A Kevin Quain performance is about much more than music – it’s an acerbic, romantic, gothic, witty, communal, powerful and devilishly liquor laden night. Every word is bathed in vivid imagery and every audience member is captive… or else.
A musician, actor, and Dora award winning playwright (more on that in part II), Kevin is probably best known for fronting his fierce band of Mad Bastards. Throughout his record 18 year residency at Toronto’s Cameron House he’s featured over 40 of the cities most talented multi disciplinary artists. It’s almost like rite of passage for this city’s jazz delinquents.
Same goes for his followers – devout and steadfast in their listening skills – ready to pounce on any hapless drunk that find their voice more interesting than the music.
I have witnessed some creative approaches to silencing a rowdy talker. One including then Mad Bastard and sax player, Gene Hardy, sneaking up on a conversating couple to blast a dissonant note directly in their faces.
With nothing rehearsed, each of Kevin’s shows manage to be a unique night of revelry. Having performed most Sunday nights over his time at the Cameron, this amounts to somewhere in the neighbourhood of 850+ shows.
With his Cameron House shows coming to a close a few years back, seeing Kevin with the Mad Bastards is a little more rare. I got to relive some of those beautiful songs and hilarious banter a few weeks ago at Graffiti’s in Kensington Market and was reminded just how moving his music and lyrics are.
Looking at probably one his most popular songs, “Mr. Valentine’s Dead”, it’s evident he has an inate ability to weave these fully fleshed out worlds into his music, taking us along for the ride. This isn’t something I’ve done before, but I’m going to let Kevin’s own writing and music speak for themselves. Play the video and scroll down to read his delicious lyrics.
Mr. Valentine’s dead, and he’s drinking Manhattans
singing a coal miner’s tune
in his daddy’s tuxedo, and Fred Astaire shoes
he’s the best looking corpse in the room.
Mr. Valentine’s dead, and the angels are waiting
down at the end of the bar
Well they’re drinking martinis, and laughing at nothing
smoking Havana cigars
Have you ever seen dead men dancing so lightly?
Did you ever hear corpses who sing?
Mr. Valentine’s dead, and the angels will take him
but not ’til he’s finished his drink.
Mr. Valentine’s dead, but it won’t slow him down
He’s determined to stay on his feet
And he bangs on the table, and orders a round
and pays with the gold in his teeth
Mr. Valentine’s dead, and he’s singing in Spanish
wearing a rose in his hair
Now the angels are howling, and drinking tequila
shooting their guns in the air
Mr. Valentine’s dead, but he still loves a party
He’s always the last one to leave
And he hangs down his head, and cries like a baby
when the band’s playing “Goodnight, Irene”
Mr. Valentine’s dead, but he’s never looked better
Tell the priest we won’t need him tonight
Tell his mom to stop crying, and the band to keep playing
’cause the angels are too drunk to fly
*sigh*… “have you ever seen dead men dancing so lightly?”… I’d love to!
With every song an entire volume of story books, short films and dream worlds open wide. One moment I’m in a dusty Mexican bar as the sun coats the room with gold, the next I could be a princess on a pirate ship or sipping champagne in a Paris cafe.
Art is meant to make us think, feel and be transported. It’s no doubt Kevin does that.
At a recent show he told a story about a local Toronto character, Ronnie (now since past on), a regular on the streets and in CAMH. Kevin is part of a disappearing Toronto before being whitewashed, before the old watering holes dried up and before hotels that rented by the hour (or month), were gutted to become trendy karaoke bars. Toronto hipsters roam Queen West, Parkdale and the Junction, but they are a fashionista facsimile of a city that once was.
Worn souls like Ronnie still haunt our streets, we just don’t notice them anymore – we certainly don’t know them by name. I saw some graffiti at Queen and Dufferin a while back that said “Gentrification is Genocide”. With every new cleaned up neighbourhood we are killing a little of the past.
Toronto’s a city that once had more character and grit than the condo crazed place it is now. It’s safe (and sad) to say that Kevin is vintage. For a new generation that collects other people’s experiences as if they are their own, these stories are legend.
I sit behind a young and greasy couple in outfits meant to look second hand as they snap pictures of Kevin furiously on their phone. After taking maybe a hundred photos, they spend the next two songs swiping through what they captured moments before while in the background, Kevin plays on.
With a generous heart, he sees a world most shut out. With artist (and human), eyes he is open to all the beauty in the corners most sweep away.
Some of my favourite moments working at the Rex came after Kevin’s Thursday night solo piano gigs, drinking vodka tonics standing at the end of the bar. I don’t think we’ve ever exchanged niceties like “how are you”? or “what’s new”? One night it’s theatre in London, or Bill Hicks, or the dark-as-fuck novel by Nick Cave, “And the Ass Saw the Angel”.
Then there’s the time he whipped out a gooey phrase in Italian – “i miei capelli sono mossi al naturale” (my hair is naturally curly) – one of many phrases he plucked from a book because he “liked the poetry and music of it”.
“I used to read preposterous things out of my Italian phrasebook, (“I wrecked the car!” “I’m constipated!”) and try to pronounce them as beautifully and perfectly as I could for the amusement of my ex-girlfriend’s cousins, who spoke no English. Everything is beautiful when you say it in Italian!”
Everyone I’ve ever taken to see a Kevin Quain show – any age and any demographic – have always become obsessed. It’s not hard. He is a doorway to these incredibly tongue in cheek yet poetic places.
But it’s not all fantastical angels and devils, he perfectly sums up the most broad subject ever sung about – love. An intangible thing becomes tangible in his words from Rain on the Midway:
I love you like tornadoes in spring,
Like old guitar strings,
Like Nina Simone sings…
I’ve yet to have as much difficulty writing about a Harlot featuree as I have with Kevin. An artist like Sarah Slean is a virtuoso and poet, or like Sophia Perlman possesses wells of powerful resonance.
Kevin is much more elusive. He isn’t meant to be captured and placed in a jar to be enjoyed. He isn’t meant to be summed up in a few sentences.
Everyone who’s loved Kevin Quain has lamented that he’s yet to receive his due. This is entirely accurate, but if I’m being honest I’m glad (sorry Kevin).
He is that ornate pocket watch you uncover at an antique shop on a lark. He is that moment before waking you’re born back into reality while still waltzing with Freud at a midnight carnival. He is everything magical. Much like Shel Silverstein his music is a twisted children’s story book made real for adults – smart and full of off-kilter beauty.
Here we go with part one of a two parter speaking with Kevin about food, childhood and all things pizza…
The Harlot: Where did you grow up?
Kevin Quain: Still growing up. Trying to anyhow. Born in Ottawa, lived there as a kid.
Have you lived anywhere else?
Lived in Geneva, Switzerland for a few years from 9-12 years old. Living in Toronto the last 30 years or so.
Do you have a favorite restaurant or cuisine from the cities you’ve lived in?
My Mum and my stepdad Gordon used to take us to Nate’s deli on Rideau street in Ottawa. Gone now. Outstanding food. Pictures of Canadian celebrities of the day: Rich Little, Paul Anka. We were an extended family of eight. They were always so nice to us. My brothers and I ate like mad wolves.
Gordon also loved the Colonnade for pizza. That was awesome. Still there, I think. There was a Polynesian place on Sparks street, I can’t recall the name of, but they served drinks with umbrellas in them and a burger named after Gina Lollobrigida, which I loved. It sounds like I’m talking about ancient times and I suppose I am; early/mid-seventies.
My father favoured Murray’s at the Lord Elgin Hotel. A large old-fashioned hotel dining room. Although it wasn’t especially fancy, I recall that old people got all dressed up and ate there. Murray’s was great I thought, but they garnished their hamburgers and grilled cheeses with a slice of sweet pickle, a practice I frowned upon at the time.
In Geneva, sometimes we went to Movenpick, which was meant to be very modern and Swiss and which I disliked immensely. More to my liking was a pizza place called La Siesta. I remember it as a noisy, clattering, chaotic place. Waiters with short red jackets running around like mad.
They made a lovely Margherita pizza. Hot, thin, served on a tin plate. My dad would have a Nicoise salad which to me seemed sort of horrible and sophisticated at once, full of eggs and fish and olives and mysterious salty things. I’m pretty sure my first encounters with fennel occurred there. Also endive.
Is there a favourite dish you have that someone in your life makes for you?
Someone making something especially for you – whatever it is – is just about the best thing ever. The late great Mimi Braidberg (“Mimi’s”) used to make me these amazing breakfasts. I could never decide what I wanted to have; I wanted everything!
She was such a beautiful spirit. She’d set me up with a chili omelette (the “Elvez”), some french toast, home fries, a pile of bacon, fresh fruit , a giant bowl of sour cream (I put it on the chili, and home fries, also dipped the bacon in it) maybe some blintzes if she had ’em. A feast. Times like that, when you’re in the middle of them you think they’re gonna last forever but they don’t, do they? Mimi was a legend. I’m so grateful to have known her.
What’s your favourite beverage?
What is your go-to bar order (as if I don’t know the answer to this…)?
Vodka & Tonic. It’s a no-nonsense drink with an excellent price/performance ratio, and it burns pretty clean.
If someone were putting together the ultimate dinner for you – no limitations – what would it be?
Champagne: Dom Perignon, insanely cold and lots of it. French fries and mayonnaise. Smoked salmon. Duck. Lobster. Pizza. Chocolate cake. Those choices are old fashioned – cliches in a way – but, they’ve endured for a reason, I guess.
Tastes can change dramatically over time – is there a dish or flavour that you love/hate now that you hate/loved as a kid?
Couldn’t bear the smell of any sort of fish and still struggle with the smell of it, especially shellfish, although I love to eat it. I cannot be anywhere near lobster shells. Ever. Lobster shells must be immediately removed from the premises. It’s in my rider.
As an artist, touring is a way of life. Eating on the road has its challenges whether you are driving through long and barren stretches of road or trying to fit in a quick meal before/after a show. Do you have any go-to foods or tricks you have learned?
My advice: don’t eat much. You don’t really burn a lot of calories riding in a van. Stay hungry, keep your edge. Fruit. Leafy stuff (good luck finding it, though.) Whatever protein you can score. Gallons of water. Coffee! You will see tons of burgers, wings, fries, beer but all that stuff is absolute murder when you’re travelling. Do your best. You are a Child of God. You can live on Red Bull, apples and pepperoni sticks if you have to.
When I was in Hungary everyone was immensely kind and hospitable. There were several times when I was invited into peoples homes and farms and what was offered as a snack was pork fat spread on bread, with homemade wine, maybe some palinka (moonshine basically). Take it or leave it. I loved it, found it comforting and satisfying, and I’m ashamed to say I delighted in the horror it invoked in my fellow travellers, who were by and large, urban hipsters used to having a lot of choices that didn’t involve pork fat.
Once I was in a hot tub late at night in a hotel in Nashville and this dude, who was there with two escorts, talked about biscuits and gravy for about an hour.
Where is somewhere in the world you would love to travel to for its culinary offerings.
I’d love to travel everywhere and eat everything. Green eggs and ham, on a boat, with a goat. Any damn thing.
If you were forced to have only one meal every day for the rest of your life, what would you choose?
Pizza. Pretty much the perfect food.
When you are coming home after a tour, what do you crave to eat first – what did you miss the most?
I don’t travel so much these days but I’m still glad to be home. Ghandi Roti, dumplings from Yummy Yummy on Huron. I like walking through Kensington and having a bit of everything: arepas, empanadas, pupusas, pizza, fries, popcorn, coffee, chocolate, beer. I’ll eat any kind of poutine anywhere. On a boat. With a goat.
Sounds about right.
Judging from the number of times Kevin mentions pizza in a one page span convinced me that some sort of pie was the way to go… so why not two? (In my second part to this interview I’ll be bringing you a unique and simple dessert stromboli).
Plucking his mention of duck was a no brainer for me, duck is just about my favourite protein. Although this feature is a tribute to great artists, it’s still my blog, so I’m making something that’s delicious to me (and hopefully you too)!
Kevin gives a quick mention about fennel – an ingredient that has become an essential in my fridge. I spoke a little about this magical and beautiful anisey bulb in my column with bassist, Rich Brown, I like to slip it in wherever possible. It’s a fresh addition and adds crisp texture.
Combining one of the world’s most popular foods with a decadent protein and rich wine sauce brings you:
BRAISED DUCK PIZZA WITH SMOKY BACON, SHIITAKE MUSHROOM & RED WINE SAUCE
makes 2 x 12″ pizzas
Duck can be expensive, but buying a whole bird will save a lot of money. You can go ahead and buy just the legs for convenience, but I suck it up and do a little butchering myself and use 2 breasts and 2 legs.
I included kalamata olives the first go around, but admit it may have amped up the salt factor a little too much and overshadowed the smoky bacon.
I live and die by my pizza stone. They aren’t expensive and can go in the oven, or even better, on the BBQ. If you don’t have one, simply use a round pizza pan or a large inverted cookie sheet. The higher the heat the better, so be warned there may be smoking (and fire alarms going off), if your oven isn’t clean. This is why I like using the BBQ whenever possible.
If you want, you can skip preheating the pan and prepare the pizza right on it, but the crust will be a little chewier.
4 duck legs or 1 whole duck, cut into 2 legs and 2 breasts
8 – 10 strips of bacon
1 small onion, peeled and quartered
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 sprig fresh rosemary or 1 heaped tsp dried rosemary
zest and juice of 1 orange
2 small plums, cored and quartered
2 star anise
1 tsp fennel seeds
1 stick of cinnamon
1 dried chilli
3/4 bottle dry red wine (1 glass reserved for the chef)
1/2 cup crushed tomatoes
1 x 450 gram/16 oz store bought pizza dough or homemade
cornmeal for dusting
2 cups grated gruyere, havarti or mozzarella
1 medium shallot, peeled and thinly sliced lengthwise
2 1/2 cups stemmed and thinly sliced shiitake mushrooms
1 small fennel bulb, thinly sliced
1 small bunch of fresh basil, leaves picked and sliced
optional: 1 – 2 fresh chillies, sliced
optional: 2 cups seedless red grapes
- Lay your bacon strips out in a cool large saute pan. Turn up the heat to medium and cook the bacon to crispy, turning often. Remove to the side.
- Season the duck pieces on both sides with salt and pepper. Lay in pan skin side down and gently brown the meat, rendering the fat, turning often. This may take up to 30 minutes. Remove to the side.
- Pour off all but 1 tbsp of fat (reserve this liquid gold for potatoes), adding the onion, garlic and rosemary. Saute until translucent and soft taking care not to burn or brown too quickly, about 5 minutes. Add the orange zest, plums, star anise, fennel seeds, cinnamon, chili and red wine. Nestle in the duck pieces, skin side up, and bring to a simmer. Cover and braise for an hour or until the meat is tender and falling from the bone. Check in periodically, adding a little water if it’s drying out.
- Remove duck to a side plate to cool and add the orange juice. Turn up the heat to high and reduce the sauce to about 1 cup. Add the crushed tomatoes and continue to simmer another 5 – 10 minutes until thickened. Strain and discard the solids, seasoning as needed.
- Preheat your oven or BBQ as hot as it will go. Place a pizza stone, pizza sheet or upside down sheet pan on the lowest rack.
- Cut your dough in half and lightly flour a clean workspace. Roll out half your dough as thin as possible.
- Dust a pizza paddle or large, flat cookie sheet with a little cornmeal. Transfer your dough to the prepared surface. Spoon over half your sauce or enough to cover. Scatter over half the cheese, shallots and fennel. Crumble your bacon and top half. Pull the duck meat from the bone and shred into juicy chunks. Divide half the meat and layer on top. Scatter with chilies and/or grapes, if using.
- Open the oven and carefully slide your pizza onto the stone or baking sheet. Bake until the dough is crispy and lightly charred around the edges.
- Dress the 2nd pizza while the 1st is baking. Remove 1st pizza to a cutting board and slide in 2nd pizza. Allow to cool slightly and scatter over half the basil. Cut into 6 slices. Repeat with the 2nd.
Serve with a crisp salad or enjoy its decadent deliciousness on its own. Drink with a juicy Pinot Noir or super duper cold sparkling.
ONTARIO WINE PAIRING
There a few options here for wine. A nice and juicy Pinot Noir is the obvious and hugely successful choice. Niagara does quite a beautiful job with this temperamental grape. In tribute to Kevin (a lover of the decadent Dom Perignon), I went the sparkling route.
Champagne is only champagne if it is produced in that region, so we are settling for sparkling. I wanted something bone dry and a little special. At a recent tasting at Big Head Winery Johnny and I were blown away by this beautiful and bubbly guy. That’s saying something since Johnny has never like any type of sparkling (except Coca Cola).
Big Head is a really interesting find. If you are in Niagara on the Lake you have to drop by. They do an amazing tasting experience where you can blind taste a long list of their wines along with some delicious cheeses and crackers. It’s an event. Not only will you get a great sampling of what they have, but you get an epic amount of information on how it’s made. Leave yourself about an hour for this and call ahead if you can, it’s a popular stop.
The Lipinski family headed by wine rockstar, Andre, has serious passion for what they do. We have been a fan of Andre’s wines for about five years since we first came across his handy work at Colaneri Winery (another family affair). We happened into Corner Stone Winery shortly after that to discover some wonderful wines there as well. We weren’t surprised to find out these were another of Andre’s creations – his signature is unique.
I’ll let Andre do the talking about their new bubbly:
“This was my first attempt at traditional method sparkling wine and I hope you enjoy. For me, the most important thing about sparkling is the bubbles, and how fine they are. We pressed the wine very slowly and very gently, and only kept the heart of the press.
This juice has the least amount of phenolics, is the most gentle and most pure. The heads and tails we blended into other wines. We decided to use wild fermentation for the wine, and then put it in bottle and maintained the second fermentation at a low temperature to slow it down.
We began tasting it at 26 months on the lees, and felt it was at optimal balance between toast and fruit at 31 months. Cheers”
Pairing this with my Braised Duck Pizza makes for a dressed up and truly special menu. Rich in glorious flavours, textures and colours, I feel this best represents the brilliant high/low appeal of Kevin Quain’s music. Fit for a king or a hobo! xo
… stay tuned for many more Harlot Artists as I begin to work toward my cookbook. I have part two with Sarah Slean and a crazily easy steamed Mediterranean fish dish en papillote, part two with Kevin and a rich Nutella stromboli, a juicy Italian steak with gnocchi cacio e pepe for Toronto saxophonist Chris Gale, a coffee rubbed and soaked dinner for sax player Kelly Jefferson, a sumptuous curry for guitar guru Eric St-Laurent, some seafood madness with Morgan Childs and many more surprises.
I want to leave you with more beautiful words from Kevin. Get ready to Swwooooooooonnn!
“RAIN ON THE MIDWAY” – Kevin Quain
I love you
like rain on the midway
like sleeping on Monday
when everyone’s gone away
I love you
like tornadoes in spring
like old guitar strings
like Nina Simone sings
I love you
I love you like a kiss goodbye
I love you like a little white lie
I love you like a good cry
I love you
like a visible scar
like getting drunk with a movie star
like a ride in a stolen car
I love you
I love you like the moon
like earthquakes in the afternoon
like champagne in my dressing room
I love you
I love you like a cool July
I love you like a cough syrup high
and an airtight alibi
I love you
I love you like driving too fast
like getting out on a day pass
Falling asleep in the grass
I love you
like rain on the midway
like sleeping on Monday
when everyone’s gone away