Sunday, February 9, 2020

Singalong with Billy the Kidder

When I was a kid, we went to church a lot and at Sunday Mass, the ushers took up a collection. On some days, when the church was involved in a special project somewhere  — like  helping lepers, say —  there’d  be a second whiparound, and the priest would tell us, it’s “for the missions.”

Last night, in a bar near my house, I heard that same story. Ish.

CHARMING BILLY: He puts the impress into impresario
The band’s second set of the evening was about to wind down and a guy with a sailor’s hat, sailor’s beard and wielding a big glass jar told the packed bar about the church collections of his Catholic childhood then added “and now we’re taking up a second collection — for the musicians.” He made “musicians” sound like “missions.”

You had to be there.

The man who made the joke is Bill Heffernan, and if I had time, talent or energy I could write a book about him.(Read more about Bill’s adventures here but don’t even think about it until you’ve finished my blog.)

But this isn’t about him as much as it is his party; a party, that is, that I think you ought to attend next time you’re in Toronto.

I was at one yesterday, Saturday afternoon. At a bar about 700 giant steps from my house called the Inter Steer Heffernan once again hosted a weekly musical event I shall refer to as“Billy’s Thing” because I don’t know what else to call it.

If somebody asked me to choose five of the most memorable attractions for a recently arrived tourist in this city, Bill’s Saturday party at The Inter Steer would top the list.

THIS HIGH: The answer to your question, "how high
does the Inter Steer set the bar?"
He’s been running the whatchamacallits for going on 13 years. What they are are late-afternoon jam sessions featuring an ever-changing troupe of some of the most talented folk, bluegrass and celtic musicians I’ve come across. 

Admission is free but as I said a few paragraphs ago, they pass the jug a few times. The Inter Steer bar (or as regulars call it, The Steer) is unpretentious and the crowd’s welcoming. Food’s good too.

I don’t go to Billy’s thing every Saturday but some people sure do and I don’t blame them.

Last night, when I arrived at about 6:15, the performer was rocking out an acoustic version of Tom Petty’s “I won’t back down” and get this: The entire bar was singing along.

Right now, you’re thinking, “does life get any hokier than that?"

Meantime, I’m like, “I love it.”

RANKIN FILE: Mary Rankin, another Caped Breton
I was immediately yanked back to my home in Sudbury, where my older brother Tom’s friends — Joe Nichols, Moe Sauve or my cousin Gerard MacIsaac — hauled out six strings and got everybody singing and drinking and laughing. (Regular readers of this blog know I grew up on Walton Mountain. We Carters were a big sprawling church-going party-loving family and just like John Boy, the handsomest and funniest of the bunch grew up to be a journalist.  But I digress.)

Back to Billy’s Thing.

Every time I’ve attended one of these jam sessions, I’ve made friends and yesterday, I met singer Mary Rankin who — it turns out — has roots in the same part of the world as my mom; i.e., Inverness County, Nova Scotia. Around those parts, the name Rankin is synonymous with angelic voices and talent; Mary’s carrying on the tradition with grace and charm. 

Plus she was as friendly as one of my down east cousins.  (Believe me, not only does that bunch set the hospitality bar high, they open it way before noon.)

Another performer from yesterday’s thing looked like he could have just pulled up on a fishing trawler but sang some Irish ballads so beautifully he’d  make a rock cry. His name’s Kevin Kennedy.

One after another and sometimes together, for three hours they played. In addition to Heffernan and the others I mentioned,  yesterday’s players were Michelle Rumball, Michael O’Grady and Alex Fraser. The last guy — Fraser  — plays the Steer I think every Wednesday night and he’s Spotify personified. Name a song. He’ll nail it.

The last piece I heard before heading home yesterday was an inner  ear-worming rendition of what I think should be Newfoundland’s National Anthem — Sonny’s Dream by the late Ron Hynes.

Got home by 8:15. Which is not a bad thing.  Like Yogi Berra might have said, “it sure gets late early these days.” 

Billy’s thing: Saturdays at The Inter Steer Restaurant. 357 Roncesvalles Ave., Toronto.  

You can crash at our place if you like.


  1. Sounds like it was a great line up. I always love hearing Mike O'Grady. Fyi, its called Billy Hefferman's Saturday Sessions

  2. Appreciate that, Unknown writer. See you there sometime I hope.