James Keelaghan

Folk master takes tsunami in his stride

James Keelaghan's concert one to remember as evacuees arrive.

PORT HARDY—Veteran singer-songwriter James Keelaghan is the first to admit he has carved out something of a niche with a catalogue of historical songs based on disaster and tragedy.

Boy, was he in the right place Saturday night.

Shortly after Keelaghan kicked off the second set of his show with sidemen David Woodhead and Hugh McMillan, smart phones at the Civic Centre lit up with news of the 7.7-magnitude earthquake off Haida Gwaii, which resulted in a tsunami warning being issued for North Vancouver Island.

The Civic Centre is well above the tsunami zone in Port Hardy. As such, however, it also serves as the town’s evacuation centre in case of emergency.

When an evacuation of low-lying areas was confirmed in and around Port Hardy, North Island Concert Society president Brian Hicks interrupted the music and, apologizing to the band, let the crowd know they might soon be joined by a group of refugees.

“I don’t know how much longer James and the guys were planning to play …” he said, turning expectantly to the stage.

“Well, we were gonna play a couple of really depressing songs,” Keelaghan deadpanned.

What should have been a celebration of Keelaghan’s 25 years of performing and recording — and was well on its way to just that — will more likely be remembered locally as the night the Civic Centre concert was interrupted by a tsunami.

Which Keelaghan will not only shrug off, but will probably work into future song introductions. Hell, had the “tsunami” turned out to be more than an inconvenient ripple, he might well have penned a tune about the evening.

Just two songs before Hicks stepped in to announce the tsunami warning, Keelaghan regaled the audience about the time he took the stage before an audience of three fans in Labrador, only to learn later the rest of the town was busy attending a court case involving the possession of a dead wolf.

“I have to say, this is going right up there with possession of a dead wolf, now,” he said after Hicks’ announcement.

All kidding aside, Saturday’s bizarre night at the centre overshadowed what would on any other evening have been a celebration of one of Canada’s musical masters at the top of his craft.

The crowd was modest, granted, at just more than 120. But it took roughly two songs for Keelaghan to draw them into his lyric and melodic mastery of Canadiana.

From the classic folk of Harvest Train and House of Cards, the title song of his latest CD, to the country stylings of Hope-Princeton Road to the eerie and haunting Woodsmoke and Oranges, Keelaghan spanned the breadth of his 11-album career. A physically imposing presence, Keelaghan put the crowd at ease with a dry wit and self-effacing manner. He then simply stole its collective heart with his solo rendition of McConnville’s — a ballad that features a bottle of whiskey, a pub in Northern Ireland and the untimely death of a working-class Joe, all of which really boiled down to the response of real people to real-life adversity.

Then, when faced with a real-life choice, he walked the walk.

When the evacuees began streaming in, rather than collecting their pay and hitting the road, Keelaghan, Woodhead and McMillan agreed to stick around, following a second intermission, and continue playing for the displaced, those who wrapped their children in blankets and placed them beneath tables against the walls to keep them clear of traffic areas.

Mind you, these are not young guns making their way in the industry. Keelaghan noted he would be celebrating his 53rd birthday the following day, and he audience serenaded him with “Happy Birthday to You” when he returned from intermission. The trio had played in Vancouver the previous evening, then ferried and drove all day to get to Port Hardy for Saturday’s show.

A nap might well have been in order.

Directors and volunteers the North Island Concert Society also stepped up, rolling out additional chairs for the newcomers and stuck around to monitor the room, as well as providing occasional updates to the situation.

Was it a great concert? Who cares? It was, however, probably the best emergency shelter stay, ever.