Paul Shaffer

Why Does Toronto Eat Their Young?

It would have been around 1998. I was playing with the Hiptonics, a ferocious R&B band, a scaled down version of the Lincolns led by the inimitable bassist, Prakash John. We had a steady gig every Thursday night at The Orbit Room in Toronto that for a few years was a total blast. The band was always on fire.

One night as I walked in to set up, I noticed a man already sitting at one of the tables, a white hat and dark shades on. This was a little strange as there was nobody else in the club yet. I put my gear in place on stage, tuned my guitar and did some preliminary mic checks so at least some preparations were done. We were supposed to start at 10 pm. but the Hiptonics especially Prakash were notorious for showing up at the last minute. Well as usual, everyone else didn’t show until well after 10:15 and we got off to our usual frazzly late start. By this time the bar was pretty full. A couple of friends had apparently joined our strange guest who was still there staring intently at the stage. Prakash counted in the first tune and off we roared into a great version of the R&B classic ‘Soul Man’. From the stage, I looked through the dark and smoky room to see our friend’s fedora bobbing up and down with great enthusiasm.

As per usual , the Hiptonics smoked from the very get go. No matter what the line-up was (and we had a long list of substitute players), the intensity level of the groove of this band was simply unparalleled but typically, the response from the audience was how shall we put it, only mildly enthusiastic. After all, this was Toronto, the dreaded sinkhole of many a performer. I couldn’t help but think that if this had been New York City instead, we would have had everyone dancing on the tables. Sigh - so what else was new?

After the first set, someone came up to Prakash on stage and whispered something in his ear. Prakash broke out into a big grin, stepped off the stage and walked over to our mysterious visitor who turned out to be none other than Mr. Paul Shaffer, the musical director of the David Letterman band! How cool. Paul Shaffer was ‘in the house’. He told Prakash he was keeping a low profile and not to announce anything to the audience just yet. We went back on stage to do the final set.

Knowing that Paul Shaffer was watching elevated the band to a whole new blistering level. You could almost see steam coming off the stage and we were soaked right through with sweat. Paul’s bobbing fedora became a blur of white. Still, despite our valiant efforts, the audience’s response was polite at best. Groan.

Just before the last song, Prakash came up to the microphone.

“……well, it’s been a great night….thanks to all of you for coming out and supporting live music….it’s not easy in this city as you may or may not know. I just wanted to say that we have a friend in the audience who is a big fan of the Lincolns and has flown all the way from New York City to see us tonight (the raucous cacophony began to die down as people turned in curiosity to listen to Prakash). Ladies and gentlemen, you all know him. How about a big hand for Mr. Paul Shaffer from the Letterman Band….?!”

After a second of stunned silence, the entire bar erupted in deafening applause and cheers.

“….we’d love to get him up here and join us on stage for our last song, the great Hammond B3 (organ) instrumental Green Onions, … about it Paul???!!”

Amidst all the clapping and hoots and hollers, Paul Shaffer reluctantly got up eventually and started to weave his way through the crowd up to the stage.

Stepping on to the stage, he suddenly grabbed the microphone from Prakash.

“…what’s wrong with you people.??!!!..,” he yelled. “This band’s been burning all night and you’ve sat on your hands! Now, just because I’m here, you start clapping. That’s f…..d!....”

At this point, Prakash was trying to wrestle the microphone back from Paul who wasn’t finished yet.

“I don’t even want to even try to touch the playing of this guy (the incredible Dennis Keldie was our organist that night)… guys are clueless…..!!!”

Finally, Prakash wrenched the microphone out of Paul’s hands and quickly counted the tune in so that Paul had no choice but to get behind the Hammond and play. Of course, it was hugely exciting for all of us and Paul played his ass off. After the song ended to tumultuous applause, Paul shook all of our hands telling us how great we had played and what a fantastic band we were. I’ll always remember it as a very generous and supportive gesture from a fellow Canadian musician.

This whole incident resonated in my head for years afterwards. Paul had been dead-on in his criticism. Toronto fans seem infected by celebrity-silliness and a jaded, destructive apathy towards their own.

It makes me wonder: why?

I still don’t know.

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