STANDING in front of the audience at the health care facility, the band plays a country song, some Johnny Cash ditty that first hit the charts when John Diefenbaker was prime minister and doctors still smoked.
The crowd is primarily elderly people, many of whom suffer from dementia, but as the melody unfurls the memory returns and they start to sing along.
"You really get to see playing music and the wonderful effect it has on people. As soon as we started doing these concerts in care, we could see very quickly the real joy you were able to bring to people who are stuck in a residential care facility and don't really get to get out and see anything, let alone have a concert," says Matt Bryant, a founding member of the band Headwater.
The group recently packed up their banjos, mandolins, steel guitars, and harmonized vocals for a series of shows for seniors in health care facilities in Surrey, Maple Ridge, Coquitlam, Chilliwack and Vancouver.
The shows were part of the radio station 102.7 The Peak's Peak Performance Project, and each concert was organized by the Health Arts Society, which is dedicated to bringing art programs to people in health care.
The earliest days of the band stretch back to Bryant's days at Lynn Valley elementary when he started jamming with Jonas Shandel.
"We've been playing together since we were about 12," he says. "We just really liked working with each other, we really liked the way the music happened."
The group consists of four regular members with occasional help from a rotating cast of drummers, but Bryant and Shandel share songwriting duties.
"He's got a more instinctive approach to music that really comes from the heart, and I've got more of a brainy, analytical approach, and they work pretty well together. And we've been friends for a long time so we can call each other's bullshit," Bryant says.
Inspired by folk, pop, and country, Headwater is the rare group that sometimes seeks out a disgruntled audience.
"We've got quite a history of making music on the ferry, because, as we found out, there's a couple hundred people sitting there with nothing to do for an hour and a half. So they become a very willing audience very quickly if you're a bit gentle with the start of the show," Bryant says.
Playing for ferry passengers led to regular gigs with the Health Arts Society.
"We basically met the founder of the Health Arts Society on a ferry where we've staged a number of concerts over the years," Bryant says. "He thought we'd be a great fit to come into health care facilities because he saw that we could just grab an audience pretty quickly and that we were pretty translatable in terms of just playing acoustic. We seemed like pretty nice guys, which I think he guessed correctly."
The group took the opportunity, but Bryant says the gravity of the shows was not lost on the band. "The only hesitation would be one of just wanting to give the situation the respect it deserves," he explains.
Headwater's concert playlists at the care facilities are generally evenly divided between their own compositions and bluegrass and country songs going back to the 1940s. "With the old standard tunes people all know the words, which is kind of amazing because a lot of the time you're dealing with people who've got senile dementia or Alzheimer's. They might not remember meeting you from five minutes ago, but they know the lyrics of a tune from 1950," he says. "We do music because it makes us feel good and because we get to see other people feeling good, too."
For more information on the Health Arts Society, go to healtharts.org.