Tuesday, October 10, 2017


In an unlikely spot, the bucolic Nova Scotia port town of Lunenburg, the quintessential Prairie band, Saskatchewan heroes The Northern Pikes, have been squirreled away for several days. They are in intense rehearsals for their national tour since the early 2000's. It's actually a convenient space, as the town is now the home of Pikes guitar player Bryan Potvin, and the first dates are on the east coast, beginning Thursday, Oct. 12 in Saint John N.B.

The band, which came to fame in the late '80's, has been active the past 15 years in a limited way, playing perhaps a dozen shows a year, usually festival, casino or corporate gigs, keeping the name alive while working on their own projects. But it wasn't enough, says Potvin. "I found it for years kind of unsatisfying. If we're lucky enough to do two shows in a row over a fly-in weekend, the second night is always dramatically better, we're more cohesive as a unit. I'm intensely curious to hear what we're going to sound like after show 25 on tour."

The other major factor in play is a pretty impressive anniversary. 2017 marks 30 years since the band's debut album, Big Blue Sky, was released, putting them on national radio and MuchMusic, going gold with the help of the hit singles Teenland and Things I Do For Money. Over a few months, a big plan came together. The Pikes put together a plan not just to tour, but also reissue the album in a glorious way.

Big Blue Sky - Super Sized (love that title) is a two-CD, or even better, 3-lp reissue out Friday. The vinyl edition features three different colour albums. The original release is on the first, the second features 10 brand-new to us demos from the period, in effect an entirely new album, and the third is a concert recording in 1986 at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern.

The demos had been carefully compiled and saved over the years by drummer Don Schmid. On his own, he has acted as the unofficial band curator, saving 30 years' worth of Pikes paraphernalia and those all-important recordings. As the one least involved in the songwriting, he always saw the value in what the others had forgotten or discarded.

"I guess I was probably the biggest cheerleader for those songs all these years, because just being an outsider in some ways, I could look at them differently than the other three guys, is probably the best way to put it," says Schmid. "I always felt strongly about hooks and what makes some songs memorable, it's a hidden ingredient, either it works or it doesn't."

The ten cuts are no mere throwaways, or even early versions of well-known cuts. These are gems, pretty much in finished form, that sound so good today it's a wonder they didn't come out then. The band had a backlog, thanks to working hard for two years before getting the first album out, plus a parcel of tunes from their previous Saskatoon bands, The Idols, Doris Daye and 17 Envelope. The stand-out Look Out Below is a Jay Semko tune from The Idols, that goes back to 1982. The ballad Stay With Me Now is Schmid pick for the single that never was, a track he still thinks could have been a hit.

The Horseshoe tape came from a different source. "We'd never heard that recording for all those years until just a few months ago, it was just silent all those years," says Schmid. It came back to the group thanks to recording engineer Doug McClement from Toronto, who recorded them 12 separate times for radio broadcasts and specials.

"He contacted Bryan roughly ten years ago, and said 'I've got these tapes kicking around, I'm trying to clean house, would you like them?' But Bryan didn't have any way to play them, they are on quarter inch master reel-to-reel, so he hung onto them all this time, and thought some day there will hopefully be a chance."

Once the tapes got fixed up, the band realized they had a vault filled with high-energy performances that shows the group's well-loved potency as a live act. "We've always been that kind of a group," says Schmid. "Our live show, the adrenaline in front of people, it's always way more aggressive, and usually the songs are played faster."

So, a tour, the new album, that's this fall, but then the question remained as to what to do after that. Once again, the vaults gave them the answer. It turns out those ten demos were just the tip of the iceberg, and they'll put out another anniversary set for each of their original albums over the next five years, plus take them on tour.

"We have a lot more, that's the interesting thing," says Schmid. "We tried to keep all these ten songs on the unreleased album around that era of Big Blue Sky, 1986 - 1987. Then in the next years to come, with Secrets of the Alibi next year, we're going to pick another ten, then Snow In June and Neptune. It's a five-year plan."

The Big Blue Sky 30 tour will see the group go coast-to-coast, performing the entire album, some of the demos, and lots of their other hits as well. Tour dates can be found on their website, thenorthernpikes.com/gigs/.

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