Tom Wilson’s Mohawk Symphony: Live In Hamilton, ON

Tom Wilson - Mohawk Symphony

If you saw our recent recap of “The Steel Town Round” event we attended in Hamilton, ON several weeks ago, you may recall a statement made about how embarrassing it had been to go a whole 27 months since our last adventure on Canadian soil (thanks, pandemic). We closed that article adding that after getting a great live-in-Ontario music fix, the thought of waiting another 27 days would be a stretch at this point, and sure enough – just three weeks later we found ourselves back in The Hammer once more.

While we are always hungry for a visit to the Steel City, the best variety of bait to lure us back is top-notch live music – and dangling on this particular hook was an evening of music with one of our faves and Hamilton’s own, Tom Wilson.  Continuing his newfound journey of personal reflection and rediscovery since learning of his true Mohawk heritage much later in life, Wilson remains an active advocate for indigenous awareness, rights and issues – leading to a collaboration with McMaster University to create Tom’s “Indigenous Scholarship Award in Honour of Bunny Wilson.” Tom proposed two lofty goals – the first to bring friends and family together for two consecutive nights of music at The LR Wilson Concert Hall on the university campus, and the second to fundraise for a $50,000 scholarship to help empower the next generation of indigenous people that will lead us into the future.

Billed as Tom Wilson’s Mohawk Symphony, we were certainly intrigued and unsure of what to expect, but upon locating our balcony seats at the venue, could see that Tom would be accompanied by a string quartet and backing band, conducted by Darcy Hepner – strings that proved to add much more depth to the songs that they accompanied. Having teased us with social media announcements about special guests being on the bill for this pair of shows – including his Blackie and the Rodeo Kings bandmate Colin Linden, and local blues-rocker Terra Lightfoot – the show was opened by Tom’s good friend Phil Davis, who offered a brief discussion of indigenous heritage and a tribal chant.  Tom Wilson would walk out onto the stage moments later (to a huge ovation), and kick off the show with his other regular musical companion, Maple Blues Award nominee and pianist Jesse O’Brien, along with guests who rotated in and out all evening (as did Tom) to make this a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Jesse O'Brien

“Thank you everybody, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even believe that we’re all here,” Tom announced following a rousing performance of “Magic.” “We’ve been waiting two years and one month to come here and perform for you, and I can’t even believe you’re still interested in showing up, so I really appreciate it.”  Ever the showman gifted with a natural flair for comedic timing, Tom had the crowd fully engaged and chuckling early, hanging off every word. “And just to let you know, I must have done some really cool middle-aged old-guy rock star moves because my watch is asking me, it looks like you’ve taken a hard fall, so press ‘emergency SOS’ or ‘I’m okay’.

Having flown in from his Nashville, TN home, Colin Linden was the first guest to join Tom onstage, adding his electric guitar magic to “Blue Moon Drive,” before being handed the floor for a solo-acoustic performance of one of his new compositions, a track set to appear on Blackie’s upcoming “O Glory” album that drops in early July.  Colin would accompany several guests throughout the evening, and even jammed a little with Tom following the intermission in a dual-guitar version of their popular Blackie hit, “49 Tons.”

Tom progressed into another humorous tale, one about a local promoter Bill Powell, who brought music and arts back to the Hamilton area in the 1970s. “This was a guy who worked for the arts in Hamilton way before some hipster on James St. North coined the phrase art is the new steel,” he commenced. “But Bill used to be an agent for us … and he booked me for a week, a whole week, at the African Lion Safari. And I took the job, and I sat in the blistering sun playing my little songs to people with their families who hated it, and it was a good morale builder – not really, a character builder more like – and I thought ‘fuck this, I’m not doing this ever again’.”  Pausing to revel in the ensuing laughter, Tom would pick up the thread and continue. “Then he called me – that was in August – and then he called me in February and he said, hey, I’ve got you booked in at the African Lion Safari again, now, next week.  I actually played the African Lion Safari in the dead of winter, and I got fired.”

Tom Wilson and Colin Linden

Artists continued to rotate in and out down the stretch, generating a buzz with some incredible collaborations. Poet January Rogers delivered a performance of her poem “Beautiful Scars” (named in tribute to Wilson’s book) to bass and drum accompaniment.

Another guest was Tom’s son, Thompson Wilson (a favorite of ours, and it was truly heartwarming to see him out there back on the stage), who teamed up with his dad to deliver “Dreams Come And Go,” and a spectacular solo version of “Beautiful Scars.”  Thompson would also join Layla Staats (representing her brother Logan, who unfortunately had to pull out of the event), and together they performed a simply beautiful, raw, emotional cover of Logan’s recent hit “Dead Man.” Sticking around a while longer, Thompson had the opportunity to duet with Terra Lightfoot, who had returned to Hamilton within the last 48 hours following her recent US tour with Matt Andersen (we’d seen her just two weeks earlier in Virginia), and both lit up the room with their version of the Junkhouse hit, “Out Of My Head.”

With the stage to herself, Terra pulled up a chair and delighted the room with “Two Wild Horses,” the fantastic closing track from her recent “Consider The Speed” album, and took time to address the room also. “I’m honoured to be on this stage on this particular evening, it means so much to me personally,” she stated. “I’m not an indigenous person, but I strive to be an ally, and I think that one of the ways we can do that is to say to ourselves, yes, I can do that. Just say yes, I can. Every time you think you can help, say yes, I can. Please, I love you guys.”  With Tom hollering at her from backstage to start the next song, Terra kicked off with the opening verse from “Shine,” before being joined by not only Tom, but most of the backstage crew, and together they sent the packed house to the exits following this rousing finale.

Tom Wilson Mohawk Symphony - Finale

If we were uncertain of what to expect prior to this show, we left the building in complete awe of Tom Wilson’s Mohawk Symphony.  This proved to be an unforgettable evening of music, art, poetry, and awareness of indigenous cultures.  Just 48 hours after the event, Layla Staats would share on her social media pages that Tom’s desire to raise $50,000 for the Bunny Wilson Scholarship Fund was not only achieved, but was truly blown away thanks to the generosity of the donors – totaling in excess of $300,000 for this cause. Outstanding music, outstanding fundraising, and for a passionate and humbled Tom Wilson, another step taken in his continued personal indigenous journey.

Set List:

  1. Introduction (Phil Davis)
  2. “Magic” (Tom Wilson & Darcy Hepner)
  3. “Blue Moon Drive” (Tom Wilson & Colin Linden)
  4. “No One To Turn To But Your Brother” (Colin Linden)
  5. “Cuckoo’s Nest” (Tom Wilson)
  6. Monologue (Ryan McMahon)
  7. “Beautiful Scars” Poetry Recital (January Marie Rogers)
  8. “The Grand River” (Tom Wilson)
  9. “Death Row Love Affair” (Tom Wilson)
  10. “49 Tons” (Tom Wilson & Colin Linden)
  11. “Dreams Come And Go” (Tom Wilson & Thompson Wilson)
  12. “More Than You Needed” (Colin Linden & Thompson Wilson)
  13. “Beautiful Scars” (Thompson Wilson)
  14. “Dead Man” (Layla Staats & Thompson Wilson)
  15. “Out Of My Head” (Terra Lightfoot, Thompson Wilson & Colin Linden)
  16. “Two Wild Horses” (Terra Lightfoot)
  17. “Shine” (Terra Lightfoot & Tom Wilson, et al)

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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