Sawdust City Music Festival: Friday Night Concert

Danny Michel

It was just twelve months ago when we left sunny Pennsylvania during the first weekend in August to travel to a wet and windy Gravenhurst, ON for the inaugural Sawdust City Music Festival.  It was a complete contrast this summer, leaving a gloomy and wet PA, finally seeing clear blue skies beyond the NY state line, and gloriously sunny and hot weather as we completed our ten hour drive to the Sawdust City once more.  And as we met up with friends new and old once more, we were ready to have a relaxing weekend in Gravenhurst and enjoy the second annual Sawdust City Music Festival.

The first artist to grace the Opera House stage on this Friday evening would be singer-songwriter Danny Michel.  As an artist whom we had not yet had the opportunity to catch live, we had been looking forward to this for several weeks.  With a seven track set, Danny would share some of his most popular material, including his very recent single “Born In The Wild.”  Following immediately with “Khlebnikov,” Danny reminisced on participating in an expedition to the arctic circle, along with scientists, photographers and Canadian astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield. “The Kapitan Khlebhikov was a Russian icebreaker, and was our home for eighteen days,” explained Danny, “I was there to take part and document the whole experience with music and song.”

Prior to performing “Samantha In The Sky With Diamonds,”  Danny would once again reference conversations with Col. Chris Hadfield, telling a tale of how he had not only written and recorded (on his phone) a song dedicated to Samantha Cristoforetti, an astronaut living on the International Space Station at the time, but had been convinced by Hadfield to forward it to him to hear.  Naturally the recording was sent to Christoforetti, who reached out to Danny Michel shortly afterwards.  “Suddenly I was emailing somebody on the space station, how cool,” beamed Danny, “I had a pen pal in outer space. Why couldn’t this have happened in seventh grade? Talk about the ultimate show and tell.”  Of course, Danny would add that he had lots of questions and sent plenty of emails, and ultimately received word that Samantha was ‘too busy’ to chat with him now.

The highlight from Danny’s set has to be his rendition of “Whale Of A Tale,” for which he gave his trusty guitar a rest and seated himself at the grand piano on stage.  Stating that he does not get the opportunity to play on a grand piano much, he naturally shared the tale that no matter what you accomplish in life, we always know of somebody who claims to have done more, and constantly brags about such superficial feats.  “It was there that I discovered a dinosaur, and I’d drive a blue Corvette / I once swam clear across Lake Erie without even getting wet” sang Danny, eliciting plenty of chuckles from the audience and earning himself a well-deserved ovation at the end of his set.

Danny Michel Set List:

  1. Who’s Gonna Miss You?
  2. Born In The Wild
  3. Khlebnikov
  4. Whale Of A Tale
  5. Samantha In The Sky With Diamonds
  6. Feather, Fur & Fin
  7. Nobody Rules You


Following the brief intermission, Royal Wood was introduced onto the stage as the headlining act on this particular night. Not one to shy away from the lure of a grand piano, Royal promptly seated himself and opened the show with “Hardest Thing Of All” from his brand new “Ever After The Farewell” album. Remaining seated at the piano, Royal would be accompanied on stage by bassist Steve Zsirai and guest vocalist/percussionist Meg Contini (from The O’Pears) for another track, before relocating to center-stage with his acoustic guitar(s).  Performing popular hits such as “Come Back To You” and “I’m So Glad,” Royal would go all out with “Forever And Ever,” encouraging the audience to participate with each and every chorus.

Following “Forever And Ever,” both Steve and Meg would take a temporary hiatus, leaving the spotlight firmly focused on Royal, who once again returned to the lure of the piano.  With a tale of his recent marriage, he dedicated one of his favorite Bob Dylan tracks to his wife Alison. “She’s at the back of the room, somewhere,” acknowledged Wood, with a smile on his face and a sparkle in his eyes.  Rejoined by his musical companions following this solo piece, Royal stood front and center once again.  “This room has some amazing acoustics, it would be a waste to not take advantage of that,” he exclaimed, prior to performing “Something About You” with no amplification.  And of course, with the Gravenhurst Opera House rated as one of the premier acoustical venues in Canada, the microphones were not missed (check out the video on our Facebook page; posted to coincide with this article).

Royal would acknowledge the earlier performance from Danny Michel, and would joke about how he ought to learn to try and swing his hips like Danny.  Eliciting laughs from both the crowd and his on-stage companions, Steve Zsirai mentioned that when it comes to Canadian musicians, there are three that you absolutely have to hear: Ron Sexsmith, Hawksley Workman, and Danny Michel.  Steve would also joke that his father is a big fan of Danny Michel.  “My dad is Hungarian,” laughed Steve, “He just loves Danny, even if he cannot understand anything he sings.”  Taking his cue, Royal would share the emotional tale of having recently lost his father to ill health, before sharing a brand new and unreleased track titled “Photograph,” as not only a tribute to his late father, but as a way of speaking out about Alzheimer’s and dealing with family loss.

All three musicians would close the show on a high, opting to perform a cover of the Bruce Springsteen hit, “Dancing In The Dark.”  Taking their bows and wishing the audience a good night, the applause, hollers and stomps would of course entice Royal back out to the stage.  “You knew I’d be back, I told you prior to the last song,” he joked.  Taking time to tune “Betsy,” his ukelele, Royal looked up to the rafters and once again realized the potential of the acoustics on offer in this building.  Hitting the floor, he made his way about five rows deep, and from the aisle, stated that he wanted to close with one of his favorite Paul McCartney tracks.  With no microphone and no amplification, both Royal and Betsy offered up a phenomenal unplugged cover of “Yesterday,” from the floor, and even standing on a vacant seat down the stretch.  And how about those acoustics once more?  The sound carried perfectly, and earned Royal a lengthy standing ovation as he bid the audience a good night.

It would be during that ‘quiet’ rendition of “Yesterday” that the unexpected sounds of thunder could be heard outside.  A crash of lightning followed, and the ensuing sound of rain.  So much for escaping from the damp and dreary conditions in PA much earlier in the day.  Downtown Gravenhurst would wind up a little on the damp side to end the evening, but nobody cared after the wonderful entertainment provided by both Danny Michel and Royal Wood to open the festivities for the second annual Sawdust City Music Festival..

Royal Wood Set List:

  1. Hardest Thing Of All
  2. Tonight I Will Be Your Guide
  3. Come Back To You
  4. I’m So Glad
  5. Forever And Ever
  6. Make You Feel My Love (Bob Dylan cover)
  7. Something About You
  8. Nowhere To Be Found
  9. Photograph (***New Track***)
  10. Morning Light
  11. Safe Haven
  12. Dancing In The Dark (Bruce Springsteen cover)


  1. Yesterday (Beatles cover)

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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