Chilliwack's Bill Henderson looks to the past to reconcile the future

"There is a great coming together that needs to happen between the cultures," says band's frontman

The band Chilliwack burst on the local and national music scene in 1970 and, for the next decade and a half, piled up a string of hits: Lonesome Mary, Whatcha Gonna Do, Fly At Night, Crazy Talk, There's Something I Like About That, California Girl and many more.

The name Chilliwack, to most British Columbians, conjures images of the sleepy Fraser Valley city. But Chilliwack is a Salish word — and indigenous music, rights and reconciliation between First Nations and the larger, dominant culture has been important to the band’s members.

Bill Henderson, who has fronted Chilliwack since the beginning and is involved in many other music projects, will be joined at the Brackendale Art Gallery May 12 by Claire Lawrence, an original Chilliwack bandmate, and Terri-Lynn Williams-Davidson, a Haida musician. Henderson and Lawrence backed Williams-Davidson last year on the album Grizzly Bear Town.

Prior to the album, Henderson worked with Williams-Davidson years ago as sound producer on an album of traditional Haida songs.

“She has been working a whole lot of her life preserving the Haida music heritage,” Henderson said of Williams-Davidson, who is also a lawyer.

The timing of the album, as the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission completed its report, is apt, he said.

“My feeling is that there is a great coming together that needs to happen between the cultures and so for us to make this record together — and many of the songs on the record are in the Haida language — for us to make this record together was for me one small part of that process that I think is happening and, as such, I'm very, very happy to be a part of it,” Henderson said.

At the Brackendale concert, Henderson and Lawrence will do some numbers from the Chilliwack catalogue. Then they’ll be joined by Williams-Davidson for some numbers off Grizzly Bear Town.

Although he wasn’t political in his younger days — Chilliwack played the inaugural 1970 Greenpeace fundraiser with Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Phil Oakes just because they wanted a gig — Henderson had an awakening in recent years.

His song Take Back This Land became a bit of an anthem around the time of the 2015 federal election. He has also become a prolific writer of letters to the editor, the prime minister, and others.  With the country currently on the precipice of a constitutional crisis over the Kinder-Morgan pipeline, Gulf Island resident Henderson is taking up that cause.

“I don't want [the pipeline expansion] to happen and one major reason why is because of the southern resident killer whales that are endangered now,” he said. “There are about 70-some left, and they are having trouble with reproduction.”

The problem, he said, is the industrialization of the Salish Sea and increased shipping traffic.

“They communicate with sound, that's how they fish,” he said. “They fish as a group, they kind of herd the fish, and they’re smart. They talk to each other. They're basically saying ‘you do this, I'll do that.’ That's how they get their food. With the noise of shipping — there is so much shipping now in the straight — they are becoming less and less able to do that and, of course, the fish stocks themselves are reduced.”

In addition to the orcas, there is a more significant societal issue, he added.

“This is a turning point in my mind,” he said. “We need to go a new direction because we're killing the planet. We just have to do things differently. It's very hard for us to do, but we have to. It's like quitting smoking. It's not easy, but it's your life.”

As for the name of the band, Henderson recalls someone almost 50 years ago saying, "What about Chilliwack?"

“It meant valley of many streams. It [also] meant going back up. These were things that we thought were good and we like the sound of the word, just the actual crunchiness of the word. And, also, I felt, and I know Claire also felt, something of a relationship with First Nations people,” he said.

Last year, he went and met with some of the Chilliwack people.

“I just felt like, wow, I've been using their name for a long time. Maybe I should find out who they are.”

Henderson reflected for a moment on the incredible journey he has had at the centre of what was a legendary time in the music scene.

“There was this whole explosion of music on the west coast of North America,” he recalled of the earliest days with the pre-Chilliwack band The Collectors. “It centred in San Francisco… Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Grateful Dead, a whole bunch of bands came out of there. A lot of them were folkies who just strapped on electrics and started singing protest songs. So they had political content, they were breaking musical boundaries in rock music and playing it in a new and different way, and so that was totally exciting.”

The ’60s were a heyday and the ’70s saw Chilliwack’s rise to fame. But things changed.

“Then it hit the ’80s and went corporate,” he said. “You're walking a very fine line. It wasn't a fine line in the ’60s. Go ahead and write whatever you write. But by the time you got to the ’80s, you're walking on a razor's edge. You need a record contract, or you can't make records because it costs too much. Nowadays you can make a record in your bedroom. But then it cost a lot of money. You needed a record company to invest in you and, in order to do that, they had to have hit songs or they wouldn't make any money and they wouldn't be interested in you. So you're trying to write a hit song, but you're trying to write from your heart and you're trying to do things that you think are good and right and all those things.”

Would he have done things differently if the freedom of the ’60s had survived the corporatization of the ’80s? Would the evolution of his music have been different?

“Who's to say what were good decisions and what weren't at that point,” Henderson said contemplatively. “It's so complex; I don't know.… If I could have stuck closer to my own beliefs and believed more in myself and where I was coming from, I think that would've been a good thing.”

Then, with a laugh, he reconsiders.

“But it might not have, too — you can upset the apple cart in so many ways.”

Henderson, Lawrence, and Williams-Davidson will play at 8 p.m., Saturday, May 12, at the Brackendale Art Gallery. Tickets are available at the gallery or at Xoco Westcoast Chocolatiers.

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Chilliwack's My Girl, released in 1981.

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