CMW 2011: Fred Penner @ The Drake Underground by Adam Bunch

SATURDAY - With 800 bands playing the festival, anyone who spent much time at Canadian Music Week was sure to have seen at least a few acts they liked. But anyone who was in the room at the Drake on Saturday night is bound to agree on their fondest memory: Fred Penner's magical half-hour set.

It started with an immediate jolt of nostalgia: the iconic theme song from Fred Penner's Place playing over the PA. You could feel the energy in the crowd shift. Pint-glass-carrying twenty- and thirty-somethings broke out in wide grins and excited whispers. Then the man himself emerged from the wings and asked everyone to pretend that he'd just popped out from a log. The grins got wider. And goofier.

It wouldn't be the last thing he asked of us, either. Right in the heart of hipsterdom, where a band usually has a hard time getting anyone to do more than nod their heads along to the beat, people were acting out the motions to songs they hadn't heard in twenty years, loudly counting together in unison, pledging to never ever ride a bicycle with their eyes closed, and gleefully singing along to choruses they had no idea they still knew the words to. "Sandwiches are beautiful! Sandwiches are fine! I like sandwiches I eat them all the time! I eat them for my super and I eat them for my lunch! If I had a hundred sandwiches I'd eat them all at once!"

Penner played with a backing band: another guitarist and his two grown (and bemused) daughters who sang, helped lead the crowd in the actions and even broke out a couple of kazoos for a while. There were moments tailored for the adult crowd: a Pete Seeger shout out; a few nods to the fact that this wasn't exactly their usual audience; and an endearing gag where the guitarist broke into the theme from "Bonanza" and "Stairway To Heaven" in the middle of a song, in order, he said, to prove his skills to any industry reps in the crowd who could further his career. But mostly it was full of the exact same heart-warming silliness you remember from when you were a kid.

Far too soon came his big finale: "The Cat Came Back". The entire audience sang along; whole-heartedly meowed in all the right places. By the time it was over, some people had tears in their eyes.

And then we spilled back out onto Queen Street, each one of us just a little more innocent than when we'd gone in.

Photos: Adam Bunch

Adam Bunch is the Editor-in-Chief of the Little Red Umbrella and the creator of the Toronto Dreams Project. He's been on the Polaris Prize jury, lectured at Trampoline Hall and written for PopMatters, Crawdaddy!, 24 Hours and a whole bunch of other places. You can read his posts here, follow him on Twitter here, or email him at


CodyMcGraw said...

I really, really, really wish I had caught this!

Orlando da Silva said...


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