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Kirby, aka Kathy Kirby, was a music junkie from a very young age and a fixture on the Edmonton music scene a few years after she was baptized in the sounds of everything from The Beatles to Johnny Cash to Edmonton’s own Willie and the Walkers.
By the time Kirby was in her mid-teens it was common to see this music fan at all the hip gigs, whether it was the grander scale shows that took place at the Sales Pavilion, Edmonton Gardens or the Kinsmen Fieldhouse, or smaller yet equally memorable shows that happened in gymnasiums, community halls or folk clubs.
She fell in with the Tacoy Ryde crew and if there was a Tacoy gig happening, Kirby was certain to be at it, taking care of something and just generally championing the band. Eventually Kirby’s interest in live sound led her to the proximity of the sound console at gigs, and a journey to becoming an accomplished live sound engineer was underway. Street dances, bar gigs, one night stands in catering halls, community halls, hotel cabarets, resort towns, and small festivals, all played a part in Kirby learning her craft and learning it properly and with some mentorship from some of the best front-of-house and monitor engineers in our city.
By the early eighties, Kirby was splitting her time out on the road with Tacoy Ryde, who were working the “A” circuit on their own, or opening dates for world-renowned acts like Third World and Steel Pulse. When in town she was a fixture behind the board at the basement tavern in the Ambassador that was managed by Peter Zlocewski. The joint had a great run and Kirby honed her mixing chops with a slate of blues acts from all over Canada and the U.S.
William Clarke, George Harmonica Smith, Maria Muldaur, Amos Garrett, Jimmy Rogers, The Arrows, Mighty Joe Young, Ken Hamm, Houndog, Billy Cowsill, The Rault Brothers, David Burgin and the Nightshades, and of course Tacoy Ryde, were just a few of the acts that Kirby helped sound good in a room that was not built with any kind of real acoustic specs. She’d also be working in the Boiler or the Sidetrack with Tacoy, and as acts started to make return engagements, many of them started to request that Kirby be part of the package when they were playing in Edmonton.
Having become a mother, Kirby’s road days were all but finished and after Peter Z turned out the lights at the “Ambo”, Kirby’s next house gig was at the short-lived Howlin’ Wolf where she worked a number of blues acts including Chicago’s Jimmy Dawkins, Mark Hummel and the Blues Survivors, Big Miller, and Austin’s Tailgators. From there it was over to the Power Plant on the U of A campus where blues acts like James Harman, Major Handy, King Biscuit Boy, Johnny V, Rusty Reed, and a very young David Gogo, were in the mix with acts like The Cowboy Junkies, The Tom Russell Band, and The Barenaked Ladies. They all loved Kirby and her attention to detail and fine mixes. It was around that time that Kirby started to handle non-sound details for artists, helping them get other gigs, doing immigration and border-crossing paper-work, writing grant applications or new bios, as she also started writing a column for See Magazine.
Her deep understanding of all kinds of popular music became evident to a number of individuals on the scene who realized Kirby’s skill set went way beyond setting up stages and mixing. Contracts working on the Shaw Cable t.v. show Project Discovery were part of her itinerary as she helped decide what acts would be featured on the award-winning cable show from year to year and eventually she took over the job booking the Sidetrack Café and kept the blues component beefed up on the Sidetrack Calendar. Long John Baldry, Powder Blues, The Rockin’ Highliners, Hot Cottage, Duke Robillard, The Twisters, Roomful of Blues, John Hammond and Sue Foley were just some of the acts that snagged bookings during what was the last great chapter in the Sidetrack Café story.
Kirby’s work continued at Grant MacEwan University where she spoke to arts admin classes about various facets of the business and she worked hard managing Bomba, Kat Danser and other acts. A true character and one-of-a-kind, Kirby lost her battle with cancer in the fall of 2014 and left her daughter Jade, extended family, hundreds of friends, and legions of admirers crushed by her passing but her memory and achievements live on.
Awardee notes compiled by Peter North