ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED ON MARCH 11, 1983
By Steve Newton
Before I’d even crossed the threshold into Jim McGillveray’s harmonious Collingwood Street residence, something told me I was entering heavily musical territory.
It could have been the two big ivory-coloured congas standing like sentinels on his front porch, their skins removed and evidently under repair. But more than likely it was the curiously percussive metallic vibrations issuing from somewhere within. It sounded a bit like a woodpecker–a woodpecker with a lot of rhythm mind you–going crazy on stainless steel.
But as I soon observed when he swung open the door, it was only Jim McGillveray, singer and main motivator for Vancouver’s Wildroot Orchestra, going crazy himself on the latest things to catch his ears–the spoons.
Onstage with Wildroot, McGillveray is performer, conductor, and coach all in one, weaving in and out of the group’s ten or so members, coaxing and cajoling them and generally just reinforcing the statement that ‘music should be fun.”
“It’s a great band,” says McGillveray, “and it’s extremely silly. We do a lot of stuff that I just think is so excruciatingly funny. And that’s one aspect of the band that we’ve never actually put onto a recording, so I’m looking forward to this year. I can see a live album in the works.”
The Wildroot Orchestra already have two albums to their credit, both co-produced by McGillveray and Doug Edwards, the group’s guitarist. The first album, released in 1981, featured tantalizing versions of such big-band standards as “In the Mood”, “Town Without Pity”, and “Peter Gunn”, while Wildroot Two, released last year, is a much more original effort, with eight of the album’s 10 tunes written by Wildroot members.
Says McGillveray, “When we recorded that first album, we recorded the fun things that we did. We just made a single and then were given a recording contract with Attic Records. We no longer have that contract, and to do another collection of songs like that would have been, in my opinion, not to our advantage. And since we don’t have a contract with a label now–except for my label, Cricetus Records–I figured it was important that we do that album. These are songs that were important to the people in the band, so we did it.
“Some of the things on the album I really, really like. There’s one tune called “Someone” that was written by Peter. And I’d never heard the lyrics, I’d only heard the idea, but when we went in to do the basics, when the tune went down, I was sitting all by myself in the control room and I was in tears. So those tunes are important to some of us.”
McGillveray has been playing in bands since the mid-’50s, and performed in several concert bands around town at one point in his life–the Kits Boys Band, the Lions Junior Band in New Westminster, and the Vancouver Fire Department Band. He drummed anywhere there was a chance to because, he recalls, “there were precious few places to play.”
Looking back, McGillveray relates how a lot of the people he played with as a youngster have gone on to make it in the music world.
“When I first got together with a basement band there was no rock and roll, so we got together and played standards. We got a big band together in Ray Sikora’s basement when I was in grade 11 and we rehearsed every Sunday. Nearly everybody in that band is a musician today.
“Ray lives in Vancouver now, but he was an arranger and player for the Stan Kenton band. He played piano in our old band and switched to trombone when he went to music school. Arnie Tschaikovsky played trumpet; he’s a first-call player in Toronto. Bob Miller, who was our bass player, is in Edmonton now, and as far as I know he’s a very busy player there. And Brian Gibson of Griffiths Gibson, Vancouver’s largest jingle company, used to pay trombone with us.”
The current Wildroot lineup includes McGillveray, vocalists Peter Padden and Nancy Nash, keyboardist Peter Bjerring, guitarist Doug Edwards, saxman Tom Keenlyside, trombonist Herb Besson, trumpeters Jamie Croil and Fred Stride, bassist Charles B. Faulkner, and drummer Kat Hendrikse.
I asked McGillveray what he thought were the advantages and disadvantages of playing in a band with so many playing members.
“Well, the advantages are endless. You get this huge sound, and this huge number of people, and this huge number of personalities which you can bounce off of. And there’s always something happening onstage. That’s what I like. I like that feeling of power. I don’t mean my personal power. I mean that force just coming up at your back. It’s marvelous.
“And disadvantages? Gigs are hard to find just because it’s costly to have a group that size. And travel. We just about can’t travel. Just a few weeks ago we were approached by a promoter to go over to Vancouver Island and play a few dates, so we looked at it and we cut our costs really to the bone, but when we went over there and played for this guy it turned out he was a real space-case. We played one night and he hadn’t advertised it; he hadn’t done anything.
“And I thought we should just pack up and go home before we lost our asses, but the guy said, ‘No, the next night is over in my hometown of Courtenay, and I’ve done a much better job.’ So we got over there and of course he hadn’t. We lost over $3000, which is cash that’s got to come from somewhere. It isn’t much if you’ve got money coming in every week, but we’re a small business and we all really like to keep it going because we believe in the project. So that was a real blow for us, and it will take us quite some time to recover from it.”
By not keeping all his musical eggs in one basket, McGillveray insures himself against financial catastrophes like the Courtenay incident. He plays with Keenlyside in the jazz group Skywalk and works with Vancouver singer Jane Mortifee when not involved with Wildroot. He says that the other members of the band try to augment their musical earnings through other means as well.
“They all do tons of things. Everybody does everything they can because it’s tough to make a living playing music in Vancouver unless you’re playing every week in a club, which is what I did for many, many years. And I could never get out of that till I finally quit. It’s just something I don’t want.”
Wildroot appeared last week at the grand opening of Anchor’s Pub and Nightclub and will play the Commodore Ballroom tonight (Friday) with special guests Silverlode. A portion of each ticket dollar will go to the CFMI Orphans Fund, so here’s a chance to support a worthy cause, see Wildroot in action, and hear what Jim McGillveray describes as “a rock and roll band with brass accompaniment–like Guy Lombardo on speed.”
To read my interviews with Vancouver musicians dating back to 1983 go here.