STEPHEN COOKE Entertainment Reporter
Sat. Apr 4
It’s conceivable I’ve seen Kim Dunn perform more than almost any other East Coast musician, as the go-to man on keyboards for artists like Matt Minglewood, Rita MacNeil and Bruce Guthro.
But when I heard the North Sydney native take the spotlight at the recent Tunes for Troubled Times concert at the Rebecca Cohn, to sing the Great Depression-era pop standard No Love, No Nothing, it was something of a revelation. His soft, understated croon brought the decades-old song to life with just the right mix of blues and soul, making me think that Dunn had been hiding his light under a bushel for far too long.
As luck would have it, Dunn was just about to turn up the dimmer switch, with the release of his first CD Take This Hammer; collecting eight originals and collaborations plus covers ranging from the Beatles and Sam Cooke to folk-blues legend Leadbelly on the title track.
Take This Hammer works on any number of levels as a title, including the felt hammers inside a piano that are the objects of attack when Dunn sits down to play or compose, and Leadbelly’s lyrics about working on the railroad for a dollar a day, analogous to the busy musician’s earliest professional days scrambling for gigs to make ends meet.
“I get some funny reactions to the title,” grins Dunn, seated in the converted train station of the Bike and Bean Café near his home in Tantallon. “I think Guthro actually suggested it in the first place, when we were driving down the road on the way to a gig.
“Some people die laughing, like they take … I don’t know, something sexual from it. When I told Rita what I was going to call it, she said, ‘No you’re not!’ But I didn’t know what to call it; I thought of (song titles like) Life’s Looking Back, but that seemed too self-absorbed, and Backroads of Heaven might make some people think it’s a country record or a gospel record. But it didn’t take too much work for Bruce to convince me.”
In fact it’s Guthro encouraging Dunn to perform some of his new songs tonight at St. F.X. University’s Chapel Auditorium in Antigonish, in a Songwriters’ Circle concert with Dave Gunning and Jessica Rhaye at 8 p.m. Solo performances have been rare in a life filled with music, starting on that day in Grade 3 when nascent piano man wouldn’t leave the house for school until he’d figured out When the Saints Go Marching In on the family upright, using one finger on the keys.
Eventually he found himself playing in high school bands, inspired by local heroes like Minglewood, Sam Moon and Buddy and the Boys. “A lot of the musicians in those bands came from North Sydney. All dropouts,” he adds with a laugh. “I made sure I got my education.”
After university, Dunn moved to Halifax in the early ’90s and eventually took the keyboard slot in Minglewood’s band which was previously filled by his brother Paul. Over the years he’d become a favourite of Cape Breton singer-songwriters like MacNeil, Guthro, Jimmy Rankin and Gordie Sampson, both for his innate skill on piano and organ and a sweet, textured voice that added unbeatable harmony. But songwriting was a talent he managed to keep to himself.
“I’ve always been writing songs, but I don’t know if I’ve had it easy with it, or even still if I’ve really found my niche,” he says. “I’ve written a lot of songs that I can see other people doing.
“With this record, about 70 per cent of it came together in the last couple of years, and I realized I might have something here. I didn’t want to go into a studio without feeling that, like I was trying to put a square peg into a round hole and contriving it too much.”
The word “contrived” doesn’t come to mind listening to Take This Hammer. Dunn is unforced and natural on the gospel ballad Backroads of Heaven, with Old Man Luedecke’s banjo urging him on, while Shine — co-written with brother Paul — is a tender sigh over missing a loved one when life on the road gets in the way.
“It’s not something that I do every day of my life, I still don’t think of myself as a songwriter,” says Dunn, who will be back on the road with MacNeil in May. “The people who really influenced me come more from a playing standpoint, because that’s what I’ve been doing most of my life, learning how to play.
“I really don’t know where the influence to write songs came from; I listen to a lot of everything. Certainly the Beatles, Randy Newman . . . I’m a huge Steely Dan fan. . . . I’d love to be able to write a song like Peter Gabriel, but if I spent my time wishing that, I’d never get around to writing these songs.”
For more on Kim Dunn’s new music, visit www.kimdunn.ca. For tonight’s Chapel Auditorium show, part of the Music on Main series, tickets are $25, available at Brendan’s Fairway in Antigonish or by phone at 735-2658.