GRAVENHURST, ONTARIO – It’s intermission, and members of the band Pretzel Logic are standing on a patio outside a Gravenhurst concert venue called Peter’s Players. There’s nothing unusual about that, perhaps, but in this case they’re mingling with members of the audience on a perfect late spring night in Muskoka.
A couple band members are drinking from bottles water. One is nursing a beer. But they’re all chatting with audience members about their favourite songs or about music in general. One of the singers is trying to rustle up a fishing trip for the next day. A few feet away, folks are gathered around a metal fireplace and roasting the free marshmallows that owner Peter Swanek has provided.
You don’t get this kind of up close and personal treatment when you catch a band at the Air Canada Centre. But it’s the way things work at Peters’ Players. Mind you, the entire venue seats less than 100 people, all of them gathered on five rows of seating in a small building that looks and feels like the basement of the coolest kid in high school. Peter’s motto for the venue is “A Place Like No Other,” and he’s bang on.
My wife and I had the pleasure of hearing Pretzel Logic, a Toronto-based band that plays fantastic covers of Steely Dan songs. I went in thinking they’d only have four or five members in the band and that they wouldn’t be able to play hits from the monster album “Aja.” Instead, they had a full 11-piece band complete with a three-piece horn section. They were a rocking, fun, volume-pounding, joyful group that put on a tremendous live show. The drummer was sensational, the guitarists played searing solos and the horn section swung with might. The lead singer, Mike Shotton, sounded almost exactly like Steely Dan vocalist Donald Fagen. They also had a sultry singer and dancer named Dominique Roy, who has performed on Broadway in major plays such as Rent. As much as the music was great, they also had a wonderful chemistry and seemed to love playing together as they played hit after hit; everything from “Deacon Blue” to “Reelin’ In The Years.”
Band spokesman Peter Graham and I chatted between sets about Peter’s Players as a venue.
“It’s completely unique,” he said. “We love the intimacy and the connection with the audience.”
Graham said it was the band’s first time at the hall.
“It’s an amazing place. Peter has a great reputation in the biz, and bands love to play places like this.”
Peter Swanek started Peter’s Players in April 2008 after he took a rundown auto shop on Muskoka Road South in Gravenhurst and turned it into an 88-seat concert venue with rows of bench seats. He and his wife, Michelle, live in a house out front of the venue. He organizes the shows and introduces the band and makes sure things run smoothly on stage while she mans the bar, selling tall boys of beer for just $6 that you can nestle into a cup holder in front of your seat. The walls are covered with posters advertising previous shows; including such stars as Kim Mitchell, Johnny Winter and Jane Siberry.
Swanek, who used to run concerts out of his house in Innisfil, Ontario, told me he started off by concentrating on blues artists as he loved the music and thought he could a higher level of talent for less money than other types of artists or bands. He’s since expanded to an eclectic mix of blues, rock and other styles.
Even he’s not entirely sure why it all works, but he has some ideas.
“The audience in my mind are all 18-year-olds,” he says. “I think they all revert back. When we had John Sebastian (of the Lovin’ Spoonful) play his manager said he usually only plays an hour, but that he likes small places and might play longer. I think he played 80 or 90 minutes. So the musicians love it. I think you saw how happy they were.”
“Everyone tells me they’ve never experienced a venue like this but to me it just seems normal,” Swanek says.
“Sometimes at the beginning people will say, ‘I don’t want to tell anyone else about this place.’ They feel like they’re part of some exclusive crowd,” Michelle explains with a laugh. “But I say, ‘Tell everyone you can.’”
Acts that are playing later this summer include Buckwheat Zydeco, Robin Zander of the hugely popular 70’s band Cheap Trick and a Chicago Transit Authority cover band called Brass Transit, which I suspect will blows the walls down.
Peter’s Players operates year-round, but they’re obviously busier in the summer when cottagers are hanging about in Muskoka. They also put on a spring cruise and a summer cruise on Lake Muskoka on the steamship Wenonah II, with live music and dinner and dancing.
The concert at Peter’s reminded me a bit of the venerable Kee to Bala, a glorious old-time concert venue with a huge dance floor in Bala; just 20 minutes north of Gravenhurst on the shores of Lake Muskoka. Blue Rodeo used to play at the Kee to Bala each May and I saw them there a few years back in a show where they stuck almost entirely to their big hits and had a great old time.
Of course, there’s a lot more to Muskoka culture than rock concerts. The Gravenhurst Opera House puts on summer stock theatre throughout the summer.
Gravenhurst is the birthplace of summer theatre in Ontario, and they’re celebrating their 81st birthday this year. We had the pleasure of taking in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” a brilliant play by Noel Coward, at the handsome Gravenhurst Opera House.
The acting was solid, especially I thought the female leads, and the costumes were outstanding. It’s a great old venue upstairs in the old City Hall building, with enormous wooden, arched ceilings and a real old-time feel.
You can catch the show on its own or also take in dinner beforehand. We had a meal catered by one of the town’s best chefs; feasting on panko chicken, maple-glazed salmon, a wonderful salad with kale, cabbage and cranberries and rice, as well as chocolate mousse for dessert.
Because it’s such a casual setting, you can wander out on to the main street in Gravenhurst during intermissions and soak up the sunset. Or even go for a short stroll and do some window shopping.
They also do concerts in summer. Performances for this summer include the hugely popular “Cats” and “Genius and Soul: The Music of Ray Charles.”
Huntsville’s Festival of the Arts this year celebrates their 23rd season of excellent entertainment. There’s also a new show at the Deerhurst Resort called HIT L!ST. Deerhurst is where Canadian star Shania Twain got her start, so there’s a good chance you’ll see some top talent on the stage.
For Opera House Ticket Info, call (705)-687-5550 or Toll-Free 1-888-495-8888
The Marriott Residence Inn in Gravenhurst is a great option. It’s right on the water and a very short walk to great waterside dining options and to the Muskoka Steamships for rides on the wonderful Segwun or Wenonah II. Rooms are large and well-appointed and there’s free breakfast, as well as an indoor pool and gym. The hotel has a package deal that includes accommodation in a deluxe suite, use of the indoor pool and whirlpool, free hot breakfast buffet, Internet access and two adult general admission tickets to the Opera House.
FOOD AND DRINK
They do a great breakfast at Creative Plate, nestled on the shoreline of Lake Muskoka about 15 minutes north of Gravenhurst, on the way to Bala. Sawdust City is a craft brewery in downtown Gravenhurst that makes fabulous lagers and IPA’s in a fun, lively spot. You can order your lunch from a food truck outside and they’ll even bring it into the brewery for you. I had a tasty Korean beef sandwich during my visit; a nice match for their hoppy IPA’s. Grand Electric is a fun and trendy restaurant on the water in Port Carling and is an outpost of a popular Toronto spot. Inventive and tasty tacos, great drinks and more. They’ve also opened a lively, new spot just steps away called Frankie’s Surf Club, also on the water.
You can reach me at the following email address: email@example.com. You also can follow me on Twitter @jimbyerstravel and on Instagram @jimbyerstravel1.