Remembering Edmonton musician, actor Joe Bird


Joe Bird performs in Edmonton in 2003.

Joe Bird performs in Edmonton in 2003.

Photograph by: Jimmy Jeong, Edmonton Journal, file

EDMONTON — With the news that Joe Bird died Wednesday — felled by a heart attack at the absurdly young age of 41 — Edmonton seems a sadder, drabber, tamer, cloudier place today.

For one thing, we’re now a place where a person won’t, any time soon, catch sight of a man in a skirt, rollerblading down Whyte Avenue with two guitars and a mandolin on his back. That indelible image would be Bird — composer, musician, comic, actor, writer and free spirit — on his way to preside over open-mike gigs at O’Byrne’s Pub.

That gig, along with membership in diverse rock bands, was central to his musician’s life for the past couple of years. But Bird, the sunniest of men, spread his warmth, originality, and a certain puckish spirit of why-not? over every aspect of the entertainment scene here. And that, of course, includes theatre.

In 1985, Bird and his high school pal Wes Borg formed a theatre-sports improv team with an enigmatic name, Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie. A year later, with Paul Mather, the Trolls were revealing their signature combination of kooky and literate in sketch comedy at the Sidetrack Cafe. Cathleen Rootsaert joined, then Neil Grahn.

In the eight years that followed, before the Trolls membership again dwindled to Borg and Bird, the Trolls gave Edmonton and the Fringe Festival “the hottest tickets in town,” as Grahn puts it. “Buzz, energy, excitement.” And that gave the Trolls “a taste of what it must feel like to be rock stars, in our small, goofy theatre-troupe way.

“Actors, real theatre types, would ask, ‘What have these guys got?’ They’re idiots!’ ” says Grahn. “We couldn’t argue with them. We knew we were.” He’d first seen Bird and Borg at Yuk Yuks. He recalls being particularly struck by “the duelling banjos” routine. “It was so stupid,” he laughs approvingly. “They’d start that Deliverance thing, and end up smashing each other over the head with their guitars. … Ah, these guys I like!”

He remembers sublime Troll moments at the old Theatre Network, whose home in the ’80s was a defunct Kingdom Hall near the Coliseum. “We were doing some German expressionist dance number, Freedom. Joe had Cathleen on his shoulders, and ran right off the stage. He just drilled her head into the ground. Beautiful and tragic.”

Bird’s musician chops meant that he created many of the Trolls’ comedy songs, including the hit that landed them a six-show CBC contract: The I Hate Toronto Song, which detailed the shortcomings of everywhere in Canada, except Alberta. Bird was responsible for the Hinterland Who’s Who-type theme that included the daffy Legend of the Little Beefalo Calf and the rousing North Pole union song-gone-wrong that brought down the house in the Trolls’ seasonal collaboration with Atomic Improv in Cry Santa!

The sight of Bird as General Brock in The War of 1812, a subject sadly neglected by musical theatre both before and since, isn’t something I’m going to forget. Neither was Bird as sex-craved Joseph, singing to his pregnant virgin girlfriend, in a version of The Messiah in which the Trolls teamed with the rock band Jr. Gone Wild.

Last summer, Bird did the comedy songs for the CBC Radio initiative The Irrelevant Show, including a theme for Grahn’s “favourite bit, Radio Stunt Man. … Joe wrote this great tune, sort of Peter Gunn and Mission: Impossible.” “My God, he was a beautiful songwriter,” says Rootsaert, who left the Trolls in 1994 to pursue playwriting and acting. Both she and Grahn note the cruel irony of Bird’s comedy song We’re All Going To Die. “Joe was supposed to be killed by killer bees,” she says sadly.

“Joe greeted you, always, with a smile and a hug,” says Rootsaert. “He was also so … lively. I’ve laughed harder with him …”

Grahn, who calls Bird “an equal opportunity hugger,” concurs. “He made us laugh. He was so horribly inappropriate at times, you couldn’t help but love him. So vibrant. It’s really so shocking.”

We all agree. The old theatrical axiom about suspending disbelief was never harder.


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Joe Bird performs in Edmonton in 2003.

Joe Bird performs in Edmonton in 2003.

Photograph by: Jimmy Jeong, Edmonton Journal, file


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Ken Barth
April 08, 2009 - 9:59 AM
 I had the pleasure of knowing Joe in Edmonton. Condolences to all who knew him. Love,
Ivan Todosijczuk
April 07, 2009 - 2:41 PM
 While working for CBC radio, I had a chance to work with Joe and the Trolls on a number of radio skits. It was fantastic. Years later any time Joe and I crossed paths it always felt like two best friends meeting. He is missed.
sherry-lee wisor
April 07, 2009 - 2:02 AM
 so lucky to have known him... and every other person he knew feels the same way... how does a person create such deep connections with so many people...? thanks for the hints, joe... love you. miss you so very much.
John D Huston
April 06, 2009 - 6:54 PM
 I remember Joe from my first confusing year at the Edmonton Fringe. He saw my show gave me a hug and said, "Great man." I didn't know this big hairy guy from Adam but I got to know over the following years: What a sweet lovely pant-wettingly funny soul he had. He will be missed; thanks Liz.
Penni (Borg) Bellingham
April 06, 2009 - 3:59 PM

Joe, Like another brother to me, I cannot say I knew you when you were forty-one like I knew you when you were seventeen but I speak of you often, enjoy an ecclectic and extensive picture album of you and the trolls and have kept for years the birthday gift you gave me for my sixteenth. I have always treasured our chance meetings, you made a lasting and loving impression on our entire family. So much love, so much happiness. I won't dwell on sad thoughts for long, not with all of the happy memories I have in my heart. I love you and miss you!

Kevin Hosier
April 06, 2009 - 1:11 PM

The news just made it to Joe's friends in the UK - what a shock. It's a measure of how much we loved the guy that we could be so upset even eight years after last seeing him. He was the gentlest of men - we spent great months working together on a fringe show in the early 90's. You made me laugh Joe - when I was on stage with you as well, unfortunately. Our thoughts are with all his friends and family.

Jeff Page
April 06, 2009 - 12:58 PM

We'd like to thank everybody who came out to Joe's tribute last night. We feel it really captured the essence of the man. It was inspiring to see so many souls gathered together for such a magical fellow. Keep the spirit alive.

Anthony Santiago
April 06, 2009 - 9:53 AM

Lovely tribute  Liz.  Rest in Peace Joe.

Anna Marie Sewell
April 06, 2009 - 9:24 AM
 Joe was brilliant. Absurd. So very warm. I am blessed to be one of the many people he embraced in his 'equal opportunity' madcap style. At a time when i had been traveling for years, and needed to re-orient myself, Joe's open stage at Cork's was grand. Silly. Real and unreal. A godsend and a riot. He had a grand ability to be both utterly sincere and obviously playing. Even though we shared a fair few hugs and songs and smiles, i know i didn't know him, not like his friends and family did. But i'll treasure his memory, his smile, his humor; and he told me my songs were pretty. He had the gift of making people feel pretty, in the best sense of that word. Goodbye, Joe. You were so very pretty, baby.
Ray Belcourt
April 06, 2009 - 8:51 AM
 Joe was a enthusiastic and talented performer. He always made my son Devon feel welcome at the open stage. Sunday at Obyrne's will never be quite the same without his unique style and wit.
Guillaume Bois
April 05, 2009 - 9:54 PM
 1998, A little Québécois arrived in Edmonton (me) and met this man with a black t-shirt and a skirt at L'Unithéâtre (even if he never spoke a word of french... except a few bad words, he was involved in the francophone culture). He invited me to sing in his open stage at Cork's. "yeah... c'mon, sing in french you little ...." From music to theatre to his wonderful HUT, Joe help me to be part of the Edmonton cultural scene and was a great friend. Love you my dear Oiseau!!!
Ben McCaffery
April 05, 2009 - 9:28 PM

Joe was a great muse for quality of moment and a perfect companion for sharing optimism and loving life.  

Ciao Bello

Mike Evans
April 05, 2009 - 6:59 PM

I was going to say that Joe always made me feel, despite having left both theatre and music some years ago, as if I was still part of Edmonton's creative community, as if I still "belonged"; then I realized he treated EVERYONE as if they belonged.  Joe gave everyone the same boisterous welcome, the same merciless ridicule, the same warm hug.  He seemed to know that he was not going to be of this world long and he lived accordingly, doing what he wanted without apology and without malice.  He'll be missed.

Ian Ferguson
April 05, 2009 - 5:36 PM

Thank you, Liz.  Joe Bird was a sweet, talented and funny man who didn't have a mean bone in his body.  My thoughts and prayers to his family.

Rick Kunst
April 05, 2009 - 2:37 PM
 Well written Liz.
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