|Ptarmigan was formed in 1970 when Michael Bieling introduced guitarist, James Lithgow to vocalist / recorder player, Glen Dias. They began writing songs with Bieling accompanying on congas, and soon added Dennis Lelonde on alto sax, piano & vocals; Monte Nordstrom on 12-string guitar & vocals, and a second percussionist, Shawn Mullins. The sextet performed on Vancouver Island and eventually came to the attention of the renowned flautist Paul Horn who had moved to Victoria, B.C. to escape the rigours of life in Los Angeles. He was impressed with the group's unorthodox style and encouraged the band to stay in touch. When the group fragmented with Lithgow & Bieling departing, Peter Wheeler, an American percussionist, joined the band.|
|Eventually Lelonde dropped out of the lineup & when plans were made to travel across Canada, the ensemble was reduced to the duo of Dias & Nordstrom who purchased train tickets to Toronto & set out on the road.|
The first stop was Winnipeg & their first dates at the Ting Tea Room. They began writing new material immediately, developing harmony structures & establishing their eerie west coast sound.
After two months on the Winnipeg scene the duo continued by train to an extented stay with the Macauley family in Scarborough. They auditioned unsucessfully at Grumble's & The Riverboat in Toronto & ended up spending Hallowe'en collecting candy for the Children's Hospital.
|They performed at The Fiddler's Green appearing with Leon Redbone & the Downchild Blues Band. A visit to Hamilton turned into several weeks followed by a return trip to Winnipeg & the Ting, where they performed for Christmas & New Years, both memorable if strange occasions. A late night jam with members of Lighthouse occurred during this time. A van trip across Northern Ontario ensued in January 1972 with Gary McKeehan, an independant CBC actor/producer & also a manager for Perth County Conspiracy (does not exist). They eventually ended up at McKeehan's rural home (near Stratford, where they visited at the Black Swan). A trip to Chicago was attempted but the two young men were turned back at Detroit due to their long hair, odd luggage & low supply of funds. They returned to Mckeehan's & plans were made to go to Ottawa following up on an invitation made by Rob Putt, (an audio technician they had met in Winnipeg). They continued on to Toronto by bus & were now without sufficient funds to carry on. After a night at the YMCA, one bus ticket for Ottawa was purchased & the 2 musicians flipped a coin to determine who would take the instruments on the bus & who would hitchhike the 500 miles through the sub-zero blizzard. Glen lost the toss & watched as Monte rode out on the Greyhound to Ottawa, 10 hours away.|
|Monte was met in Ottawa by Rob Putt & had already secured a gig at a hippy cafeteria called The Kitchen Cinq, when Glen arrived some 5 hours later looking like the abominable snowman in his battered fur coat. Ottawa turned out to be an excellent environment for ptarmigan. After a stay with Rob's family the duo moved into The Pestalozzi which was described as a 21 story vertical commune, full of radicals, artists, freaks & university types who congregated downstairs in the Kitchen Cinq listening to acoustic music & rattling their cutlery.|
|An audition was arranged at le Hibou & the duo was hired to open for Lenny Breau (who happened to be Monte's guitar idol & became one of his major influences). The duo opened two shows a night for the week & Monte's18th birthday was celebrated in the club with a cake from the staff & a carton of cigarettes from Lenny. That weekend the club owner, John Russo took the duo aside to tell them that Doug Kershaw was a no-show & that Lenny was held over but that he could not afford to keep ptarmigan on. Lenny turned to them & said in his quiet way, "That's O.K. boys, I'll pay you." A 2nd week followed after all. (By the way, the pay for the week was $80.00 divided 2 ways). Socializing with Lenny for 2 weeks was quite an experience!|
|Ptarmigan stayed on in Ottawa hanging around at le Hibou meeting Bruce Cockburn who had just released his 2nd album "High Winds, White Skies" & spending an evening with Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. They also guested with the avante garde ensemble Syrinx. Winter was winding down so a bus trip to Montreal was arranged. Bob Hahn of Astra Records had contacted ptarmigan prior to their journey but their meeting in Montreal was unfruitful & the duo returned to Ottawa. Perth County was playing there so they hooked up with them & after their show they caught a ride on their communal bus back down to Toronto & a Perth concert at the University of Toronto. The duo now used the return portion of their train tickets & again they performed at the Ting in Winnipeg. Monte recalls, "we later learned that Peter Wheeler had hitchhiked from the coast to Winnipeg, trying to catch up with us, but he missed us by a few days and hitched back to the Island before winter set in."|
|In Winnipeg they arranged to record a demo of their now seasoned material, with the intention of giving the tape to Paul Horn when they reached Vancouver Island. The duo now continued by rail to Edmonton, then by bus back to the Island. Back in Victoria, another chapter was about to unfold. Paul Horn liked what he heard on the tapes & he signed them to a publishing agreement with his company "Samadhi Music" & also to a producer & management package. The recording was done at Canbase (Mushroom) Studio in Vancouver during the fall & winter of 1972. The duo laid the basic tracks down on the first session & on the next date brought Richard Mayer in to play electric bass & Peter Wheeler to play hand percussion. Paul Horn brought in Kat Hendrickse on drums. On the 3rd session Paul's acoustic bassist Dave Field, came in to lay down the rest of the bass tracks & Glen did some vocal, recorder & percussion overdubs. It was mixed in January '73 & then the project sat in the can for over a year. It took that amount of time to find a label willing to release the unusual project. Finally Paul leased the recording to Columbia of Canada who manufactured & released the Lp (& single "Go Dancing" b/w "Vancouver") in early 1974.|
|Between the time of the recording & the release of the Ptarmigan Lp Glen & Monte had not been very active musically. In fact the partnership had effectively been ended. The conflict of personality which had been there from the onset came to the fore & waiting a year for the release did not ease the tension. Faced with promoting the project they attempted to put their differences aside. They performed for a week opening for the Paul Horn Quintet at the Egress in Vancouver & did a series of small shows on Vancouver Island. Monte asked a talented friend, David Aston to join the group on bass guitar & they rehearsed. He was enthusiastic that they were starting to co-write. A drummer was added & a premiere concert was arranged by Horn. The show went on but the drummer really wasn't suitable for the band so it was agreed that a replacement should be found. More rehearsals took place. A few weeks later David was tragically killed in a car accident & a devastated Monte walked away from the Ptarmigan project for the last time. Glen Dias went on to develop a career in musical theatre while Monte continued to write & record solo material.|
Paul Horn / Ptarmigan Preview|
Ah...those press parties...aren't they something?
The summum bonum ot the press corps.. as much food and drink as your decadent little heart desires. So it was with contentment that I chanced to partake in the opening night of Paul Horn & Ptarmigan down at the Egress. Ptarmigan can claim credit for that song "Vancouver" that you may or may not have heard on the FM station: if you haven't, you soon will because it's going to be released as a single.
Billed as "quiet & reflective" and "extremely personal and heartfelt", Ptarmigan have come under the guiding wing of Paul Horn with an album the result. Their first set was songs from that album... strongly reminiscent of The Incredible String Band.
There's only two of them (a rhythm section on the album) Glen Dias, lead vocals and flutes, Monte Nordstrom, vocals and twelve string guitar... and while their music does have a limited appeal, i.e., it isn't exactly what I'D call top-40, chart-bustin', commercial rock...they come across as sincere, genuinely concerned musicians... a welcome change from the usual raucous roll that one associates with fledgling groups from Canada.
Articles by Monte