Those who know Rob Phillips well know he would have been very happy to have performed just one show at The Black Horse Pub in downtown Peterborough.
Such is the longtime musician’s desire to, and love of, sharing his immense piano talent with an audience.
As he now prepares to bring his jazz-blues trio to the George Street North pub on March 9th for its milestone 500th Thursday night performance, Phillips is as just excited now as he was close to 10 years ago when then-owner Ray Kapoor pencilled him in for a coveted spot on the weekly live entertainment roster.
“I asked Ray, over a number of years, if I could do a jazz night,” recalls the 2015 Peterborough Pathway of Fame inductee who, for 10 years, enjoyed considerable success with Dan Fewings and Jimmy Bowskill as one third of the musical improv comedy trio The Three Martinis. “I thought it would fly. He finally gave me a night, but I didn’t really know how long it was going to last. Bands come and go.”
As it turns out, it has lasted — for an impressive 499 shows. On Thursday (March 9) at 7 p.m., Phillips will sit at the keyboard for the 500th time, with Dennis Pendrith on upright bass and Curtis Cronkwright on drums, and Carling Stephen as the featured singer. The music menu will including a generous buffet of jazz and blues standards — signature songs associated with the likes of Nina Simone, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Billie Holiday, and Robert Johnson to mention a few. And yes, some original tunes will be sprinkled into the mix.
And has been the case on many prior Thursday nights, there will be special guests, this time in the form of singers Beau Dixon and Marsala Lukianchuk, the latter having fronted the trio for about six years, along with Keith Guy and more.
“Curtis has been with me since day one,” says Phillips. “He’s a straight up guy and an incredible drummer. (Bassist) Dennis is a legend in the business. He played with Stuart McLean for his Vinyl Café, with Bruce Cockburn for 10 years, and he played with Murray McLauchlan. And he has recorded a lot. He’s on like 2,000 or 3,000 albums.”
“We’d been looking, on and off, for the last six years for a singer and then, about a year ago, Carling came in and she’s the featured singer every Thursday now. The wonderful thing about Carling is she’s bilingual, so we actually do 10 French songs. People love the French jazz café music. She’s a fabulous singer.”
All these Thursday night shows later, what’s most important to Phillips is the format has remained true to what he envisioned so many years ago.
“After (singer) Chelsey Bennett moved back to Peterborough from Europe, she came in and sang with us and that really got the night rolling,” recalls Phillips.
“I wanted people to drop in after they had been out for dinner, and my musician friends could drop in and sing or bring their horn and play a couple of songs. We’ve had a lot of people join us over the years.”
“Ada Lee sang with us when she was in town. Bruce Cole, the dentist, comes in every week and has played with us. Rick Fines has come up on stage and sang. And there are some horn guys who have come every week for 10 years now — Doug Sutherland on trumpet and Mark Davidson on saxophone. It really is a place for community.”
VIDEO: “Brazil” featuring Marsala Lukianchuk & Rob Phillips (2017)
As for the trio’s audience, Phillips says its enthusiasm is only surpassed by its loyalty.
“There are about 40 to 50 people who come in every week, like they’re going bowling on a Monday night,” he laughs. “It’s really great when new people discover it. A couple of guys came out for the first time about three or four weeks ago. They say there going to come every week now. One guy drives in every Thursday from Hastings.”
“Other people drive in from Ajax. And everybody gets to know one another. Another phenomena is the Trent kids have discovered it. Part of the second set is now more danceable. They have a great time.”
During the pandemic, Phillips “held the fort down” at the Black Horse on his own before Lukianchuk returned and “we started adding people. They couldn’t afford to pay as much but we all made it through.”
And just as Phillips is quick to credit Kapoor for recognizing his talents and those of his band mates should have a regular weekly home, he has nothing but admiration for current owner Desmond Vandenberg.
“Des has been fantastic,” he says. “He’s had to weather buying a new business and then the pandemic. He runs music seven days a week when just running a restaurant is a tough thing. It’s a real tribute to Des that he’s hung in there.”
“Some of the pubs that have live music, it has been difficult for them,” Phillips notes. “But I think now that the pandemic is pretty much over, people are going to start going out even more this spring and summer. How much Netflix can you watch? People want to go out and hear live music. There’s a real appreciation of live music that I see now.”
Admitting Thursday night at The Black Horse Pub is “my happy place,” Phillips is thrilled to play the genre and style of music he has always gravitated to. As he puts it, “No one is asking me to play Brown Eyed Girl.”
Phillips has another reason to smile these days and, in the grand scheme of things, it’s the best reason of all.
In the midst of chemotherapy treatment for amyloidosis, he remains optimistic.
“My numbers are really good,” he explains. “My experience at the hospital (Peterborough Regional Health Centre) has been unbelievable. I don’t mind talking about it. It has happened to me just like it happened to a lot of people. I’ve been very fortunate to have a good support team. My friends have been unbelievable.”
“When my illness came on, I didn’t know if I’d be able to play anymore. I was doing all this prep for someone to take over my spot. I feel very fortunate to be able to get treatment and then do the joyful thing that brings me pleasure. For me, that has always been music. Music is more fun for me now than it ever was.”
VIDEO: Rob Phillips talks about early inspiration (2015)
Against that backdrop, Phillips et al are counting down the hours to what promises to be a pretty special evening at their downtown Peterborough home away from home.
“It’s not a lot of work playing,” says Phillips. “It’s getting a parking spot, loading the piano in, getting the music together. If somebody is sick, I’ve got to get a sub. There’s all this work that has to go on.”
“I do a sound check at 10:15 a.m. with Carling before the restaurant opens. Then we all gather at 6:45 p.m. Strangely, we’ve never had a rehearsal, but I have rehearsed with the singers and I write out the music for the bass player.”
VIDEO: Autumn Leaves – Rob Phillips Trio at Live! At The Barn (2021)
Not lost on Phillips is how fortunate he is to have the opportunity to play jazz and blues every week for almost 10 years at the Black Horse Pub.
“It’s a fun night. You hear songs that you don’t normally hear at other clubs in town. We work hard at it. We’ve got something like 170 songs in our catalogue. We run about 35 songs a night. We can change it up and put on a different show on every Thursday.”
Beyond the regular weekly gig, Phillips says he has “a recording in the can” but admits “because of the nature of my illness, I can’t sing like I used to.” Still, he hopes to record with Stephen “real soon. We’re working away at that.”