There’s a popular stereotype that the Indigenous Canadian is an inherently rural creature. And then there’s reality. As proof that this community can come from anywhere – and belong anywhere – Vancouver guitarist/vocalist Blair Bellerose has declared himself “Born in the City,” a righteous declaration of identity from his band, Midnight Sparrows. Check it out on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-Hk5SSIbGPw
In three and a half minutes of slamming autobiography, Bellerose and his Sparrows explode the myth of the soil-bound native. But while the air-clearing effect of the track is invigorating, the picture it paints isn’t always pretty:
When my mother was four
They took her away
Dad got back from the war
And he didn’t get his pay
They ended up in the city
Mom never had a choice
I don’t know why my father did
Because he never used his voice
The chorus hits with a bracing self-awareness:
I was born in the city
Do you think that I’d be better off dead?
Like all them Hollywood Injuns
With feathers on their heads
“Urban Indigenous people are one of the fastest-growing populations in Canada, and over half of Indigenous people in Canada live off-reserve and in urban areas,” says Bellerose, who has Métis, Cree and Dene blood and is also a member of Fort McKay First Nation through his mother’s family line. “Yet there remains a notion that Indigenous people do not belong in cities; that they are out of place and without culture, and living in urban areas renders their indigeneity as inauthentic. This song is my response to that.”
There’s certainly nothing countryfied about the way the track grabs your attention and refuses to let go.
His arresting workingman’s baritone makes Bellerose’s lyrics feel like a challenge, while his lead guitar lines cry out mournfully over his own chunky rhythms and chiming chords. Scotty McCargar’s thwacking drum work, Goby Catt’s punchy bass and Jim McLaren’s keyboard stabs fully sell the knowing self-portrait. Although the Sparrows are essentially Bellerose plus a rotating cast of studio players, these four seasoned pros together sound like nothing less than a band – and a finely honed one at that.
The sentiment behind the number is so heartfelt that Bellerose made “Born in the City” the title track to Midnight Sparrows’ second and most recent album. It’s a six-song collection that rests comfortably at the elusive nexus of hard rock, power pop and old-school metal. (Fans of the late, great Smithereens will send up a cheer.) With passionate forays like “Butterfly Wings” – a tribute to Bellerose’s mother, an Indigenous elder and residential-school survivor who passed away at the age of 87 – it’s clear that striking a balance between heritage and heft is never going to be a problem for this outfit. Listen without reservations because the city never sounded so good.