Grab Centre Stage!

Singer-songwriter Robert Atyeo shares the spotlight with local talent

By Morri Mostow

SPECIAL TO THE RECORD – MANSONVILLE

Do you sing in the shower? Pluck guitar in your basement? Play piano at parties? If so, here’s your chance to grab centre stage. Since early spring, amateur and professional musicians have been drawing crowds as they share an “Open Stage” at several Eastern Townships pubs with their host, the highly accomplished Canadian singer-songwriter Robert Atyeo. The calibre of local talent has ranged from “scary to amazing,” Atyeo told me. Intrigued, I decided to see for myself.

Last Thursday, the Open Stage at the Knowlton Pub almost didn’t come off. A handful of hopefuls had been eagerly awaiting their turn at the mike since 8, but the makeshift stage area was being hogged by a table of nine in no hurry to leave. It was almost 10 before Atyeo was finally able to set up his state-of-the-art sound equipment and start the show with the first of several sets of his own tunes — an eclectic blend of blues, country and folk — accompanied by his smokin’ finger-picking on acoustic guitar.

Next followed Lynne Hamilton, a teacher at Knowlton Academy. She instantly silenced the noisy crowd with her soaring acappella rendering of the Jewel hit Foolish Games. A soloist with the Cowansville Community Choir, Hamilton has also been performing at educational fund-raising events in the area for several years. By popular demand, Lynne later returned to the stage, where she wowed the crowd again with her strong, haunting mezzo-soprano voice. Other performers included a bossa-nova duo from Cowansville, Pierre Mainville and Chantal Ct, and the handsome19-year-old extreme-sports enthusiast and freelance photographer Will Allen, who accompanied himself, a tad too loudly, on acoustic electric guitar as he sang his own compositions. Several other musicians never made it on stage since local noise bylaws require the pub’s outdoor stage to stop playing by 11.

The hour, however, was not a consideration the following night at Mansonville’s La Vieille Bche. Its Open Stage was set up indoors in the newly expanded ground-floor pub. By the time we left, around 11:30, a jam session was in full swing around the piano. Wayne Wighton, now retired from a long professional career playing honkey-tonk backup piano for most of Nashville’s greats, was just getting warmed up. Wighton was joined by Karen Muzerall, a blues singer who has appeared in such recent local musicals as Oh What a Circus and The Fantastiks, Bart Babour, a historian from New Mexico who teaches summer courses at Bishop’s University and is also a highly accomplished guitarist and accordionist, and Robert Atyeo on guitar.

This was the first ever Open Stage at La Vieille Bche and it went off without a hitch, thanks to Atyeo’s smooth hosting and the astonishing professionalism of all the performers, including Mansonville’s talented Marcoux sisters. Laura Marcoux, a 21-year-old Concordia art student and self-described “shower singer,” good-naturedly agreed to sing a duet — Christina Aguilera’s What a Girl Needs — with her extroverted sister Patricia, 13, a member of the Voco Loco singers (who perform next at the closing evening of the week-long Mansonville Multicultural Festival, on Aug. 12.) Patricia belted out a rousing Son of a Preacher Man, followed by the Titanic theme song, My Heart Will Go On, with as much panache as Cline Dion herself!

Robert Atyeo credits an Open Stage in Calgary some 20 years ago with launching his own career. “My knees were knocking, but the crowd went nuts,” he recalls. Atyeo has been making his living as a full-time musician virtually ever since, doing as many as 200 gigs a year. A consummate musician with a laid-back style, Atyeo has been compared with J.J. Cale, John Prime and Tom Waits. With three CDs of his own compositions out — If That Isn’t Love (1992), Angels on a Cliff (1994) and Heart Like a Rubber Ball (1998) — and a following on university campuses across the continent, as well as in Europe and Japan, Atyeo would normally be away touring the local folk and music festivals, playing house concerts and roadhouses. But not this year. He’s taking a break from heavy touring to spend more time with his two-year-old son Jackson. He and his Quebec-born wife Suzanne Desormeaux moved to Knowlton last year from Ontario, bought a house and are settling down to raise their family there. Suzanne owns Le Grenier du Roi (The King’s Attic), an upscale consignment shop in Knowlton’s Mill Pond Village.

Knowlton Pub owner Gerry Wood is thrilled that Atyeo approached him in June to host an Open Stage. “Robert had performed a few times at the Pub over the winter. I was blown away. He was head and shoulders above everyone else. I would never have had the nerve to ask him to do this!” We’re thrilled, too, that a professional musician of Atyeo’s stature is hanging loose for the moment, willing to perform while sharing the stage with others.

So, now’s your chance to strut your stuff in front of a live audience. Who knows? This could be your first step to stardom.

JOIN ROBERT ATYEO ON STAGE THURSDAY EVENINGS AT THE KNOWLTON PUB, 267 KNOWLTON ROAD, KNOWLTON/LAC BROME (CALL 450-242-6862 OR VISIT www.knowltonpub.com) — DRINKS ARE HALF PRICE! — OR ON SPECIFIC FRIDAY EVENINGS AT LA VIEILLE BCHE PUB, 241 VALE PERKINS ROAD, MANSONVILLE (CALL FOR DATES AT 450-242-6862 OR VISIT www.vieillebuche.com). CATCH ROBERT IN CONCERT AUG. 4 AT THE NICKELODEON, NEWPORT, VA, AND AUG. 5 AT THE GOLDEN PUB, BROMONT. FOR MORE PERFORMANCE DATES, E-MAIL ROBERT’S PUBLICIST AT douglong@douglong.com.