The House of Blues

PHOTOS BY FRANK MATYS FOR THE TORONTO STAR
A rapt audience of blues fans watches the James Cotton concert inside the garage of a home in Gravenhurst – otherwise known as Peter’s Place.

One of the newest blues venues is also one of the most unusual: beside the garage in the back of a house in Gravenhurst. Why blues legends and big crowds are now flocking to Peter’s Place

April 22, 2008

Frank Matys

Special to the Star

GRAVENHURST–Ontario’s cottage country is a far cry from Chicago’s gritty south side. But those worlds are closer than you think, thanks to the passion of a Gravenhurst man whose makeshift theatre inside his garage is home to blues at its best. The theatre, such as it is, occupies an attached garage on Gravenhurst’s main drag, where tiered seating and a small stage fill the space that once housed an auto repair shop named Moe’s.

It has the feel of a spacious rec room – if a rec room were painted black and orange and filled with friends and strangers drawn together in a common love of the blues.

That was the scene Saturday night as rapid-fire guitar licks executed by a lanky figure in black reverberated fast and hard through the cool night air.

It was no weekend bar band, but it was the stuff of legend – literally.

A wide-eyed audience of 115 – boomers mainly – crowded the rear of Peter Swanek’s home to revel in high-energy performances by bona fide bluesmen Johnny Winter and James Cotton in a setting that gave new meaning to the term “up close and personal.”

“I had to see it for myself,” Oakville resident Ian Hay shouted over the clamour of the music. “You just can’t pass up the chance to see two legends in this kind of venue.”

Saturday’s highly anticipated double bill marked the inaugural show at Peter’s Place, Swanek’s most recent venture as a music promoter.

“People expect to be blown away,” the exhausted 51-year-old said as workers put the finishing touches on the room hours before show time.

A renovator by trade, the father of four garnered a reputation as a pied piper of the blues when he began booking bands into the living room of his former home in nearby Innisfil eight years ago.

Colin Linden, Sonny Rhodes and The Band’s multi-talented keyboard man Garth Hudson were among the talent that attracted big audiences.

The atmosphere was loose and fun, the bands performing within feet of discerning fans willing to pay a premium for the privilege.

Audience and artists rubbed shoulders over helpings of barbecue during the intermission, and the drinks were strictly bring-your-own.

“It was magic,” Swanek recalled of the intimate performances that garnered a near-cult-like following among devotees of his eclectic offerings.

“When the shows worked, and almost all of them did, people would talk about it for days and sometimes weeks after.”

After the death of his common-law wife, Sheri Shears, in 2006, he pursued a long-held dream of transporting his intimate concert concept to Gravenhurst.

“She said, `If I ever pass on, go do that,’” he said. “When she passed, I was up here in five months.”

A 1 1/2-storey house with an attached garage along the south end of Muskoka Rd. proved the ideal venue from which to base his new operation.

Aided by his girlfriend, Michelle Nelson, and an enthusiastic circle of friends, Swanek transformed the former workspace into a mini-theatre, complete with professional lighting, fog machines and a licensed bar.

“I just closed my eyes and kept going,” Swanek said of the sometimes gruelling effort.

Winter and Cotton – the latter one of a few remaining early Chicago bluesmen – were a natural choice for opening night, he said.

“They are as good as you can get,” Swanek added, noting both men accompanied the late, great Muddy Waters on his seminal album Hard Again.

Waters is long gone, but Winter and Cotton, both with plenty of play left in them, tour regularly and pack in crowds at venues large and small. But, usually, they aren’t this small.

“This place is only 100 people?” Winter, grinning slightly, asked a reporter Saturday night before emerging from the motorhome that ferries him from gig to gig. “I don’t even believe that.”

The intimate room is the obvious draw here, with audience members having gladly plopped down $150 a piece to share in the experience.

“People in our age group don’t want to be in a cattle line,” longtime Winter fan Ken Mad, 54, said of the vast concert halls of his youth.

The Keswick man fondly recalled a 1970 performance by the fleet-fingered Texan at Maple Leaf Gardens.

“I was 17 and it blew me away,” he added. “When I was a kid, Johnny Winter and Jimi Hendrix were on the same plane. Now we’re seeing (Winter) here. This is fabulous.”

Swanek’s mounting popularity in music circles and his recent move north have caught the eyes of other promoters and there is talk of moving to a larger auditorium. For now, at least, Swanek’s admirers are happy to have him continue booking big-city acts here, in this special room.

“This is nothing short of a public service,” said fan Chris Brown of Toronto.

On May 24, Jack de Keyzer is the next blues artist slated to perform at Peter’s Place Live. For more information, go to petersplayers.com.