Local musician finds alternative way to perform Open Mic Night

Around the Nation

A column by Tom Van Dusen

RUSSELL – For Tony Ferguson, music is almost everything. It can be in the form of a solo act, just him and his guitar, but making music with like-minded people is even better … maybe even more so when performed from a mobile stage set up in different locations around the neighbourhood.

Above, Tony Ferguson alongside his custom music trailer

Presenting the Tandem Axle Road Show, a trailer with canopy cover and generator power rolling some Friday evening to a location near you,  if you happen to live in Russell Village, that is! Created to get around COVID-19 restrictions, the travelling stage features stern social distancing, sanitizing, crowd size restrictions, and custom-made mic stands with protective Plexiglass shields.

It’s Tony’s concoction and he’s getting rave revues for taking music to the streets rather than being defeated by the virus. Tony has been cranking out the tunes in some way or other for over 50 years, never at a professional level, but as part of pick-up bands and in open mic venues, sometimes putting on community shows. 

He spent five years in Russell after his parents moved to the village when he was 16, and eventually went on to live at White Lake near Arnprior, returning weekly to visit his father Carmen. By day, a high school teacher in Renfrew, Tony is father of three adult children and grandfather to three.

While wife Fawn and the kids like music, they don’t live and breathe it like Tony does. It all started with accordion and piano lessons when he was 5-years-old, moving on to guitar, drums, bass and harmonica. Piano player Carmen was an influence: “He had an amazing ear and within a few seconds and some random plunking, he could play along with just about anything.”

Coming back to Russell most Friday nights and Saturday mornings, Tony found a way to incorporate music into his time spent here. He became involved in Open Mic Night Friday evenings at the Russell Music Academy where those with a penchant could sign up to play and sing, accompanying themselves on their favourite instrument and benefiting from Tony and others in the room backing them up.

While the audience could be small, the eclectic mix of performers had a great time entertaining each other. Some – including Tony – almost never missed a Friday and competed at being first in line – after the host – on the sign-up sheet.

But then the COVID crash came, driving the musicians out of the academy and onto Zoom for much less satisfying online Open Mic sessions. It’s just not the same occupying a square on the screen and singing solo without a live audience.

About six weeks ago, with COVID rules relaxing, the Tandem Axle option was introduced. Tony already had the trailer and a place to keep it in Russell and it was just a matter of getting used to the concept. Most have and are signing up for mobile stage time just like they did at the academy.

Tony provides the trailer, sound equipment, storage, haulage, organization, and direction all at no charge… just to keep the music playing.

The evenings begin at 4 p.m. in the backyard of Tony’s dad’s place on Church Street and hit the road from there. Audience members bring lawn chairs and social distance while maintaining their personal bubbles. Since it’s outside, masks aren’t required.

On stage, there’s enough room for three performers to adequately distance; anybody else has to hook up from the sidelines. Tony is firm about C-19 protocols including no hugging: “It’s a natural thing for everyone to want to hug and I get some grumblings when I remind people they can’t do that and must maintain proper distancing.”

Performers are also reminded about stage restrictions every week which Tony admits becomes repetitive to regulars: “I’ve only had to chastise two people about maintaining physical distancing and they complied right away.”

The second Tandem Axle stops if the night varies. Last Friday, it was on a street in the Russell Trails subdivision in front of the home of Open Mic regulars. Recently, Harry Baker asked that his place on Forced Road be considered as a stop. As awareness of the mobile music maker grows, so does interest in hosting it.

As for the performers, flutist, guitarist and singer Natalie Briand says she’s sometimes nostalgic for the “good old days,” adding that things just take a different shape when they have to. She thanked Tony for his efforts in keeping the show rolling along. Singer-guitarist Matthew McGarvey says Tony is owed a “huge debt of gratitude.”

To date, there have been no complaints about the noise level or about C-19 enforcement, Tony noted:  “Neighbours often come out and enjoy the live music. I suspect that, overall, people are happy to see some life being breathed back into the community.”

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