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Ice and Vinyl: The music evangelism of Upshall

by Amy L. Marxkors / Special Contributor

You have to go back.

Before you can understand what happened at Bonnaroo, the one that saw Scottie Upshall link arms with Jim James - the phantasmagorical lead singer of My Morning Jacket known for kaleidoscopic jackets and hair that doesn't so much sprout from his head as escape from it - before you can understand the laughing tears that threatened Upshall's eyes as he and James danced, a beer in the former's hand and a bottle of Jack Daniels in the latter's - before you can grasp the significance of that crawfish boil in the middle of a music festival in the middle of a field in the middle of Tennessee, you have to go back.

Specifically, you have to go back to Joan.

A mother of nine living in Newfoundland, Joan Upshall, Scottie's grandmother, raised her children in the rich music of the island, folk songs fatty with sailing shanties and seafaring traditions. Joan herself played seven instruments - piano, organ, guitar and accordion, among them - and she expected her family to join in. The vehicle didn't matter as much as the music it generated. Guitar, piano, banjo, harmonica, spoons, and on occasion, beer cans. When the Upshall family gathered to celebrate a special occasion or simply around the fireside, they grabbed whatever instruments were nearby, and they played.

Joan was the heartbeat of the Upshall family. When she wasn't playing music around the fireside, she was volunteering her time to play for seniors and veterans, often with her brother Mac. With music, she greeted friends and family at the airport. With music, she commemorated holidays and birthdays and weddings. With music, she started parties - and shut them down. Joan could outlast revelers half her age.

Joan was married to Elmer, a mechanic who began his career at the age of 13 and later opened his own shop, Upshall's Garage. The couple bought a large property in Newfoundland, a sprawling piece of land peppered with cottages, a pool for the kids to swim in, and a meandering creek that served as a spunky alternative to the pool. The property became a mecca for the family, which, in addition to Joan and Elmer's original crew, soon included a bevy of grandchildren.

Among them was little Scottie Upshall. Every summer, after school ended for the year, Scottie would travel the length of Canada from his family's home in Fort McMurray, Alberta, to Newfoundland on the eastern seaboard. There, Scottie and his cousins would spend the warmer months hiking through the woods and splashing in the creek, surrounded by the cottages his grandpa rented out and the mellifluous presence of Joan.

"He gets a lot of his energy and passion for life from music, and you can tell he feeds off it," said Darren Pang, who spends his days with the Blues as an analyst for FOX Sports Midwest.

Pang told the story of a recent trip to Nashville, when several members of the team ended up at Tootsie's, a legendary honky-tonk that usually showcases country music.

"Bang! The Doors come on, and Scottie Upshall came flying over to my table," he recounted. "And we were singing 'Break on Through to the Other Side.' And bang! Another tune-Bruce Springsteen-came on. 'Born to Run.' And we were singing at the top of our lungs. Then Led Zeppelin came on. It was every song, one song after another."

Of course, to understand the paroxysm of karaoke that day in the Music City, to understand Upshall's affinity for music penned a decade or so before he was born, you have to go back. 

Specifically, you have to go down to the basement, where Scottie and his dad would sift through stacks of vinyl records, his dad's collection, harvested over years. You have to go back to his dad's pickup, when Scottie and his friends would toss their equipment bags into the bed of the truck and pile into the cab for countless hockey games. Pink Floyd. The Eagles. Led Zeppelin. These were the artists that carried them to distant rinks. These were the artists that serenaded them home, in a truck just as loud as it had been hours before and considerably less fresh.

For Scottie, music and hockey are inextricably woven together. When he was a kid, he saved up his money to buy his first album, Oasis's Wonderwall, for a road trip with his hockey team, the Fort McMurray Barons. He boarded the bus, headphones and cassette player in hand. He was twelve. 

Two decades later, Scottie still synthesizes road trips and music, scanning the team's destination for upcoming concerts. If a band he likes happens to be playing - and as long as the scheduling works out - he'll snag a ticket. In fact, it was this habit that catalyzed his introduction with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk two years before the two wore the same sweater.

Scottie was with the Florida Panthers at the time. The Panthers had arrived in St. Louis a day early for their game against the Blues, and the Lumineers were in the middle of a nationwide tour. It just so happened the band was playing at the Pageant on Delmar. Scottie went to the concert and found himself sitting next to Shattenkirk. The two recognized each other from the ice and chatted. ("I figured if he's sitting at a Lumineers show side stage, he's gotta be a good guy," Scottie recalled.) Two seasons later, they would be teammates.

Music also accelerated his friendship with the Blues' newly acquired goaltender, Carter Hutton.

"We went to the baseball game with the team," Scottie said, referring to the Cardinals game the Blues attended before the start of the NHL regular season. "I had just met [Carter] and his girlfriend (Stacey)."

The three carried on small talk for a few minutes. Scottie told them about the concert he was going to that night, the Arkells, a popular Canadian band.

"[Stacey's] eyes lit up. She was like, 'Oh, my gosh. That's my favorite band. They're playing?'" Scottie recalled. "I couldn't get anyone to go with me, so I had three tickets at will call. She was like, 'Can we go?'"

Scottie, Carter, and his girlfriend, Stacey, went to the concert. After the Arkells finished their set, the trio hung out backstage with the band.

"We chatted for an hour and a half. That was my introduction to Carter and his girlfriend - over a cool concert," he laughed.

Over the years, Scottie has met some of the most prominent musicians in the industry: Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin ("I'm just in awe of who he is as a human being"), Jay-Z, Chris Martin of Coldplay, and Thom Yorke, the visionary frontman of Radiohead.

"I've met people in the music world where I'm actually nervous or star-struck," he said. "I've been coached by Wayne Gretzky, and I've played alongside some of my idols growing up, and that's a great feeling. You're still kind of nervous, but hockey has been my whole life.

"Music is kind of a getaway. These are people that, when you meet them, you're actually like, 'Wow.' You're in awe. You're star-struck."

Scottie eventually parlayed his love for music into several years of music photography, a stimulating though admittedly challenging off-ice hobby.

"I had a nice Cannon camera and an all-access pass, so I'd go right into the pit and I'd be with some of music's top photographers," he said. "I got to know a few of them."

One of them was famed music photographer Danny Clinch. Clinch has photographed the industry's biggest legends, from John Lennon and Bruce Springsteen to Dave Matthews and Bjork. It was Clinch who invited Scottie to his tent that Sunday night at Bonnaroo, the one with the crawfish boil.

"We're in the tent. We're talking. We're eating crawfish. And everyone is just grabbing these crawfish and throwing tails and drinking," Scottie said. "And Jim James is across the table from me. He's got a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand, and he's talking to Danny - just making jokes. I'm in awe. He introduces himself, and we start talking, and then this Whitney Houston song comes on - 'I Wanna Dance with Somebody.' Jim yells for someone to turn it up, and then he starts singing. Everyone is huddled around him, with their beers, arm in arm, singing to Whitney Houston with Jim James. My buddies are looking at me and laughing because I'm kind of teary-eyed, I'm enjoying myself so much."

Scottie shook his head as he told the story. The experience is still surreal.

Jim James came through St. Louis earlier this season, in November, as part of his Eternally Even tour. He played at the Pageant. Scottie took 14 people. Like his grandmother, Scottie was an evangelist.

Several years before her death, Joan was diagnosed with dementia. Still, her love for music pierced the disease. 

"Even when she started losing her memory a little bit, she never forgot one chord to a song or verse to a song. Music stayed with her until that exact moment that she passed. She'd call me and sing me 'Happy Birthday' and play the accordion on FaceTime," Scottie said.

Joan Upshall died on November 27, 2015, surrounded by her family. They were singing her favorite songs.

"She was just talented," Scottie remembered. "She would be the last person up at a party - which is where I might get it from. She was fun and a great host. She always made sure people had a smile on their face through music and jokes. She was a saint, and she's the reason music carried through her family."

Today, the vinyl records, his dad's collection, are in Scottie's home. He's added to the treasury. Among the over 200 vinyls are some of the greatest albums in music history - albums like Pink Floyd's The Wall and Michael Jackson's Thriller. Some of them are originals. His walls are speckled with Danny Clinch photos, framed and hallowed.  

"The times I've been the happiest are when I've been with my friends or my family listening to music or being at festivals with my friends," Scottie said. "It's not so much for the Instagram photo of being at a festival like a lot of people, but more of the experience of watching something intimate and hearing a song that's played differently one time than the other.

"Whether it's the sound of the music or you're listening to the words or you're just taking in the sights, it's a great time. Some people like to watch hockey games live. I like to go watch music."

Because for Scottie, music is personal. And to understand why, you have to go back.

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