Backyards, legion halls and NXNE with Willhorse
This tale of three bass players began about a month ago as a 1973 Detroit Diesel engine carried the frame of an old-school tour bus and a band called Willhorse down Maple-lined Queen Street in little Norwood, ON to park in front of my house.
Actually, the tale began many years ago under different trees across town, but I’m not sure there’s enough space here for the many stories that led to this particular adventure, which began in my backyard and ended in a suburb of Detroit with Art of Dying, Three Days Grace, a few thousand bikers and I on a sunny June Saturday.
Willhorse, Art of Dying, and Three Days Grace all have deep roots in Norwood. At Toronto’s Dakota Tavern in the midst of my bass player adventure during the Willhorse NXNE showcase on June 13, 2013, I saw Ralph James, the Founder and President of the Agency Group’s Toronto office. Ralph knows Norwood well, and he told me over a couple of pints that, per capita, this little village on the highway between Toronto and Ottawa must churn out more musicians than anywhere.
I had to agree.
Bassist Todd Menzies of Willhorse is one of them. He grew up with music in his heart and watched and learned as older friends played guitars around fires and in basements and garages. In a small town, there really are no age groups when you hit teenage years, and Menzies had no trouble holding his own with the older guys. Picking up the guitar was as natural as anything
He moved to British Columbia 11 years ago, eventually settling in Golden where he got lost in the love of powder snowboarding and music. He’s been part of several music projects and played with many talented musicians throughout the past decade, but when he connected with Jeremy Borschneck, Nick Petrowich, and Branden Winterholt last year, he says the chemistry was different. There was simplicity and honesty in the music they instantly began to write together and it wasn’t long before these three guys from North Battleford, SK, who grew up with music and friendships intertwined, would set up permanent roots in Golden, BC alongside Menzies. Their only goal was to write and record an album they could be proud of.
It’s a testament to the quality of their art and the good nature of their personalities that they were invited to record at Blaeberry Mountain Lodge under the guidance of producer JP Maurice. He also mixed the debut album with Nygel Asselin at The Farm Studios at Fader Mountain Sound, which is owned by the iconic Garth Richardson – Rage Against the Machine’s debut album? That was Richardson in the producer chair.
It seems everybody who comes into contact with the straight-ahead sound Willhorse found is caught up in it. There’s a raw, Southern-rock influence that captures the essence of classic ZZ Top or Lynyrd Skynyrd while being fresh and new. Kings of Leon took the music world by storm in the same way, and Saskatchewan’s Sheepdogs proved hard work can make lightning strike again. So many new artists today seem to have one sound or one tempo, but Willhorse managed to dial in 10 unique songs on this album that showcase a diverse range of harmony and lyrical beauty – at once soft and then hard hitting. The blend of voices led by Borschneck mixes with catchy guitar riffs and Winterholt’s leads, while the steady musicality of Menzies on bass and Petrowich’s prowess on drums rounds out the sound.
I’d never heard one song until the album landed in my mailbox just after it was pressed in December, and the result was far beyond my expectations. The tour they started when the album dropped carried them throughout Western Canada in the winter months and to Ontario this spring.
A stripped down acoustic set in my backyard was part of a fundraising campaign my family organizes on the May 24 weekend, and it was my first chance to see them play live. Barefoot and happy, I was, as the music carried on beside a bonfire well into the late night. I expected the police, but my neighbours know me well and I think they liked the music as much as the gathered crowd in my yard.
A note attached to the door of the bus read something like. “Thanks for the concert last night. We really enjoyed the music.” It was signed “61 Legion Street” – a house a little jaunt away from mine. No cops, just a nice friendly note; I took that as a good sign.
A couple weeks later, after Willhorse hit Toronto, Kingston, Perth, Ottawa, and Peterborough, they blew the doors off Norwood’s legion, joined by the raucous adventure in music called Shred Kelly. It was another night to remember, and again, it proved that in any situation, be it backyard, legion hall, or proper stage in a club, this band has all the working parts in order.
Their final show in Ontario was the NXNE showcase at the Dakota Tavern, where a few industry folks mingled with a packed house of music fans and, again, they played with the same passion and heart they carry with them everywhere.
They’re in Alberta now on the last leg of their cross-country tour, playing small clubs and sharing their music, working hard towards the next opportunity and preparing for a few festivals in B.C., along with Vancouver’s PEAK Performance Project.
I may be biased, but in my humble opinion, Willhorse is bound for magical things in a tough industry where talent and dedication all too often falter during the daunting challenge of making it to the next level. I had three chances to watch their passion unfold, however, and my confidence is high for my bassist friend Menzies, and the brothers he’s found.
Thanks to my brother, Daniel Partington for the great shots. This article originally appeared on the Canadian Musician Magazine blog. Click here to see the original.