Ian Thomas: Now Serving Lunch At Allen's
By David DeRocco
If you’re looking to dine on some seriously tasty Canadian music this December, you might want to book your seat for Lunch at Allen’s. There you’ll meet four of the best musical collaborators Canada has ever produced – Murray McLauchlan, Cindy Church, Marc Jordan and Ian Thomas – cooking up and serving you a stylized menu of songs they have written or sung on that have collectively sold over 25 million copies.
As individuals, these talented artists have penned hits for artists like Josh Groban, Chicago, America, Santana, Manfred Mann, Cher and Rod Stewart. As solo artists, they’ve racked up and equally impressive number, including McLauchlan’s “Whispering Rain” and “Hard Rock Town,” Jordan’s “Marina Del Ray,” and Thomas’s CanCon classics like “Painted Ladies,” “Pilot,” and “Hold On.”
Lunch at Allen’s was supposed to be a temporary project put together for eight performances. Now, 15 years and three albums later, it continues to be one of the most entertaining Canadian musical roadshows you’re likely to see, full of exceptional songs and intimate stories woven together by four of Canada’s most enduring talents. To promote their December 13th show at FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, Thomas took the time to talk with GoBeWeekly about fame, the joys of collaboration and the homogeneous nature of Canadian radio.
Gobe: I’ll start with a bit of a philosophical question: at this point of your career, having experienced it in varying degrees, what is your relationship with or view on fame. Have you enjoyed it, have you suffered the ill effects of it, do you wish you had more or less of it, do you wish you were as famous as your songs.
IAN: Actually my life was so fortunately varied that when I came off the road and was writing and still doing Allen’s, other people were still doing and having hits with my songs. And I didn’t have to go on the road for two years to promote an album like they were all doing, so fame never really fell on me like it did my brother (Dave Thomas) with Bob and Doug, where he could not go anywhere without people doing some kind of bad imitation of the hosers. So I kind of got the best of both worlds in that my life has been relatively normal. Yes, people will call me an icon in Canada, but I take that with a pinch of salt, because being an icon in Canada means don’t give up your day job. I appreciate that I’m known a bit in my generation and I also appreciate that people who are 25 or 30 years old have never heard of me. (laughing). I’m fine with that.
GoBe: As long as they’re aware of your songs, that part of the fame and the benefits of your artistic output have been beneficial for you.
IAN: It has, it really has. I have nothing but gratitude at this point in my life. I know a lot of guys out there who are pretty broke at this point. Between my movies scores, and I did so many voice overs on commercials for probably 15 or 20 years, between all of those things I managed to eke out a good living. I’m just grateful with a capital G.
GoBe: Speaking of gratitude, performing with the three artists you share the stage with for Lunch at Allen’s I would think that as a musician just hanging out playing with those talented colleagues must be like poker night with the boys every time you walk on stage.
IAN: There’s an element of truth with that. But I love them dearly. They’ve become more than buddies, they’ve become family. The same with Cindy Church. She’s like the sister I never had. I’m the godfather of Murray’s son Duncan, my wife and I are godparents. There’s some pretty close relationships. Marc and I, we’ve spent so much time in a car. We split and travel in cars and the two folkies travel together. We’ve spent so much time in every nook and cranny in this country we are brothers to the core.
GoBe: That must makes things fun on stage.
IAN: It’s just a wonderful relationship. It’s so much fun to do. You’re on the stage with equals. It’s a totally different dynamic than playing with a backup band. That’s what lovely about it. We all get to be backup musicians for one another.
GoBe: Music has always had a connection to storytelling. You guys have been performing as a collective for a while now, but are there any surprises left in the stories you all manage to bring forward and remember.
IAN: Oh yea, there’s always some stuff (laughing). Marc has such a droll sense of humour it can just lay me out sometimes. Murray as well. Sometimes it’s the stuff that’s just not planned. When you’re with people you are completely comfortable with all your guards are down so it’s kind of no holds barred. You’re free to go down any avenue you want to.
GoBe: I would think that must feel completely natural for you, having seen you in action on various radio morning shows and on stage. You’re such a natural storyteller. You must thoroughly enjoy that on every level.
IAN: I do, and Murray is also a very significant storyteller. And I’ve noticed Marc, his stories are drawn out but they’re hilarious. So actually, storytelling is something we’ve all been honing in the 15 years of doing Lunch at Allen’s. If someone had of told me after those eight dates we signed onto just for fun that we’d be doing it 15 years later I’d never have believed it.
GoBe: The group formed after a lunch meeting at Allen’s Restaurant in Toronto following Murray’s heart surgery. Was that a test to see how successful his surgery was – ‘hey Murray, want to form a new band.’ That could give anyone a heart attack.
IAN: No, it was actually Murray’s idea. He had an offer to put a song circle together and he called me and said, ‘let’s not do a song circle, let’s back each other up.’ So we play different instruments, I do mandolin, piano, guitar, Murray’s harmonica, guitar, piano, Marc is guitar and piano, then Cindy is percussion and guitar and voice. So we do mix it all up kind of nice.
GoBe: You talk about the songs. Do you think with all your experience as a songwriter now that you’ve uncovered the mystery of what it takes to make a great song. Or does successful song always mean great song.
IAN: You never uncover the mystery. You’d think the pull of the high of finding a song that resonates with you would go away. It remains a mystery after 55 years of writing songs. That’s what I love about it. You plug into something bigger than yourself. Sometimes they’ll hand something finished in a matter of minutes and you go what the hell is that all about. So that joy is still present after all these years, and that wonder is still there.
GoBe: Do you have a favourite cover that someone has done of one of your songs.
IAN: Yea, I though Bette Midler really nailed the song “To Comfort You” from the second Boomers album The Art of Living. Sometimes I’ve had covers that I thought didn’t do much but they’ve helped put my kids through university so I’m not going to bad mouth them.
GoBe: You written a lot of songs but you’ve also written a couple books, the Canadian best seller Bequest and The Lost Chord. In your experiences with music and publishing, who’s more apt to try to get you to sign a bad contract, a record label or a book publisher?
IAN: Well, the record business for people my age is over. Radio won’t play it because radio is so singularly programmed to a very specific market. When I was growing up you’d hear Dave Brubeck followed by Sinatra followed by The Rolling Stones followed by Donovan followed by Roger Miller. Radio had so much variety it was stimulating. I can’t listen to the homogeny of radio, the homogeny of the writing. It’s all getting ridiculously corporate for me. I like hearing “What A Wonderful World” by Louis Armstrong when he was in his 70s. I don’t think that anybody could have sung it so well. So I don’t like the fact we’re discarding everyone over 40 years of age because it doesn’t fit the sales demographic of radio. There’s something disconcerting about that.
GoBe: It’s so true. I remember the first time I heard “Painted Ladies.” It was played between Pink Floyd’s “Money” and Helen Reddy. I loved AM radio back then.
IAN: (Laughing). There’s a mix for you. It was vibrant.
GoBe: For the upcoming Lunch at Allen’s show in St. Catharines, how would you convince someone who doesn’t know the four or you of the great musical legacy you each have to come out to the show. What’s the sell. you’d use to get them into the show.
IAN: Just invite four people into your kitchen for a couple hours to have some fun, because that’s what we do. We’re all about having fun and you’ll probably recognize some of the songs even though you don’t think you’ve never heard of us.
Reserved seating tickets for Lunch At Allen’s are $47.50 - $51.00 (tax & facility fees included, service charges may apply), and are available from the FirstOntario PAC box office. Showtime is 7:30pm. For more info, pics & music clips, visit www.shantero.com or www.lunchatallens.ca