Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why Should You Care Now? -- Paul Dakota and Mack MacKenzie.

If you're Canadian, you may know these two guys' names; if not, you almost certainly don't. Though I'm writing about both artists in this entry, there isn't any direct connection between them that I'm aware of, other than this: Their respective bands -- the Lost Dakotas and Three O'Clock Train -- appeared together on a bill of Canadian bands at South By Southwest in Austin in 1992.

Recently I was combing through old SXSW program books as part of a historical project I've been working on for awhile now (it'll be out next month; more on that later), and I came across the listing for this showcase, which was at the 311 Club on Sixth Street on Saturday, March 14, 1992. In those days, I spent a few weeks each winter writing short descriptions of every band playing at SXSW for the conference's program book, so I was frequently plucking a band's submission tape or CD off the shelves in the office and seeing what the act I was writing about sounded like.

Several of the Canadian acts made an impression on me that year, and none more than these two. The Lost Dakotas' disc, Last Train To Kipling, was an endearing affair, kinda ramshackle acoustic rockabilly-ish stuff but with a punk sensibility underneath it. There was more variety than their street-busking habits might have suggested; while this video of "To Love Someone" gives you a general idea, and their brilliant acoustic reworking of AC/DC's "Back In Black" was naturally a live favorite, I found myself equally enchanted by the hopeless-romantic ballad "Heart Of Mine" and a rendition of the classic Irish sing-along tune "Wild Rover."

Best of all was a three-and-a-half-minute Dakota original called "California" that, 20 years later, still stands apart as something really special. I was reminded of that a few days ago when I was playing it in my iTunes and my wife's ears perked up in the other room: "Who's that?" she asked. And so I went through the whole story about stumbling upon them in the SXSW office, going to see them play at the 311 Club, driving from my home of Seattle to a club in Vancouver to see them again a little later on, and eventually meeting up with Paul Dakota and his wife Erella Vent (yes, irrelevant!) in Toronto one summer afternoon. Good folks, they were (and Paul turned me on to another fine Toronto band, Lowest of the Low, that weekend).

But, about "California": It was different from the rest of the songs on that record, more of a tone-poem, sorta. The backing-music was evocative and ethereal, and the lyrics were a series of metaphors...brilliant, vivid, creative, colorful metaphors:


Is a proud young mother

Who's calling up her brother

And she tries not to wake the kids

Who are stretched out sleeping in the park


Is a Beverly Hills matron

Who's waiting on a friend

Who's a sophisticated patron of the arts

It's earthquakes and Sundays

Freeways and runways

And young things that die and leave no mark

California is a pretty young girl

Who's taken something impure

And she's dancing so hard she's flying

It goes on like that for another couple of verses and choruses, painting a picture of a place with fleeting thoughts and visions and memories. And then, at the very end, "She's dancing so hard she's flying" is followed by: "She don't know she's dying."

One of the things I've felt drawn toward over the past several years (though I suspect it'll never come to pass) is serving as a music supervisor for TV or film projects. It's because of songs like that -- where what I'm hearing just seems like it's destined to be part of a visual story.

As it happens, the song that stood out the most on Mack MacKenzie's disc with the band Three O'Clock Train had a similar pull. It's called "Some Evenings Never End," and while the bulk of the album found MacKenzie and his bandmates cranking out sturdy, rootsy, guitars-bass-drums rock 'n' roll, on this one track it's just MacKenzie's voice and piano. "The bottle holds the truth, but that truth will find me dead," he sings, casting a dark shadow that stands in stark relief to the simple but beautiful piano melody. Movie stuff, for sure. (Apparently I wasn't alone in that thinking; the album's liner notes indicated that four of its tracks appeared in a Canadian independent film.)

MacKenzie's ability to traverse the territory between such chamber-folk stylings and harder-edged rocking abandon led me to consider him a sort of Canadian cousin to Alejandro Escovedo. (There was even an odd similarity in their physical presence; just as Escovedo's Mexican bloodlines affected his stage persona, so did MacKenzie's Indian heritage.) And they both had a soft spot for train and rain songs: Whereas Escovedo's debut with the True Believers featured a cover of Lou Reeds "Train Round The Bend" and his own "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over," MacKenzie and Three O'Clock romped their way through "Train Of Dreams" (the video here is folly, but the song is great) and the anthemic "Love To Rain".

I never did get to know Mack MacKenzie at all, as I did Paul Dakota; there was a similar drive up to Vancouver to see his band play at the great venue the Railway Club, but the most I ever did was maybe say hello briefly after the show. Still, I remember his songs -- and was glad today to see someone had posted a video of him doing "Love To Rain" solo at a club in Montreal (which I believe is where he lives) last summer. An even nicer surprise was finding a self-titled MacKenzie solo album on eMusic that's apparently a fairly recent release -- and it has another of those great piano numbers, a tune called "All In Vain."

A search for Paul Dakota, meanwhile, turned up a MySpace page that included a relatively new composition called "Stars," which was quite good (and apparently placed fourth in a recent American Songwriter lyrics contest). There's also a Paul Dakota listed in the staff box of the Toronto alt-weekly Now; pretty sure it has to be the same guy.

So -- why should you care now? If you're not Canadian, I suppose you may not, as it's likely you never even knew of them in the first place. For me, though, it's coming on 20 years since I first heard those songs....and I still can't shake them.


  1. Thanks you for remembering the band. Three O'Clock Train are presently rehearsing for a new album and tour.

  2. Hi Peter Blackstock,
    I am Erella Ganon. I remember you.
    Here's a Lost Dakotas song you might not have seen that I did the artwork for.
    Email me here at wow (at) erella (dot) net

  3. Hi Peter,
    I'm Italian, but somehow, lots of years ago, I listened to California, and others lost Dakotas songs and immediately loved them.... I would so much to have their albums but it seems to be impossible. Can you help me someway?
    Thank you

  4. Howdy, Peter,
    Mack MacKenzie hear. I have released a few more records since you might be interested in. Reply and I'll get them to you.

  5. Hi Peter
    Great job. I just found your blog by change & perhaps U could help me to find the Last Train To Kipling CD
    My copy is long done but I remember listening the cd on loop
    Some songs are on the net but the full album was such a treat. Unfortunately impossible to find it. A shame that this cd is now deleted
    I have heard of a Last Dakotas home made tape from 1990. The Holy Grail

    Otherwise I'm a huge fan Of TMTCH, LOTL, WPA & Mick Thomas of course

    So if you want to contac me it will make my day
    Many thx in anticipation & again nice article