INTERVIEW: The Heavy Cat Came Back

Paul Shihadeh had been elevated to bass player’s royalty in Edmonton before he split town in 2001.

Oh, go ahead and make any joke you want. What do you call someone who hangs out with rock stars? A bass player. How do you know when a bassist is at your door? He rings the bell and still doesn’t know when to come in. These work for drummers, too.

Shihadeh’s heard them all, and accepts his role as a fundament of rhythm section as a “privilege.” He says, “What’s the highlight of my career? I don’t have that kind of name. I’m a bass player, but my feeling is that I’m proud to have been able to make a living playing music. That’s the highlight of my career: My career. It’s hard to do that.”

On a break from his job as the assistant music director and bassist of Cirque du Soleil’s “O” show in Las Vegas, he plays a “Holiday Reunion” show at the Yardbird Suite on Thursday. All the old Droogs will be there.

Shihadeh is what we call a “Heavy Cat.” He went to the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston, and returned (with extra strings on his bass) to soon became Head of Bass at MacEwan University’s music program. He toured the world with Roger Whittaker. He played in a local jazz fusion band. He could play whatever and with whomever he wanted.

Shihadeh might still be here if he hadn’t got the “itch.”

He and his wife Krista Monson, a choreographer, had an 18-month-old son when they decided to sell everything, quit their jobs and move to Los Angeles. They knew it would be hard, but reasoned that they probably wouldn’t want to do it when they got old. It had to be now.

He’s back there somewhere

“We just wanted to try it,” Shihadeh says. “We loved in here in Edmonton, but there was that itch in the back of our minds: What would it be like to at least to experiment with a different market. How would we do? Would we like it? Would we be successful? Will we feel we achieved something? And we could always come back.”

No shame there, right?

It helped he wasn’t the only Edmonton musician who moved to L.A. to seek their fortune – or at least to make a living in music. Shihadeh’s friend Bill Kole, a recording artist and producer active in Edmonton in the ‘70s and ‘80s, had been there since 1987. Bill helped his friend find a house in Simi Valley, a quiet little suburb close to downtown. Shihadeh also did studio work for Tim Feehan, who was famous in Edmonton for the band Footloose and rode to success in L.A. on the jet stream of professional hockey (a whole other story). From Shihadeh’s first paying gig in L.A. giving lessons at a music store that paid a whole $12 (US after taxes), one music job led to another, and he wound up joining the “Canadian club.”

From left: Paul Shihadeh, Stuart Crosley and Tommy Banks, 1995

“You just start meeting all these Canadians, and everybody’s all open arms down there, everybody I worked with was super cool,” he says. “The Canadians wanted to bring me into their fold. You’re here. We know what it’s like. Let’s stick together and make it happen.”

He learned a lot. He learned the place is teeming with Heavy Cats, and people skills count as much as knowing the right people – though if you have better people skills, the more people you’re likely to know who like to work with you.

“There are a lot of good players down there, and that was kind of an eye opener,” Shihadeh says. “It was definitely a small fish in a big pond type of vibe. But when you’re playing with great players, they make you sound great. They just bring this extra energy out from you, and they made me sound better than I actually am, and that was fantastic. Just the experience playing with heavy guys, and girls, is great for your creativity. You really figure out what you can do, how far you can stretch. It’s an amazing experience. That’s what L.A. gave me – but Edmonton prepared me.”

So they built a great life in Los Angeles, as they had in Edmonton. Then Krista got a gig with Cirque du Soleil as the artist director for O – and the family promptly moved to Las Vegas. Paul worked for another Cirque-ish-like show until he saw the job posting for “music director and bass player” for O. Obviously he was the perfect guy for the job (he’d auditioned for Cirque twice before), and they hired him. He stepped down to assistant MD after five years so he could play more, and finish his Master’s degree, and he’s been in Vegas ever since. Every night. Two shows a day, in fact, doing the same show, playing the same parts, for years on end.

Wouldn’t that drive you insane? Shihadeh says Cirque is always refining their shows (seven in Vegas alone), and do as much to keep it fresh and interesting for the performers as the audience. Besides, he says, “It’s 1,800 people a night. Almost all the shows sell out. It’s exciting, even if you’ve been doing it for X amount of years, you get out there and think, wow, all these people came out to see this. As an independent artist and musician you struggle to get 40 people out to your gig. It’s a privilege.”

Shihadeh says he misses the rich arts scene and culture of Edmonton. Vegas doesn’t have many festivals – because it’s a gong show on the Strip 365 days a year. Fun for tourists, while most of the residents live in the sprawling city proper, far away from the casinos. Not a lot to do, though things are changing.

“It seemed like Vegas was missing some stuff,” Shihadeh says. “Now it’s really growing. We have a hockey team now, a new baseball stadium, and we’re probably going to get a pro football team. Not that I’m into sports, but those kind of things really bring a city together. That’s a good thing. I’m happy about it.”

So will he be cheering for the Golden Knights?

“No,” he says. “I can’t do it. I have to stick with the Oilers.”

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