The last time Stompin’ Tom Connors was in Regina, in October 1998, he played the relatively posh Saskatchewan Centre of Arts, a soft-seat auditorium built in the 1970s to accommodate symphonies and operas. The largely rural crowd that Connors is guaranteed to draw was less than impressed by the bowtied ushers and cummerbunded bartenders.
This time, however, Connors was shrewdly booked into the Agribition Building, home to North America’s largest farm trade show. While Stompin’ Tom’s legions would have gone to see him even if he had appeared on the floor of the Provincial Legislature — the most reviled room in all of drought-stricken Southern Saskatchewan — they were noticeably more comfortable in a hall that had seen more livestock breeders than mezzo sopranos.
With wooden tables stretching from the front of the stage to the back of the hall where only one brand of beer was being served in plastic cups, the venue created the atmosphere of a small-town wedding reception. And Stompin’ Tom gave the distinct impression of being One of Us.
After a short warm-up by Stompin’ Tom’s backup band, led by Randy J. Martin, Connors leapt on stage to the familiar first notes of “Bud The Spud”. Dressed entirely in black, he had his flattop guitar under one arm and his trademark stomping plank under the other.
“Bud The Spud” is just one of at least a dozen tunes from a career that spans 30-odd years and 46 recordings that could be called Connors’ signature song. It is perhaps the song containing the most personal pride, extolling the virtues of one of Prince Edward Island’s top three exports (the other two being Connors, of course, and Anne of Green Gables), potatoes, or as Tom calls ‘em, “buh-day-does.”
From PEI, Tom worked his way west through Canada, from the tobacco farms of “Tillsonburg” (“My back still aches when I hear that word”), through the broke-down-Manitoba-way of “Red River Jane”, to his new single about an Edmonton girl who survived a seemingly fatal case of frostbite, “Erika Nordby (Canada’s Miracle Child)”.
Martin opened the second set by leading the band through a mix of Connors-toned originals and Stompin’ Tom covers, including “Name The Capital Of”, the east-to-west call-and-response number, which, for the record, is the only Stompin’ Tom song to mention Regina by name.
Connors returned to the stage with “The Hockey Song”, eliciting one of the many hootin’-and-hollerin’ reactions of the evening when he declared that this year’s Stanley Cup would be the last ever played south of the border. “Next year,” he promised, “it’ll be between the Edmonton Oilers and the Toronto Maple Leafs!”
Tom has made more unlikely predictions in the past. In 1998 he said that Saskatchewan farmer and anti-free trade activist David Orchard would be the next Prime Minister. In the last federal election, Orchard wasn’t even a candidate.
But Stompin’ Tom’s fans — mostly farmers facing droughts and European subsidies, and maritimers waiting for the fisheries to reopen — seem to appreciate the attention at least. Connors dishes out platitudes, sure, but they’re borne more of sincere sympathy than any desire to pander or placate.
Stompin’ Tom Connors rouses in Canadians a boisterous patriotism generally reserved for hockey games and beer commercials. In an era of regional disparity and so-called Western Alienation, it’s no small feat to get 1,500 farmers to cheer for a song celebrating Big Joe Mufferaw, the Paul Bunyan of the Ottawa Valley.
Stompin’ Tom succeeds with song where federal politicians have repeatedly failed with transfer payments and constitutional rewrites. With three little chords and a barrelful of doggerel, Connors reveals the common bonds between Newfie Moon Men, Poor Poor Farmers, and Sudbury nickel miners.
Connors closed his show with his tribute to the last, and to all the people of this country who play as hard as they work. Getting his final licks in on his second stomping board (which he failed to wear all the way through — perhaps the only indication of Tom slowing down with age), he brought down the Regina Tuesday night crowd with “Sudbury Saturday Night”.