On a rainy Monday morning in White Rock, Michael, Ron, Bryan and Luke amble into the Blue Frog Studios on Johnston Street. In addition to being a recording studio, Blue Frog is also a 100-seat presentation theatre. The boys consider it their home away from home.
A good-natured bunch, they’re cracking jokes and telling tales. Collectively, they’re called The Timewalkers, but each musician is a seasoned veteran in his own right, a product of many years performing live, on records or on TV.
Michael Vincent (guitar, vocals and piano) cut his teeth on the 1960s CBC television show Let’s Go singing the pop hits of the day. “When people came to the set and they saw me, they would say ‘overtime’ because I would screw up,” he laughs. “I wouldn’t have my lyrics together.” Overtime? Good news for the crew and exasperating for the director but, no matter, Michael parlayed his teenage stardom into a lifelong love affair with music.
BC Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Ron Irving (guitar, vocals and bass) also has an extensive resume. When his band Bootleg dissolved in the 1990s, Ron turned to songwriting. “I had some success with artists like Anne Murray and Michael Bublé. I got a publishing deal and some big artists did my songs,” he says of his successful songwriting career.
Bryan Nelson (guitar, vocals and bass) also sings, writes and uses his home studio as a recording centre. Bryan and Ron played together on Bootleg. It was Bryan who started the ball rolling 10 years ago, jamming with his mates and getting together for fundraisers for the Langley Food Bank. When the fundraisers tapered off, Bryan suggested they form a band – and do it for real. The band took flight in 2011 when Ron introduced Luke Isaac (guitar, vocals and bass) to the rest of the gang. Still in his 40s, Luke is the baby of the group.
“This is a kinship for me with these guys,” says Luke. “I don’t feel age is a factor because I like a lot of the music we play. I live in the ’60s and ’70s, musically. I know these songs and I feel like I’m just as old.”
“Just as old?” laughs Bryan.
The group favours easy listening classic rock such as the Eagles, the Beatles and Crosby, Stills and Nash, but they bristle at the suggestion they’re a tribute band. Half of the show consists of covers; the other half features original tunes written by Ron, Bryan or Luke, songwriters all.
“We try to do great crowd-pleasers like Roy Orbison and stuff like that and we try to get our own songs in because we’re all songwriters, first and foremost,” says Ron. “We don’t want to lose our individuality. We don’t want to lose our songwriting.”
“The harmonies kind of dictate the songs we choose because we all want to do the four-part harmony kind of thing,” says Luke, “and that will eliminate certain kinds of songs.” Hence, the focus on easy listening classics. “For a song that requires a high range, Mike is the choice. For a song in a low range, Ron would be the first choice. Bryan and I are mid-range guys,” he continues. “The song’s range will often dictate who sings it.”
“We’re not rappers,” says Bryan authoritatively.
“We’re Christmas wrappers,” pipes up Luke, about to highlight his dexterity with tissue paper and ribbons. A collective groan cuts him off.
Because of the tight harmonies, rehearsals are all important. They meet every Tuesday at Bryan’s house in Langley.
“That Tuesday thing is pretty much gospel for us,” says Luke. “We don’t like to shirk Tuesdays.”
“There’s alternate Mondays or Fridays. We can still do that,” adds Mike. Everyone contributes his two cents at the weekly rehearsals. It’s the place where the show takes shape.
“I feel my strong part in the band is organizing the actual moving parts,” says Luke, who deals with the techie stuff and functions as the show’s de facto producer. “I’m a good musical conductor. ‘This is what I hear, what do you guys hear?’”
Bryan likes to fine-tune. He’s the perfectionist in the group. “I think I’ve got a pretty good critical ear. I can hear when something’s not meshing. If something’s not quite right, I won’t let it go. Some songs you don’t want to stray too much from, but some songs you do.”
“Like Eleanor Rigby,” says Luke. “Traditionally, that’s just a chamber orchestra with Paul [McCartney] singing. We do a full drum with strings and guitars and bass and rock it up. So we take liberties with that.”
“We’ll put in some keyboard tracks,” confirms Ron, “but we try to keep it down to some programmed drums and the reason we use programmed drums is because we play smaller venues. If you have a real drummer, you can’t control the sound. The drummer can only play so quietly.”
“He’s always on time and he’s always sober,” adds Luke, wise to the advantages of a virtual drummer and not the real thing.
Come show time, the harmonies are tight and polished.
“Because we’re well-rehearsed, it frees us up mentally and emotionally to connect and have fun,” says Bryan. “Often there’s banter between songs, where we’re just winging it and we love it if we can crack each other up.”
Bryan attributes the group’s success to a cultural shift. He says younger folks, those under 40, are accustomed to sitting back and having their music brought to them through their devices, iTunes and videos, whereas the Boomer generation likes to go out.
“People 55 and older remember what it’s like to go to a club and I think we bring that back to them,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons we’re doing so well. It’s the past but it’s the present, too.”
Luke concurs. “They used to go to live shows back in the day and they want to go again. They’re hungry for it and there are very few venues that play live shows anymore.”
The quartet plays about 40 gigs a year, in and around the Lower Mainland, to a large and appreciative Boomer audience. They mount two big shows a year at the Blue Frog.
Bistros and supper clubs fill out the rest of their calendar.
“We’re not getting rich but we do get quite well paid,” says Ron. As for feedback, the returns are instantaneous and gratifying.
“I have people come up to me in tears and tell me a certain song I’ve sung has cut them to the bone,” says Luke. “When they come up and tell me it’s made them see things differently, I almost can’t bear it. It’s powerful.”
The group would like to play more concert-type venues and corporate events. And if that doesn’t work out, well, there’s always the Timewalkers legacy.
“Luke likes to joke about 30 years from now he’ll be doing a Timewalkers tribute and we’ll all be cryogenically frozen,” says Bryan.
“Or in holograms,” says Ron.
Nonplussed by the wise-cracks, Luke has the last laugh. “The name choice for this band was a good one,” he says “because in not so many years, it could be called Time For Walkers.”
Accomplished musicians all, The Timewalkers have turned their years of experience into an on-going, full-time concern, creating enjoyment for themselves and their audiences.
“I think the audiences look at us and say ‘look at how old those guys are and what they can do’ and that’s inspiring for them and for us,” says Ron.
“When we’re singing live, it’s an immediate beckon,” says Bryan. “People hear the sound and feel it because we certainly do.”
Watch The Timewalkers perform “Fragile” live at the Blue Frog