Roxanne Tellier – Mike McKenna, Guitar Legend
1969 or maybe early 1970.A darkened Montreal rec room, outside sound dulled by faux wood paneling and shag carpeting, with the ubiquitous mirrored bar off to the side. My girlfriend, Colleen, and I slink into the room, prepared to be kicked out by her big brother Bill, the music maven of her family, if we giggled too much.If we behaved, we’d be allowed to listen, at least for a while, to the new record Bill had brought home to enjoy with some of his cooler (and older, so therefore hotter) friends. We crept into the darkness, wide eyed.
As Bill tore the shrink-wrap off a new LP, we waited breathlessly to hear the night’s presentation. Tonight’s selection – a band out of Toronto… McKenna Mendelson Mainline. The album- “Stink.”
Hip Montrealers didn’t think about Toronto too much, in the 60s, and pre-FLQ/October Crisis. Toronto was just‘there;’ it was English, it was square. Big money could be made in Toronto, but not art, we thought. Art came from Montreal.
It wasn’t until I arrived in Toronto, in ’76, that I began to unravel the tangled musical strands that encircled Toronto’s musical heart, and I’m still tugging at some of the knots even now. Far from being the land of symphony orchestras and Holiday Inn cover bands that Montreal snobs had imagined, Toronto had already blown through decades of musical innovation in numerous genres I had yet to experience, inspiring players from not only other parts of Canada, but the United States and overseas. Even more ground-breaking players would appear in the city in the succeeding years.
But in 1969, Mike McKenna and Joe Mendelson (or Mendelson Joe, as he is began calling himself in 1975) were unknown quantities tome. I had no idea that Mendelson had already made a name for himself as a quirky blues/avant-garde stylist, or that McKenna’s first pro band had been Luke and the Apostles, a legendary entity that had flirted so fiercely with fame that it eventually imploded.
Mike McKenna was known for something rare amongst Toronto rock and blues players of the time – he played a hollow body, rather than a solid body guitar, and used banjo strings on the high end to produce a singular, trademark sound.
I can only imagine the cackling of the Fates that saw fit to bring McKenna and Mendelson together, post Apostles, via a classified ad in The Toronto Star. Despite Mendelson’s disdain of McKenna’s want ad approach to band creation, the duo clicked, and, with the addition of The Paupers’ Denny Gerrard on bass, and The Spassicks’ Tony Nolasco on drums, debuted the new group at the Night Owl Club in Yorkville in August of ’68, and demoed the album McKenna Mendelson Blues a month later. (Gerrard left the band a month after the recording, right after a Massey Hall gig, opening for The Fugs, citing ‘artistic differences,’ and was replaced by Mike Harrison, formerly of Grant Smith and the Power.) After many high profile gigs, and at John Lee Hooker’s urging, the band went to England, where they recorded Stink, under their new name McKenna Mendelson Mainline (generally shortened to Mainline.)
The album hit big in England and Europe, and the band soon made a triumphant return to Canada, where they were greeted with open arms, and primo gigs.
Sadly, the band didn’t last – tempers always run high among artistes, and I’m sure there were some memorable dustups before McKenna and Mendelson cut ties.
“There were a couple of posthumous reunions as “Mainline”, including two very successful tours of Australia, and the notorious “Bump and Grind Review” which yielded a live album “The Mainline Bump and Grind Review Live at the Victory” (recorded at Toronto’s famous Victory Burlesque Theatre) in 1972. A final album with Joe Mendelson entitled “No Substitutes” was released in 1975 to a poor reception, after which McKenna and Mendelson never played together again.” (Wikipedia)
Post MMM, McKenna never lacked for gigs, stepping in for a while as guitarist for Downchild Blues Band, Diamondback, and replacing Domenic Troiano in The Guess Who for a spell.
In the 90’s, McKenna formed Slidewinder with Mainline alumnus Ronnie Jacobs, eventually releasing “Mike McKenna and Slidewinder” in 1997, with Denny Gerrard back on bass, Rob McPhearson on keys and Bruce Brooker on drums.
In 2001, Mainline reformed for a special, sold-out concert, marking the closing of the El Mocambo Tavern. Sans Mendelson, but with McKenna on guitar, Tony Nolasco on drums, Mike Harrison on bass, Ted Purdy on acoustic guitar, and Bob Adams on harmonica, the set was recorded and released on our own Jaimie Vernon’s Bullseye Records of Canada, as the CD, Last Show @ the Elmo.
In recent years, Mike’s occasionally reunited with Luke Gibson, lead singer of McKenna’s first recording act, Luke and the Apostles. On rare but much anticipated occasions, and with a revolving supporting cast of venerable musicians whose dues cards are fully stamped, it’s possible to catch the boys playing the best of Mainline and Apostles’ material to an audience that is still enthralled by the presence and talent of these Toronto mainstays.
Your chance to see them – along with a host of other players, all of whom are more than worthy of your time – is just a week away.
More than 20 local musicians will be gathering Sunday May 22, at the Black Swan Tavern, (154 Danforth, steps from the Broadview subway station) to help Mike celebrate his 70th birthday in style. The festivities begin around 6 pm, and will go on until everyone’s had a chance to raise a glass to the Maestro.
I’m expecting there’ll be a very good turnout for this event – that’s a whole lot of talent in one room. Don’t miss your chance to feast your ears, and honour a guitar legend.
Roxanne’s column appears here every Sunday
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Roxanne Tellier has been singing since she was 10 months old … no, really. Not like she’s telling anyone else how to live their lives, because she’s not judgmental, and most 10 month olds need a little more time to figure out how to hold a microphone. She has also been a vocalist with many acts, including Tangents, Lady, Performer, Mambo Jimi, and Delta Tango. In 2013 she co-hosted Bob Segarini’s podcast, The Bobcast, and, along with Bobert, will continue to seek out and destroy the people who cancelled ‘Bunheads’.