To the Canadian music industry, ‘Parkside’ Mike Renaud is best known as the founder and owner of Hidden Pony Records & Management, now widely recognized as one of Canada’s premiere talent-development labels and artist management companies. Past and present artists on Renaud’’ roster include Said The Whale, the Elwins, the Dirty Nil, Imaginary Cities, Jeremy Fisher, Odds, and many more.
Not many are aware that this popular industry power player actually got his start in music as a drummer in a ’90s Montreal soul/funk band called Parkside Jones (the source of his nickname).
When he moved over to the business side of music, beginning with top indie label Aquarius Records, Mike Renaud packed the kit away, launching himself into the biz with full passion, commitment, and skill.
Mike has now resurrected his kit (after 20 years), honed his chops, and emerged as the driving force behind The HP’s. This talent-laden Hamilton-based funk/soul collective is poised to make dance floors shake via its forthcoming debut album, Gritty City Soul, Vol. 1.
Renaud recalls the spark that reignited his love of playing drums: The first time I played them in 20 years was at the memorial for [industry comrade] Jon Box at The Opera House in Toronto. I was talked into playing with Chris Murphy [Sloan], Terra Lightfoot, and the Dirty Nil guys on a version of “Handle With Care.”
This renewed love affair would lead to Mike’s vision for The HP’s. From his teenage years, his favourite musical genre has been classic soul and funk, and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of these styles. Heartened to see the growing international community building around these sounds, Mike decided to make his own creative contribution to the form. He recruited musical and vocal collaborators from his hometown (plus a couple of Toronto imports) for the project, and The HP’s were born.
The group name, The HP’s, pays homage to James Brown’s legendary band, The J.B.’s with these initials referencing Hidden Pony. The album title is a tribute to Renaud’s hometown, Hamilton, and The HP’s sound honours The Hammer’s core characteristics of grit and authenticity.
Gritty City Soul, Vol. 1 is a masterfully curated collection of covers and original compositions. The HP’s breathe new life into tunes by both genre masters (Allen Toussaint, Sharon Jones and The Dap Kings) and such lesser-known artists as Nat Turner Rebellion, Syl Johnson, and Darondo).
The late Sharon Jones, a key inspiration for Renaud, is honoured via a killer version of her classic tune, “Better Things.” The soulful vocals of Claire Davis are accompanied by jaunty horns and keyboards, and the cool groove befits the positive lyrics (“I’m a better woman than I have been”).
Giving this cover extra resonance are the memorable encounters both Davis and Renaud had with Jones back in 2015. A documentary portrait of the soul great, Miss Sharon Jones!, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), and Claire Davis was doing a house concert playing DapKings songs that night. The band came across the party and jammed along, then, when one of the Dap Kings backup singers couldn’t cross the border, Claire got the call to fill in at Sharon Jones’ headlining show at Hamilton’s Supercrawl fest.
In a cool twist of fate, Mike Renaud was one of the organizers of that show, and was tasked with looking after Sharon. The two bonded instantly and deeply, as Mike recalls. “While driving her to soundcheck, Sharon confided in me that her cancer had returned. She didn’t want anyone to know, as the documentary was about her conquering it, and she didn’t want people to be bummed out at the news. It was my 40th birthday that day, and Sharon actually stopped her show to sing me Happy Birthday in a soulful way!”
The other covers on Gritty City Soul, Vol. 1 cover wide stylistic terrain. Old school funk is revisited in fun fashion on “Fat Back,” a tune sure to slay live, while Julian Taylor’s smooth and soulful vocals shine on a take on Darondo’s “Luscious Lady.”
Fitting snugly alongside the covers are four original tunes written for the album. “The H.P. Trot (Blow Maceo)” is a glorious slab of horn-driven instrumental funk featuring the Northern Soul Horns (Arkells) and co-written by Mike and the players on the track, one that salutes Maceo Parker, one of Renaud’s inspirations in starting Parkside Jones.
Mike recalls that “Parkside Jones once opened up for Maceo at The Medley in Montreal. His trombonist, Greg Boyer, came up to join us and he blew the most insane solo. That is one of the biggest musical highlights of my life! He and Maceo went on to play with Prince, so I can say I’m one degree away from having played with Prince.”
Co-writers on the other three originals, “Smilin’,” “Hope To See You Again,” and “If Love was Easy,” include album producer Matt Lederman, Nixon Boyd (Hollerado), and vocalists Claire Davis and Carleigh Aikins (Dwayne Gretzky).
Aikins shines on “Smilin’,” a perfect slice of old school soul featuring strong female backing vocals, while Davis takes the spotlight on “Hope To See You Again,” an upbeat soul stomper.
Gritty City Soul was recorded primarily live off the floor at Silver Street Recordings, a studio in a repurposed barn on Hamilton’s East Mountain. Handling the production and mixing was Matt Lederman, described by Mike as “the guy I started Parkside Jones with in Montreal. Matt has turned into an amazing audio engineer, working with the likes of July Talk and Metric.”
“The recording was a magical experience that turned out better than we could have hoped for, especially considering we assembled 12 people who had never played together before to make this record. Everyone came in prepared and excited to put their own stamp on the record and I think it translates into a really fun listen.”
Helping him execute that sound and vision is the all-star lineup of The HP’s. It features vocalists Claire Davis, Carleigh Aikins, Julian Taylor, and Carl Jennings (Freedom Train) and ace instrumentalists Jesse O’Brien (keyboards, July Talk’s Danny Miles (percussion), Scott McIntosh (guitar), Jennings (bass), The Northern Soul Horns (Arkells), and, holding down the groove in true in the pocket fashion, Mike Renaud.
Renaud’s bona fides as a fervent funk and soul fan are beyond reproach. That was shown when, at age 18, he went to a James Brown show at Lulu’s in Kitchener. “I had made a T-shirt depicting one of James’ album covers,” Mike recalls. “I was right at the front, flashing the shirt and a sharpie. James waves me up on stage, puts the shirt on my back, and signs it. That was the only thing he signed at the show!”
Now, three decades later, the teen fan turned bandleader has delivered an album that lives up to his mandate for The HP’s. “The motto of the record is ‘Personality over Precision with every Decision,’ so it will feel loose and fun,” Mike explains. “Gritty City Soul, Vol. 1 is my authentic voice, the music that is in my heart. If I didn’t think I could pull it off reasonably well, I wouldn’t have done it.” Mission accomplished.
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