You know what I wish? I wish every young musician would seek out and spend a significant amount of time with someone like Tom Coles. What a man, and what an artist, in every sense of the word.
Tom’s show was a departure for our unique music venue that hosts touring artists working hard to get their music out to as many people as possible to make a living. Tom is the only local musician who venue owner Shirley de Vooght hosts. It’s not that she doesn’t recognize there is local talent in our small town, but the goal of Serenity is to provide a home for professional musicians on the road, and allow people who have chosen to live a rural lifestyle access to art & culture from outside our town’s limits.
But Tom is different. Not only has he provided hours of in-kind support to help the venue keep going and growing, he brings something to the stage that is somehow lost or forgotten, or maybe just not yet found by so many young aspiring musicians.
Tom spent his coming of age years growing up in Toronto in the 1960’s and 70’s. He was swallowed up whole by the vibrant artistic community of Toronto’s Yorkville at the time, which became internationally renowned and likened to New York’s Greenich Village for its embrace of counterculture. Accounting stories throughout the night of his youth as a budding artist, Tom spoke of sitting and listening to some of the biggest names in music at The Riverboat coffeehouse, one of our country’s most historic cultural landmarks for Canadian music. And in the spirit of his own appreciation for what Shirley has created, he drew comparisons to these memories and the essence of our venue that houses independent touring musicians, and gives them a paying gig and a place to share their music.
To be witness to a musician like Tom on the Serenity stage was a notably different experience at the venue. He was not trying to sell himself or his music. He is out of that game and was up there for the pure reason of sharing his story and his soul with us. And if you are looking for someone with a soul full of stories, Tom is your man.
He talked about attending the Mariposa Folk Festival as a young man in Toronto during the folk music renaissance, including taking part in a guitar playing workshop led by the one and only Doc Watson who inspired Tom to take his guitar playing to a whole new level. We were left in awe as we experienced what that meant. To listen to a man perform an instrument he has spent his entire life mastering is quite something. Like Doc Watson himself, Tom mesmerized us with the art of fingerpicking, a sound and style that makes you feel like you are watching someone play two guitars at the same time. It is phenomenally difficult to do well, but Tom is not one to boast.
A practicing Buddhist, Tom has an energy about him that is all together, well, cool. Just over 20 years ago Tom met his now wife Sandy, and within a month of meeting, they left for India on a Buddhist pilgrimage. I made a comment about it being quite a way to start a relationship, to which Sandy swiftly replied, “When you are in India, you cannot avoid being sick, from every part of you, but you learn a lot about someone when you are that sick.” Isn’t that the truth. As an audience, we were treated to colourful stories of their trip together, including the people, food & music. My favourite performance of the night was inspired by a story Tom shared of seeking out a sitar instructor who told him he would need to be in India for many years to be able to teach him anything about the instrument. Tom parlayed the story into one of the most incredible renditions of The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” I have ever heard (he also performed an acoustic masterpiece of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” that would have impressed George Harrison himself).
Of course, like any singer songwriter, Tom truly came to life when performing his own material. His song “A Brand New Dawn” is an uplifting ballad that reminds you of the beauty of life itself, and his performance of one of his first originals “Get Away” is as relevant now as ever; it paints a picture of Canada, most notably our rural landscapes as places of refuge for those looking to escape the demands and stresses of city life. The song could be commissioned by any Canadian tourism platform on the market today.
What struck me most about listening to Tom on stage was that he was truly interesting. He has seen and experienced things that many of us can only imagine. Getting a glimpse into his past as a touring musician when some of the greatest music of all time was being produced is something of legend. His appreciation for the global community and how his artistry has connected him to people and places all over the world was inspiring, as is his life as an artist in multiple realms.
Apart from his life as a musician, Tom is a highly regarded tattoo artist in the BC Interior. Before opening our town’s first tattoo parlour four years ago after purchasing a local acreage, he had owned and operated a shop for years in nearby Kamloops. Tattooing aside, surrounding him on stage were some of the most beautiful iron floor stand candelabras you could ever come to find. Tom made them himself, because he is also a traditional blacksmith. Yes, as in forging iron and steel by hand, pretty kick ass. Learning that Tom is an artisan of such a rare and lost artform was somehow not at all surprising.
To be in the presence of someone of his calibre of talent at this stage of his artistic career felt like an honour. Tom Coles is one of the kindest human beings you will have the pleasure of encountering, he is someone you want to sit and listen to for hours. Which is exactly what we did, and it was sublime.
Tom Coles performed at Serenity Performing Arts Centre on December 7, 2013.
To check out his music, visit Tom’s website at http://www.tomcoles.ca
The next time you are looking for a tattoo artist, he is worth the trip. http://www.talismantattoos.ca