RBC Ottawa Bluesfest: Ottawa’s Town Cryers back in the saddle again

The Town Cryers: Jeff Tanguay, Breeze Smith, John Allaire, Rick Dixon. Photo: Sean Sisk

Back in the mid-’80s, John Allaire was playing guitar in a punk band called Seventh Level.

“I used to hang out at The Underground Club and The Downstairs Club and a few of those places” where he started to make friends with guys in other bands like the Randy Peters and he’d jam with them.

He met a bass player named Mick Kern and a singer named Jeff Tanguay and they clicked when they played together.

All three guys were looking for a change from their current projects and they liked what they heard when they jammed.

“So we thought, ‘Why don’t we dump our other projects and go hard with this one.”

So, in 1985, they did.

“We got some songs together in the basement of my mother’s house in Ottawa South.” John’s mother, who has since passed away, used to feed the band. “She’d bring hot dogs downstairs when we were rehearsing.”

Finally they felt they were ready to take it to the next level, but first they needed a name.

“Finding the right name is the toughest thing about starting a band,” he said. They spent many hours debating names without much success.

Finally, Allaire said, “I was listening to an Elvis Costello album, he’s a hero of mine, and we were listening to Imperial Bedroom. The last song on that album was called Town Cryer. I shouted out how about The Town Cryers and everyone said ‘I can live with that’. It was as simple as that. The song had come up just as we were looking at a list of pretty dumb names. That was the one that stuck.”

The Town Cryers back in the day.

The band has recently reformed and playing gigs including a spot at Bluesfest on the Black Sheep stage July 12 at 6 p.m. But more about the reunion later.

Back in the 1980s, there was no internet, so they couldn’t do some quick research to find out who else might have the name. Later they discovered there was an Australian band with that name and another a band out of Texas.

“We thought we were the only ones who spelled it with a Y until we found a band in Fresno, California who were on tour with the same spelling. We even played a gig together at Zaphod’s when it was on Rideau Street in 1990-91.”

When you talk to Allaire you realize he has the history of Ottawa’s music scene tattooed on his back.

“I started on the scene in 1982, so I am kind of an encyclopedia of who played with whom, when and all the old clubs.”

He has even stayed in touch with the California Town Cryers over the years.

“We always said whoever got signed to a major label first got to keep the name. But it didn’t happen for either of us.”

Name in hand, the Ottawa Town Cryers needed to test the project. Before they played in public at home, they hit the road and headed to London, Ontario and played a week in a club called Call The Officer “just to make sure we weren’t going to suck at home.”

The week in London was a success and the guys were feeling confident enough to start playing in the Ottawa scene.

Their first gig was at the Downstairs Club.

“It was really strange. The press was calling us Ottawa’s super group and for a rock show at the Downstairs Club you could hear a pin drop. Everybody was anticipating what we sound like.”

That band members came from three different styles and that posed a problem, Allaire said.

“We struggled with that for the first year or so, just trying to find our sound.” Eventually they merged somewhere in the middle, he said, and settled down into a sound, that he compares to Blue Rodeo.

They had some early success and by 1987 they had put a six song extended play vinyl album out.

“We did it old school, snail-mailing it out to radio stations and college stations with a request to have the their chart lists mailed back. This was the only way to find out if the record was charting at all. Lo and behold, we found we were No. 1 on seven stations across the country. So we jumped in the band and started playing those cities.”

The guys had several vans over the years.

“We had an old Blazer that pulled a trailer that we called The Bird because it looked like it had a big beak on it. The best one was a ’72 Volkswagen Van. We ended up selling it to some guy who was going to bring it to B.C. and apparently it’s still on the road.”

The first iteration of The Town Cryers stayed together from 1985 to 1989. The core of the band was Allaire and Jeff Tanguay. They wrote most of the music. They were joined by Mick Kern, on bass and Chris Higginson. In 1989, a new bassist named Rick Dixon joined along with Kevin ‘The Breeze’ Smith on drums.

“I was 20 years old when we started and 27 when we finished,” Allaire said.

Eventually all the guys developed other lives. Allaire got married and started a family.He had picked up a communications degree and started doing that sort of work. Dixon headed to Russia when he worked for a few years. Smith head into IT and more school and Tanguay followed his interest in stand-up comedy.

They did have some success especially with one of their videos being named the top independent video in Canada in 1989. That spawned some touring. But “we wanted try different things.

“We had an album in 1992, that we had recorded in Ottawa. It had 18 songs on it. It was like a Ramones album, they were all three minutes long. We were just about to release it, and we were down to the mastering stage when we were sitting around. …”

They all looked at each other and asked “Do we really want to put a year on the road and all the other work that a record release would entail?” No one did and so they shelved the record for six months.

“After six months it didn’t happen.”

They decided to not be The Town Cryers for awhile while they all pursued careers and family priorities. In Allaire’s case, he did communications work for a few years, including writing speeches for former prime minister Paul Martin, with whom he’d shoot the odd game of pool. By 2003, he was itching to get back into music. And he’s been doing solo projects and other gigs since.

In 2017. Allaire was going through some old papers and found the master to the unreleased Town Cryers album which was called Stanley’s Cup.

It was 25 years since the non-release of the record and he had an epiphany.

“I contacted the guys and said ’25 years ago we didn’t release Stanley’s Cup, let’s put it out’.”

They agreed. The record was mastered to current standards. Because it’s basically two guitars, a bass and drums it’s a pretty evergreen record so they didn’t re-record anything, he said.

They put it out and booked a few shows to see what would happen.

“Lo and behold we immediately sold out Irene’s. And we got calls from a few friends in Toronto who said to come on down and play with them because they had reformed too.”

Since then, they’ve been having a ball.

They applied to Bluesfest and within days they called and signed the boys up for a gig.

If there is a future for this incarnation of the Town Cryers it will be for the fun of playing together.

“We aren’t looking to be rock stars any more. We are definitely up for the fun shows. We won’t do the clubs any more we have other bands for that. We have decided mostly to do festivals, and the odd out of town show with larger name.

“It’s really about stretching our wings as the Town Cryers. We were and are a good band. We work well together and we’re all pretty much friends. There was rust when we came back, but the dynamic was all there and the friendship was all there. The same old jokes started cropping up.”

Allaire continues his active music career. Tanguay is a manager at Absolute Comedy these days. And Dixon and The Breeze  are in IT.

“But when we get together, we aren’t trying to prove anything. We are all better musicians and we have better equipment.

“We aren’t bending to a new sound. I think we’re just a rock band. The guitars are loud or they aren’t depending on the song. I don’t think we’re trying to change anything much.”

The Town Cryers
Where: RBC Ottawa Bluesfest Black Sheep Stage
When: July 12 at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets and information: ottawabluesfest.ca

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.