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The Ottawa Citizen - December 16, 1999

Tenor lives life on a high note

By Wes Smiderle

Between shaking hands with the president of the United States and his mother's recent emergence from a coma, Toronto tenor John McDermott has had a heart-wrenching few weeks.

It started when he was invited to sing at the U.S Remembrance Day service in Washington last month (becoming the first Canadian to do so).

After having breakfast at the White House and meeting the president ("He was a lot taller than I thought"), McDermott attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

He sang at the the Wall, the famous stretch of black marble bearing the names of the 58,000 U.S soldiers, sailors and aviators killed or missing in the Vietnam War.

"It was an absolute honour," says McDermott, speaking from Washington where he has been busy raising funds for a Second World War memorial and the first "McDermott House," a transitional shelter for homeless veterans.

Just before he left, McDermott's mother suffered a heart attack. "She had a hole in the wall of her heart, and when they sedated her they couldn't wake her up."

McDermott cancelled several shows in order to be at home. After more than a month in a coma, she regained consciousness. "She just sat up," he says. "It was bizarre and very scary."

Although he cancelled several shows in order to be at his mother's side, McDermott continued performing at concerts and fund-raisers.

He helps out a number of charities and hospitals, including Ottawa's CHEO. "There's so many things you can throw your support behind, and fortunately I've got some visibility," he says. "I'm sure my dad would be proud of that."

Aside from a couple of years with St. Michael's Choir School in Toronto when he was 14, McDermott has no formal training as a singer. "My training was my dad. I emulate him."

Lately McDermott has been making increasingly longer forays into the U.S.

"It's very similar to Canada," he says. "You're not going to hear my stuff on the radio and I'm not up at night losing sleep over it."

Instead of industry support, McDermott has been relying on what made him a hit up here in the first place -- word-of-mouth. "It's a very good thing because I have a realization of the strength of my fan base, and it's very significant," he says. "They're very much the silent majority."

They're also a fiercely loyal silent majority which McDermott credits to the elimination of the green room at his concerts. Rather than sit cloistered away before each performance, he can be seen strolling the lobby, shaking hands, telling jokes and chatting.

"They have the opportunity to get autographs, take pictures, or just say hello," says McDermott. "And if someone is going to give you ideas and suggestions, it might as well be a fan."

And McDermott is always open to new ideas. He was in the process of recording a show for PBS when someone approached him with the idea of hooking up with two other Irish tenors, Anthony Kearns and Roan Tynan.

"Last August I went to Dublin to meet these two guys and they seemed like reasonable sorts, so we selected tunes and recorded the show."

The result was two CDs, The Irish Tenors and Home for Christmas, as well as a 20-date tour across the U.S.

Despite the implications, McDermott says the tenors' music is not operatic.

"I wouldn't know opera if it kicked me in the head," he says. "I'm very much the laid-back ballad. If you wanna finish big, go ahead."

Aside from the tenor trio, McDermott's most recent release is last year's If Ye Break Faith, a collection of war songs marking the 80th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918 Armistice that ended the First World War. His fourth album, Love is a Voyage, has been rereleased with five new songs including Daughter of Mine, a wedding song written by a Newfoundland housewife from the perspective of the bride's father.

He leaves behind the 78-piece symphony (and those other two tenors) for this week's Ottawa shows. Instead, he brings along his usual three-piece band along with Anne Lindsay on vocals and violin.

"The connection with my own band is 10 times more intimate than it is with a symphony," he says. "A symphony is following a chart, but a band is following me."

McDermott, never one to shy away from requests, also promises to include some holiday cheer in this weekend's shows.

"We'll Christmas it right to the hilt."