A few years ago, we planned a visit to New York that had us there over July 1, the first time I’ve been out of my home country on Canada Day. We figured we’d do something Yankee Patriotic on July 4: we booked tickets to watch the Hudson River fireworks from the USS Intrepid aircraft carrier at the Intrepid Museum, which is about as American as I want to get. I assumed July 1 would be a quiet non-event for a pair of travelling Canadians.
But then, thanks to the wonders of facebook, I found about about Jeff Breithaupt’s The Great Canadian Songbook.
This July 1 concert has become an annual Canada Day tradition at Joe’s Pub, the cabaret space at the Public Theater in the Village in south Manhattan, New York. Breithaupt, whose family hails from Waterloo County (and whose relations were political and business leaders over the decades), moved to New York to work at Canada’s consulate and now is VP of Media & Communications at the Manhattan School of Music. We met when I was a publicist for the Stratford Festival meeting media in New York and I got bonus points for knowing his name was pronounced “BRIGHT-up” — Waterloo County is full of places named after Jeff’s relatives.
At this cabaret, musicians — mostly American, sometimes with a few surprise Canadian guests — perform songs written by Canadians. The audience is largely Canadians, or former Canadians, or somehow fans of things and music Canadian, who gather for a bit of flag-waving fun.
Jeff and his brother Don, in addition to their day jobs, perform as the Breithaupt Brothers, and they provide the band backbone to accompany the guest singers. As this year’s promotion for the event puts it, “there is no Canadian hit song that will be safe from (northern) exposure. Join this musical party’s sparkling cast of singers as they lay down unforgettable versions of all your favo(u)rite anthems from the land of the Justins, long Weeknds, Barenaked Ladies and Men Without Hats. From Cohen to Cockburn, Joni to Gino, Lightfoot to Lighthouse, Nelly to Neil, Tegan to Sara, and beyond, you never know whose songs you might hear.”
We met up with my friend Barbara Peck, a Canadian journalist living in New York, and settled in for the show. Everybody got the jokes. Musician Ian Thomas, whose older brother is comedian Dave Thomas (of SCTV fame), was the first special guest, and had everyone in stitches with his patter.
At one point, I looked around the room and saw someone slip in to sit at a table next to us — one of those people whose look is distinct and instantly recognizable. “There’s Carole Pope!” I hissed at my companions. “No way!,” said Chris. “Where?” Sitting beside you, I mouthed. He is a devoted punk/ new wave fan and a huge admirer of Pope’s. The fact that I spotted Pope before him was a major wound to his music mojo. To be fair: I might not be a new wave or punk fan, but Carole Pope transcends her category.
Sure enough, she was the second surprise guest of the evening and got up with the band to perform.
She sang “All Touch (No Contact)” and “High School Confidential“, both hits from albums she made with Rough Trade, where she was lead singer in the 1970s and 1980s and partnered in songwriting with Kevan Staples; this pair formed the core of the group, which had a few changes of personnel over its years together. Pope and the group became famous for their hard-edged frank lyrics about desire in all its forms, and Pope was one of the first openly lesbian performers to gain mainstream recognition.
To quote Shakespeare about another diva, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
Afterwards, we caught up with Jeff and he invited us to the post-show reception in an adjacent lounge space, where for those moments we were just a bunch of Canadians away from home, celebrating what we had in common. There was no program for the show, so Pope and Ian Thomas both were signing paper Canadian flags-on-a-stick that had been strewn about as decoration.
If you’re a travelling Canadian, an expat, or just a Canadian-curious New Yorker, there’s no better place to be on July 1 than Joe’s Pub to hear the Canadian Songbook: Drinks, laughs, and music of a nation.
Main photo: Courtesy Jeff Breithaupt.