As a soloist, he sang the Canadian national anthem, "O Canada," before a PEI Junior-A hockey championship game. His mother, Catherine, gave him a classical guitar and took his only lessons from classical guitarists Paul Bernard and Marie-Claude Trudeau, at the age of fifteen. He remembers hitch-hiking alone in the rain from his home in Georgetown to see Ray Charles perform in Charlottetown, and being the only person there under the age of forty. He moved to Halifax to attend the University of King's College, by now very much into Bob Dylan, old blues and gospel, early rock'n'roll, vintage country, '60's soul, and '70's reggae. Trading his classical for a flat top, he began writing songs at age 18 and made his first appearances at college coffeehouse nights and Pub Flamingo open stages. With some friends (Chris Mills on Drums, Sean McCarron on lead electric and Jamie Ellis on Bass) they formed the band Columbia Recording Artists.
Several exigent recordings exist of these early gigs including an infamous version of the rocker "Two Sugars and a cream" among others. A little while later, having developed a unique finger-picking style, he recorded a number of unreleased country blues-styled cassettes on friends' 4-tracks. Next, with Paul Mandel and Harry Norris, Al formed the Bluegrass Lawnmower, a wild and wonky, old-world string band. Their first big gig was at the old Casino Theatre in Halifax. Welcomed into the then-fledgling local "indie" scene, the quirky band played numerous gigs in both town and country and Al's reputation as a gifted individualist was quickly established. The Halifax scene was about to make noises heard well beyond its borders, thanks to the changes wrought in the music industry by the sudden runaway success of the band Nirvana, who hailed from another other out-of-the-way drizzly coastal city known as Seattle. After several personnel changes, the Bluegrass Lawnmower was laid to rest; and up came Al Tuck and No Action, a three-piece with bassman Tracy Stevens and drummer Brock Caldwell. The band released two albums on murderecords, an indie boutique label formed by members of Halifax's top pop act, Sloan.
The first full-length recording, Arhoolie, was a dizzying musical theme park ride that showcased Al's by-now quite remarkable songwriting, backed by many who had played previously in various incarnations of the Lawnmower. On this album Al played a borrowed Martin guitar and sang his own backup vocals. Next up was the E.P. Brave Last Days, which laid more bare the basic trio sound, with Al employing a Fender Stratocaster lent him by Charles Austin, who, along with Al's brother-in-law, cellist Jonathan Eayrs, provided the only extra touches to a half-hour of music that stands up today as one of the more distinguished of it's time. A super-8 video for the song Buddah was shot by friend Peter Holt and edited largely by Al himself. It saw some airplay on MuchMusic, Canada's music video network, and a hilarious interview with much VJ Mike Campbell found Al in low spirits, seemingly at the end of his rope, at the moment of his biggest break! Touring opportunities ensued and Al played dates across Canada with Halifax popsters Jale and Superfriendz.
His Telecaster was stolen in Montreal. A glass ashtray smashed to pieces against a post-show Kelowna wall, just missing his head. After a performance in Windsor, six bouncers tried to throw him down the stonewall stairs. The situations resolved themselves. Around this time, Al was nominated for an East Coast music award as Best Male Artist. He played solo-acoustic at what was otherwise an all-day, high-decibel grungefest in Barrie, Ontario, headlined by Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.
The next day he was dropped unceremoniously from a bill that would have been his most appropriate high-profile opening slot to date, by none other than the headliner herself, then-well-known folk singer Michelle Shocked. His old-styled music did not find a niche in the heavily-distorted 1990's, and Al slid quietly, quickly back off the radar. As his pedal-packing peers toured and signed to larger labels, Al continued to write new songs, often at the Halifax Message Center, where for years he toiled on the graveyard shift. His sister Beth got him some contact lenses and he suddenly saw how blind he had been. Then he was held up at gunpoint at the Daily Planet, a short-lived newsstand where he was at the time employed. Months later, after an appearance at the Calgary Folk Festival, having shared the stage with the likes of Vic Chesnutt and Giant Sand, he was flown to Halifax to testify against the gunman, then flown back to Ottawa to attend his friends' wedding, all at the expense of the Crown Prosecuter. The next day, Shotgun Al was broke and lucky to get a lift home again, this time the long way, in an automobile with the groom's best man. Next, Al laid low in Hubbards, Nova Scotia, and worked out a new music arrangement concept on his 4-track.
With said concept in mind, he formed perhaps his longest-running band to date with Catriona Sturton on bass and Andrew Glencross on rhythm guitar. The surprise appearance of former drummer Brock Caldwell altered the mix considerably when the long-awaited New High Road of Song album was finally recorded and released on the brobdingnagian label. At this point an overjoyed Al was fired from his last day job (at Sam the Record Man). The reason? Chronic lateness (his shift started at noon). With country-rock labelmates the Guthries, Al toured the British Isles, and played to receptive crowds on the alt-country circuit there.
He received his first mentions in the overseas press, including a miniscule blurb in the authoritative monthly Mojo. Back home, he hosted "Untucked", an acoustic open-mic, every Sunday night in a bar called Hell. Al lived a helter-skelter existence, won and lost a songwriting contest, was voted "best musician" in Halifax by the readers of the Coast magazine, filled rooms in long-neglected Toronto, sang his song about the police arriving, "Five-O," and the next night was harassed sadistically and fined $110 by a power-happy cop for jay-walking. He toured with Peterborough's Silver Hearts, did some sessions at Blue Rodeo's recording studio (with then-collaborator Angus Parks, who has since converted to Islam and left the band), bought an expensive black pin-stripe suit, took the train west, and played some barely-publicized shows in British Columbia. He returned east and secured an apartment on Gottingen Street in Halifax and moved in with legendary country-singing associate Gordon Roach. Having located his possessions again, with the help of about a dozen new friends he moved it all into the new apartment.
Though true love and career success had long since passed Al by, he now had a place he liked and was doing his best to enjoy the "sporting life" to the fullest possible extent. Then roofers working with torches next door set the building on fire and the whole block went up in flames. Like his neighbours with whom he suddenly had so little in common, Al lost everything in the blaze, except the Guild guitar he had with him at the time of the fire. With what was left of his home still smoldering, he played the Guild that night at his long-running Wednesday night Tribeca Bar residency, then shed a tear for his now-gone Gibson SJ, while fellow-songster Old Man Luedecke finished the night off for him. Subsequently acquired cracks in the Guild were glued in time for another mildly successful Ontario junket. You can still hear his Gibson on Al's 2002 release Live at the Rebecca Cohn, which is an independently-released recording of him expertly warming up a thousand or so Hayden fans, joined mid-show from somewhere in the crowd by lone trumpeter, Caleb Hamilton. Al has been very excited, though not altogether undaunted, by the challenge of dealing with the vast number of unreleased songs he has accumulated along his by-now-quite-pot-holed "high road of song".
A new collection of original material in the blues/jazz vein, tentatively titled, "Burned by Me" is just the tip of the iceberg and will be released in March of 2005. Al continues to perform regularly, never playing the same show twice. A legend in the vaguest sense of the word, Al Tuck has lived the life he sings about in his songs, kept his lamp trimmed and burning, ignored neglect and misfortune, and become what he set out to be- a writer and singer of great style and substance, and a light to others on similar paths. Read more on Last.fm.
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