The BlueShore at CapU and Vancouver International Children’s Festival present Petunia and the Vipers at Fire Station 1 North Vancouver as part of the Kevin Mooney Fire Hall Concert Series, Saturday, May 11, 2-3 p.m.
Picture Hank Williams on acid.
This is just one way the man known simply as Petunia has been described.
Petunia can’t be pigeonholed or pinned down. He’s a restless musician whose yodelling echoes in many eras.
The resulting sound is equal parts old time and cutting edge – a mix of rockabilly, country swing and sweet ballads – with just the right measure of yodelling.
This air of musical mystery attracts throngs of fans worldwide for Petunia and the Vipers, who are backed by four albums which reached No. 1 on the Canadian folk/blues/Americana charts.
Petunia grew up in rural Quebec amongst old dilapidated barns and acres of unspoiled land. When he reached adulthood, wanderlust took a firm hold.
Petunia set out on the road, playing every major street corner across Canada and throughout the NYC subway system. He’s spent the better part of the last two decades playing old hobo haunts, hitchhiking junctions, dive bars, churches and run-down theatres.
A music tour led him to the West Coast, and it was the mild February weather that pinned Petunia’s boots to the ground here. He lives over the bridge, but will wander over for a hike in Lynn Canyon or an “outstanding” slice of pie from a certain bakery in Ambleside.
This coming Saturday afternoon Petunia will venture over the bridge again, with the Vipers, to play a free concert at the main fire hall at Lonsdale and 13th.
Petunia admits he’s never played at a fire hall, but other unique venues – yes. He’s a regular John Candy, having sung in trains, automobiles and the occasional boat.
“Those aren’t very unique, they are just romantic,” says Petunia.
To Petunia, it feels like he’s played in 5,000 places throughout the world. In reality, he does 150 shows a year.
He’s happy to lend his talents for this special fire hall show – a tribute to an old friend.
Kevin Mooney has been described as a beloved music promoter, loyal friend and an inspiration to many in Vancouver. Mooney’s legacy as a music programmer dates back to the early 1990s when he launched Café Django as a live jazz venue that attracted many world class acts.
In 2001, Mooney and Fiona Black, the BlueShore at CapU’s director of programming, conceived and launched the North Shore Jazz Series in partnership with the Vancouver International Jazz Festival – which continues today.
Of all his various enterprises, Black says Mooney was most proud of the Firehall Concert Series. Putting live music in local fire halls brought out the community for a visit with firefighters and to check out the station.
Mooney produced dozens of concerts in more than 10 working fire halls with all proceeds donated to the BC Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund.
Petunia and the Vipers are the featured act in the North Vancouver show, as part of the 2019 Kevin Mooney Fire Hall Concert Series, which is dedicated to Mooney’s “generosity of spirit and love for live performance,” says Black.
As for what the local audience can expect at Lonsdale and 13th on Saturday afternoon, “It’s going to be rockin’ concert with dancing,” promises Petunia.
Concert-goers can expect to hear tunes from Petunia and the Vipers latest album, Lonesome Heavy and Lonesome, released in the fall of 2017.
Petunia was replaying past relationships in his mind when he tapped out the lyrics.
“There’s a couple songs that related to my own past,” he says.
The video for “Lonesome” was shot by Vipers’ drummer Paul Townsend on his phone, as the band travelled from B.C. down to Los Angeles and across the desert into Arizona – the landscapes fading from lush to arid.
The album does have a romantic air about it, along with some political messages.
One poignant song pays tribute to First Nations activist Annie Mae Aquash, from Nova Scotia, who was murdered by an execution-style gunshot in South Dakota on a frigid winter’s day in 1975.
“I wanted to speak to the 250 years of history around that landscape and the people that are there,” says Petunia of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
Petunia dips into many wells from his musical past.
“Each song has its own individual sound sometimes,” he says. “It feels like I’m painting from a really wide palette of colours.”
But Petunia almost always invokes the spirit of Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter family.
“They’re my earliest influences,” he says.
The fire hall will also be a chance for Petunia to test out new material. An upcoming album, being recorded at the end of the month, features a robust horn section that will infuse Latin flavour to the Vipers’ music melange.
Petunia has 20 different Vipers in his stable of musicians, but a core group that he always calls first, including electric guitarist Stephen Nikleva and veteran lap steel guitarist Jimmy Roy, both of whom were band members of the late Canadian rockabilly legend Ray Condo.
Petunia also appears in the acting world. He’s starring in a web-based series shot at the Rio Theatre and airing in Vancouver on May 19.
The Musicianer is a time-travelling saga that follows a hillbilly yodeller lost in different time frames, while showcasing musical performances from a wide array of Americana artists.
“When he’s in the 1920s, he doesn’t know he exists in any other time frame except the 1920s,” explains Petunia. When he’s in the present day, he doesn’t know that he exists in any other times. But he gets glimpses that something might be off.”
Petunia considers it an honour to be part of this series helmed by a director who produced a film about the Carter family and which just got sold to Netflix.
Ahead of Saturday’s fire hall show, Petunia says it will be nice to perform in Mooney’s memory. Petunia once played a private sushi dinner Mooney had organized. It was just Petunia and a poet.
“Kevin did so many cool things. And he was just a really great person. I really liked him.”