Ron Hawkins: Favored Canadian Icon Picks Buffalo for New Year’s Eve Gig
by Patrick Sawers - posted 2:26 pm, December 27, 2014
For most touring musicians, a stop in Buffalo is little more than an afterthought – a last-minute addition to the itinerary to fill a calendar gap while en route to scheduled shows in larger markets like Cleveland or New York City.
For Toronto’s Ron Hawkins, on the other hand, Buffalo is more like a home away from home, a place to play and receive a hero’s welcome from his dedicated fan base as he plows through his vast catalogue of songs. Hawkins has been experiencing this for nearly 25 years, first as the front man for Lowest of the Low, then solo act, the band Rusty Nails and now with his current band the Do Good Assassins. Since his career took off in the very early ‘90s he’s been stopping by Buffalo least twice a year, and as a result he has really gotten to know our city.
Folks here have really gotten to know him too.
Hawkins recently recalled one sweltering hot night in July 1997 when the Rusty Nails had just finished up their set at the Buffalo Nickel Lounge, a tiny and long-gone bar on Pearl Street.
“The dressing room was through the crowd and down the stairs in the basement,” he said. “We had decided to come back out and do the encore in our underwear (it was just that stiflingly hot out), and when we finished the encore and walked through the crowd the groping began. Sure enough, the door to the basement had closed and locked as well, so we got to know our intimate Buffalo fan base even that much more intimately,” he laughed.
Beyond that experience, though, most area listeners are familiar with Hawkins through his music – unfailingly brilliant melodies accompanied by expertly crafted lyrics that tend to romanticize and find beauty in everyday people, places and things. A keen observer of his own city (the Lowest of the Low’s first album “Shakespeare… My Butt” famously referenced some very specific spots and locations in and around Toronto), Hawkins has also watched Buffalo change and develop over the years, from the boarding up of innumerable small businesses to the current spate of gentrification and urban renewal.
“I’ve seen things change in both directions, I guess,” Hawkins said by e-mail recently. “It seems when we first started coming down that Allentown and the Elmwood strip were really happening. We used to go do in-stores at New World Records and Home of the Hits, and we had our favorite morning-after breakfast spots, etc. Then we started seeing places close down, and every time we came back there would be another haunt boarded up and gone under. But now, recently, there seems to be a revitalization effort happening – the waterfront and the silos, etc. I guess like anywhere we’ll have to see if this is a renaissance or just another white middle class nightmare – or fodder for an episode of ‘Portlandia.’”
As a musician, Hawkins has played countless venues in the area, many of them long, long gone like the afore-mentioned Buffalo Nickel Lounge, the Star Bar, the Gargoyle and the Showplace Theatre, just to name a few. Hawkins has watched establishments come and go, and like many Buffalonians he’s attached to certain spots that have managed to withstand the whirlwind of economic turnover.
One of these, he said, remains a post-concert favorite.
“The Pink, it reminds me of so many Toronto haunts I’ve had over the years – the Only Café, Sneaky Dees and others. Not in size or even ambience but the fact that it’s a home base for so many after-hours artists, musicians, deadbeats, hobos and glamor-pusses of every type. You can go in and have a few drinks and unwind and then run into 20 people you’ve met over the last couple decades. Just a great way to come down from a show.”
Despite the fact that a hundred miles of highway is all that separates Toronto from Buffalo, getting here isn’t always easy. For any traveling musician getting through border bureaucracy with band gear to play a gig can be a fantastic hassle, even a nightmare. He showed up four hours late to play an Artvoice Street Festival once because he was stuck at the border crossing.
“On one hand I’ll have guards waving across the desk – ‘Hey Ron, you got a show tonight?’ – and then on a couple occasions there have been weird mix-ups with my info in the computer. For instance, once I was mistaken for a Quebecois gun-running drug dealer! No matter how much it must’ve seemed incongruous that I would be the guy, the guard kept grilling me on priors, etc. I kept saying, ‘You can see on the screen how many times I’ve crossed to do shows over the last 25 years. Why did this never come up before? And more importantly, when would I have time to be a gun runner?’ So every crossing is a new adventure.”
Hawkins’ next adventure will be “Garden Songs,” a new 10-track CD he recorded with the Do Good Assassins, due out February 3 on Pheromone Recordings. It’s what Hawkins calls a “ballads album,” five beautifully melodic new songs as well as revisited versions of some of the more relaxed numbers from the artist’s back catalogue. Songs like “Small Victories,” “Peace and Quiet” and “D.F.W.” all benefit from the DGA treatment, while new ones like “South Ontario” and “Kingdom of the Sun” show that even after all this time Hawkins is still gaining ground as a songwriter.
Buffalo fans will get their chance to hear these and plenty more come New Year’s Eve, when the Do Good Assassins will share a twin bill with critically-acclaimed troubadour Willie Nile, a Buffalo-born singer/songwriter who made quite a splash in the Greenwich Village music scene back in the 1970s. Since then Nile has remained something of an enigma, but his 2013 album “American Ride” has drawn incredibly high praise in the press and widespread exaltation from his fans and his peers.
“I’ve loved Willie ever since I met him at the Halifax Urban Folk Fest in Nova Scotia,” said Hawkins. “We instantly hit it off over topics like rock n’ roll, cars, anarchy, rock n’ roll, poetry and rock n’ roll. Willie’s really into rock n’ roll!”
As for the Do Good Assassins, Hawkins said “the band is killer tight and will be pretty pumped when we hit the stage for two sets that night. If I’m not arrested in my underwear at the border we’ll see you all at the Pink afterward.”
Ron Hawkins & The Do Good Assassins with the Willie Nile Band play The Tralf (3690 Main St. / 835-3500) on Wednesday, December 31st. Two shows: Early Show (7pm doors / 7:30pm show) and Late Show (10:30 doors / 11pm show). Tickets $25 – $55, available at Ticketmaster and www.tralfmusichall.com.