Art of Dying, acoustic style
Art of Dying, Three Days Grace, and 10,000 bikers
Art During Toronto’s NXNE festival, 29 bars in downtown Toronto stayed open until 4 am. The Dakota Tavern was one of them. I was there on June 13th, the night bassist Todd Menzies and Willhorse delivered their final Ontario performance on a tour that brought them across the country.
Late bar service and a pile of music fans hopped up on adrenaline was a dangerous mix for me on the first leg of a journey that would eventually land my brother/photographer and I at the Freedom Hill Amphitheater outside of Detroit with 10,000 bikers and the other two friends I had in mind for this tale of three bass players.
It was sometime around 3:30 when I was gently urged onto a late-night city bus. I sailed through the next day of commitments in London remarkably unscathed and we arrived at Freedom Hill early in the afternoon of Harleyfest to the smell of leather, motorcycle exhaust, cheap American beer, and smoky barbecued ribs.
As soon as we got to the park, I recognized the place. In 2003, Three Days Grace played an early afternoon set there during a radio station’s daylong concert. The band was rolling in a converted Bell Canada van, lovingly referred to as the “Blue Bitch,” and they had one song on the radio that was getting some solid playtime.
I made the trip to that show with my buddy, Nate Brewer, and soaked up the slow burn of what would become the band’s explosion into a life of music. I remember watching bassist Brad Walst working on his stage presence that day in front of a sparse crowd sitting in the light rain – his “bass face” was always solid, even when we were kids and he was still learning to string the notes together. Ten years later, he was preparing to take to the stage again to close out a night of rock music with thousands of people singing along to every word his brother on lead vocals belted out off a set list from four successful albums.
Walst and I grew up beside each other as neighbours and the closest of friends and here we were – things had come full circle. On the day of Harleyfest outside the amphitheatre, bands played tribute to the likes of Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, ZZ Top and AC/DC. Inside, three of the feature bands – Saving Abel, Hinder, and Three Days Grace – were preparing for another night on stage. Some guys were napping, some were drinking, and we were all wondering where the first act of the night was.
Tavis Stanley, Jonny Hetherington and Cale Gontier of Art of Dying were still somewhere between Kansas City and Sterling Heights, MI. A lot can happen during an 800-mile stretch between gigs, but nobody seemed worried.
Gontier is the third bass player of this tale, though during this tour he’d seldom had to pick up anything more than a microphone. A stripped down Art of Dying, minus drummer Jeff Brown and guitarist Greg Bradley, had been touring steadily with Saving Abel on an acoustic tour featuring one Norwood-built, Gontier-Lee guitar and three voices blending perfect harmonies from the band’s album, Vices and Virtues.
Art of Dying's Cale Gontier
They rolled into backstage at Harleyfest in typical fashion – cold beer wrapped in coolies not far from the hands of the two not driving accompanied by worn out smiles and hugs for people they hadn’t seen in quite some time.
Within a half hour or so, they were on the stage upon three stools pulling off a short set of five songs that wrapped the small but growing crowd into a collective voice. It’s quite a remarkable feat to warm up a full-tilt rock show with a 25-minute acoustic love-in, but it worked. The odd mumble of skepticism I heard at the back of the amphitheatre evaporated after the first song, and by the end of the set, a line-up had formed near the merchandise tent where these three musicians entertained every person who waited to meet them in extended conversation.
Saving Abel guitarist Scott Bartlett offered me a bit of insight into his experience over the month he spent touring with Gontier, Stanley, and Hetherington, and he captured the essence of their personalities which, when combined with their talent, give me hope for the successful future of Art of Dying.
“They pulled up in a four-door sedan,” Bartlett recalls of the first day he met the guys. “Nobody does that on tour; they jump out and they’ve all got coozies, one acoustic guitar, and I’m like, ‘Who drove?’ and they say, ‘All of us.’
“Now we’re supporting Hinder and Three Days Grace and they’re like, ‘We’ll just do it with one acoustic guitar, eh.’ They don’t need anything more; their harmonies are so sick – I can’t say enough good things about those guys. They actually look like rock stars. Some of us don’t really dress the part and look the part, but when they leave the house they look the part.”
Bartlett spoke about how easy the music business can be when you have an opportunity to share space and time with relaxed musicians who don’t subscribe to any form of pretension. Then he pulled a slug from a bottle of Jack Daniels before taking the stage to prepare for his part in this tale, and I watched Gontier and the boys work their crowd of admirers.
His words stuck with me as I watched the bands work their magic for the night. By the time the Three Days Grace set ended, the entire crowd was a sweaty pulse and I spoke with countless people about what they’d seen and why they choose to spend their dollars on live music.
Brad Walst of 3DG
“It’s amazing that that amount of talent comes out of such a small area,” said Kate Hayward, who travelled from the London area to celebrate her daughter’s 17th birthday at the show. They’d followed Three Days Grace, Matt Walst’s band My Darkest Days, and Art of Dying for a number of years. They have a vested interest in the bands’ continued success, you see, for in live music, they can be swept away from the turmoil of life to be caught in one shared moment with thousands of other people.
I think that’s why so many music fans embrace a sense of ownership over the bands they choose to support. They feel pride when things go well, and this is what I feel when I consider my bassist friends and their separate journeys through the chaotic sea of the music industry.
Willhorse’s Menzies, Art of Dying’s Gontier, and 3DG’s Walst are three humble artists who subscribe to no pretension and play music simply for love. They work hard to bring their art to those who crave it and share themselves willingly each time they take the stage. They’re at different points upon the same career path that began in the same small town, and as I watch them grow as a friend and a fan, I choose to write about my pride because I, too, have a vested interest in their success.
In the tale of three bass players I find the stripped down, honest fact that if you honour your passion in anything you do, then the realization of every dream becomes possible. It was worth the trip, for sure.
Another big thanks to my bro, Daniel Partington for being my wingman and for the great pictures. This article originally appeared on the Canadian Musician Magazine blog. Click here to see the original.
If you want to see part one, visit this link.