“Feet on ground, heart in hand, facing forward. Be yourself”. Jann Arden
So I went to see Jann Arden last week. The tickets were a birthday present from my brother, which was really generous and unexpected. Since he moved out-of-town 15 years ago, we slowly shifted from sending presents on birthdays to just cards, to ecards, to phone calls. (I still try to send a real card in the mail because it’s fun, right?) so it was a total surprise that he did that for me. (Now the conscience part of me is thinking: is this what we are doing now? Are we back to giving presents? His birthday is in March so what do I do? Conundrum!) It was easy now, in any case, to send tickets as a gift through ticketmaster. You can buy them and then assign them to someone. All I needed to do was log into my ticketmaster account and there they were. I just needed to print them. (I realize this sounds like an 80 year-old discovering email for the first time and telling his grandkids about it, but I couldn’t believe how easy it was.)
Jann Arden, for me, is one of those artists with whom I really formed a strong connection with early on, and her music has always resonated with me. I think I can trace back learning about Jann Arden from a radio interview with Peter Gzowski on CBC’s Morningside back in the early ’90s. (Yes, I was and still am a public radio nerd, although I seem to listen to more American public radio stuff these days through the miracle of podcasts.) I was impressed with her insight and her openness in the interview and shortly after that I bought her CD second-hand at a comic book store. It was Living Under June and I really fell in love with it. That would have been 1994, the year that regular readers will recall that began for me on a psych ward being treated for Depression, and the “rebirth” I experienced that Spring when I was given another shot at life. I guess when soul meets music at certain flashbulb moments in one’s life, that music fuses to your nervous system like an alien symbiote and never lets you go. I’m not even all that concerned now (nor was I concerned then) whether it was cool or not to like Jann Arden’s music. I just did, and that was good enough for me. A wise man once said, “People like what they like” and this is no more true than it is with music.
When my wife and I started dating, one of the first “common ground” areas we found was that we both shared a love for Jann Arden’s music. I don’t even recall how we found out. I don’t think “How do you feel about Jann Arden”? is a normal ice-breaking kind of a question, but it must have come up at one point, and it was one of the first early signs that we could probably put up with each other.
A couple of years later, when we were in Calgary we made a point of visiting the “Arden Diner”, which I believe was run by one of Jann’s brothers. I remember having the meatloaf which was advertised as the same recipe that Jann’s Mom would make and I couldn’t have been happier. I’m glad we went when we did, because the Diner has now since closed.
As my wife and I were heading down to the concert, I was trying to remember all of the times I’ve seen Jann Arden in concert over the years, and I think, counting this most recent one, the number would be eight. Eight times! That’s more than I’ve seen U2, which seems kind of insane. The first time was when she was an opener for Bob Dylan in what I’m guessing was the late 1990s. Like most openers, she only played for about 30-45 minutes, but she had the crowd in the palm of her hand, alternating between making references to an “on the road love affair with Bob” to admitting that she “hasn’t actually met Bob yet”. I must say that when Bob Dylan finally came out, his set was stiff and uninteresting in comparison. I’ve learned later that his strength is not necessarily playing live, but I also think that it doesn’t help when your opener outshines you. Jann Arden left a much stronger impression on me that night and I couldn’t wait until she returned to town and I could get a full concert from her.
I was reminded of this moment last week after Jann’s opener, east coaster Rose Cousins, finished her set. She played beautifully and had great self-effacing banter for the crowd. She earned a well deserved standing ovation at the end of her set, and later on in Jann’s concert, she brought Rose out to sing a lovely acoustic version of Cyndi Lauper’s Time after Time. It was Rose’s last night on the tour, so this mid-set encore was a way of saying “Goodbye”. After she left, Jann told the audience that she knew Rose Cousins was a great musician but she never would have hired her if she had known she was so funny!
If I were to dissect Jann’s sound and what it means to me, I’m sure I would do a terrible job. But hey: who has ever said that we strive for excellence here at Mountains Beyond Mountains?
- First: it’s her voice. The way she can sound like she’s mournfully whining but in perfect pitch can send shivers up my spine.
- Second: the way the band can swerve in and out of a song, providing support and then getting out of the way when the vocals start always impresses me.
- Third: the lyrics. If you just read the lyrics of most of her songs, you’d think she would be a real downer, but there’s something about the delivery of her lines that you can sense a wry sense of humour coming through. Sometimes the line from Sleepless, “We could die tomorrow. Might as well enjoy this,” creeps into my head as a rallying cry if I’m about to go somewhere/do something that goes against my natural introvertedness . It’s one of my mantras in getting my game face on. Aside from Living Under June (nothing beats your first, right?) my next favourite album is Happy? which of course is a misleading title because the album takes its name from the lyric in Holy Moses: “I cannot remember when I was happy”. Earlier in that song, we find these words:
“I don’t think I told you, I feel terrible
I’ve been sitting in this chair since Sunday
In the same clothes with unwashed hair
Nothing moving, I feel unusual”
which hearing them after going through a major clinical Depression rang so true for me you can’t even know.
And how about Sorry for Myself?
“Look into my heart and tell me I am a complete disaster
Wasn’t that what you were after?
Always thought it was
Wasn’t I complete desire – filthy ash without the fire
You could not have been much higher
Without some kind of drug
I can’t do anything – I don’t need anybody else
I just feel sorry for myself”
But I don’t want to give the impression that she is a one trick pony, emotionally speaking. (although I do love the fact that she named her “Best of” album Jann Arden’s Greatest Hurts. That always made me smile.)
Another stand out for me is Waiting In Canada. I stuck a youtube clip of this song at the beginning of the post so I wouldn’t have to copy out the whole damn thing, but the feeling of anticipation from two lovers meeting is so tangible in these lyrics, I always get goosebumps when she sings “or drive your car all night by just starlight” in the chorus. A lot of her songs carry the theme of “getting away” and “getting on the road”, or “escaping something”. Ever since I read the “Open Road” chapter in Wind in the Willows as a kid right up to reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in my early 20’s, I’ve been a bit obsessed with escaping into another world by car. Maybe we all are, to a certain degree. Maybe it’s just a part of being human to feel a longing to get away, to start anew with something, someone new. The sense of total freedom. The hashtag #onward transformed into melody, as seen in the following words from Where No One Knows Me:
“Feel the sunburn on my skin
I feel the wind whip through my grin
Took the rear-view mirror down
I wrapped it in my wedding gown”.
I could go on and on, but I should say a word or two about the actual concert, right?
Some impressions: Jann still sounds amazing, and despite a couple of audio issues in the first song (feedback), the concert flew by. Her banter was as funny and honest as ever, and seemed more unscripted than usual (although maybe she’s just really good at making it sound unscripted). She opened up by saying, “Hey Winnipeg! How are you, you crazy bitches?!” which just cracked me up for some reason. I also loved the fact that she played so many new songs. She’s not in some kind of “winding down” phase of her career where she staggers out and sings the “hits” and staggers off. She is still producing new songs, and new really good songs too. Being the 20 year anniversary of Living Under June, she did a medley of some of the songs off that album. The album that made me fall in love with her the first time round. The medley was fine, but gosh I would have loved to have heard full versions of all those songs too, especially Could I be your Girl? Luckily she did a full version of Unloved with that amazing opening lyric:
“There will be no consolation prize
This time the bone is broken clean
No baptism, no reprise
And no sweet taste of victory
All the stars have fallen from the sky
And everything else in between
Satellites have closed their eyes
The moon has gone to sleep”
(okay I promised no more lyrics but I just couldn’t help myself!)
and of course ended her main set with the iconic Good Mother. The song that ended her interview with Peter Gzowski twenty plus years ago usually ends her main set of concerts, if not the last encore. It’s her U2’s “40” or her Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” if you will. Before the concert, my wife was in the washroom and she overheard two ladies talking.
“I sure hope she plays Good Mother,” said one.
“She always plays Good Mother at the end, haven’t you seen her before?” said the other one.
“Not live,” said the first.
Which makes me think, how else would she have heard her, dead?
Dead or alive, I’m grateful to have found Jann Arden 20 years ago at a time when I think I needed to find her, and I am grateful that she is still recording and touring and tapping into those emotions that some of us broken types find difficulty expressing ourselves.