Happy Hour from the Heart: Calgary couple Nico Brennan and Jeff Kushner stumble over quarantine-friendly fun while supporting local live music venues

As a couple, they’re almost Disney-themed cute. Their sweet countenances would look good on pillow cases or jammies for sure. Chanteuse/musician Nico Brennan, well-known to Calgarians as part of ubiquitous crooners Dino Martinis and more recently with her band B4 Peace, and Jeff Kushner, whose expertise earned while gigging for over 35 years was highlighted as the maestro of the Springsteen Birthday Bash at the Ironwood last September, weren’t trying to show off that cuteness, or their considerable talents, last week on April 9.

They just happened to jump online to try out a few tunes; they were testing a microphone they’d rented that day. A few of us in Quarantini-land happened to catch some of it on the fly. And, like flies on flypaper, we stuck.

Nearly two hours, five or six drinks (Big Rock’s Dry Rock Rose Creek Cider seemed to hold a special place for the performers), a dozen-ish songs and about 100 Facebook comments later, Kushner and Brennan’s Impromptu Happy Hour was over. At a time when big names, like the aforementioned Springsteen and Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy, have nudged their performances onto online platforms, these two lovebirds and their disarming, easygoing, unplanned set stole the show.

Partly because they’re seasoned enough to play by the seat of their pants (or skirts, in Brennan’s case), and partly due to their exuberance, befitting of a much less experienced duo (ah, love is a drug). Playing songs ranging from Brennan’s and Kushner’s own compositions (they even got a request to do an Unsightly song, which was one of Kushner’s bands in the mid-1980s) to The Beatles to, of course, John Prine — this month being what it is — these two held their own. Well, they held their own cider and instruments in their hands, for sure. OK. They did more than hold it. They owned it.

In fact it was so fun for musician and viewer alike that they tested out another version the next day. That session saw them tackling requests (a previous appeal for some Art Bergmann saw them answering at this second session with a sweet, slighty chugga-chugga chunky version of Faithlessly Yours) to the obvious delight of both the viewer and the duo.

It’s a true pleasure watching them take musical risks, scrolling their tablet for lyrics and chords to songs requested on the spot, then play those with a perfect, slap hazard mix of expertise and experimentation. So from Across the Universe to Something Stupid, from In Spite of Ourselves to Does Your Mother Know?, there’s no pretentiousness, no musical snobbery. Just fun. Just joy.

And as for those requests, when the duo plays this Friday from 4 p.m to 6 p.m., live-streamed on Facebook (search for Nico Brennan), they will contribute $5 for every song they can play on the spot, without having to scroll for lyrics or chords, and $10 for every request of their original songs that they don’t have to look up, to Angel’s Café. Angel’s has been delivering nutritious meals to Calgarians who are elderly, ill, or shut-in due to the current pandemic.

They also give a shout-out to Mikey’s for the whole happy hour idea, as they have played that regularly, and want to remind people that Mikey’s is open for delivery, especially of their famous Mikey’s tacos.

So if Nicole and Jeff Impromptu Happy Hour T-shirts start showing up for sale on the side-bar of your news feed (some company in a country with a name you can’t pronounce will jump on this), you’ll understand why. It’s because in a world where we are cut off from each other, they are bringing people together over music, drinks, laughter and a good cause. 

Q: How long have you two known each other?

Brennan: Although we had both been aware of each other in the Calgary music scene, (seriously, Jeff has recordings of me that go back to when I was 19 years old that I don’t even own anymore!) we first met at a Dino Martinis gig that I had last year at the Webber Academy for Stampede City Sessions, to celebrate the Dino Martini’s 25th anniversary.

Following that, believe it or not, we started talking together on an online game called Words with Friends.

Q: How long have you been playing together?

Kushner: We started to play together on our fourth date, which was in August (2019). Then Nico invited me to join her and bass player Wayne Immonen for a Mikey’s happy hour set. Our first duo gig was at Angel’s, who are doing an amazing service for the community by providing over 5000 meals for those hit hardest right now.

Q: What was the first online happy hour like for you?

Kushner (with Brennan in conversation): We both thought it was super fun to learn songs on the fly. And now we have a bunch of new songs that we can work on and prepare for next week.

Q: What are your favourite songs to play live?

Brennan: Anything where we harmonize, especially I’m On Fire and Song for Alberta (one of her originals).

Kushner: Across the Universe for the lovely harmonies Nico has added. Something Stupid again for harmonies and lovely song.

Q: What was the most daunting song?

Kushner (with Brennan in conversation): We had a request for Queen’s ’39, which is a lovely acoustic folk style song. We both love Queen but we would just need to brush that (one) up a little bit. Hopefully next week! We would love to add more Queen to our repertoire. Even though they are in my Top 3 bands, I’ve shied away from playing Queen as I could never hit those high Freddie notes. However we have Nico on the job now! 

Q: Did you learn any new tricks for next time?

Kushner (with Brennan): We’ll start by getting to the requests that we didn’t play (last time). Also, we will create an event so people can send us some requests ahead of time. We are consulting friends and my coworkers at Long & McQuade to help improve the sound quality.

Q: What were your most requested songs?

Kushner (with Brennan): Anything by John Prine. We had just finished working up In Spite of Ourselves. Also Elvis. Surprisingly not too many repeats aside from John Prine.

Q: What were your strategies for playing long sets with no breaks?

Kushner (with Brennan): Checking in on our feed to say hi to our friends watching, see if there were any new requests. In truth neither of us felt like it was a long set. Was super fun more than anything else. 

Q: What did you do after the sets to unwind (G-rated version only, please)?

Kushner: After a celebratory smooch, we turned on the BBQ and started making dinner. May have been some binge watching of old Star Trek episodes.

Jeff Kushner and Nico Brennan perform their Happy Hour for Angel’s Café on April 17 from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Find them online @NicoBrennan on Facebook.

Mary-Lynn Wardle is a Bragg Creek writer who was way too jaded until she caught Jeff and Nico throw music back down onto its joyous, dusty side online last week.