settle for a merely “good” couple of hours with my old friends from The Rock.

Imagine my shock and delight when Kevin Blackmore, Ray Johnson, and Wayne Chaulk – ranging in age from 62 to 70 – lit up the refurbished church building on Bentinck Street with over two hours of raucous laughter, high-flying sing-along songs, tenderly-delivered recitations, and heartwarming moments.

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It was my tenth time seeing the band in action over a 27-year span, but Buddy and the Fellers seemed capable of defying Father Time and staying on the road for another decade. So you can imagine my excitement as Cathy and I headed into the HAT on the first Wednesday evening of November, especially since this was our first opportunity in 10 years to see the group as a couple.

However, a small but potent mix of nervousness and sadness threatened to throw me off before, during and after this long-awaited performance.

You see, just over a year ago, Kevin, Wayne and Ray announced that they’re wrapping up nearly 35 years’ worth of cross-Canada touring and sticking primarily to their Newfoundland home base after 2018 wraps up. I can’t blame the guys for wanting to make it easier on themselves and their very patient families, but I wasn’t quite ready to say goodbye as Cathy and I took our seats in the HAT’s front row last week.

Apparently, “the b’ys” weren’t quite ready to say goodbye, either. They avoided melancholy “farewell-tour” talk for the entire night, and instead rolled out a wide-ranging stroll down Memory Lane that even included a couple of songs that I’d somehow never heard in my entire 28 years of Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers fandom.

In a display that would have made several classic-rock touring acts jealous, Kevin, Ray and Wayne once again shrugged off the years and delivered the same laughter and enjoyment that has coloured every one of their performances since I first saw them at the SAERC Auditorium as a teenager in the spring of 1991.

On that night in Port Hawkesbury, Kevin – as the manic “Buddy Wasisname” of the group’s name – twisted himself into every conceivable position, contorted his face into countless expressions and dialects, and displayed a vocal range that would challenge any classically-trained singer. Thirty-six years later, he brought that same overflowing energy to the HAT stage, whether he was delivering the story of a Ski-Doo powered by a Corvette Stingray motor, warbling a snooty opera version of “I’se The By,” singing “Danny Boy” in the deep voice of a cow, or delivering full-body comic convulsions while singing the choruses of “The Chocolate Song.”

Kevin’s energy was only surpassed once during the whole night, by a bandmate seven years his senior. Usually taking a mild-mannered approach to his button-accordion solos, poetic recitations and such favourites as “Sarah,” “By The Glow Of The Kerosene Light” and “Put A Little Powder On A Doo,” Ray revived a schtick frequently used to end “The Chocolate Song,” upstaging Kevin with a series of vigorous push-ups. He started by unbuttoning his shirt and then leaping three feet in the air before landing perfectly on his palms and toes. I don’t expect to be able to do that in my early ‘70s; I doubt I can do it in my mid-‘40s unless I’m bitten by a radioactive spider.

Wayne, the group’s most prolific songwriter, led the band – and, in several cases, the audience – through a catalogue of classics that deserve their place in Atlantic Canada’s songbook, including “Goin’ Out The Bay,” “Chainsaw Earle” (co-written with Kevin), “Rock Yourself On The Ocean” and the group’s signature ballad, “Saltwater Joys.” He also showed his comedic side as a befuddled customer in “The D&C Take-Out” and a bucket-wearing “Salt Beef Junkie,” even rolling out some blues-rock in the late-show parody “The Slewed Brothers.”

And then, during a two-song encore, the sweetest sound of the entire night arrived, as Ray looked out to the sold-out HAT crowd and said: “God willing, we’ll see you all again sometime.” Then he paused and smiled: “Would you like to see us come back here?” Of course, we answered this question with boisterous applause.

Since they’re just across the Cabot Strait, I hope this wasn’t their Cape Breton swan song after all. But if it was, what a way to go out. Thanks, fellers.