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Fast, cheap and under control

Zeke’s Gallery makes live albums to go


“I can’t stand Emerson Lake & Palmer,” announces Chris Hand, the hand that guides Zeke’s Gallery on St-Laurent. He’s certainly not alone in his sentiment, but he does recall ELP’s In Concert, their live album from Montreal’s Big O in ’77, with a note of melancholy. “In the back of my head, there had always been the realization that, by not being an ELP fan, I’d missed out on my one chance to be on a live album.”

Hounded by this inconsolable regret, Hand has doubled up the purpose of his gallery. Paintings fill the walls and now music fills the air as dozens of local musicians from the folk, jazz and roots scenes have filed through for low-key, intimate performances. Those gigs have been dutifully recorded, live off the floor, by Hand, who then burns CD copies for the band, their friends and anyone rolling through his gallery who might be curious.

Now granted, this is hardly a major money-making operation. “In my mind,” Hand continues, “selling 20 CDs in an art gallery with no marketing budget, where people walking in aren’t expecting to see CDs for sale, is very good.”

Good, especially when capturing a quality recording and spreading it around turns out to cost a fraction of what a major-label effort would. “Half to three quarters of any Sony-issued product is the marketing costs and the fact that, say, on the Celine Dion album, Aldo Nova probably scored as much as $200,000 for producing. There is the studio charging upwards of $1,000 an hour, and the staff of 150 to 200 making sure that the posters and ads are out and the sales are tracked in stores. I don’t need to do any of that, so the costs come down dramatically.”

Play on, but play fair

“The best advice I ever got was, spend more than you can afford on the microphones and be as cheap as possible on everything else. That’s served me wonderfully.” Hand’s “studio” amounts to two high-end mics dangling from his ceiling, a hundred-dollar mixer plugged into his computer, and Sound Forge editing software, “to take out some of the between-song tuning and patter.

“As time has progressed, I’ve gotten to be a better and better recording engineer, although I’m sure there are still things I can learn, and hope to.”

The same logic applies to Hand’s handling of all other aspects of the process. He’s assembled an ever-growing list of rules by which the acts that book a show must abide. Nothing that isn’t reasonable and fairly flexible, mind you. “Somebody read it recently and said I could pretty much synopsize it with, ‘Don’t be a dick.’

“Since I run the place with both an extremely strong DIY ethic and a laissez-faire, what-happens-happens attitude – not requiring demos or 30 slides and an artist’s statement – I recognize that certain people aren’t thinking along the same lines or have different ideas. Instead of shouting and grinding my teeth, I came up with the idea of slapping this stuff down in a list. The main premise was my utter abhorrence of postering on the street, the main means of promotion for bands. Living in this neighbourhood, having posters slapped up on both my home and business, I’m saying, that doesn’t work. By putting it down in writing, the bands see I’m very serious about this – don’t do any postering.”

Since there are no big bucks to be raked in, Hand has other motives in his undertaking. He’s out to faithfully document elements of the local music scene that are often overlooked, styles and artists that favour craft and inspiration over flash and flavour of the week. Heather McLeod, Slim Sandy, Craig Morrison, Aaron Shragge and Mack Mackenzie are among those who’ve played Zeke’s so far. Lately, poetry readings have been added to the mix, and contemporary classical and modern dance are soon to follow.

At this point, the acts Hand books are generally acoustic, so Zeke’s provides both a rare sympathetic space and a chance to capture what happens there. “Most places that bands play are bars and rehearsal rooms. Rehearsal rooms, you can’t get anybody in, and bars, half the crowd is talking through your show and not paying any attention. This is effectively a tiny Théâtre St-Denis, with people who are dead quiet and paying attention while you play. That’s an experience that, as far as I know, can’t be accomplished anywhere else in the city, for an audience of 30 people.”