What’s there to do around here on a Wednesday night?
For a group of local musicians, the answer is simple — and it has been for about 30 years: Get together and play music.
“That’s what Wednesdays are about. It’s a great medicine,” said Fay MacKenzie, who plays fiddle with the folk band Alex.
The band traces its beginnings to the Arts for Peace Festival a few decades ago. Current band members Gord Ball and Don Evans and former member Lorna Bolden were helping to organize the event.
“We had a stage and we needed to fill it,” recalled Ball, who plays banjo and harmonica with Alex. “Arts for Peace is what brought Lorna, Don and me together. We’ve been playing Arts for Peace ever since.”
The band has released three albums over the years — the self-titled debut (2004), Alex in the Kitchen (2009) and OK, Heaven, Here I Come (2012). They used to average 10 gigs per year.
“It was never about the money. It was a chance to get together with friends,” said Pauline Gordon, who plays guitar and bass.
“People who tell us they like our music usually comment on how much fun it looks like we’re having, and we are,” added Ball.
Alex has performed at venues across the province and elsewhere in Canada, but Orillia is where it finds its most enthusiastic audiences.
“We have an entourage of people we can count on to be there,” Gordon said of the band’s local performances.
“It helps that, between us all, we know half of Orillia,” Ball added.
The band is known for its festive shows.
For the past few years, it has provided a soundtrack to Evans’s reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales. One show fans have come to count on, though, is Alex’s annual St. Patrick’s Day party.
It used to be held at Abbott’s of Craighurst. More recently, the celebration of Irish music has taken place at Brewery Bay Food Company in downtown Orillia. That’s where Alex can be found March 17, from 7 to 10 p.m. There is no cover charge.
Evans, “the elder statesman of the group,” as bassist and guitarist Brad Emmons described him, isn’t able to join the band for this year’s St. Patrick’s Day show, but Alex promises a toe-tapping good time nonetheless.
Emmons was a fan before he joined the band.
“As an observer, their song selection is primarily Canadian and often obscure,” he said. “That gives it a uniqueness.”
When he joined Alex, he really learned what the fuss was about.
MacKenzie, too, benefited from joining the band. Even though she had lessons from hall-of-fame fiddler Eleanor Townsend, MacKenzie credits her experience with Alex for her growth as a fiddler.
“I’ve learned how to play by playing in this group. I’ve strengthened my playing,” she said. “I never thought I could sing, either. Now I actually lead a few songs.”
While there are a variety of instruments used by Alex, its members find most of their emotion in singing.
“We like singing together and we like doing the harmonies together. We have some songs we can’t sing without crying,” Gordon said of tunes including Danny Boy, Maynard’s Big Front Porch and That Old Feeling.
It’s OK to cry with family, though, and that’s what Alex is to its members.
“We’ve all supported each other throughout our lives,” said Margaret Pomeroy, who plays guitar, keyboard and autoharp.
That support will continue. While the band isn’t soliciting as many gigs as it used to, there are no plans to wind things down.
“We don’t perform as much as we used to,” Pomeroy said.
“And we like to sit down more,” Susan Charters, who plays mandolin and tambourine, added with a laugh, “but I don’t think we’re done yet.”
Fans can still expect to see Alex at the Orillia Farmers’ Market and, likely, playing shows for charity.
In the past, it has supported numerous local organizations, including the Orillia Museum of Art and History, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Orillia and District, Green Haven Shelter for Women and the Couchiching Conservancy.
Even if the shows become less frequent, “these Wednesday nights will continue,” Ball assured.
“If we have a gig, great. If not, we just get together for the hell of it.”
The band also includes Alan Cooper on fiddle and bagpipes. He was not able to attend Wednesday's interview and practice.