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An outrageous, unadvertisable night at The Ovens

(Illustration: Jessie McLaughlin)

“A show so outrageous – (some might even say controversial) – we are not allowed to advertise it.” 

Thus read the August 26 entertainment listing at the Ovens Natural Park’s Ol’ Miner Diner.

(Photo: The Ovens Natural Park, Facebook)

With every other day in the campground restaurant’s calendar naming local musicians, the intrigue was too much to bear when I saw this ad.

Days leading up to that Saturday, I wondered what to expect – a mining-themed burlesque? (Probably not, it’s a family venue.) Bob Dylan warming up for his fall tour? I knew Philip Glass was recently in Cape Breton – would he treat us to his Etudes on the diner piano?

With the park operated by the Chapin Family, legendary in music, it felt like anything was possible.

I made the trip to Feltzen South with Barnacle Layout Editor Carmen Cumming, her partner Sam and our friend Cam.

The rustic Ol’ Miner Diner is the perfect venue for a rainy summer evening – the waves crashing on the beach, witnessed from every table in the cozy space, amplified the wonder and sense of possibility in the air.

The restaurant is clearly a work of passion, featuring a variety of domestic and imported wines and beers, and a menu full of Nova Scotian favourites.

The Cajun Chowder with fresh salmon, shrimp and clams reaches a perfect balance – the complex flavours are amplified by a perfect level of heat, which contrasts delightfully with the creamy texture. The malty sweetness of the Saltbox Brewing Jeezus Murphy Irish Red Ale I ordered was the ideal complement.

As we settled into our meals – the table acclaiming the veggie panini and “surf’n’surf” – we satisfied our curiosity on the anticipated outrageous affairs.

We were treated to a surprise appearance by Steve Chapin, longtime Chapin Family bassist and vocalist “Big” John Wallace and bandmate John Gorley, announced as “two thirds of One-Eyed Johnny and the Pandemics.” They masterfully laid down funky, keyboard-driven original tracks, and two Steely Dan covers.

What happened next was serendipitous.

This June, I billeted with a host in Maine while co-headlining the Portland Fringe Festival with an electric banjo show.

On the topic of music, my host Gale – enjoying live entertainment since the 70s – said the greatest singer-songwriter she’s seen perform is Tom Chapin.

She asked, “Do you know who he is?”

I told her I knew his family operates a campground near where I live, and he plays there sometimes, but I haven’t gone yet – she was shocked. “You have to see Tom Chapin!”

So I was thrilled when Tom showed up with acoustic guitar in hand for the set’s second half, leading the band in his heart-warming Build A Dream, followed by comic ragtime jaunt, My Name is Morgan (But It Ain’t JP).

Gale was right about his (Grammy-winning) talent for enrapturing audiences with evocative storytelling – I couldn’t stop smiling.

The show’s highlights included a heartfelt rendition of Harry Chapin’s Story of a Life, hilarious banter between Wallace and Steve Chapin on who should be responsible for flipping the piano’s sheet music for Old Man River, and a prodigious blues jam riffing on the traditional tune that inspired the Grateful Dead’s Dupree’s Diamond Blues.

The show was absolutely free of controversy, but witnessing these icons let loose and improvise in such an intimate venue made for an evening I’ll never forget.

Just like the miners at that site 160 years ago, I experienced great fortune taking a chance and hitting gold at The Ovens.


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