If you asked Mike Stevens where the heart of the country resides, he’d say, the North – where the struggles of some of our most vulnerable aren’t so different from those closer to the 49th parallel.
Canadian harmonica virtuoso, Stevens, has taken time away from his own charity, ArtsCan Circle – a group of musicians and artists who travel to remote Canadian Indigenous communities to link creative artists with youth at risk – to come to Victoria for Literacy Victoria’s largest annual fundraiser, the Peter Gzowski Invitational, May 28 at the Belfry. Working with aboriginal youth in remote communities and funding accessible literacy programs for adults share the common bond of empowering the often most disenfranchised and vulnerable members of society. And Gzowski, Stevens said, is not only the founder of the PGI golf tournament and subsequent fundraisers in support of literacy, but the late CBC broadcaster remains a true legend in the North.
“If you go into an arctic community and talk about Gzowski, people really know him,” Stevens said. “He knew that the heart and the soul of the country was out there. He was championing literacy as a way to give these people a voice. … These communities really have something to say to the rest of Canada.”
Stevens has recorded nine studio albums and spent the better part of the last 30 years travelling the world with his harmonica. He now splits his time between touring and ArtsCan, which he founded shortly after meeting youth who were solvent sniffing in Goose Bay, Labrador in 1999.
Stevens broke into bluegrass circles by criss-crossing the country, passing the hat, at a time when he was considered a musical outcast for his instrument choice.
“Early on bluegrass didn’t want harmonica. Some people are so strict about what they’ll accept into the fold and call ‘real bluegrass,’” he said. “There was mandolin and guitar and acoustic bass, sometimes dobro, but there wasn’t harmonica. I’d face people who turned their backs to me while I played, or retune their instruments, so I couldn’t play with them.”
He persevered through the rejection for years before eventually finding acceptance and greatness in the genre. “Every time it happened, I just got more pissed off and I wanted it to work even more.”
Now, he has taken the stage at the Grand Ole Opry more than 300 times.
Despite a prolific career, the 55-year-old from Brights Grove, Ont. will play Victoria for the first time ever this month. His set list is undetermined, as always, as Stevens doesn’t know from one moment to the next quite what he’ll be playing, but he does know a little about who he’ll be playing it with. Russell deCarle of Juno award-winning country roots group Prairie Oyster is also on the bill for the evening and they will be performing together.
“I’m doing something that I really love and believe in and it’s absolutely honest for me to do it. There are no smoke and mirrors, no schtick involved.
Stevens’ no-holds-barred, impassioned performances have resulted in seven hernias – and zero softening of his style.
Literacy Victoria welcomes Stevens along with fellow bluegrass, folk and roots performers for their biggest fundraising event of the year. Funds support a variety of workshops and equipment used to teach oft-stigmatized adult learners a range of literacy skills including communications and technology training.
“Some people are still quite embarrassed about (seeking literacy training), but a lot of people are saying: ‘OK, enough of this hiding it; time to get at it,’” said Ruth Derrick, executive director of Literacy Victoria. “It’s great, because the confidence that they instantly receive from achieving the things they thought they’d never achieve – it’s incredible.”
Clients often face chronic health or family issues that make it hard for them to complete their education, or are further weighed down by a sense of worthlessness, Derrick said. Her message: “Everyone can learn at any point in their life.”
See Stevens, deCarle, Steve Briggs and Denis Keldie, as well as humourist Arthur Black and host Shelagh Rogers, this Tuesday, May 28 at 6 p.m. at the Belfry for PGI Plays the Belfry (1291 Gladstone Ave.)
Tickets are $45 for the show, and include pre-show appetizers, or $100 for the VIP package, which comes with a post-show party with the artists and a $50 tax receipt. Tickets are on sale at the Belfry box office: 250-385-6815 or online at belfry.bc.ca. Since its inception in 1986, the PGI events have raised more than $12.5 million for literacy.