The Smoke Show: The Evolution of Music Under the Stars

words :: Drew McIvor // illustration :: Dave Barnes. 

I couldn’t have been more than 14 years old. It was the first summer I was more or less allowed to disappear for a couple of nights, provided I had bug spray and a tent and didn’t swim after dark. My cousins and I plus a couple of their soccer buddies would wait in line hoping to grab one of the last car-camping sites in the Albion Hills, Hockley Valley or anywhere near Loretto, Ontario.

We were all young aspiring musicians—junior in talent, senior in ambition—but at that age none of us could really carry a song. So cassettes would have to do. We didn’t mind; we all had boom boxes. (Mine was a Pulsar dual cassette AM/FM portable stereo system.)

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We’d play soccer next to the lake all day, under-hydrated and over-sunned—it was the eighties and half of us were still choosing coconut oil over sunscreen. After we noshed on hot dogs and marshmallows, the summer sunset in preparation for our “smoke show”. First things first, cue up a sure crowd pleaser—Van Halen (the pre-Hagar days were all gold). And if that didn’t impress, the holy grail of summer rock—AC/DC.

Next, a sweet campfire with a few premium logs “borrowed” from dad’s garage. Finally, three armfuls of wet leaves from the nearby forest thrown directly on top creating volcanic billows of smoke and then … BOOM! Nino would leap through the smoke, air guitar firmly in hand, legs spread in a daffy or a Pete Townsend mule kick. The smoke show had begun.

As Neil Young reminds us, “Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay”, so we find new ways to gather, to breathe in inspiration and exhale creative expression.

From all directions we’d launch through the smoke wailing mock solos from empty hands in perfect sync to “Back in Black”, “Hot for Teacher”, “More than a Feeling”, or “Whole Lotta Love”. A night at the opera it was not, but we had the night sky, a glowing fire, a killer soundtrack and the best buddies you could ask for. That was camping. At least it was for me in the 1980s.

Fast-forward 35 years and reset the scene. A pandemic of international proportion has put a very different lens on the notion of everything including camping and how we spend our time outside. The beaches are closed and the two-metre rule is firmly in place to safely separate us from our seasonal sidekicks. Yet challenges are merely opportunities to evolve. As Neil Young reminds us, “Rock ’n’ roll is here to stay”, so we find new ways to gather, to breathe in inspiration and exhale creative expression.

Some gather at the ends of driveways to jam (a hockey stick–length apart) while neighbourhood kids circle on bikes like sonically hungry sharks. Others offer Vivaldi from lonely violins to neighbours sequestered on their balconies over the narrow Italian streets.

And here on Georgian Bay I find myself in a field of nut trees, surrounded by bolting asparagus, shooting stars, and camper doors slapping shut as farming friends migrate to a waiting campfire with banjo, ukulele and mandolin. The songs are simple. A few cowboy chords and a chorus everyone can catch the second time around. As the chorus thickens, we all feel a little lighter; a lot closer to the things we miss, the people we love and the world we want to inhabit. And in these quieter hours, we hear the space a little louder, too—the peepers, the drops of rain, the distance between one rolling wave and another. The sound of silence, the stillness in time, the enormity of the night sky, and the magic of a melodic voice reaching out.

If we might gather something from these wild times it’s that so many of our anxieties can be remedied with the simplest of human endeavours: getting outside, sharing music, appreciating connection and being creative.  Stadium concerts with pyrotechnics are an awesome spectacle—quite possibly because they remind us of that primordial glow of faces around a campfire. I only kinda sorta remember seeing the Stones play the SkyDome. These summer nights singing under the stars, I’ll never forget. —ML