By Lawrence Powell
I admit, as a teenager I may have snuck into the odd bar to see Matt Minglewood. There weren’t a lot of local legends back in the ‘70s and Minglewood was a rock ‘n roll force that roared out of Cape Breton, flattening all preconceived notions of Nova Scotia music. His bluesy, southern rock style, and his working class persona put him right up there with the bands of the day we were listening to – Marshall Tucker, Charlie Daniels, The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
In maybe late 1977 or early 1978 I saw Minglewood at Convocation Hall at Mount A. He was opening for blues harmonica great James Cotton. The place was packed and as I recounted the story to Minglewood Thursday, he remembered the show well.
“You were on the piano,” I said. And to clarify what I meant, added “you were standing on the piano.”
Minglewood laughed. He was known for not just playing piano, but hopping up on it, leaning down to the crowd and belting it out. The crowd would go wild. ‘Can’t You See,’ maybe ‘Dorchester,’ maybe ‘East Coast Blues.” But from that concert, Minglewood and Cotton developed a decades-long friendship that exists to this day.
About a year later, Minglewood was back in Sackville. I don’t remember the details of the concert, but I was part of the campus police and doing security at the arena the afternoon of the show as Minglewood and the boys were setting up. I answered a phone call from Charlie Daniels’ people looking for Minglewood’s people to set up a fall concert in Moncton – Matt would open for Daniels.
Minglewood remembered that too. The Moncton concert went ahead and from it Daniels, a true legend at that point, recorded one of Minglewood’s songs.
“Everybody has a Matt Minglewood story,” said Geoff Keymer, manager of King’s Theatre in Annapolis Royal. Keymer snagged the Cape Breton rocker for a slowed-down solo concert just before Christmas. “I definitely knew Matt years ago as a rock and roller, but I had no idea how much a part of people’s memories he is.”
Since booking Minglewood for the December 22 concert, people have been coming out of the woodwork with their Minglewood stories, Keymer said.
And while Keymer knew Minglewood as a rocker who could scorch the neck off a guitar, the North Sydney boy surprised Keymer when he came out with his solo show, The Story, about 10 years ago. The up close and personal with Minglewood proved to be a powerful and emotional experience as he packed small halls across the country. The mix of stories of personal experience, and how they led to the songs we all listen to, is not only a masterpiece of entertainment, but a rare glimpse into the songwriter’s craft.
Minglewood’s concert at King’s Theatre takes that same format and puts a Christmas twist on it. Dubbed Mingle Bells by Matt himself, it’s just going to be him, piano, guitar. Well maybe several guitars. He’s promised to pull out his Gibson 335 electric for a funky, slide version of Backdoor Santa.
The concert will feature what Minglewood describes as songs he relates to at Christmas – “a little boogie Santa, a little honky tonk Christmas, a little rock and roll Christmas.”
One of his favourites is ‘Christmas In Prison,’ a John Prine tune that is so simple yet so incredibly powerful. “I’m a John Prine fan,” Minglewood said. “I always loved that song. I’d sing it in the middle of July. And it always goes over great.”
Not everybody knows the song, Minglewood admits, and he’s always amused when about a quarter of the audience starts singing along while the rest of the crowd appears to be surprised that those few knew it and they didn’t.
Minglewood promised a little Merle Haggard and of course, Blue Christmas. And he’s going to throw in some of his own songs, that while not strictly Christmas, are weaved into the mix via the stories that led up to them.
Lifetime of Experience
The whole show is based on a lifetime of Minglewood experience, right back to when he was a boy in North Sydney anticipating the arrival of Santa and experiencing the chaotic celebrations in a house so full of family and friends the images are etched deep in his memories.
“It was always fun. There was a big whack of us in our family,” Minglewood recalled. “I don’t know how my father did it.” There was Matt, his siblings, his parents, three cousins, and there was always one grandmother. Thirteen people all told.
“You didn’t get a lot, but it was always good,” he said. He recalled grapes that you never got any other time of the year.
“You got what you needed,” Minglewood said. “Clothes, skates, maybe something for baseball. Today it’s so commercialized. You didn’t have that back then.”
And he remembers that his house was the gathering place – people visiting, his parents’ friends, relatives. “It was complete chaos.”
On The Road
And it’s the thing about family and being on the road so much that kicks off the King’s Theatre concert. Once, after his kids were born, Minglewood ended up away from home at Christmas. “I swore that it would never happen again, and it never did,” he said.
“The meaning (of Christmas) changes for everybody as they grow up,” Minglewood said. “Now it’s about kids and grandkids. Getting my family, immediate family, together.”
It’s come full circle for Minglewood, but if anyone thinks he’s lost anything over the years, they’d be wrong. Some are saying he’s better than ever, and put a full band behind him and it’s like going back 30 years. The drive and energy are still there. The only difference is that now Minglewood has pretty much seen it all – from being stuck in a hotel in Canada’s cold north to eating the dust in the heat of Afhganistan. He speaks from experience and longevity that translates into a wisdom on the stage that few in the audience can question. A certain truth comes out when Minglewood sings, and it’s a truth that everyone can relate to because at the core, he’s recounting their experiences too.
“He’s a hero,” Keymer said. That’s what he’s hearing as people call in or drop by for tickets. “He was the hero out of Cape Breton long before anyone else.”
Minglewood remembers when he first took The Story on the road, he played King’s Theatre – about nine years ago.
“It was a great time,” he recalled. He loved the theatre because it’s exactly right for an intimate engagement, and Minglewood’s interaction with the crowd makes it their show too.
“His relationship with the audience is amazing,” Keymer said. “It was unanimous with everyone I talked to. They’re glad he’s coming back.”
For Minglewood, it’s the last show before Christmas, but when the big night comes, Matt won’t be that far away. Since his son can’t come home for Christmas he’ll be hanging his stocking at his daughter’s house in Falmouth, just outside Windsor. He’s got a couple of grandkids there.
“The youngest still believes,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Concert: Mingle Bells with Matt Minglewood.
Date: December 22 at 8 p.m.
Venue: King’s Theatre, Annapolis Royal.
Tickets: $22. Tickets now on sale. Tickets are available by calling or visiting the box office, phoning 902-532-7704, or going online to www.kingstheatre.ca.