It wasn’t the oddest Canada Day gig Chris Millington has played.
No, that honour goes to the night, now part of Victoria folklore, when a couple had sex in one of the front-facing windows of the Empress Hotel, right above Millington’s head.
Wednesday’s show in Millington’s Colwood driveway was more family-friendly than that — and, dare we say, more Canadian.
Millington is a well-established musician whose band is a staple on the Victoria scene — Butchart Gardens in the summer, Mary Winspear Centre on New Year’s Eve, that sort of thing. At least, that’s the way it was before COVID-19 derailed the train.
Like all oxygen-starved musicians during the pandemic, Millington has been going nuts without somewhere to perform. So, this Canada Day, with little fanfare, his seven-piece band set up at the top of Millington’s sloped driveway.
It was wonderful. A crowd that stayed just on the Bonnie Henry-approved side of 50 appeared with lawn chairs and gratefully settled in for the first live music they had heard in months. Children frolicked on the grass. Red-and-white-clad women line-danced in the road. People who looked like they should have no rhythm at all head-bopped to Uptown Funk.
The Millingtons’ across-the-street neighbours Jennifer and Gary Birtwistle opened their lawn to (physically distanced) people from nearby houses, some of whom they knew, some of whom they were meeting for the first time. “It’s good,” Jennifer said. “It’s social.”
It was in marked contrast to that Canada Day of 2006, the one where the naked couple in the Empress window put on an intentionally public performance timed to rival the fireworks over the Inner Harbour, filling onlookers with horror, or perhaps envy.
That was back when Victoria’s annual Canada Day/Fete du Regurgitation celebrations were really starting to earn a reputation as a bit of a bacchanal. A big crowd — the girls dressed in flags as mini-dresses, the boys with the maple leaf painted on bare chests — had gathered on the Upper Causeway to show their love of country by getting drunk, throwing up on their shoes (or, worse, yours) and attempting to punch out the Captain Cook statue.
It was just after 10 p.m. that Millington, who was playing the Bengal Lounge, called a break and led his fellow musicians onto a balcony — the one above the big white letters that spelled out THE EMPRESS — to watch the fireworks.
That’s when things got weird.
“The first fireworks go off, and then the whole crowd turns to us and starts screaming and shouting,” he recalls.
Millington and his bandmates turned to one another, perplexed. Was the cheering for them? They didn’t even have their instruments with them. “We were baffled.”
This goes on for some time, the crowd below swivelling between the explosions in the sky and their apparent adoration of Millington et al up on the balcony. Mick Jagger, eat your heart out.
It wasn’t until the next morning that Millington learned the deflating truth: The cheers weren’t for the band but for the naked couple polishing the panes one storey above. “It was on someone’s bucket list, maybe” is the way Empress manager Roger Soane would later explain the exhibition.
The thing is, the window display wasn’t that much out of keeping with the scene in front of the hotel back then. At the height of the rowdiness, a typical Canada Day night would see 60 to 80 people stuffed into Victoria police cells and, when those were full, the lock-up in the courthouse. The nuttiness peaked on July 1, 2011, when B.C. Transit had to take a record 25 barfed-in buses — vomit comets — off Victoria roads.
It’s uncertain why Victorians decided to equate puking with patriotism, but you know we’re the only ones who do this, right? In the rest of the country, people are content to celebrate with a hot dog, a little paper flag and a couple of temporary tattoos. It’s only here that some deem Canada Day an appropriate time to lose their inhibitions, underwear and stomach contents on the Government Street sidewalk.
None of that in Colwood on Wednesday. Instead, it was just a bunch of people coming together to cheerfully celebrate what we hope is one of the strangest Canada Days ever. “When you can’t have normal day-to-day living, you’ve got to make the best of it,” Jennifer Birtwistle said.
That’s what we do, even when July 1 is a little colder and gloomier than we might have liked.
“I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day,” guitar player Duncan Meiklejohn sang, and everybody believed him.