Graffiti’s, in Kensington Market, has little strings of Christmas lights hanging from the ceiling, and a big garage door in front they keep covered with a curtain. Unless it’s Saturday afternoon, and then sometimes they crack it open so the guitars and drums waft down Baldwin and around the corner onto Kensington Avenue. It seats something like 30, if you’re lucky.
I was lucky. Sunday night found me sitting there at one end of the impossibly tiny bar, Ron Hawkins three seats down at the other end, all ten or so years of my Lowest of the Low feelings piled in the middle. (I was a tiny child when Shakespeare My Butt came out—it took me a while to get to it.)
Let’s just get this out of the way: Ron Hawkins is one of the best and most criminally underappreciated songwriters in Canada, and no, I don’t think that that claim is ridiculous, though the songbook is written by more famous names. Shakespeare is one of the best things this country has produced and the things that Hawkins continues to do—with the Low, the Rusty Nails, the Do Good Assassins, or solo—are usually brilliant. He just keeps nailing it and he’s been doing this for the entire time I’ve been alive.
So, thirty or so of us, cozied up into this little bar for the second of two solo shows Hawkins was putting on for no particular occasion. He plays around town a lot, and so do the Assassins, but I miss everything, and so this was my first show since the 2011 Shakespeare My Butt 20th anniversary tour. (Massey Hall is a little bit bigger than Graffiti’s.)
It’s no surprise that Hawkins is able to hold a room on his own like very few people I’ve ever seen. He sings about everything: grandmothers with Alzheimers, David Foster Wallace, all the friends he’s known who have passed, “a lot of girls and a lot of Marxism,” and his words float over you like ribbons. He and Steve Singh made a perfect team, a sound bigger and fuller than you would ever expect from two dudes with a couple of guitars in a dive. It’s equally unsurprising that two exceptional musicians could make two sets of exceptional songs sound great, but I found myself thinking with each new song, “This is one of his best.” There were almost 30 songs on the setlist, and there was still a whole lot of “best” that never made it in. I felt like a seventeen-year-old kid seeing my favourite band for the first time—I guess that’s not too far off.
The thing about great songwriting is: sometimes it opens up this huge gaping hole in you somewhere as you realize how much you aren’t noticing or feeling or doing. You could be so much better. You could be making these nebulous ideas concrete and good and real. But instead, somebody else has done it better than you could possibly conceive of doing, and it’s frustrating and satisfying at once. It lights a fire under me and all I want to do is go home and play for all my waking hours until I might possibly have a hope of being so good.
I hope that someday I’ll be playing my own material somewhere and that I’ll have the honour of saying “I wrote this while I was listening to a lot of Ron Hawkins,” and that people will hear that. But getting to hear this stuff is pretty good too. We’re lucky to have this guy around. You should probably pay attention.
[Steve Singh joined in here]
New DGA song - South Ontario
Salesmen, Cheats and Liars
A Little Rain
Diamonds in the Water
For the Hand of Magdalena
New DGA song - Garden Song?
In the Chest of the Land
Home Sweet Home
(Waitin’ On) My New Heart
Bite Down Hard
New DGA song
Peace and Quiet