Meaford Band Culture Reject Enjoys International Reputation

This Saturday The Bicycle Cafe in Flesherton features a band called Culture Reject.  This unassuming little venue just down the road from Meaford has a relaxed and friendly atmosphere with some comfy chairs at the front and a tasty menu.  They have been featuring an eclectic selection of great music on Saturday nights.  Culture Reject is a small band with a big reputation in Europe, headed by one of Meaford’s more impressive recent imports, singer-songwriter Michael O’Connell.

Those who have seen Michael perform at open stages (or at last Saturday’s benefit in Kimberly) have been struck by an unassuming talent who has a remarkable ability to sculpt profound sounds with the use of space and dynamics even when it is just himself and a guitar.  That ability actually comes from years of writing, recording and touring internationally, and proficiency on a number of instruments.

Micheal started his first band, Quest, in the mid-eighties when he was in Grade Six, an 80’s style hair band with a couple of school buddies.  Within weeks of forming they were opening for country bands at local bars in St. Catherines.  He found his calling in music and, with some vocal training, delved deeper into the mysteries of composition.  While attending the University of Guelph in the mid-nineties, he played consistently at open stages and gathered a number of musical friends who eventually became a band called Black Cabbage.  It evolved into an 8-piece band that included accordion, organ, alto sax, violin, percussion, bass, drums, four guitars, five singers and four songwriters.  They gained national airplay and toured the country for six years playing their unique amalgam of “rock, folk, punk, Motown, blues, African, Celtic, country, and gypsy influences”.

About a year and a half after the band disbanded, in 2008, Michael O’Connell re-emerged with his solo project, which he called Culture Reject.  It benefited from the wide mix of instruments and styles in Black Cabbage and resulted in a very engaging and sophisticated music that is in a class all its own.  Michael had had enough of Canadian touring and opted instead to take on Europe.

“Driving for hours along the 401 is soul-killing,” he says, “and I found that in Europe you can travel on a rail pass and enjoy the experience.”  There were other benefits of European touring.  One is that unknown “small towns” may have a population of 400,000 people who have tastes that extend beyond the roots rock tradition that dominates North America.  His music found an audience there and, signing with Whitewhale Records, his fan base in France and Germany continues to expand after five European tours.

In 2011 Culture Reject became a band rather than a name to hang on a solo performer, with the addition of Carlie Howell  and Karri North.  Despite Michael’s self-description as a “control freak”, the new band members have added sonic dimensions to the band in keeping with the original vision.  The music of Culture Reject is beautiful, spacious and rhythmic at the same time, with lyrics that sound almost like candle lit conversations in a quiet room.  There is a real sensitivity to this band, where every note on every instrument, every nuance counts.

Michael says he really came to appreciate the importance of every tiny piece of the sound when he took his family on a vacation in Cuba.  “That music is so special,” he says, “Everything counts.  Even the cowbell is totally integral to the sound.”

The sensitivity also emanates from Michael’s world view and sense of community, which he developed while living in a Malawi village in Africa.  He applies this insight into his other great passion in life, helping at-risk youth find their own voices through the creation of music, working with the Toronto-based organization which “creates opportunities for young people (ages 16 to 29) living street involved, homeless or otherwise on the margins, to experience the transformative power of the arts; to build leadership and economic self-sufficiency in the arts; and to cultivate social and environmental change through the arts.”  When you hear his music (even though his focus is on the creations of the kids rather than his own) you can appreciate how he is able to reach out and help in a healing way.

You don’t have to be “at-risk” to be transformed and moved by the music of Culture Reject.  This opportunity to enjoy them in a comfortable café on Saturday night in Flesherton is available to us because, like so many insightful and talented people, Michael and his family were drawn to the beauty of this area and have decided to make Meaford their home, enriching (thankfully, not rejecting) our local culture.

The show starts at 9 p.m. on Saturday evening.

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Check out the music of Culture Reject by clicking on this album cover:

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