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Folk music fans will love this: Riverboat Coffee House ‘docu-concert’ plays at The Machine Shop Saturday

Written and performed by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, the show brings back memories of folk music’s glory days as part of Algoma Fall Festival lineup
20171017-Riverboat Coffee House play, photo supplied
Mike Ross, pictured at left with Raha Javanfar and Andrew Penner, will be performing in Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene, one of the shows in this year’s Algoma Fall Festival lineup, presented by Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, Saturday Oct. 21 at The Machine Shop. Photo by Daniel Malavasi, supplied by Soulpepper Theatre Company

Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene will have its Algoma Fall Festival debut Saturday, Oct. 21 beginning at 8 p.m. at The Machine Shop.

The production, written by Mike Ross and Frank Cox-O’Connell, tells the story of the Riverboat Coffee House, a 117-seat Toronto establishment which, from 1964 to 1978, played a huge part in the careers of legendary folk singers, who in turn played huge roles in the lives of their listeners.

Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene, part of the Soulpepper Theatre Company’s list of productions, has recently finished a successful Toronto run. 

“We’re taking a week off then we’re going to come hit the Sault,” Ross said enthusiastically, speaking to SooToday from Toronto in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“I’m a musician/actor hybrid, I’m a composer who performs in shows as well, and often direct the music of the shows I’m in. We’ve developed a whole branch of concert programming of which Riverboat is one, and we put on about six original concerts a year.”

“Riverboat is a documentary concert, or a docu-concert,” Ross explained.

The production, with 17 songs, will include music from folk legends such as Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Kris Kristofferson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Simon and Garfunkel, Gordon Lightfoot, Murray McLauchlan and others.

“There are no original characters, we are an ensemble of people telling the story about the Riverboat, how it was formed, how it ended and weaving interpretations of songs by the artists all throughout.”

It isn’t Beatlemania, Ross said.

“We are us, I’m playing myself, we’ve done research and we as a group are telling the story of the Riverboat cafe, and then when it comes time, when it makes sense to play a certain song (we perform that song).”

An example, Ross said, recalls a time in which an intoxicated Kris Kristofferson reached the end of his set, realized his performance was a disaster, put his guitar down and gave Riverboat patrons their money back. At that point, a Riverboat cast member starts performing Me and Bobby McGee, a Kristofferson classic.

Feedback was “amazing, extraordinary” for Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene’s Toronto debut, with several real life Riverboat legends in attendance, Ross said.

Those legends included Sylvia Tyson, Murray McLauchlan and Bernie Fiedler, who owned the Riverboat Coffee House at 134 Yorkville Ave.

“It was scary because we knew some of these people were coming and you could screw something like that up and feel bad about it, but they seemed to think we got it right,” Ross said.

“I think there’s an inherent truth in folk music,” Ross said.

“It’s the ideas, the storytelling, the simplicity, and Bernie Fiedler put it well when he said these songs came from a time when people were more interested in the songs and less interested in the singers.”

“That’s an important distinction to make. There were musical teams, one guy wrote the words, the other guy wrote the music, but then came the Beatles, Buddy Holly and then ultimately guys like Bob Dylan (who wrote and performed their own songs), and they were able to support the things they wanted to say in the way they imagined.”

“There was a rawness that got across to people who wanted to be activists and change makers.”

The presence of a folk singer, on stage with just an acoustic guitar, seated on a wooden stool, “was focused, and we get into that in the show.”

“It was a very exciting time,” Ross said, and the music extends down through the generations, noting he was three years old when the Riverboat closed in the late 1970s.

To purchase tickets for Riverboat Coffee House: The Yorkville Scene, go to the Algoma Fall Festival website by clicking here