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Dakota comes full circle

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Spending some time with Maine’s hardest-working band

We’re very grateful for all blessings that come our way. In some weird way, I feel like we represent the little guy or the outsiders who don’t quite fit in. We always have to scrape and work extra hard to have things go our way. It never comes easy, but that’s the Dakota way (laughs).”Dakota’s Vinny Cormier

“When it came time to play, I remember my dad turning and looking at me. He didn’t know that I had taken a copy of the setlist and learned every song. I worked at it but didn’t tell him. I’ve been playing with them ever since”Dylan Cormier, Vinny’s son

This is a story about perseverance, family, love, loss … and rock and roll.

For the members of the band Dakota – a musical institution in the greater Bangor area for two generations – the story has come full circle.

From the 1986 dawning of the band as a league of renegade rockers - helmed by two brothers from Moncton, New Brunswick - to the current model led by father and son, Dakota has earned a reputation for being one of Maine’s longest-lasting musical outfits … and almost certainly the hardest working.

Brothers Vinny and Tommy Cormier had always loved music. While growing up around Moncton in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cormier brothers saw bands come and go. Some were great and some were obviously going to fade fast.

After playing with various outfits and making solid connections, the brothers hatched a plan to put together a group with staying power – a band that could survive anything.

According to Vinny Cormier, Dakota has seen 34 different musicians pass through the ranks in the band’s 31-year existence.

“The first stable lineup where we started getting a lot of attention, was me, Tommy, Bryce Sinclair and Adrian Hebert,” Cormier told me during one of several interviews conducted for this story over the spring and summer of this year.

“We played Moncton every week but we’d also travel to other parts of Canada. We just kept working non-stop,” Cormier remembers.

Cormier recalls that many clubs and bars throughout the Canadian provinces were primarily disco or country bars.

“Even though disco had pretty much ended in the United States, it was still pretty popular in Canada. To get into some of the clubs, we started playing country, but we would rock the crap out of it,” Cormier remembers.

Classic rockers at the core, Dakota proved they could play country songs when their environment demanded it. The band was invited to play the Canadian Country Music Association Awards with plenty of music-biz bigwigs in attendance.

“We were low on the totem pole, but it was an important show,” Cormier told me. “We started playing a song by George Strait and I could see this guy out of the corner of my eye literally running toward the stage.”

Cormier thought the band might have done something terribly wrong – or else they were about to be ambushed by a fan storming the stage. Cormier laughs as he recalls what happened next.

“After the song was over, he motioned for me to come to the side of the stage. He told me that he was the co-writer of the song we just played and that our version was how he originally heard it in his head. That was quite a compliment.”

Dakota was working seven days a week at this point, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, now with lead singer Urban Gillis.

“We just wanted to be the best band we could be. It was impossible to have a day job in those days because we would wake up 2,000 miles from home,” Cormier remembers of those crazy cross-country treks in the late 80’s and early 90’s.

“We played every province multiple times. We were a non-stop touring machine and we did it year in and year out.”

A Dakota version of Alice Cooper’s “I Never Cry” started receiving regional airplay on New Brunswick radio stations.

“People took notice when they heard us on the radio,” Cormier says. “We saw it made a big difference in the number of people who came to see us. We took every offer and the clubs knew they could rely on us to deliver.”

Dakota’s reputation for dependability found the group backing up artists who had been signed to RCA Records.

“When RCA would sign someone without a lot of touring experience, they would ship them up to Canada and we’d be their backing band,” Cormier recalls. “The Canadian audience was always a forgiving audience.”

The label paid Dakota $2,000 to learn their artist’s songs and the club would pay the band $4,000 per night.

“We were making some good money early on and we invested it in the band,” Cormier says. “We bought the best gear we could find.”

When country legend Charley Pride came out of retirement, Dakota received the nod to back him up on several dates.

“Here we were, basically a Canadian ‘southern rock’ band, backing up this hardcore country star. Somehow it worked amazingly well,” Cormier remembers of those shows. “We learned all of his songs and played them just the way he wanted. That was the thing about that lineup. The work ethic was incredible.”

Dakota continued touring relentlessly, playing more than 300 shows per year from coast to coast, now with Vinny as lead singer for the band (in addition to guitarist), a role he accepted in 1988.

Dakota won the Atlantic Canada Battle of the Bands in 1993 and opened for visiting classic rockers The Marshall Tucker Band, Molly Hatchet, Kansas, Trooper and Quiet Riot among other name acts.

At one point in the early 90’s, Dakota spent seven months away from home, playing shows across the country. On the British Columbia leg of the tour, Dakota nearly met their maker.

“It was in the middle of January, during the coldest stretch of winter, and we blew the engine in the truck,” Cormier remembers.

The town had shut down because of the dangerously cold temperature. Every motel, every store and even the gas stations were closed.

“It was the coldest we had ever been in our lives and I really thought we were going to die there in the truck, in the parking lot of a Husky Gas station – which of course was closed,” Cormier remembers of the harrowing experience. “I remember closing my eyes and saying to Tommy ‘I didn’t think we were going to die this way’ and I really meant it,” Cormier recalls.

After surviving that episode, Cormier remembers that if there was a time when he would become homesick, brother Tommy would look at him and say “You’re crazy. People would give their eye-teeth to do what you’re doing.” When Tommy would become homesick, Vinny would remind him of the same thing.

“Fortunately, we both didn’t feel the same way at the same time,” Vinny says laughing. “One of us would lean on the other to get through whatever we had going on.”

“Tommy was the leader of the band,” Vinny Cormier says of his brother. “Once we all decided on something, he would go and represent the band. He would collect the money and was very good at dealing with people.”

During the early 1990s, Dakota would cross the border to play shows throughout Maine. During one of those outings (circa 1993) the band was performing a two-week residency at Stacey’s in Brewer – a popular local venue for touring groups.

“We had Sunday night off and another band was playing so I thought I would check them out,” Cormier says.

The sister of one of that band’s members was also in attendance. She had driven from Massachusetts to visit family in the area and dropped by to support her brother’s band.

“My brother introduced me to this person he had met and it turned out to be Vinny,” Jolene Cormier told me. “We hit it off from the start. We fell in love instantly. It was just weird.”

As the pair was getting to know each other, Jolene’s brother called Vinny to the stage to sing a song. 

“I neglected to tell her that I was a musician,” Vinny Cormier said with a laugh. “She said ‘Oh my God. He’s a musician?’ Her brother Jeff stuck up for me. He assured her that I was a good guy. Thank God she took a chance on me. I officially moved to Bangor around New Year’s Day 1994 and we got married later that year.”

Cormier remembers attempting to maintain his role in the band – still largely a Canadian presence - while also taking on the new role of husband.

“I would drive 400 miles to get to the show and then back here to get to Jolene and not remember the drive. It was too scary and I had to quit,” he recalls.

Vinny made the difficult but inevitable decision to leave Dakota while the band attempted to carry on with a new lead singer.

“Tommy called me one day and asked what it take to get me to join Dakota again,” Vinny told me. “I told him they would all have to move to Maine. I didn’t think they would do it but they did.”

“They were all super sweet to me,” Jolene Cormier recalls of the reception she received from other members of Dakota. “I remember them saying (in a French accent) ‘Vinny found you. Please find me an American woman.’ They were really cute.” 

At the end of 1994, the rest of Dakota moved to Maine, but that lineup wouldn’t last.

“Some of them got deported, which complicated things,” Vinny Cormier says. “God bless those guys. We still keep in touch. We went through it all together – every struggle you can think of.”

Some new members came aboard, including a charismatic blueberry farmer from the Machias area who played velvety tenor saxophone – Dale Whitney. Dale initially agreed to take the gig for two months. He stayed for eight years.

“He was a sweet, sweet man,” Cormier says. “Dale would do anything for anybody. If there was a problem with money, Dale would be the first to give up his pay for someone else. Whatever had to be done, Dale would be the first to volunteer.”

Dale Whitney passed away in his sleep in 2013 at the age of 76.

“Once he joined, the band became mega-popular here,” Cormier says. “Dale had this natural charisma that allowed him to connect with every member of the audience.”

When Dakota’s drummer was deported to Canada, the band approached a Maine percussionist they had met through a local music store – Sidney Oakes.

“Sid had been in bands for about 10 years and wasn’t sure if he wanted to join another one,” Cormier says. “He also agreed to do it for two months and even said he would help us find a good replacement. He stayed for six years.”

Of this lineup of Dakota, Cormier recalls the team-player attitude among the other members.

“I was dealt a real winning hand with those guys, including our sound man at the time, Rob Arsenault. We were all super tight.”

Just when the Dakota lineup appeared impenetrable, things were about to change again.

“What happened was our older brother passed away,” Vinny Cormier told me of the story that nearly ended Dakota forever. “People grieve in different ways and that affected both of us. We’d played together for 20 years and the dynamics changed. Long story short, I was fired from Dakota in 2005 and formed a new group called Phatt Sally. Three of the guys – Steve Wickham (keyboards), Bryce and Dale, came with me, and I think that hurt Tommy.”

The Cormier brothers didn’t speak for about four months. “It was tough but we got through it,” Vinny remembers. “There was a period of about three years when there was no Dakota band.”

“One day, Tommy’s wife called me and suggested that if we ever need a bass player, Tommy might like to do it,” Cormier said. “I told the other guys in the band and our bass player was gracious enough to step aside. He didn’t want to be the guy standing in the way of having Tommy come back. So Tommy joined Phatt Sally and it was really great to be playing with my brother again.”

Meanwhile, in the Cormier household, music could always be heard emanating from somewhere in the house. In 1995, Vinny and Jolene became parents to a baby they named Dylan, and the lad evolved into a musical prodigy, specializing in guitar, but also becoming adept at keyboards, drums – or most any other instrument he chose to explore.

Being a new father, Vinny informed the rest of the band that he would continue to play local shows but that his touring days were over. The band recorded the appropriately-titled CD “The Long Road Home” in 1997 and received airplay on Z107.3 and WKIT. 

“I remember going to see them when I was 12,” Dylan Cormier recalls. “I would play three or four songs with them every Thursday. It really gave me the itch to play.”

Vinny taught his son four chords on guitar and then signed him up for lessons at a local music store, where the young guitarist would arrive three or four lessons ahead of his teacher.

“The teacher said ‘I’m happy to take your money, but he’s learning faster than I can teach him,’” Vinny says of Dylan’s musical prowess. “He hears something in his head and his hands naturally know how to play it. It’s incredible.”

“I would play for at least eight hours after school every day,” Dylan Cormier says. “It became an obsession. I can speak with my guitar better than I can my voice.”

Dylan joined the band nine years ago at the age of 13. Shortly after joining, he conspired with Uncle Tommy to convince Vinny that one final name change was in order.

According to both Vinny and Dylan Cormier, the popular joke among Phatt Sally’s audience was that the group could adopt any moniker they chose but they would always be considered Dakota. It only made sense to give the people what they want.

And when the band was finally Dakota once more, Vinny Cormier says he made them promise to never change it again.

Dakota received a major blow approximately four years ago when founding member and bassist Tommy Cormier left the band for medical reasons.

“That was a tough time for everybody – especially Tommy,” Vinny Cormier says. “He’s doing a lot better now. His son filled in until we could find a permanent bassist.”

Earlier this year, Vinny and Jolene Cormier received the news that they are about to grandparents. 

“Isn’t that wild?” Vinny told me. “It’s so great. I made Dylan promise that he would be as good a father to his child as I was to him. I reminded him of what I gave up for him.”

He’s referring to an incident that occurred when Dylan was two years old. In 1997, Vinny was offered the guitar spot in the classic southern rock band Molly Hatchet (“Flirtin’ With Disaster”) and a five-year deal from industry vet Scott Turner.

“They worked hard on me for two days but I turned it down because I wanted to be a father to my son,” Cormier says. “When I made the final decision, I knew it was the right one.”

Seven years ago, Dakota added Eric Rovito (keyboards/backing vocals) to the lineup. (Note: Eric was not present when Edge photographer Kevin Bennett shot photos of Dakota to accompany this story)

Bassist Tim Tosh and soundman Cody Allard are also part of the current Dakota linep.

Dakota added one other new member earlier this year – drummer Ryan Oakes, son of former Dakota drummer Sid Oakes. Sid was tragically killed in a car accident in the summer of 2014. He is remembered not only for his musicianship but also for his sense of humor and willingness to help anyone who needed it.

“Ryan said ‘Vinny, I’ll be the last drummer you’ll need. I’m here until you retire.’ He looked just like Sid when he said it. That flipped me out.”

Dakota will play their mix of classic and new rock during the upcoming “Rock Gods Tribute Tour” – a four-day festival, scheduled for Sept. 14-17 at the Litchfield Fairgrounds. On Sept. 15, Dakota will open for classic Canadian rockers Loverboy at New England Ribfest, scheduled for Bass Park in Bangor.

And most every Friday and Saturday night, fans will find Dakota playing somewhere in the greater Bangor area while different configurations of the group play during the week.

Vinny and Dylan appear as an acoustic duo at High Tide restaurant in Brewer each Wednesday evening. Vinny, Dylan and Eric Rovito appear as “Third Degree” each Thursday evening at Penobscot Pour House in Bangor. The trio appears as a live karaoke band, performing behind patrons who sing a variety of well-known songs.

“It feels like we’ve come full circle,” Vinny says of the current lineup of Dakota. “I moved here, played with one of the guys I loved and admired (Sidney Oakes) and now, I’m playing with his son and with my son. I don’t take any of it for granted.”

“It’s amazing to go see them now,” Jolene Cormier says of Dakota. “I look up at the stage and see my husband and the love of my life – my kid. It’s an unbelievable feeling to see them up there together. To see the bond that they have is even more special.”

“The guys in this band are like my kids – and one of them actually is my kid!” Vinny Cormier says. “To have people that you can really trust in your corner is incredibly special.”

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