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Walk Off the Earth fans come from across the globe to remember 'Beard Guy'

BURLINGTON, Ont. — Bundled in winter jackets, tuques and a few wooly blankets, fans travelled from halfway across the world to the chilly streets of Burlington, Ont., on Sunday to say a sombre farewell to Mike Taylor.

The steely-eyed keyboardist of Walk Off the Earth, known simply as "Beard Guy," received a grand sendoff at an outdoor tribute concert where hundreds of people gathered to celebrate the musician, alongside friends in bands including the Barenaked Ladies, Arkells and Monster Truck.

Josh Walker trekked from the small English town of Hartlepool for the event, something he decided was an essential part of the grieving process for the musician, who died on Dec. 30.

"The more I thought about it, the more I had to do this," he said while standing in Civic Square in downtown Burlington.

"There's nothing better than paying respects by travelling."

Standing beside him, Richard van Scherpenzeel came from the Netherlands. He agreed that showing up in Walk Off the Earth's Canadian hometown wasn't a question. He met a number of his friends through the band's online social networks, which exploded in popularity after their breakout YouTube cover of "Somebody That I Used to Know" eight years ago.

"It's not only the band, it's the community around it," he said. "It's not like other bands — it's more."

Those intense connections shone bright at many points during the show.

As the tribute got underway, band member Sarah Blackwood broke into tears explaining that originally the show was envisioned as a relatively small gathering of fans. But as the concert neared, it became clearer that hundreds of people would be showing up.

"Look at what it's become. It's absolutely beautiful," she said to the pattering applause of winter gloves.

"Everybody is shocked and saddened, but tonight is about coming together and expressing love and happiness. We want to celebrate Mike for the incredible man he was."

Taylor's role in Walk Off the Earth rocketed him to unexpected fame in early 2012 after the group's cover of Gotye's "Somebody That I Used to Know" captured international attention. The clip featured all five members sharing a single guitar, strumming its strings and knocking on its frame as they sang in harmony.

Ellen DeGeneres was so impressed she invited them to perform on her talk show, while an enthusiastic Russell Crowe tweeted his praises and suggested they cover his music too.

It was all a shock to Taylor, his friends say, because he wasn't necessarily chasing a second full-time career, despite his interest in live music.

He was already the owner of a successful Burlington freight company he co-founded in 1994. Even while he was building his company, Taylor honed his musicianship, moonlighting with bands that included Toronto indie outfit Loomer.

He also raised his two children, Mylie, 16, and Jackson, 14, and took a role in some of their extracurricular activities, including as coach of his son's hockey team.

But it was his daughter's dance classes that introduced him to Walk Off the Earth, a blossoming band that was still mostly playing small gigs. The dance studio was owned by Nicassio's sister, and when Taylor met the group he offered to step behind the keyboards for a few casual gigs.

"He was a phenomenal player so we were happy to have him in the band — even though it wasn't really official," said bandmate Gianni (Luminati) Nicassio ahead of the tribute.

Around the same time, Walk Off the Earth was experimenting with filming YouTube videos. Taylor was fascinated with the process and appeared in a few. But on production day for "Somebody That I Used to Know," he told Nicassio that matters with his shipping business would keep him away from the shoot.

When those work plans fell through, he decided to help the band as they filmed. They urged him to squeeze into the corner of the video frame and play the guitar along with them.

It was a decision that changed everything that followed.

Their cover was an instant hit, and people seemed especially captivated by Taylor, his thick eyebrows and well-coiffed beard only drawing more attention to his all-knowing and distant gaze.

Some referred to him as "the bearded man" or "bearded one" in the YouTube comments, remembered Nicassio, but the nickname "Beard Guy" was what really stuck.

"A lot of us called him that in regular conversation," he said. "He loved being Beard Guy. He loved everything that came with it. He loved playing the character."

Walk Off the Earth delivered a number of Canadian radio favourites, including originals "Rule the World" and "Fire in My Soul," winning the 2016 Juno Award for group of the year.

And through it all, Taylor continued to manage his freight business, while playing international stages.

The band and Taylor's family have declined to outline the cause of Taylor's death, simply saying it was of "natural causes," but certain factors have been ruled out, Nicassio added.

"He was a healthy guy, it wasn't expected," he said. "There was no drugs or anything like that. He didn't do drugs. He was very clean."

Those questions took a sideline at the tribute as fans held giant neon signs in support. One woman wore a knitted beard on her chin to stay warm.

Pop singer Scott Helman shared a memory of how Taylor helped shoot his music video for "Machine" in Paris, and Arkells frontman Max Kerman charged through a soulful rendition of "Stand By Me" while Taylor's vacant keyboard sat in the distance, covered in lit candles.

But the rousing finale was left for Walk Off the Earth, who performed a number of songs, including Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," a cover that's a favourite among their fans. They closed the show with a blast of fireworks over the stage, as an image of Taylor faded from the video screen.

Walker reflected on the permanent impression "Beard Guy" has left on Walk Off the Earth, even for fans like him who listen from across the pond.

"Obviously the band is going to still be the band, but it's a scar, isn't it?" he said.

"The scar might heal, but it'll always be there."

 

—Follow @dfriend on Twitter.

David Friend, The Canadian Press

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