He was 12, and he had to sneak in.
But while watching a three-piece band rock St. Aidan’s Church with a hit from Rubber Soul, a man named Russ could well remember the year he saw The Beatles play it live.
Every winter since 2006, volunteers at St. Aidan’s have welcomed people like Russ for a weekly dinner and a warm place to sleep.
It’s part of Out of the Cold, a city-wide effort to help men and women who live on the streets.
What makes St. Aidan’s stand out is its sound.
Not only is the Beach church extra quiet at night, dinner comes with live music on the side.
“I think it’s great,” said Russ. “It makes everybody feel like it’s a special thing – extra special.”
Listening to Toronto’s own Posh Tossers play ‘We Can Work it Out’ and other British Invasion songs, Russ pointed out how well their amps, mics and mixer were set up, to say nothing of the tea lights or the old lamps set on highchairs that were lighting the hall.
“It’s a good use of the stage, and they’ve got a monitor, too,” he said. “They know what they’re doing.”
The man behind the music is Brad Luft, a long-time St. Aidan’s volunteer who is quick to deflect the spotlight on the many others who keep Out of the Cold running every November to March.
“My heroes are the guys that do the morning breakfast,” he said.
“There’s no glory in getting up at five o’clock, feeding everyone and getting them out the door by 7:30.”
Two years ago, shortly after Luft’s band Girls Night Out took a hiatus, he decided to bring an acoustic guitar to Out of the Cold to play a few original songs.
The guests liked it, and the dinner music grew from a whim to a plan.
Soon Luft was booking local acts like guitarist Geoff Hlibka and singer Michele Mele. One of the guests brought his own guitar and wowed everyone by picking his way through ‘Roundabout’ by Yes.
As the shows got rolling, Dr. Michael Chambers, who founded St. Aidan’s Out of the Cold program, was happy to find money for a second-hand sound system.
Six months later, it got stolen.
“I thought that was going to be the end of it,” said Luft, but organizers at the church told him no, they would replace the gear, and build a big lock box to secure it.
This winter, St. Aidan’s had 14 different performers play over 20 Monday nights. Every hour-long show has an audience of 60 to 90 people, said Luft, and volunteers enjoy it as much as the guests do.
“You see them humming and kinda dancing and they’re serving the food,” he said.
At the last show before Luft spoke to Beach Metro News, one of the guests got up and danced in the aisle.
“These people who come, I look at them and I think any one of them could have been me,” he said. “Any one of them could have been my kids.”
Growing up in Guelph in the 1960s, Luft’s grandmother would send him out once a week to deliver a home-cooked meal to an older neighbour in need. She also put up University of Guelph students, and their dogs, for as long as it took them to find their own place.
“Everybody called her Granny,” said Luft. She had a modest career, working as a cleaning lady, but when she passed there were more than 100 people at the funeral.
That left a mark, as did Luft’s first big gig at Guelph’s Wellington Hotel.
His mom waitressed there, and one day when Luft was 13 and playing drums in a band of seventh-graders, she called to say Roy Orbison’s drummer was sick, and could he stand in for their matinee show?
“I knew the guy was famous, but I didn’t know how famous,” said Luft, laughing. He managed to play a 45-minute set, including Orbison’s 1964 hit, ‘Pretty Woman.’
“It was all kind of a blur.”
Today, Michael Oesch, frontman for a local band called The Minions, said he has played lots of downtown clubs where music gets blurred – usually because the crowd is busy drinking and talking and laughing.
But St. Aidan’s is another story.
“Here, you get to play for people who most times can’t afford to go out and listen to live music,” he said. “They’re so appreciative.”
Jazz singer and pianist Laura Fernandez, who played the first and last shows for this year’s Out of the Cold, said it’s a beautiful thing to do.
“I remember when my grandfather told me, when I was a kid, that the biggest privilege for them was to be able to eat with music playing,” she said, adding that her grandparents survived the Spanish Civil War, years of food stamps and bread lines.
“When you play music, it’s never about money,” she said. “It’s about giving.”
Next season, Luft hopes to turn the St. Aidan’s lighting set-up up a notch, and to organize a fundraising concert in the church proper, with invites going out to Out of the Cold guests.
It’s a lot of work, but he can’t wait.
“I look forward to going every Monday night,” he said, and not only for the music. “I love the music, but I also just see the joy these people get.”
“That, to me, is what the Beach is all about.”