By Martin Murray
The Fallsview Casino's Avalon Ballroom is a real gem in the musical crown of southern Ontario. Most of us who have been going to concerts for a good part of our lives will no doubt list Toronto's Massey Hall as the absolute best venue to see a live show, and up until recently, we would be correct. However, since the Fallsview Casino got up and running a few years back, Massey Hall definitely has some serious competition.
This is a lovely room, with an absolutely fantastic sound system which is supended far above the audience below. The layout and size of the place is almost exactly the same as Massey Hall, except that there is no second balcony, and that might be a good thing, since although I have watched several concerts from way up there, I don't enjoy sitting that high up. I always get a vague sense of vertigo in those top seats. It holds 1500 people, less than Massey Hall, but again, those extra seats are in the nosebleed section, so you get what you pay for. I had no such problems this past Sunday night. We were on the floor, in the second row, mere feet from the stage and the performers.
The Nashville Songwriter's night is set up in the round, with the stage in the middle of the room. An excellent 360 degree sound system is suspended from a rig above the stage. Five of country music's top songwriters walk up there and do their stuff, and it's an amazing show. Between the five of them they have written well over 100 top ten country hits, and quite a few #1 records, and the list of their clients is a who's who of country music royalty.
Bob Dipiero got his start writing "American Made" for the Oak Ridge Boys. It went on to be used in commercials for Budweiser beer for several years. He was married to Pam Tillis for a time, and wrote her hit, "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial." He has also written hits for George Strait, Restless Heart, Faith Hill, and Ricochet. He is a member of the Songwriter's Hall Of Fame. Jeffrey Steele is an amazingly talented artist. His songwriting is superb, he has an incredible singing voice, and he is an accomplished musician on a number of instruments. They turned his part of the show on a grand piano into a big showpiece, basically making fun, to me it seemed, of the bombastic, over the top shows being done in country these days. Originally from California, and now striking out on his own as a performing artist, Jeffrey has written hit records for Rascall Flatts, Tim McGraw, Diamond Rio, Faith Hill, LeeAnn Rimes and Trace Adkins. Tim Nichols is more of a traditional writer and has written hits for Lee Ann Womack, Keith Whitley, Reba McIntyre, Joe Dee Messina, and Trace Adkins. He often writes with another man who was present last night, Craig Wiseman. Craig is a big man, and he had the crown in hysterics when he led Jeffrey Steele away from his grand piano with his shirt undone. Jeff had been taken up there by two very gorgeous showgirls, but now he had this big man leading him back to the stage, to which Bob Dipiero commented, "Hey girls, that guy has bigger tits than you!" The place was completely in stitches. Craig played one of the best tunes of the night, "Daddy Had A Cardiac." You had to hear this song! "Daddy had a cardiac, Mama's got a Cadillac." It's sort of another version of "Goodbye Earl," but written many years before. Last but not least is "Big Al" Anderson. This guy has been around for a long time and has been voted one of the top 100 guitarists in the world. He is the guitar player for the critically acclaimed band NRBQ. In person he's sort of a cross between Neil Young and Warren Zevon. He used to be much heavier than he was last night - I've seen the pictures! Slimmed down considerably and dressed fashionably in a black t-shirt, running shoes and black sweat pants, Al was obviously going all out for his gig at the casino. However, once this guy started playing, it was absolute magic. He did two very funny songs, in the vein of Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show, one about when he dies, how Satan is going to own his ass. Then he delivered two of the most honest and heartbreaking tunes of the night. One was written for George Strait, who apparently didn't decide to record it, called "The Horses He Can't Ride Anymore," about a rodeo cowboy so beaten and broken he had to retire at 44, and lost the love of his life in the process. The second one, which was highly personal, was about Al watching his father on his deathbed, dying of cancer. I lost my mother and father this way, and so I went through a similar experience, and I honestly was having to choke back the tears during this song. I think it was called "I've Loved These Days." It is an incredible song. Anyone who has been there will feel it to the very core of their soul.
But mostly the night was a lot of fun, and it's a popular show, judging from the turnout. This is the third year they have done the songwriter's night, and I'm sure it will go on for many years to come. Many have said it's one of the best shows at the casino. It's a long show, twice as long as most casino performances, cheap (instead of paying $250, for instance, for the privilege of seeing Don Henley, you're paying $25 here!), and you get both comedy and heartbreak in one package. The guys commented on the professionalism of the casino crew. They said some places they play, the sound isn't as good and the show doesn't go anywhere near as smoothly, but playing at the Fallview Casino is a dream. Hats off to Dean Malton and his crew.