It will be a set list sent straight from musical heaven for fans of some of the best Canadian music to come out of the 1990s. A quartet of talented musicians and songwriters from four of the nation’s most beloved acts which reached their creative and commercial apotheosis in that epoch changing decade, have banded together to bring their collaborative celebration of music to the masses for a highly anticipated early Spring tour.
The TransCanada Highwaymen is comprised of The Pursuit of Happiness founder, frontman and primary songwriter Moe Berg, former Barenaked Ladies vocalist/songwriter Steven Page, Odds vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Craig Northey and Sloan co-frontman/songwriter Chris Murphy. The brainchild of theatrical impresario Jim Millan (Kids In the Hall and Mythbusters live tours, etc.) the band’s concept was borrowed from the 1980s American country music version that featured Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings known as the Highwaymen.
The band has a Spring tour in place for Ontario throughout the latter part of April. It starts on April 19 in St. Catharines before moving on to Guelph, Kingston, North Bay, Oakville, Hamilton, and Richmond Hill before concluding April 28 at the Rose Theatre in Brampton.
The concept is that over the course of the show, each member of the group will sing four of the best known songs from their own musical repertoire, backed up by the other three. And it’s a concept that truly appealed to Berg, in particular, who has played perhaps a dozen shows in total over the past couple of decades.
“I barely ever play. Every once in a whole something will come up and it’s usually for The Pursuit of Happiness and even with The Pursuit of Happiness I think we’ve maybe played 10 shows in the last 20 years. The other guys are still very active. Craig still has The Odds and Chris and Sloan are still very much a going concern and Steven has a very busy solo career. That’s actually been one of the big dilemmas for this band, and why we’re just finally getting around to put a tour together now is because they’re always out playing – finding time for the to devote to this has been a challenge, because they’re all so busy with their, quote, unquote, real bands,” Berg said from his home in Toronto, where he primarily works as a music producer now, as well as moonlighting a couple of days a week as an instructor in the Music Industry Arts program and London, Ontario’s Fanshawe College.
“It’s going to be fun for me because after The Pursuit of Happiness stopped playing around 1996, I had a solo record and I played a bit, but I really realized that I had been developing a bad case of stage fright. I was starting to get a real fear of getting onstage and playing. So one of the things I just very recently said to myself was that I’ve got to get over it. I need to start trying to perform. Before this moment, almost every time anyone had ever asked me to perform I would say no. But over the last year or so, when tiny little guest appearances would come up, I would say yes.
“When Jim came to me with this I said I am just going to say yes to it. What I like about it is that it’s not all me. The Pursuit of Happiness was a band and everybody contributed to it, but I guess I was the front person and I sang every song so the focus was on me so much of the time. Whereas with this project I am playing some bass, I am playing some guitar and for a few songs I am singing a couple of harmonies here and there. The other guys are really kind of carrying the show, so it’s been a great way for me to ease back into performing and I have very much appreciated that.”
The format of the show will see the band members not only the swapping off lead vocal parts but also instrumentation, with each Highwayman getting a chance at guitar, bass and even drums. As for the set list, Berg said it was a case of trying to craft the most fun and entertaining show possible for the audience.
“One of the things we all decided collectively was that we would all do four of our best known songs. We aren’t going to throw any curves at our audience. We only sing four songs each so we might as well hit them with the hits. And that’s kind of the philosophy for the whole show. It should be a really fun time for everyone and everyone should have a great night. A lot of times when people go to shows, they really want to hear the hits and we acknowledge that. So everyone said to themselves, ‘what are four of my best known songs?’ And those are the ones that we ended up doing,” he said, adding that he loves the chance to play some of the beloved songs by his new bandmates.
“I really like the material a lot. I am a big huge fan of Sloan, a big huge fan of The Odds so playing their songs is great. And then when Steven launches into Brian Wilson, it’s an incredible moment. It’s amazing. As soon as he sings those first three notes, it’s electrifying throughout the whole audience. Steven is such a great singer and such a talented guy, and so are Craig and Chris, so you just kind of sit there and marvel at the guys and how good they are.”
The stage show will have a theatrical element where there are going to be multimedia components as well as opportunities for stories and banter.
“It’s not particularly scripted. We will have some multimedia things and we sort of react to them and we will likely react to them differently every single night. One of the things about these guys is that they’re all very funny and very spontaneous so I imagine I will be laughing as much as the audience will be,” Berg said.
The original intention for the band was to do the current format incorporating more production elements. But last summer, fans had a chance to see a preview of the TransCanada Highwaymen during a less formal, but no less fun, show at the new amphitheatre at the Jackson-Triggs Winery in Niagara.
“The Jackson-Triggs thing just came out of the ether. What we thought at the time was well why don’t we just go up on the stage and see if this boat will float. So that’s what we did, without all the theatrical elements. We just said, ‘let’s just learn all the songs, let’s go up there and play as a band and see what people think.’ The show was a blast. We had a really great time doing it. So that gave us a lot more energy to do this thing because we had such a fun time onstage. It’s really given the whole concept a bit of momentum, at least with the four of us,” Berg said, explaining that the TransCanada Highwaymen went from Millan’s concept to reality pretty quickly last year.
“His vision was to get a bunch of Canadian songwriters from a certain era, and they can play songs and tell their war stories from the road. Jim thought it would be very entertaining for people, so he contacted me about it first. Unbeknownst to me, Chris, Steve and Craig had already talked about doing something a little bit like this, although more of just a supergroup, and we ended up getting in touch with them and corralling them into this project of Jim’s.
“And it worked because we all knew each other. I have known Craig for ages and I remember meeting Steven way back in the early days with the Barenaked Ladies and we had done shows with them in the past. Chris had become a friend of mine more recently. We have a bunch of mutual friends and we we’ve struck up a friendship over the last couple of years. I knew everybody and I am also a big fan of everyone’s music, so I knew that I would enjoy playing everybody’s songs.”
As for The Pursuit of Happiness, Berg said while the band never officially broke up, as he stated earlier, they have only played a handful of dates over the last 20 or so years. A darling of the late 1980s Toronto scene, the national spotlight first hit the band with their massively popular single I’m An Adult Now, which was a hit as an independently-released single in 1986. It helped them land a record deal with the New York office of Chrysalis Records, which released the debut album Love Junk in 1988, with a re-recorded version of I’m An Adult Now making it into the Billboard Top 10 in 1989.
Three more studio albums would follow, with a number of Pursuit of Happiness songs still receiving regular rotation on radio to this day, including Killed By Love, She’s So Young, Hard to Laugh, Cigarette Dangles and Two Girls in One.
The vicissitudes of the music industry in the 1990s saw the band bounce from Chrysalis to Mercury Records and then to the now-defunct Canadian label Iron Music, wrapping things up for nearly 20 years in 1996. The band recorded a couple of songs in 2005 for a greatest hits compilation and began playing shows, although very intermittently over the past dozen years.
“The thing about The Pursuit of Happiness is that we have never broken up and we’ve never said that we’re never going to play again. I guess we have always been open to it, but the way everybody’s life has evolved and the fact that we all live scattered across the country doing a show is a big production. And it usually means a certain amount of money has to be involved and a certain number of stars aligning so that we can get everybody together to do it. It’s not as easy as it is for bands where everybody is, say, in Toronto and someone says, ‘hey, let’s all go down to the Horseshoe and play for the heck of it.’ We can’t really do that,” he said.
“Anything is possible, but there’s not a lot of momentum from our end to try and do something. A lot of times when we’ve played it’s because someone has called us up and sort of begged us to do it. That could definitely happen again where someone comes up and says they would really like us to play, and we would certainly look at anything that came our way.”
As for The TransCanada Highwaymen, Berg said all four members would like to see the project continue, and that there has been very preliminary discussion around the notion of writing and recording together.
“It does seem like something we might want to continue doing, not necessarily once a year, but whenever it seems like a good idea. It may be that in the coming six to eight months we might start poking up here or there once in a while or doing a short run of shows. I think there’s already talk about some other gigs already being booked or close to being booked for down the road,” he said.
“And there has been talk of recording. We’re sort of approaching this whole thing with baby steps right now. We’re going to get through this run of shows and then as long as everybody is still feeling good about it, then maybe we will discuss writing some songs. We have even had some people from some record labels putting out little feelers saying ‘hey have you guys ever thought about putting out a record.’ So it makes me believe that there would be some interest in that if it’s something we decide we want to do going forward. Again, this is a little premature – we’re just taking it one step at a time for now.”
For more information on the TransCanada Highwaymen and their upcoming tour, visit them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/thetranscanadahigwaymen/.
- Jim Barber is a veteran award-winning journalist and author based in Napanee, ON, who has been writing about music and musicians for a quarter of a century. Besides his journalistic endeavours, he now works as a communications and marketing specialist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.