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Up To Here

“Don’t you want to see how it ends?” The Depression Suite, The Tragically Hip

 

I’ve had it up to here with terrible news involving musicians this year. We started off with the stinging news of David Bowie’s seemingly sudden death in January, then learning that he had been secretly battling cancer for quite some time. Then in April, we received the frankly shocking news of Prince dying from God knows what, fittingly at home in his palace/recording studio Paisley Park.

This week’s news somehow hits the hardest. I’m not sure why. We, as a nation, found out that Gord Downie, the front man for The Tragically Hip, has incurable brain cancer. I say, “as a nation”, because I can’t think of any other band that seems to encapsulate our weird “Canadianness” than The Tragically Hip, and by extension, their leader Gord Downie. It’s fitting that as a nation we received this news together, and are all processing it in our own way this week. I’m not saying that every Canadian was a fan of the Tragically Hip. (Jesus, I’m already using the past tense here. FUCK IT. I’m not saying every Canadian IS a fan of The Tragically Hip, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who grew up here in the ’90s and ’00s who hadn’t at least heard of them, right?)

They have been consistently putting out albums and touring so regularly over the last 25+ years that you almost start to take them for granted. In fact, this past Monday, we had plans to meet friends for an outing in the country. (Something seemingly simple that was way more complicated, but that’s a story for another time). The sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was the May Long Weekend, that most Canadian of long weekends, and I was wanting to really get into summer mode. The seersucker was one, the birks were ready. I picked out two albums and played them over and over before heading out. One was Coldplay’s X&Y (no comments, please. I actually LIKE Coldplay, and that album, more than any of their others, makes me think of summer for some reason), and the other one was “Live Between Us’ by, (you guessed it, friends), The Tragically Hip. I love that album, because it’s sort of like a “best of” without being a “best of”, and you get a taste of some of Gord Downie’s weirdo stage presence, like how he suddenly snippets a Jane Siberry song at one point. (And it’s not even a WELL KNOWN Jane Siberry song, actually. I love that moment.) Also, speaking of “best ofs”, the Tragically Hip’s “Best of” album is a two disc thing cheekily called “Yer Favourites”.

It’s hard to describe The Tragically Hip’s broad appeal, but for me they seem to be doing two things at once. (At LEAST two things, but let’s stick with two).

For one, they are a straight ahead rock band, the kind that you’ll hear dude-bros play at their campsites all summer long and wouldn’t be out of place on a demolition site or a Winnipeg social. You know how early Radiohead, like The Bends album, sounds like a pretty great straight ahead rock band? (and then they went all funny and artsy with OK Computer, Kid A and forward and now we have to PRETEND we are into them to be cool?), well The Tragically Hip’s sound really hasn’t  changed a whole lot since their debut in the late ’80s. I’ve been listening to Now for Plan A a lot this week in the car. It’s their most recent album (not the one that is about to be released, the one before that), and I was stuck at how layered and nuanced the sound was, and yet you can still really rock out to it. The Tragically Hip never lost that. So, that’s the first thing.

But the second thing they are doing as describing and commenting on Canadian history, geography and culture while actually becoming a part of Canadian history, geography and culture while they are doing it. They write and sing about weirdo intellectual stuff, and that endears them to me quite a bit. They sing a song about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, (Three Pistols) for God’s sake. They dedicate a song (Courage) to Canadian writer and professor Hugh MacClennan. They write a beautifully mournful tribute to David Milgaard (Wheat Kings), who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 23 years. This happens to be my wife’s favourite Tragically Hip song. They even wrote a song about an imaginary line that runs north/south just west of Brandon, MB (The 100th Meridian), and I remember the night we pulled over on the side of the highway, excitedly thinking we found the 100th meridian, but later finding out it was just the 97th meridian. Stupid meridian.

I’m just scratching the surface here, but infusing their songs with so called “Canadian Content” never really feels forced, it just seems like a natural by-product of a creatively fertile mind that belongs (present tense, fuckers!) to a poet who genuinely loves and cares about this country of ours and its identity.

A few years ago, Joseph Boyden invited The Tragically Hip to visit Attawapiskat, that doomed indigenous community on the shores of James Bay, and they performed a concert in nearby Fort Albany. At that time, a housing crisis there was making the news, but in more recent months a much sadder story has surfaced over a rash of teen suicides in that community. Let me just say something about Joseph Boyden. He’s my favourite living indigenous Canadian author. Why do I feel like I need to add “indigenous” to that description? It’s like Royal Tenenbaum introducing Margot as his “adopted daughter”. Screw that, Joesph Boyden is my favourite living Canadian author, and his invitation to The Tragically Hip resulted in a very meaningful visit and the last song on their last album, Goodnight Attawapiskat, was inspired by it. Joseph Boyden wrote a haunting article about Attawapiskat in Macleans recently, and I’d like to link to it here. I forced my wife to read it (I’m the WORST), and on the strength of that she is now reading Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, so: mission accomplished? (I’m resisting a rant that has been simmering for a few weeks about the attention and support the fires of Fort McMurray have received and the support (or lack thereof) and attention (or lack thereof) that the community of Attawapiskat has received in comparison, but I’ll leave that for another day. Today is for Gord Downie).

Many people will cite 1992’s Fully Completely as the album that first got them into The Tragically Hip. It had those great songs like Courage, 50 Mission Cap, 100th Meridian, and Wheat Kings. Me being me, I was a little slow to the party. The first album I ever bought was 1994’s Day for Night. That album starts with the great Grace, too which they defiantly played on Saturday Night Live, even though they were told it was too long for network tv. They changed the first line from “We’re fabulously rich.” to “We’re the Tragically Hip”, and it was a great moment. Dan Ackroyd introduced them. To this day they often open their shows with this song (or if not open, then play it in the number two spot). That SNL moment was probably the deepest they ever penetrated into the American market, and somehow that makes them ever more dear to us as Canadians. We’ve all heard stories about friends who have gone down to the States and seen The Tragically Hip play small bars and nightclubs with only a few hundred people, all the while filling arenas back home. When Gord Downie’s health news broke Tuesday, many Americans expressed confusion as to why so many people were responding so passionately about someone seemed like an unknown to them. He wasn’t an unknown to us. It felt like a family member got the diagnosis.

Even though I didn’t buy an album til ’94, my one concession to hipsterdom was that we had an old cassette copy of their first album, Up to Here, in our car. No one knows how that cassette got in there. Neither my brother nor I ever remembering buying it, but we played the hell out of it in high school and beyond. It had all those great early songs: New Orleans is Sinking, Blow it High Dough, and of course, 38 Years Old. Years later, my brother was living in Belleville, and we were driving around the countryside near Kingston, and we passed Millhaven Prison, and I turned to him and said, “From The Tragically Hip song!” and we started singing, “Two men broke loose, in ’73. From Millhaven maximum security…” he remembered the cassette too. Part of the fun is when you travel through across Canada and you see some of the things referenced, like Prince Edward County near Kingston, where many of my wife’s ancestors lived and are buried. Also, I can’t tell you how excited I was when I discovered Bobcaygeon was a real place.

Through the ’90s and ’00s, they reliably produced an album every few years and seemed to be constantly touring. I wouldn’t have identified myself as a Tragically Hip fan then, although I always sort of kept tabs on them. In fact, it took me over 20 years until I actually saw them live, because I always put it off for a future date. That opportunity happened first in 2010 at the Winnipeg Folk Fest, where Gord Downie appeared by himself in support of his solo album, The Grand Bounce. They played a lot of this album on the CBC, which had recently abandoned their classical programming for modern Canadian content, and it was this album more than anything else that got me back into the Tragically Hip. It was the only time I’ve been to the Folk Fest where the weather was perfect, and I will always remember this lovely workshop in the afternoon that featured Gord Downie and fellow Kingstonite, Sarah Harmer. The following year, my wife and I had our first full Tragically Hip experience, when they played outside in a baseball stadium. Although their most recent album was We Are The Same, I don’t remember them playing a single song off that album. My wife was a little disappointed, as she loved (loves!) the heck out of that album. Most of the songs are quieter, more introspective, so I can sort of see how they wouldn’t really transfer to a stadium concert setting. (think of the dudebros!). At least they did play Wheat Kings, as an encore at the end. The band themselves, though, were really solid and together and I got to see a bit of Gord Downie, the showman, firsthand. Someone this week described him as a cross between Leonard Cohen and Bono, and who am I to disagree? The following year, we saw them again, at a music festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The REAL reason we were going was to see The New Pornographers and Death Cab for Cutie, but the Tragically Hip were the headliners. We were all pretty “rocked out” by the time they took the stage, but I remember hanging back by the food carts, eating a late supper, with the sound of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip as our soundtrack. Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of DCFC, and Gord Downie, seemed to have a particularly close connection during the festival, and a few months later a FRIEND OF MBM was in Toronto to see Ben Gibbard perform a solo show. She saw Gord Downie at the show, and Ben played My Music @ Work as a tribute. I even wrote about this way back in 2012.

So, where does all this leave us?

A terminal cancer diagnosis.

A farewell summer tour.

It doesn’t seem fair that Cher gets like 12 farewell tours, and The Tragically Hip are granted just one, especially when less than a week ago, as I listened to Live Between Us, I was thinking that they would just go on and on and on.

I’m still processing the news, as I am sure a lot of you are too.

They are coming through town one more time in August. Apparently Gord Downie is well enough to do this, and maybe this is the best thing for him, for the band, and for the fans.

Or not.

I’m conflicted. I don’t know if I deserve to go to this concert. I don’t know if I qualify. I’m not sure I am even what you’d call a fan. Maybe more of an admirer? Will I regret not going? Will I regret going? It will be sad, surely. But will it also be a outpouring of love and a celebration of almost three decades of music? A double middle-fingered FUCK YOU to cancer? A mix of everything? Tickets don’t go on sale for another week, so I have some time to mull it. I’ve gone from, “I HAVE to be there.” to “I’m okay if I don’t go.” to “I’d rather not go, if it’s all the same to you.” right back to “I HAVE to be there.”

Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.

 

 

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Beauty Bound (Part 2)

“I don’t remember who I was when I first held the cup.” Jane Siberry

So, I found this amazing album in Grade 9 that imprinted on me as much as any Canada Goose imprinted on Anna Paquin and Jeff Daniels. (It’s a bit weird that they were father/daughter in that movie and then then played lovers in the next project they worked on together, right? RIGHT?! I mean, that’s gotta be weird for at least ONE of them.) You can read about that album in my last post, (if you haven’t already). It’s called Beauty Bound Part 1 and you just need to click back one post. No, ONE click. You’ve gone too far. Now you’re reading about leap year. Click one forward. NO! You’ve gone back again. You’re on my Hamilton post. Hey, did you know the guy that plays Aaron Burr in that musical liked one of my tweets the other day? I’m pretty excited by that. Look, just give me the mouse and I’ll get you sorted. Oh wait, you’ve clicked off on my blog altogether. Wait. You’re done? No! Come back, I promise not to make you read any more stuff you don’t want to read. You can always come back to it later if you want. It’ll keep.

I’ll just summarize:

I found this album by this singer in Grade 9 that really stuck with me, and became a part of my “life soundtrack”, if that doesn’t sound too weird or pretentious. Where did I go from there? Well, back then I was a bit of a “completest”, by which I mean that if I found something I liked, I HAD to have every last thing by that person. There was a period in the mid ’90s when I set out to collect every appearance of Marvel’s Silver Surfer. Not just his own title, mind you, but EVERY DAMN APPEARANCE. If he appeared in one panel in, say, Captain America, then guess what? I was hunting down that issue. Trader Pete was a big help in that little obsession. Let me just link to that post here.

It was the same thing with music. I tracked down Jane’s first three albums and got them on cassette. I listened to them and enjoyed noting the evolution of her sound into what I considered near perfection on Bound by the Beauty, but I found myself just wanting to listen to Bound rather than explore her discography. One song, “Waitress”, was a standout for me from those earlier albums. It was this funny little song about a person who would have been so successful at all these other things, if she “wasn’t such a good waitress”. Her biggest hit from those early days was “Mimi on the Beach” and I also discovered parts 1 and 2 of “Map of the World”, (of which part 3 appears at the end of Bound by the Beauty” as previously noted last post. Don’t feel like you have to go read it).

Shortly into my obsession, I found out that Jane Siberry was coming to town on her Bound by the Beauty world tour, and I excitedly convinced a couple of friends to go with me.

It was to be my first concert, ever.

And it was wonderful.

She played a ton of stuff off of Bound, which really was the only album I cared about at the time, and to hear those songs played live was a revelation. She altered them just enough to make you sit up and listen. Before she started playing “Hockey” (the song that started it all for me), she said, “This song is about your grandmother when she was a child” and it really hit home. Not so much because of my grandmother, but of my Mom. My Mom DID play hockey on the frozen river in the wintertime when she was a little girl growing up in the North End, and people will know that her nickname as a kid (and yes as an adult too which is often embarrassing to me, is “Rough-House Rosie” Don’t Ask), and so there’s a part in the song when the kids are all being called home for dinner and one of the kids’ names is “Rosie” in the song, and so when I put all that together it really gave me shivers. Especially when you hear Jane sing, “Rooossssieeee!” in her high sweet soprano voice. Also, she subtly changed one of the lines from the third person to the second person, created all kinds of different emotions. The line in question went from, “He’ll have that scar on his chin forever, some day his girlfriend will say, ‘hey. where….'” to “You’ll have that scar on your chin forever, some day your girlfriend will say, “hey. where…..’. It’s a subtle change that many people may not have even picked up on, but it made me love her even more than I already did. The next line is really great too. Funny and sad at the same time. On the album it was “And he might look out the window…….or not.” And of course in concert she changed it to, “And you might look out the window…..or not.” and people laughed at it in the way they probably wouldn’t have otherwise, or not. I don’t know. I loved it.

I’m sure she played around with other things too that I didn’t pick up on, but that live version of “Hockey” stayed with me forever and sometimes I do look out the window.

 

My musical relationship with Jane Siberry continued to grow as I left high school and made my way through the ’90s. I saw her again three times in concert during that decade. The last time being in 1999. Sometimes she had a full band, and sometimes it was just Jane. Both kinds of concert experiences were enjoyable in their own way. One time, (I think it was that last time in 1999), she was so informal she played about 5 songs and then turned to the audience and said, “what do YOU guys want to hear?” and the rest of the night was made up of requests! Sometimes she forgot the words and chords but the audience was forgiving and sang along and it felt like we were sitting around someone’s rec room. She hung out in the theatre at the end of the concert (instead of leaving the stage) and people just asked her questions and got stuff signed and was one of the weirdest but coolest concert experiences I’ve had with her. I think she subtitled that tour “One girl on her own at the end of the Millennium” or something like that. Shortly after that time, Jane stopped performing traditional concerts and focused more on “house” or “salon” concerts in much smaller venues (like actual rec rooms), as she tried to make her own independent music label, Sheeba, a success.

Things took a turn for Jane in the mid 2000’s when she decided to make a drastic change. She sold off her company and virtually all her worldly goods, (including her Toronto home) and even changed her name to Issa and pretty much disappeared to roam the world as a musical ronin. Those of us who were long time fans were worried about her well-being. She actually released three albums under the Issa name, but Lord knows how you would ever find them? Even though I considered myself a bit of a Jane “completest”, I STILL haven’t heard any of the Issa albums. (After I wrote that last sentence, I went to youtube to see if I could find some of it. It’s there. I’m playing it now.) Um, I don’t think I’m prepared to comment on this Issa stuff yet. At first listen it sounds like its more on the “speak singing” side of Jane Siberry’s stuff. The stuff that is not really musical, but more like spoken word with music underneath. It’s not bad, it’s just…..an acquired taste, maybe? She was gone for three years. I never stopped listening to Bound by the Beauty, though.

A large percentage of Jane’s songs, (whether as “Jane” or as “Issa”) fall under this category. Stuff that would never get radio play, not even on the CBC, but grows on you after repeated listens. The trick is to find the time and patience to give these songs and albums the time they need to work their magic. I’ve come to appreciate these “less friendly” songs over the years, even if I don’t play them as often as I do Bound by the Beauty. There’s something about that first love that cannot be repeated. Jane’s gossamer melismas have become engrained upon my heart. It’s difficult to effectively explain your love of a person or a thing sometimes. Some things defy easy definition.

Over the years, Jane Siberry and I have “crossed paths” in a number of different ways. In the early ’90s our church had a fire that burned it to the ground and over the next two years our congregation held fundraisers to rebuild. One of the fundraisers (which I helped organize) was to write to Canadian celebrities to ask them to donate things to auction off. We had a great response. CBC’s Peter Mansbridge donated a tie he wore on the air one night when he anchored The National, Dr. Dressup sent a few of his drawings of Casey and Finnegan, and W.O. Mitchell sent a signed copy of one of his last books, to name just a few. I wrote to Jane Siberry and she sent a signed picture (and kindly made a donation to our building fund). I was the only one to bid on that picture that night. (I’m quite sure I was  the only one who knew who she was, actually.)

A year later, her next album after Bound came out. It was called When I Was A Boy. It seemed equally balanced between “song” songs and “long form spoken word” songs, and I especially connected to “Temple” (which is snippeted by Gord Downie on The Tragically Hip’s Live Between Us Live album), “Love is Everything” (which I still sing to myself sometimes EVEN TO THIS DAY) and “Calling All Angels”. I connected with this song (and this album) in the spring of 1994, after spending the winter on a psych ward being treated for Depression. There was no way When I Was A Boy was going to replace Bound as “my favourite Jane thing”, but there was something about the vulnerability of these songs that spoke to me after having all this new unwanted “life experience”. It was years later when I found out that “Calling All Angels” is actually about a man who is released from a mental health institution and the challenges he faces when he rejoins the world. Woah. Right?

At some point in the late ’90s, Jane released a live Christmas album. It’s really great, because it tries to not be a Christmas album. In fact, towards the beginning of the double CD, she tells the NY audience that she finds traditional Christmas albums “boring” and wanted to do something different. The payoff is that when she and her band actually play some traditional Christmas music like “O Holy Night” and “In the Bleak Midwinter”,  it’s beautiful and earned and you can sense the genuine appreciation of the audience. I love the way Jane adds liturgical elements to her song writing in an almost casual way, and you can definitely get her influences through her musical choices here. The last song on this album, (named Child), is called “Are you burning little candle?” It is so sweet and beautiful and I thought it would be the perfect thing for this folk choir I was in to sing on Christmas Eve. I didn’t know if I could just “sing” this song without getting permission, so I emailed her label, Sheeba, to see if we needed to pay royalties or anything and to my surprise I got an email back from Jane herself saying that she was delighted that we wanted to sing this song “in a church” at Christmas and asked for a mailing address. A week or so later a package arrived and in it was a copy of the sheet music “so we wouldn’t have to guess”. Amazing, huh? That Christmas Eve our little 10 voice folk choir performed “Are you burning little candle?” with Jane’s blessing and it was one of those little magical moments I’ll never forget.

In 2009, Jane changed her name back to “Jane Siberry” from Issa and started a new chapter in her life. This happened the same year our daughter was born. I’M NOT SAYING THESE CHANGES ARE LINKED IN ANY WAY, but I am just pointing out how Jane’s life and music seem to mirror my own and that’s all I’m going to say about that. After her “return”, I looked forward to see what kind of music Jane was ready to share with us, but that promised album never came. I still played her music from time to time, and it was still imprinted on my heart, but I was curious. What was next?

A couple of years ago, at the height of the “Kickstarter” craze, Jane got in on the action to crowd-source funding for a new album to be called Consider the Lily. I hadn’t “kick started” anything before this, but I happily plunked down my donation. I can’t remember the amount, but it was the amount that assured me a signed CD when it was released. I already had one signed CD from Jane from one of the concerts when I stayed behind to get her to sign it, but it wasn’t any more money to get a signed one this time so why not? I was going to buy the album when it came out eventually, so why not pay for it in advance? It was also around this time that Jane was beginning to tour again under her own name. Not counting the Issa recordings, or cover albums, or live albums, or compilations, Jane hadn’t released an album of original music under her own name since 1996’s Teenager, if you can believe it.

It was also around that time that I got into a email conversation with Jane over possible upcoming concerts. She hadn’t been to my city for a while, and I sent a simple request to her label about the chances of any concert dates here. I should have remembered my experience with “Are you burning little candle?” but I was still surprised when I received an email, not from a bot, or even a promoter, but from Jane herself. She started off by saying that she would like to come to our city, but she would need to have a venue lined up. (She was still thinking in terms of “house concerts” then), and for a crazy moment in these emails I considered trying to find a venue and arrange for a concert myself. Adding the title “concert promoter” to my credentials didn’t seem so crazy when it came to Jane Siberry. I don’t want to give the impression that I got into any deep philosophical discussions in these emails with Jane. They were all very businesslike (and yet polite) and in total we maybe wrote back three or four times before it was obvious it wasn’t going to work out. Still, to actually converse with an artist that meant so much to me when I was 15 almost twenty five years later was something special. I kept my cool, though. I never spilled my guts to her. I didn’t want to think of me as a WEIRDO or anything.

Siberry

Spotted on the wall at the WECC, where I saw Jane three times in the 1990’s. When will I see her again?

Then, just last month, after two years of kickstarter updates, I found a package in my mailbox. It was a copy of the new CD! (The title had changed in the process from Consider the Lily to Ulysses’ Purse, but still: the first new Jane Siberry music in 20 years, you guys.) As good as her word, it was signed. “To Trevor, with Thanks”. I knew it was her, from my previous signed CD. I wish I had more of a story to tell about meeting her that time in 1999, but you know how it is at those “signing CDs after concerts” things. There’s a hustle and bustle to it and I don’t even remember much of what was said or not said. I think I told her I was a big fan, (OBVIOUSLY, I mean why would I be there otherwise? DUMB!) and I think she smiled at me and said thanks and signed the disc case and looked like she wanted to make a connection with everyone one in line but there were so many people in line and she actually looked kind of tired and after all she was just “one girl alone at the end of the Millennium” and everything and well, I can vouch that it was her signature on her disc. I was so excited I had to tweet it.

ulyllses purse

It’s real.

Also, she included a second copy as an “ambassador disc” with instructions to give it to someone who might not be familiar with her music.

But you know what? I haven’t given it away yet. I’m just feeling a little funny about it. I mean, it seems a little “pushy” to just give someone a CD out of the blue, right? It’s not just that. What if the person doesn’t like it? Or worse: what if the person says they like it just because they think it will hurt my feelings if they don’t? Why, as a grown man, should this even be a problem? I should be spreading the word of Jane like the devoted disciple that I am without fear. Maybe I can’t decide to whom the disc should go? Maybe I want to listen along with the chosen person? Also, if I wanted to introduce someone to Jane Siberry, wouldn’t I start with her best album? the one that started it all for me? the one that still gets regular play? Bound by the Beauty?

In any case, don’t you guys want to know what I think of the new album, after all this time?

Well, you’ll just have to wait for Part III.

 

 

 

 

 

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Beauty Bound (Part 1)

“I don’t remember where I was, when I first was lifted up.” Jane Siberry

I was in grade nine, in my friend Steve’s basement. His parents had the best stereo of any of our parents, and we always seemed to gather there. One time over the Christmas holidays, Steve had me sit up next to the speakers and he put on this song. It started out quietly enough, with soft, rolling piano, and a sweet soprano voice singing about “Winter-time on the frozen river”. It wasn’t until she got to the line “You skate as fast as you can ’til you hit the snowbank…” that I actually recoiled on the floor away from the speakers. He had the bass turned way up and on the word “skate” these drums kick in out of nowhere really unexpectedly. It’s at that point when the song really takes off, and I really hadn’t heard anything quite like it before. The drumming was all uneven and irregular, improvisational even, and I couldn’t make any sense it, but then when it got the chorus of, “Don’t……. Let……… Those Sunday afterno-oo-oo-ons……getawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetawaygetaway, break away, break away, break away”, I was hooked. I had to find out more about this song, this person.

It was Jane Siberry, and I had found my first real musical crush. (Okay, maybe not my FIRST musical crush. That honour probably still goes to Cyndi Lauper, but you know what I mean). My first ADULT musical crush, if you could even consider a dumb kid from the suburbs anything close to resembling anything adult, that is.

Truth is, I think Steve wanted to play that song because it had the “eff word” in it later on. He was always finding songs that had swears and he got some kind of weird pleasure from playing them for others. I remember Bruce Cockburn’s Rocket Launcher calls some one a “sonofabitch” towards the end, and Steve couldn’t get enough of playing that one for me too. You can tell this was a simpler time before N.W.A. and other such groups. (We didn’t discover those until high school). I don’t think albums were even given “explicit lyrics” warnings then, either.

I wanted to hear more of this album to see if it was just the one song, or if I had really stumbled onto something. I am happy to report that starting right from the first track, I knew I found a singer that got better and better after every listen. The album was called Bound by the Beauty and the title track really is a powerful thesis statement about the beauty and power of nature in comparison to our short fragile human timelines. Certainly ideas that were beyond this 14 year old’s radar at the time.

Then, Something About Trains, and if you know anything about me at all, you’d know that if you referenced trains, you were already preaching to the choir.

“Most of the time when I’m walkin’ the line I’m looking at the ground, but every time I hear that whistle blowin’, and every time I hear that old black crow…every time I hear that whistle blowin’ I find myself shiverin’ in my soul”.

And then you get Hockey, the first song of hers I ever heard.

Next up was a playful little number that actually got a lot of video play on Muchmusic, Everything Reminds Me Of My Dog. There’s not much to this one, except that it’s rather cute and shows that JS can be fun and quirky as well as deep thinking and esoteric.

The Valley is next. A beautiful, haunting love song that takes its time. (It’s over 6 minutes long, but you don’t feel it). It culminates with that lovely line, “I love the best of you, you love the best of me. Although it’s not always easy…”

AND THAT’S SIDE ONE OF THE CASSETTE BECAUSE I WASN’T SATISFIED JUST LISTENING TO IT IN STEVE’S BASEMENT SO I WENT OUT AND BOUGHT MY OWN COPY.

I didn’t really think this was going to be a track-by-track review of an almost 30 year old album, but here goes. We’re halfway there.

Side two opens up with what probably could very well be the most beautifully moving song that Jane Siberry has ever written. The fact that you don’t get to it until halfway through the album speaks volumes to the strength of all these tracks. What can I say about The Life is a Red Wagon that doesn’t immediately turn into nonsense gushing? The first line is “You watch the slow train moving, through the city late at night…” Trains again, guys. (I know, low hanging fruit, but STILL). And then you get that lovely sentiment in the chorus, “The life is the red wagon, rolling along. The life is the red wagon, simple and strong. The life is the red…is the red… o-oh it’s no big deal. But when the feet are dragging, woah-oh oh oh oh, you pull for me and I pull for you…”

After this, the album does take a darker turn, with Half Angel/Half Eagle full of ugly language depicting city life. There’s a powerful rhythm that carries this song all the way through, and the pain is palpable. I guess Steve never got this far into the album, because there are way more swears in this song than in Hockey. Who knows? In any case, I’m glad Steve’s love of vulgarity actually led me to something beautiful in the end. In my case, I knew EXACTLY where I was when I was lifted up.

This is contrasted by La Jalouse, a hauntingly quiet tale of domestic violence that is so tenderly sung by Jane playing the role of an abused woman and then switches roles mid-song and sings as the abuser. The changing perspectives, especially when she sings the words, “I grabbed your shoulders and then I threw you as hard as ever” will stay with you for a long, long time.

The album ends with a sweet little confection called Miss Punta Blanca that has a lively latin beat and it brings the listener back from the brink (where she left them at the end of La Jalouse). Listen to its playful opening line, “I coulda been Miss Punta Blanca, I coulda but I didn’t wanta…”

Just when you think the album is over, the final track launches and it is a doozy. After Miss Punta Blanca gets us back on our feet, we are treated to a peppy, almost six minute mostly instrumental number called Are we dancing now? (Map III) which ends with the words, “Oh, life is a mystery.”

  • Life IS a mystery.
  • This song was a mystery: What does Map III mean in brackets? Is there a Map I and II? (There are). Will I find them? (I will).
  • This album is a mystery. What a collection of songs! Starting with an ode to beauty in nature, and taking us through love, abuse, redemption, friendship, more abuse, and finally ending with dancing. It was an outrageous accomplishment. I even set aside U2 for a bit to let this cassette work on me. I couldn’t get enough of it. Of her. I was smitten.
  • This woman is a mystery. Who is Jane Siberry? (Many different people). Has she made more albums? (She has). Will I eventually meet her? (I will). Is there more to this story? (There always is).

Next time: what happened next? Stay tuned.

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Ashes to Ashes

I was at the Dentist yesterday, and as I went into the room, my hygienist looked crestfallen. That’s not the look you want to see on the face of a man that is about to put his fingers inside you. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember his name. (Yes, a MANgienist. Because it’s 2016!) I want to call him Tang. The first thing Tang said to me was “Did you hear about David Bowie?” Woah. This guy must have been a fan. Three days after his death and it’s what he opens with.

“Yeah, it was such a shock. Even people close to him didn’t know he was sick.”

“Well I just found out this morning.”

Let’s just stop here for a second. This was Wednesday. David Bowie died late Sunday night, or early Monday morning. In any case, the word got out Monday. I mean, this is a big deal. Even people not into music or art or whatever knew who David Bowie was, and it was front page headlining news this whole week. I first found out when I was on social media (of course) and Bono posted this delightful photo (from a few years ago. Bono looks like he was in his “Elevation” phase, so let’s say 2001?) of Bono kissing David Bowie on the cheek and David Bowie had this huge joyful grin on his face like it was goofiest thing happening to him that day (and it probably was) and I just thought: “Aw, isn’t that sweet?” thinking maybe it was a holdover from the week before which saw David Bowie turn 69 and also release a new album.

But then I started reading the comments and there were all these “so sad” and “RIP”s and what have you, and then on twitter David Bowie was trending and I was eating breakfast and my daughter was yelling and my wife was asking me something and I didn’t really hear any of it and I looked up and just said, “David Bowie died” and I went quiet. So did my daughter, actually. My wife said that he was like “a single Beatle”, which I thought was a lovely way to put it, in terms of his creativity and cultural significance. I almost called this post “The Single Beatle” but I went with one of his song titles that I thought was appropriate on this occasion.

BonoBowie

That was Monday, and here we were at Wednesday. I can’t even begin to figure out how my hygienist was in the dark for two days, but then I remembered that last year he had never heard of the Rocky Mountains. I was in for a cleaning at the beginning of the summer and he asked me if I had any plans, and I told him about our plan to go West, to the Rockies. “The Rockies? What are THOSE?”, Dong asked. (His name might be Dong, actually).

I mean, come on. Right? I can sort of see living in Western Canada and not ever VISITING the Rockies. Just because I have a weird obsession with them and would go there every year if I could doesn’t mean everyone else does. But to not have HEARD of them? Well, that’s just basic geographical ignorance and I can’t tolerate it. But that’s classic Dong. Or Tang.

To be perfectly honest, I came to love David Bowie’s music very recently. Growing up, I knew who he sort of was, but I was a bit young for his 1970’s stardom, and when I started being aware of stuff in the 1980’s, his biggest days were arguably behind him, musically speaking. It wasn’t until a few years ago (MORE than a few years ago, my wife reminded me), that I was over at a friend’s place playing board games or something and I asked him what CD he was playing. (This was before iPods and MP3s). He looked at me a little funny and said, “That’s David Bowie”, like I should have known. I really liked what I was hearing, but I was hearing it for the first time. I had to listen to about three for four songs before I recognized anything, and this was a “Best of” CD we were listening to, people! The music sounded so new and modern, it could have been released that year. The next day, I went to Future Shop and bought my own copy. It became one of my favourite CDs. I think because it didn’t sound especially like it was from any particular time or place meant that different people at different times and in different places could discover his music and have it ring true to them. Even a 20-something, hetero, pretty well adjusted, white dude living in his mom’s basement.

I remember standing outside our local stadium with my Dad in 1987. David Bowie’s “Glass Spider” tour was coming to town, and the set up included 3 stories of scaffolding to support a giant “Glass Spider” thing. I don’t think my Dad really knew much about David Bowie. He was strictly a CBC man, back when the CBC only did talking, (and classical and jazz when it had to). But he liked weird things, and I’m guessing that the CBC did a report of the tour coming to town and he wanted to see it for himself.

“Apparently David Bowie comes down out of that Spider on a trapeze during the first song. That’s how he makes his entrance.” My Dad was talking like he was the show designer or something, but I think he was just repeating what he heard on the radio. I wasn’t into David Bowie then, (my board-games playing epiphany was still a good decade ahead in the future), so I didn’t stand outside the stadium the night of the concert. Still, though. I remember marvelling at this crazy structure being built in my city alongside my Dad.

Years later, in 2011, I was reminded of this when U2 came to town and was building their massive 360 stage in the same spot where David Bowie’s Glass Spider stood two and a half decades earlier. I’m sure if my Dad were still alive then, he’d be out there, saying stuff like “That screen comes right down to the floor at one point, and those walkways move” to any passerby that was willing to listen. In fact, if you go back to the post I wrote about that concert in 2011 (how cool is it that there is a continuous record of blog posts going back five years?), you’ll see that I was standing next to a guy who was at that Glass Spider concert and he was telling me about it, and then when David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” started playing over the speakers to indicate the beginning of the U2 concert, my neighbour got all confused and had a bit of a flashback or something until the familiar opening notes of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” kicked in and the show began for real.

One of the things I liked about David Bowie was that he wasn’t really trying to be “cool” or
“trendy” or what-have-you. He seemed happy to do his own thing, and sometimes it resonated with the wider culture and sometimes it didn’t, but it didn’t stop him from continuing to create his whole life. How many artists can say they released something new two days before they died. I guess NO ARTIST CAN because they are DEAD but you know what I mean.

I know you can’t really compare David Bowie to anyone, but I do think of him in the same vein as Prince. I can’t really imagine a world without Prince, just as I can’t really imagine a world without David Bowie. Two artists doing their own weird, cool things, that sometimes intersect with pop culture, but often do not.

I also like how David Bowie permeated culture beyond music. His style was seen and felt in the fashion world, in movies, in books. We used to have an American Library Association poster of him up in my local library growing up. One of those ones that just said “READ” in big letters and had a famous person holding a book. Here’s a link to an article that has that poster, plus a list of David Bowie’s top 100 reads. In Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, there’s a strip club called “Suffragette City”, which I thought was pretty clever at the time. I remember watching “The Last Temptation of Christ” as a kid and my friend saying, “Hey, isn’t that David BOWIE?” in the role of Pontius Pilate. It was. And how about a couple of years ago when Arcade Fire released “Reflektor”? Towards the end of that song, you hear an otherworldly voice sing, “Thought you were praying to the resurrector, turns out it was just a reflektor..” Yep. Bowie again. And how about in “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”? Not only do we get “Life on Mars?” on the soundtrack during one of Wes Anderson’s signature slo-mo sequences, we get a Belafonte crew member singing David Bowie songs throughout the movie in Portuguese. And what about Canadian astronaut and ISS commander Chris Hadfield?  He recorded a version of “Space Oddity” with David Bowie’s blessing while orbiting Earth on the ISS and it is pretty damn great. I’m sure you can find it on Youtube if you haven’t seen it yet, but based on the millions of views that video has, you probably already have. I know I’m missing a ton of references. Apparently he was in this movie “Labyrinth”. I movie I HAVE NOT SEEN. He played the lead role in “The Man who Fell to Earth” as a humanoid who comes to Earth to get water for his dying planet. And yes, it pains me to mention that he appeared in Zoolander, but let’s not hold that against him.

Another new year, another life celebrated. Like many of us, I put my “Best of Bowie” CD on repeat Monday. (Actually, it was the MP3 version of that CD I bought all those years ago, converted to a space-age technology file format so I could play it on my iPod). It was playing all morning as I puttered around, but it was when THIS song came on that I finally had to stop what I was doing, sit down, and fully listen. I was listening to the original with Freddie Mercury, but check out this cool live version with Annie Lennox singing the Freddie Mercury part. Something about this song. I’m not saying it’s my favourite David Bowie song, I’m just saying it’s the one that stopped me in my tracks and demanded my attention. Art can sometimes have that effect.

“This is our last dance. This is ourselves….Under Pressure.”

 

 

 

 

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Scream and Shout

“I have no feeling for you now. Now that I know you better.” Arcade Fire

I’ve said most of all this before, but I feel like I need to say most of it again.

Bear with.

Last week Arcade Fire came to town. It’s been four years since I first saw them. At that time, I knew next to nothing about them. If I had to say anything at all I’d say they were a band from Ottawa and they had one song that I sort of recognized (Rebellion: Lies) and that they opened for U2 at some point. Those 3 facts were all I had going into the concert, and one of them was wrong. They weren’t even from Ottawa, they were from Montreal. The only reason I was going to the concert was because someone I knew had somehow ended up buying an extra ticket and offered it to me. I was going to be sitting up in the stands with a group of people I didn’t know, which I was okay with.  Then a day or so before the concert I got a call saying that someone who had a floor ticket would actually prefer a seat and would I be willing to switch? I was willing, as long as the floor ticket didn’t cost me any more, and as it turned out it didn’t.

So there I was, standing amongst a group of people I didn’t know very well about to listen to a band I knew so little about. I mean, I wasn’t that brutal, okay. I mean I did know slightly more than the two facts and the one lie that I mentioned in the first paragraph, but not much more. I borrowed the three CDs that were out at that time and tried to “binge listen” to the band for a couple of weeks before the show. I loved The Suburbs album (their newest at the time, only out for a month then) through and through, couldn’t get into Neon Bible at all except for “Intervention” and I scarcely gave Funeral a listen at all beforehand. But as the concert started and I saw what a live Arcade Fire concert was all about, something broke in me. I was transfixed by Win’s guitar playing, cool showmanship and crowd interaction, and I’m not sure I can adequately describe what happened to me watching Régine sing, dance, and play multiple instruments throughout the night. The fact that I caught myself singing falsetto along with Régine’s part in “Intervention” during the encore or the fact that I named this blog after one of her signature songs probably says it all. And the now famous “rain jacket incident” has become a local legend among my younger cousins who always ask me to tell the story at family gatherings. I’m always happy to oblige.

After that night, I became a little obsessed with the band. I made a playlist of the concert out of the album tracks and played it nonstop in the car and everywhere else. My wife, who knew about as much about the band beforehand, couldn’t get away from the sound of Arcade Fire, and either she was going to hate them or fall in love with them too. Luckily, it was the latter, and she often would express regret at not taking the night off work and coming to the concert with me. I would hear or see Arcade Fire everywhere after that. It wasn’t hard. They become the darlings of the awards circuit, even winning a number of Grammys and prompting the now infamous “Who the F*ck is Arcade Fire?” tumblr account. Is that account still in existence? Do we have time to link to it? I’m being told we have time. Okay, everyone. Here’s the link. Enjoy. Wow, I really didn’t think I’d get an opportunity to link to that tumblr page again. I guess stuff really does stick around online, huh?

At that time, it was so unusual for me to get into a new band. I thought my musical tastes were pretty much set by my mid-30’s, and it was such a fun and exciting thing to find something new and genuinely love it. The last big “addition” to my musical soundscape was probably Coldplay five years before Arcade Fire. Since then, I’m happy to say that I’ve be open to learning about new bands and musicians, partially through exposure through the CBC, but also learning about bands from friends who are way cooler than me. Some of it I like, others not so much, but none of it really altered me the way that night with Arcade Fire did in 2010.

So life moves on, as it usually does, and last summer we heard rumours of a new Arcade Fire album and tour in 2014. Did four years really just go by? Was my daughter, who was barely walking the last time I saw the band about to be entering kindergarten? Later on that fall, the rumours were confirmed and our city would see them come in August. The same friend that offered me that extra ticket four years ago really went to bat and was able to get floor tickets again, but this time we made sure my wife could go too. There was NO WAY she was going to miss seeing Arcade Fire this time round. As the long winter wore on, we got familiar with the new double album, Reflektor, and thought about summer. For my birthday, my wife presented me with a black t-shirt with silver lettering that simply said, “SCREAM”.

I didn’t get it. A shirt celebrating that 1990’s horror franchise? The first was good, but I’m not sure I need a t-shirt for it…..WAIT! She produced a second shirt in her size that had the same silver lettering but this one said “SHOUT” and then the penny dropped. One of the best songs off of the new album is called “Afterlife” and the chorus goes something like “Can we just work it out? Scream and Shout. Til we work it out. Can we just work it out. Scream and Shout…..” and all of a sudden we had our concert gear lined up. The band requested that fans dress up either in formal wear or in costumes for the concert (for fun!) and so we kind of did this hybrid thing where we wore these shirts and I had a mask and a flowery lei and my wife had flowers in her hair and a feather boa.

The night was finally here, and I was just as excited for my wife to see them for the first time in person as I was for seeing them a second time. The group we were with was similar and yet different from the 2010 group. As the Pet Shop Boys eloquently put it, “Some were here and some were missing.” After a great opening act by the energetic tuUnE-yArDs and a fun DJ/dance party set by Dan Deacon, the band entered the arena from the back and walked through the crowd wearing huge papier-mache masks. They were going to walk right by us! I was skeptical at first that they were the actual band and not decoys, but then my wife shouted, “There’s Win!” and sure enough, he seemed to be the only one walking in the group without a mask. Even though he is well over 6 feet tall, he seemed diminished by the spectacle and almost shy as he passed by within a couple of feet of us. But as the processional got closer to the stage, something sparked up in him and he ran up into the stands, grabbed a beer from someone, took a slurp and jumped on the stage to begin the show with “Here Comes the Night Time”, one of the new ones. The band changes up the set list order almost every night on this tour, and an encore song one night might be the opener the next, so we really didn’t know what we would hear and in what order. This suited me just fine, as I was happy just to be in the presence of this band for a couple of hours and let them play whatever they wanted. There were hardly any breaks between songs, just long enough to allow the musicians to change up their instruments or grab a quick sip of water. Highlights for me personally were singing along to “No Cars Go” (and shouting “Hey!” at the right times, something I couldn’t master in 2010), merrily shouting “2009! 2010! I wanna make a record of how I felt then!” during “Month of May” and of course geeking out over “Afterlife” when it finally appeared late in the main set. A very cool bit followed where Régine was on a b-stage scissor lift with a dude in a skeleton costume echoing the chorus of “Oh Orpheus!” with Win and the rest of the band on the main stage. “It’s never over It’s never over It’s never over It’s never over It’s never over” over and over again and eventually morphing into “Sprawl II: Mountains Beyond Mountains” to end the main set.

Whatever spell was cast over me in 2010 was somehow lifted last week when I finally saw Arcade Fire again, fulfilling a need that took four full years to work through. That brokenness inside me somehow healed a little bit.Or maybe the scar tissue aches a little less. Or are these just the lies we tell ourselves? I really wouldn’t want to compare and contrast the two concert experiences. Both were wonderful in their own ways, and for very different reasons. When I saw them in 2010, everything seemed new in my life. Four years later, less so. Things seem more worn, more worn out, less certain, perhaps less hopeful? It’s hard to say really. There was a certain sense of coming full circle, of completing something that needed completing, of saying goodbye to a particular longing, and accepting a new reality.

And if the old spell was broken, was a new one cast?

It’s too early to tell, I think. Maybe we will need another full four years to really see how it all turns out.

Although if “Month of May” was a record of how I felt then, perhaps everything feeling “like a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection of a reflection” is how I feel now.

Dead shopping malls rise like mountains beyond mountains.

Dead shopping malls STILL rise like mountains beyond mountains.

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Deceptive Resolution (Part 1)

In the summer of 1985, our family went camping. This was a big deal, because we were not known as campers. Not by a long shot. We would always go on a major summer holiday every year, but we would stay in motels or with family along the way. Most of the time they were road trips, but sometimes, when we were very lucky we took the train. My parents, especially my Dad, was determined that his kids would get to see as much of Canada as possible on his watch. His patriotism shone strongly and would never entertain the thought of a trip to Disneyland over a trip to Ottawa. To be fair, my brother and I were not the type to whine about not going to Disneyland either and were just as happy (if not happier) to travel to Churchill (which we did one year), so it made things easier for everyone.

So it was a bit of a surprise when my parents told us we would be taking a smaller scaled holiday that summer, and that we would be borrowing our Uncle Barry and Aunt Betty’s camper trailer. I have a number of funny memories of the four of us “city slickers” trying to make our way in nature, even if “nature” really just meant sleeping bags and a portable toilet. We found ourselves in Clear Lake, MB at one point that summer, and that is where this story really begins.

Home sweet home

I will do anything for a hotel room.

Clear Lake is the perfect place to camp if you hate camping, because there is a cute little townsite minutes from the campground where you can go and get ice cream, or shop, or do any number of non-camping things. The last time my wife and I camped there, we ended up ordering a pizza and the guy asked which campsite we were at and was going to deliver it. We were alarmed and reassured him that we would just wait for it and take it back to our camp ourselves. I mean, really. How embarrassing, right? What would the other campers think?

Clear Lake also has one movie theatre, and in that summer of 1985, it was showing Amadeus.

Amadeus won the Best Picture Oscar that year and was based on the Peter Shaffer’s play of the same name. It was a fictionalized (but maybe truthful!) account of Mozart’s life as told by a rival composer to his priest in the form of a confessional. (That last sentence was PRETTY POORLY CONSTRUCTED, but I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, right?)My parents saw this movie when it came out months before, and my Dad was super stoked to take my brother and me. My Mom was happy to have a night away from the three of us, and the movies were a civilized way for my brother and me to forget that we were actually camping, so off we went. My parents had struck up a conversation with an older couple camping next to us, and they expressed doubt as to whether this movie was an appropriate thing to show to an 11 and an 8 year old, but my Dad just said, “It’s a good story, and my boys can handle it.” This may seem out of character for my Dad, as you may remember stories of him “previewing” movies himself (like The Last Starfighter and Aliens) and deeming them “too violent” for me, or maybe you may remember the terrible moment during the opening scene of Young Sherlock Holmes when I thought he was going to march my brother and me right out of the theatre, and demand his money back.

But what you may have forgotten was that my dear old Dad also was Irish, and if you suggested that he shouldn’t do something, he just bloody well would want to do it twice as badly. This trait was passed on to me and it drives my wife nuts sometimes, but I can’t help it. As they say in The Crying Game, it’s in my nature. So we headed off to the movies: my brother, my Dad, and me. My parents had bought my brother and me new sunglasses that day, and my brother insisted on wearing his to the movie. So even though there was only a couple of hours worth of sunlight left in the day when we left our campsite, my Dad let him bring them along. Keep that in mind for later, I’ll come back to it. New sunglasses/Mozart.

The theatre today looks just about the same as it did 30 years ago.

The theatre today looks just about the same as it did 30 years ago.

Back to the movie.

Well you know what? That older couple may have had a point BECAUSE THE MOVIE OPENS WITH A PRETTY GRAPHIC THROAT SLITTING SCENE which either my Dad totally forgot about, or maybe didn’t remember how disturbing it actually was. To his credit, I think he turned to us just as it was about to happen and said, “You may want to close your eyes RIGHT NOW”, and I think maybe we did for the worst of it. Well, after that opening, the movie did settle into a lavish three hour retelling of Mozart’s life that insidiously gets under your skin. The priest is the audience’s surrogate, and while he is cheerful and upbeat at the beginning of the film, he is absolutely drained and destroyed by the final frame. I felt the same way watching it for the first time. My 11 year old self couldn’t believe that a movie could make you feel such things as Amadeus made me feel that night. I don’t think I can really adquately express what that movie meant to me after seeing it. I do remember that my cheeks and forehead were flushed, and as the cool summer evening air hit our faces as we left the theatre, I felt transformed.

Little did I know then that Amadeus, and the music from that movie, would stick with me for almost 30 years. How that movie and its music affected me will be more fully explored next time, gang. ‘Til then, let these gentle summer memories from a long ago childhood warm you as you gaze out the window at another winter storm.

Rock me, Amadeus

Rock me, Amadeus

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Their music at work: The DCFC/Tragically Hip Connection

“Everything is bleak. It’s the middle of the night. You’re all alone and the dummies might be right. You feel like a jerk. Your music at work. Your music at work”. The Tragically Hip

Full disclosure: I’m full of cold medicine. I’m not quite all alone: my daughter’s asleep in the other room. It IS the middle of the night, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the dummies were right after all, but it’s not ALL bleak, not all, anyway. Not yet.

On Ben Gibbard’s recent solo concert in Toronto, he covered The Tragically Hip’s “My Music at Work”. Quite an interesting choice. Not the first Tragically Hip song that comes to mind, that’s for sure. I can’t imagine hearing this song any other way than the way I know it, and yet after listening to a few seconds of Ben Gibbard’s stripped down, acoustic take on Youtube, he owned it. Like a lot of Gord Downie’s lyrics, you can make of them what you will. I like to think of this song as a meditation on song writing and the creative process. I love how he can take a trite radio station slogan, “Your Music at Work” and turn it into something broader: “Your music, working.” For such an intelligent and complex songwriter as Ben Gibbard is, it begins to make perfect sense why he would select this song out of the 30 years worth of material to honour The Tragically Hip. And why honour them at all? What’s the connection here? I’d love to know the full extent of Ben Gibbard’s relationship with Gord Downie. Our friend Carol was at the recent Toronto show and can confirm that Gord Downie was in attendance. I can only weave bits and pieces from the ether, and make up the rest. Just like any other blog post from the crew at Mountains Beyond Mountains, yes?

We do know that Ben’s band mate, Chris Walla, was one of the producers on Gord Downie’s most recent solo album, “The Grand Bounce”. We also know that Death Cab for Cutie made a special appearance at a two-day festival this past summer over the Canada Day weekend, a festival organized and headlined by The Tragically Hip.

At first glance, you couldn’t think of two bands that could be more different: The Tragically Hip and Death Cab for Cutie. On the surface, the first is a loud, dumb bar band that sounds like they should be covering Harlequin or Loverboy. The second is an emo-infused group of sensitive sissies who like to talk about their feelings a lot.

I’m exaggerating, stereotyping and generalizing, of course. I’ve actually come to love and respect both of these bands in their own unique ways, and the fact that their two respective lead singers have a mutual and genuine friendship makes it all the more interesting.

I’ll start with “The Hip”, as I’ve known them for much longer. Growing up in Canada, you just couldn’t avoid hearing The Tragically Hip. In fact, I can’t even tell you the first time I heard one of their songs, or even which song it was. Their music is just around, you know? It was probably either “Twist my Arm”. “Blow at High Dough” or “New Orleans is Sinking”, and I probably heard them first at a wedding social or something. It wasn’t until 1994 rolled around and “Day for Night” was released that I really took notice. It was the first Hip CD I ever bought (or maybe my brother and I split it, I can’t remember) and I was blown away right from the very first notes of “Grace, Too”.

Instead of talking about it, why not check out a bit of it. Here’s Gord Downie and the band doing a little “Grace, Too”. For the record, not everyone in Canada likes them. My friend Ed cannot STAND them. Last year he was given free tickets to their concert, and he only stayed for the opening act, Broken Social Scene, and then took off before “Grace, Too” was even finished! Some people. Me? I kind of get a kick out of Gord Downie and his stage antics, but this is coming from a man who doesn’t think Bono has an ego.

But from 1994 to 2011, I had never seen them live. It was always something I meant to do, and there were lots of opportunities. Just one of those things. I wouldn’t say I was the biggest fan in the world. I bought the odd CD over the years, but I didn’t follow them slavishly. I just sort of kept tabs on them. So when it was announced that they were going to be doing an outdoor concert at our ballpark, I jumped at the chance to get tickets. This was especially great because their most recent album at the time, “We are the same” was more introspective and a little on the melancholy side, almost Death Cabby you could say, and my wife LOVED it. I brought it home from the library and was playing it around the house. “Who are these guys?” she asked. She couldn’t believe it when I told her. Needless to say, “We are the same” made it onto the iPod and into heavy rotation. Unfortunately for her, I don’t think they played a single song off their new album at that concert. You can hardly blame them. No one wants to hear a song about the wistful end of summer packing up a cottage or something called “The Depression Suite” at a rock show. They DID play “Wheat Kings” which aside from everything on “We are the same” is my wife’s favourite “Hip” song, so all was not lost.

Let’s jump over to Death Cab for Cutie. While the Tragically Hip has been a part of my subconscious for about 30 years, it’s hard to believe I’ve only known about Death Cab for Cutie for about a year. It all started last summer when a friend of ours gave us a ukulele. He just happened to have an extra one. It’s true, don’t ask. I played around with it for a few days, but it was really my wife that took a shine to it. “I’ve always wanted a ukulele! I could use this in my children’s story times!” This was news to me, but after an orientation session from our friend, Marla took to the internet to find tabs, chords and Youtube tutorials. She found some dude who was doing a version of “I will follow you into the dark” by Death Cab for Cutie and I guess the rest, as they say, is history. I don’t know which version Marla actually studied, but here’s one of the many out there: He’s actually pretty good, yes?

After that, CBC started playing a lot of stuff off their newest album, “Codes and Keys” and a friend of ours had a couple of their CDs that she lent to us. We got a couple more from the library and before we knew it we had 4 or 5 albums of this band that a month before neither of us had heard of.

It’s a strange feeling when you stumble upon a band that just feels “right”, that resonates with you. A band that has a sound that you feel like you’ve heard all along but is totally new to you. The same thing happened to me when I discovered Arcade Fire a couple of years back. It hadn’t happened again until Marla picked up the uke. DCFC soon became my default band. I would play them in the car all the time, often beginning my day with “Passenger Seat” and then putting the rest of shuffle. At home the question wasn’t whether we’d listen to DCFC, the question was “which album?” Marla would often just run them all from beginning to end in album order all afternoon. She didn’t know which songs belonged on which albums, but she knew the order. She was like a musical Rain Man. If I put them on shuffle, she instantly knew something was wrong.

In April of this year, Marla and our friend (the one who got us hooked) booked flights to Toronto to see DCFC at Massey Hall. You can read about it here. Just two months later, Marla was heading East again, this time with me and our daughter. The cover story was that we were going on a family vacation, but the timing was such that we were really planning to be in Niagara on the Lake for the Canada Day weekend.

Why? There was a music festival planned there. The first one of its kind in the Niagara region. The bands? Death Cab for Cutie and The Tragically Hip! (Also The New Pornographers, another favourite of Marla’s, and a  group neither one of us heard of: The Rural Alberta Advantage). We arranged to have  Marla’s relatives look after Audrey overnight and we headed to Niagara for the concert of a lifetime. We booked ourselves into a B&B nearby, so we could just enjoy ourselves. We intentionally missed the Rural Alberta Advantage, since they were on first and our B&B had an outdoor swimming pool. We arrived just in time to hear the exuberant opening notes of “Moves” by the New Pornographers. We were on our way! (Extra points if you can spot “Troy” in this video!)

We found a spot on the grass and just soaked in the reality that we were here in Southern Ontario at a music festival!  The New Pornographers were charming, fun, and full of energy. Even the sometimes elusive Neko Case was in attendance. “We’re wearing the same shirt!” Marla exclaimed when Neko appeared on the screens. More on that later. When their set ended, we Veroukised our way up to the very front of the stage. Well, almost to the very front. We were like 5 or 6 back, just where we wanted to be for DCFC. We texted our friend Carol back home that we were in position. “Give Ben a smooch from me!” she merrily texted back. We were so close that we WERE almost in smooching territory.

Back to Marla’s shirt: She didn’t know what to wear to an outdoor festival. She didn’t want to look square, so she thought all black would be the way to go, but then she thought it would be too hot and muggy. She went back and forth on it for a while before settling on a puffy white blouse with embroidery on the front. It didn’t exactly scream rock and roll, but it appeared that Neko Case was wearing the exact same thing, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? WRONG. A chap standing next us in the throng was enjoying a few LARGE marijuana cigarette and Marla lived in mortal fear that one of her puffy sleeves would rub up against this gentleman’s spliff, as it were, and set herself on fire. Appropriate, considering how many times fire is used as a recurring motif in DCFC lyrics, but it wouldn’t be the way we’d want to end our evening. As it turned out, the fears were unfounded because this dude soon moved on, but not before asking us what band he just saw. He didn’t believe us that a band could have a name like The New Pornographers. He then asked who was up next. He thought we were totally fucking with him. Death Cab for WHO? He shuffled far enough away to no longer be a threat.

Anyone that’s been up close at a concert will know the feeling. You’re waiting around for what seems like FOREVER for the band to come on, and then all of a sudden there they are in front of you and you can hardly believe. I’m not exaggerating when I say that their hour and a bit set was one of the most beautiful musical experiences I’ve ever had. They opened with “Home is a Fire” off of “Codes and Keys” and then I couldn’t believe it: the opening bass notes to “I will possess your heart”. Carol’s favourite song, and they played the full instrumental opening too. An odd choice for such a short set, but if I’ve learned anything about DCFC over the last year is that they don’t do the expected and they change things up as much for themselves as for their fans. I fumbled with the cell phone and tried to call home so that Carol could have a little listen. Ironically, she didn’t hear the phone because she was blasting DCFC on the stereo! A few songs later they played Marla’s favourite, “Grapevine Fires” and dedicated it to Gord Downie. Ben told a cute story about how he was told he was dressed like Gord Downie the other night at a different Tragically Hip show. Unconnected to this, back home, our friends independently came to the same conclusion that Ben has a very “Gord” look or feel about him. Or is it the other way round? It’s not just looks, its attitude, or something. Maybe these two bands aren’t as different as one might think at first glance. Anyone know more of the story?

At the end of “You are a tourist”, Ben tossed his guitar pick out into the crowd and it landed RIGHT AT MY FEET in the grass. I dove down, but some guy was already down there and had his hand on it. I had my hand on his and we rolled around for a few seconds, me filled with a bloodlust to wrest it from his grasp, but then I came to my senses. He had it fair and square, after all. I guess I thought it would have been an awesome thing to bring back for our friend, Carol. I asked to see it, and he let me, which was nice of him, considering I had him in a half-nelson seconds before. It was just a generic white guitar pick. In my mind, it if had said “DCFC” or “Ben” on it or something I was going to take it and run away, but luckily for everyone I just handed it back to him. I tried, Carol!

Here’s a taste of “We looked like giants”, their second last song of the day. It was a wonderful, improvisational full 10 minutes.. The good soul who was recording this stood right in front of us, and as the song played out, I acted as her de facto bodyguard, making sure no one would jostle her or knock her over. I’m glad to see our final result paid off. A snap-shot of a band totally in the moment, with Ben Gibbard *SPOLIER* even sitting down at a second drum kit towards the end. It still gives me shivers.

I have a feeling this was supposed to be the last song of the day, but the crowd’s response prompted the band to play an encore. Ben looked sheepishly into the wings, shrugged, and said something like “We’re outta time!” and then launched into a peppy, cheeky version of “The Sound of Settling” to cap it all off. Marla and I didn’t stop dancing and jumping the whole time, so we moved out of the sweet spot to make room for the hardcore “Hippers”. We grabbed some food and hung back as the main attraction took the stage. It was great to see “The Hip” again, and in control. Their songs so familiar, and yet I still count myself a casual fan. DCFC: the complete opposite. I’ve become fast friends with them, and yet I feel like they’ve been with me my whole life. All I know is that  they will be with me for the rest.

Brothers…

from different mothers?

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Here’s where we gotta be: Love and Community

Our U2 Weekend

Let me in the Sound

My ears have stopped ringing, but I’ll never forget this amazing past weekend. We all knew U2 was coming to Winnipeg since last October, but none of us knew then how exactly it would all play out. I remember the morning the concert was announced, and a co-worker called me at home to tell me the news. She’s a nice lady in her 50’s, very prim and proper, but she knew my love of the band. When she told me, I blurted without thinking, “Holy Fucking Shit!” and then spent the rest of the morning apologizing to her for my language.

Grace finds Beauty in Everything

The excitement began for me a whole week before the concert when I drove by the stadium and saw the 100+ trucks in the parking lot, loaded down with bits and pieces of the U2360 stage. It all became real for me at that moment, and the rest of week dragged out. I was fighting off a cold and actually stayed home from work on Wednesday to sleep and try to get over it in time for the concert. I listened to a live feed of the Salt Lake City show that night, even though I told myself I’d stay away from setlists and spoilers, but as the lyric goes “You tell yourself that you’ll stay in, but its down to Alphaville”. I heard the thrilling revamped version of “Even Better than the Real Thing” and even though that song is probably my least favourite off of Achtung Baby!, it took on a whole new meaning and urgency on this leg of the tour. “Give me one more chance, and you’ll be satisfied”. It was as if Bono was trying to win back audience support that stuck with him and the band as every North American date was  postponed last summer due to Bono’s unexpected back surgery and recovery. I loved this version and thought it was the PERFECT opener.

The next day, word spread that as “The Claw” was being assembled at the stadium, a bunch of U2 stenciled equipment was being loaded into the downtown Burton Cummings (formerly the Walker) theatre. Speculation abounded. Were they going to shoot a video? Rehearse for the tour? No one really knew.

Still no sign of the band.

Then on Friday I read this and was so happy for Sonya a.k.a. @honey_child. She’s as big a fan as anyone, even travelling to Australia this past winter to see U2 twice in Sydney. I know what it feels like to meet your hero. For me, meeting Bono outside the Saddledome in Calgary a decade ago remains a cherished moment in my life.

In addition to the happiness I felt for Sonya was this simple fact: The band was in town. My town.

A Sort of Homecoming

Shortly after this, Twitter lit up with the news that the band was at the downtown theatre. This was all I needed to hear. My wife and daughter were tired and were off to bed early. I was in the car and driving downtown on a cold and misty night. Irish weather.

When I got to the theatre, two things struck me. First, There were only about a dozen fans standing outside the rear entrance. Stasa and Joanna were there; they had tweeted about a half hour before that they were heading down. Secondly, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. One of the alley doors was left slightly ajar, and this amazing sound wafted out into the cool night air. It was unmistakably The Edge playing the guitar solo to “The Fly”. I couldn’t believe I was standing outside this ancient theatre listening to my favourite band in the whole world play. We were pressed up against the brick wall, literally like “a fly on the wall” listening to “The Fly”. It’s the 20th anniversary of Achtung Baby!, and we learned that U2 were recording a documentary to mark the occasion. As the night wore on, we heard “The Fly” many more times, and other songs off of Achtung Baby!, including the blisteringly reworked “Even Better than the Real Thing” I had heard for the first time online two nights before from Salt Lake City. As long as the band was playing, I wasn’t going anywhere (except across the street to use the washroom in the Yellow Dog Pub). I bumped into an old friend, Chris, whom I hadn’t seen in about 10 years. We were at university together and instantly bonded over our love of U2 even then. We hugged and he asked “How’s Marla?” I thought it was sweet that he remembered my wife’s name after all that time. I told him we had a little 2-year-old daughter now, and he told me he spends ALL of his free time devoted to following U2. “What time are you planning on lining up?” he asked me. “About 2 pm”. He looked at me with real concern in his eyes. “Ohh. I think you’re gonna need to line up earlier than that. I’m starting the line up tomorrow.” Tomorrow? As in the day before the concert? There’s no way I had the stamina for that. I didn’t really care if I got up close. I would have enjoyed the show from the parking lot if I had to, but I didn’t say that to Chris. I just enjoyed seeing his spirit and determination in action. I also met this guy from Northern Ireland, Cathal McCarron,(@me_and_u2) who is following the band across their entire tour. He’s written a book called “Me and U2” and he writes a blog about his experiences. “I’m not even that big of a fan,” he deadpanned. “I didn’t even think to try to see them out of the UK. It never occurred to me until this tour that I could do that”. I also got to meet Stasa and Joanna’s cousins as well. Love and Community. The crowd slowly grew to about 50 by the time U2 as done for the night.

Obviously tired from their flight and their night’s work, the band did not interact with the crowd the same way as they did when they entered the theatre, but we did see them get into their vehicles and head off into the night. We got a good glimpse of Adam, as he was the only one without an SUV and the only one without tinted windows.

Our first view of “The Claw” fully built. Saturday afternoon.

Part of the next day, Saturday, was spent at the stadium. Tour merchandise was being sold a day early. My wife got a cool khaki cap and I a maroon shirt called “Buddhist Punk”. I also got a chance to check out the GA line. Sure enough, there was Chris and Cathal on the sidewalk of St. Matthews across from the Toys R Us. Although security didn’t allow tents, they were turning a blind eye to the makeshift tarp and air mattresses. There were already 29 people in line. U2 GA lines can last for as much as a week in some cities, and in central and latin america it really becomes a part of the concert experience. The remarkable thing is that they are fan regulated. Once you get your name on the list and a number written on your hand, you must “maintain a presence” in the line in some way and be present for periodic “roll calls”.  As our friend John quipped “There are probably a couple of sociology PhD theses that could be written about this phenomenon.” You can read more about U2 GA etiquette here.

Cathal in the front of the GA Line, Saturday afternoon.

After the stadium stop, (where we also bumped into Sheila, Carol, John, Mike, Lisa and my Mom!) we headed back down to the Burton Cummings theatre. Joanna and Stasa had texted to say that they actually got their picture with Larry as he went back into the theatre for more filming. I wanted my wife and daughter to experience some of the same awesomeness that I did the night before. There were more people outside this time, and security seemed better prepared to deal with us. We heard “Mysterious Ways” and Bono rehearsing a segue-way between “Will you still love me tomorrow?” and “Where the Streets have no Name” a few times. Marla said “I bet he’ll sing this tomorrow”. Audrey was more interested in collecting pebbles in the parking lot, but when she’s older I can tell her she heard U2 live! It was soon supper and bedtime for Audrey, so we headed home for the night. I knew I needed to get a good night’s sleep if I was going to enjoy Sunday to the fullest. No air mattresses in the Toys R Us parking lot for me!

Marla and Audrey outside the Burton Cummings Theatre, Saturday afternoon

That night, I found out that Joanna hit the jackpot. She went back to the Theatre Saturday night and was rewarded by seeing the entire band come out. She got pictures and even autographs from everyone!

The Edge by Joanna

Walk On

A little background on the group that saw U2: John holds the distinction of being the only one of us to see a ZOO TV show live. This is his first time seeing the 360 tour. Marla has become a fan through osmosis by virtue of being married to me. “Before I met you, I just remember dancing to Sunday Bloody Sunday at Jr High school dances”. Carol is a recent convert to U2 fandom. The St. Paul of U2 fans, if you will. Her bright light on the road to Damascus was “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb”. Sheila describes herself as a “casual fan” who “wanted to see what all the fuss was about”. And me? I probably could write an entirely separate blog about what U2 means to me. Let’s just say U2 is the first band I ever truly fell in love with when I was 13 years old, and I have never fallen out of love. I’m now 37. We walked over to the stadium around 2:30 in the afternoon. We could hear “Zooropa” being sound-checked, and it sounded other-worldly bouncing off the buildings surrounding the stadium. We joined the GA line and soon found out were in the 570’s. (I was #572). This was great news for us. If the rumours were true, the inner circle could accommodate 2000 people, but I never like counting my chickens, especially before they’re hatched. We heard portions of “Magnificent” and “Streets”, and a tantalizingly small snippet of “Bad” before the sound check ended. I came prepared with water bottles, trail-mix and M&Ms. I even lined my fleece with granola bars. We ate lunch at about 1:30, and lord only knows when we’d eat again. Our friend Jackie and her boyfriend were working for the “U2 Green Team” and were collecting recycling from the GA line and around the stadium grounds. For their efforts, they were given passes for the inner circle, not to mention a cool souvenir t-shirt. Another group of our friends had lined up since the morning and were in the mid 300’s. This group included Stasa, Joanna and their arsenal of “Clappers”, with whom I spent Friday evening and Saturday afternoon outside the theatre.

A quick side-note on “The Clapper”. I’m not entire sure how the saga of “The Clap” began. Perhaps someone in the comments field below can enlighten us. Suffice to say, a mission of Joanna and Stasa was to “give” certain people “The Clap”. It was tried at the Arcade Fire show in September, but Win Butler escaped Clap free. Would Bono be so lucky? Read on.

It had rained a bit the night before, so the ground wasn’t suitable for sitting, but the time passed fairly well. The weather was cool and overcast, and was probably the best case scenario for standing in the GA line. By the time we were let into the stadium, the line had grown to fill all the barricades and snaked the entire length of St. Matthews and all the way down St. James street as far as I could see. At the gates, I was relieved of my trail mix and M&Ms, but I was able to keep Carol’s bag and even more importantly they didn’t find my granola bars! We walked the length of the football field and entered a second set of turnstiles. It wasn’t until we were through that it dawned on me that we were in the inner circle. I high-fived Sheila to celebrate our good fortune. We kept winding our way under the walkways until we stopped in front of the drum kit. We were centre stage, about 6 people back! The perfect location! Stasa and Joanna were up at the rail and so was Chris. I looked over my shoulder and saw Cathal making camp on Edge’s side. Jackie and her boyfriend made their way over to us. Sonya was probably in the Red Zone by now. It was as if everyone I met and spent time with this weekend was gathering together. I knew even my Mom was probably making her way to her seats behind the stage with her “concert buddy” Marlene. The stage literally was set. Love and Community.

What time is it in the world? It’s SHOWTIME.

Quiet time before the show. Courtesy of Sheila.

After The Fray finished up, there was about 45 minutes before 3 snow birds flew over and around the stadium. I was conserving my energy at this point. Any fatigue slipped away when the opening notes of “Space Oddity” began. I knew the band was in the wings waiting for the line “And may God’s love be with you” before they took their short walk to the stage. Space Oddity gave way to the recorded opening loop from “Even Better than the Real Thing” as each band member took their place. Larry made a face to the crowd indicating that it was much colder than he thought,  The Edge was stoic, Adam looked like he was having fun, and Bono was…..Bono. Charming, sharp, fired up, passionate, and every inch the rock star. The band took us through the blistering opening I had only heard on Youtube and through the walls of the theatre up to this point. I won’t go through a song by song review, but I’ll mention a couple of highlights. At times you got a sense of the 52,000 people in the crowd, but for the most part it really felt like the band was played to the few hundred in the inner circle and Red Zones. I rarely looked up at the screen. Why would I? The real thing was never more than a few feet in front of me. For the enormity of the production, it still just came down to four guys, a drum-kit, a couple of microphone stands, and a keyboard. It was most intimate stadium show I had ever seen. “Get on your Boots” sounded better than I had ever heard it before, and I couldn’t stop jumping. “Elevation” really got all of us going, and did I hear him say something about “Cool People” before the song, or was it my imagination? My geek dream of hearing “Stay (Faraway so Close!)” sung with “Winnipeg” added to the series of cities at the end finally came true! It was a lovely moment. My energy began to lag towards the end of “Beautiful Day” and I missed the “Heart of Gold” snippet altogether. I managed to sing the chorus of “Pride” and was grateful for the slower “Miss Sarajevo” so that I could catch my breath. The nightmarish “Zooropa” with the full screen down in “prison cage” mode was a highlight for John and Joanna, but that song has never sat well with me, and seeing it in its full-blown version confirmed it. I was overwhelmed.

The ridiculous voices of Zooropa. Courtesy of Sheila

The weirdest and most unbelievable moment of the night came two songs later during Vertigo. The band was in full swing and well, maybe you just need to see it yourself here. That’s right. The Clapper! Joanna somehow got Bono’s attention and she threw the damn thing up on stage and Bono put it into full effect. It could be said that it sparkled as the boys played rock ‘n roll. (credit to Stasa for that one!) At the end of Vertigo, Bono sang “You ain’t seen NOTHING yet” and he was right!

Mission Impossible? Mission Accomplished!

A beautiful version of “Scarlet” celebrated the release of Ann San Suu Kyi and an incredible rendition of “Walk On” (my personal favourite song of the night) ended with a toast to the 50th anniversary of Amnesty International. A new video from Suu Kyi debuted next and then we were on the home stretch. “One” was followed by “Will you still love me tomorrow?” where Marla turned and gave me a “Told ya so” look as the opening chords of “Streets” were played by the Edge. Carol and I had discussed whether we’d see the swinging microphone shenanigans we’d witnessed in Toronto two years earlier, and we were rewarded with a highly energized “Hold Me,Thrill Me, Kiss Kill Me”, microphone, smoke machine and all. I thought I detected a hint of MacPhisto in Bono’s voice during this song. Am I the only one? The band had one last surprise for us. As they were running into curfew deadline issues, the last song of the night actually was “With or Without You” and not the scheduled “Moment of Surrender”. This is only the second time on the entire 360 tour that “Moment of Surrender” wasn’t the final encore. In some ways, I’m sorry we didn’t get to hear it, but we had an extra treat with the Amnesty International tribute and Ann San Suu Kyi video. Either way, I’d have to agree with Bono that it was a “wonderful, wonderful, wonderful night”.

“Here’s where we gotta be:

Love and Community.

Laughter is eternity if the joy is real”.

Get on Your Boots. Words: Bono, Music: U2

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Bieber v. Spalding: A Qualitative Analysis

You may remember all the way back to the most recent Grammy awards held in February.If anything you may remember that Lady Gaga arrived in an egg and hatched herself onstage. What I remember is that there were a couple of major “upsets” in the awards department. The biggest one was Arcade Fire winning album of the year, and the response that followed. (I know I’ve linked to this Tumblr account before, but it still makes me smile. I know, I’m simple).

The other upset, of course, was Esperanza Spalding beating out Justin Bieber for best new artist. Bieber fans were so indignant that their “man” lost to a “no name”, they took to vandalizing her Wikipedia page, and making rude comments about her on Facebook and Twitter.

Since I hadn’t really listened to either of them, I thought it would be fun to sit down with an Esperanza Spalding CD and a Justin Bieber CD and give them both a good honest listen before making up my own mind.

Now I can already hear the cynics saying that I’m talking about Bieber twice in as many months as a cheap way to tag this blog post and get additional traffic. Well, that’s just not how we do things here at “Mountains Beyond Mountains”. We’ve taken some time to do the heavy lifting for you, so you don’t have to. You can keep your “Belles and Sebastians” and your “Townes Van Zandts” playing merrily away on your iPods, or whatever you hipsters use to listen to music these days. Sit back, and see what we have to say about Biebs and Spalds. One thing I think we can all agree on, is that they both have lovely hair.

My World by Justin Bieber and Esperanza by Esperanza Spalding were promptly ordered through my library, and as serendipity would have it, both arrived on the exact same day. I sat down one Sunday afternoon not too long ago with my wife Marla and our two-year old daughter Audrey and what happened is recorded below.

We started with Esperanza. The first track is called  Ponta De Areia. I don’t know what that is. Is that Spanish? It’s got a very groovy, jazzy sound, and I’m not sure Spalding is singing in English. I was immediately drawing comparisons to Sade and Lhasa de Sela. Marla: “I’m not sure I like this”. Audrey seemed to be treating the music as “background noise” more than anything else. After a brief period of hip-swinging, Audrey was chilling on the floor by the TV, then began to suck on a Berette and ran out of the living room, chased by Marla. When she came back, she settled at her little drawing table and quietly coloured. This continued through the next two tracks: I know you know and Fall In. Although I’m not really into jazz vocals all that much, I can really appreciate Esperanza’s talent and could see myself listening to this CD again.

Now onto Justin Bieber.

One Time. Instant curiosity from Audrey. She got up from her drawing table and stood in front of the stereo, pointing up. She indicates that she wants her Mom to dance with her. Now she’s running in circles. It’s a pretty catchy pop song, no question about that. Is he using Auto-tune? Marla’s take: “It’s not a very good lead off song. It’s cheeky and boring at the same time”.

Favorite Girl. The lyric “of all the girls I’ve ever known, you are my favorite girl” bothers me. I wonder aloud if he is a virgin. “He better be!” is Marla’s response. Audrey is running in circles even faster now, and is giggling and screaming. What is it with this music? Has his voice changed yet? What’s going to happen when it does? Sad to note that “favorite” is spelled the American way. Biebs, are you already forgetting your past?

Down to Earth. It sounds like he whispers the word “Mafia” at the beginning of this one. Why would he do that? It’s pretty sinister. Is he supported by the Teamsters or something? This is a piano-heavy ballad, and Audrey reflects this by doing some slow spins and some “Folk Fest inspired” style moves. Later on, Audrey gets cuddly. It sounds like this may be a duet between Bieber and a girl, but you honestly cannot the difference between the two voices. Cuddles give way to tantrums by the end of this song. Marla is drawing parallels between “Bieber-fever” and “Beatlemania”.

Bigger. WTF? He whispers “Mafia” at the beginning of this one too. It’s got a peppy beat. But all this talk about when he was “younga”. You mean like when you were 8? It’s all about how he’s now “bigga”. Whatever. Audrey’s not dancing at all, even though this is probably the most danceable song so far. She’s playing with monkey and taking a drink.

One Less Lonely Girl. “How many I told you’s and start overs and shoulders have you cried on before?”. Listen to the lyrics. It really sounds like an anthem for a transgendered person about to make the final switch. Audrey appears indifferent, choosing to play with some pillows during this one. Marla tries out a little harmony during the chorus.

First Dance. A suggestive lyric that plays as a metaphor for losing your virginity. Marla wonders if this is the song with Usher. I don’t have the interest to actually look this up. Its full of prom references and chaperones and stuff. Isn’t this kid from Canada? I feel a little pervy listening to the lyric “I promise I’ll be gentle but we gotta do it slowly”. Thankfully, Audrey has appeared to tune it out completely, and is now building a pillow fort on the futon. On the lyric “Everybody says we look cute together”, Marla says “I’m gonna puke”.

Love Me. He’s now referring to himself at “J.B.” but thankfully no mafia reference at the beginning of this one. There’s heavy synth, which puts me in the mind of “Personal Jesus” by Depeche Mode. As I wonder whether he stole this bass riff from them, he goes ahead and blatantly uses the chorus of “Love Fool” by The Cardigans. The sad thing is that The Cardigans are probably delighted that Justin Bieber is using their stuff. Both Marla and Audrey are up dancing to this one, although Audrey seems just as excited to be dancing to the music coming out of her Fisher Price Farm set. Marla’s prediction: “He’s not going to transition into adulthood very well”.

Common Denominator: Well, this is the last song on the CD, and its a bit of a cheat. It’s actually One Less Lonely Girl but sung inexplicably in French. This really smacks of desperation. The CD is only 25.58 minutes long, including this “Bonus Track” and yet it felt like the whole afternoon was taken up listening to it. It led to one last tantrum as Audrey fell off her little truck-scooter, and wanted to watch a little TV. Marla’s take? “It was bad enough that we had to listen to this in English”.

Well there you have it. A track by track analysis of Justin Bieber’s My World, plus some general impressions on Esperanza Spalding’s Esperanza. It’s quite obvious that Esperanza is the more interesting musician, and probably could benefit more from whatever notoriety that may come with winning the “Best New Artist” Grammy. Lord knows Bieber is doing just fine on his own, and if he is able to weather the storms and stay in the business, there will be plenty of opportunity for awards and recognition down the road. One last thought: How in the world do Bieber and Esperanza qualify as “new artists”? My World came out in 2009, so if anything he should have been considered in last year’s category. Esperanza’s been touring for over a decade, and her first album was out in 2006! I guess this is similar to me never quite knowing the difference between “record of the year” and “song of the year” and I don’t really care enough to find out.

“Me plus you. I’m a tell you one time.

Me plus you. I’m a tell you one time.

Me plus you. I’m a tell you one time.

Me plus you. I’m a tell you one time.

One time, One time.” One Time-Justin Bieber

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Did Juno there was an awards show last night?

Well the Junos happened last night. Congratulations to Arcade Fire, who won 3 awards last night and one the night before. A much different reception up here in Canada than at this year’s Grammy awards. This tumblr account has done a great job gathering up the various negative and ignorant backlash responses to this band’s unexpected Grammy win. I think they were going in as the favourite last night, but it was still nice to see them recognized. I could probably write an entirely separate post about how I came to love this band, and maybe I will some day. Fans will recognize that I take the name of my Blog from one of the songs off of “The Suburbs”. In the meantime, here’s a well written article about them and their win. (And for the record, I am dropping the “The” in front of Arcade Fire. And I am going with ebooks over e-books, so there.)

Win and Regine of Arcade Fire

I really enjoyed the Junos last night, maybe because I was happy with who was winning. The highlight for me included the tribute to Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young and The Band sung by Sarah Harmer, Blue Rodeo, The Sadies, Serena Ryder and Sarah Slean. I also thought Daniel Lanois stole the show with his low-key introduction to Neil Young as he received the Allan Waters humanitarianism award. Lanois shuffled onto the stage with his notes written on the back of a creased piece of lined music paper. He started by saying “OK, what are we doing here now? Oh yeah. Neil Young.” I didn’t realize he was so funny, and it was the first time I saw him since his terrible motorcycle accident last June, and it was gratifying seeing him back to full form. Coincidentially, I just finished reading “Soul Mining, A Musical Life” by Lanois, telling his story. I like how it was written without the aid of a ghostwriter, and you can tell. There’s nothing fancy about it, just him telling some stories about his own musical philosophy and work ethic. It’s not a tell-all book, but he does tell stories about some of the big names he’s collaborated with over the years, including Brian Eno, Bob Dylan and of course U2. It’s a book by a musician, written for musicians, and some of it was over my head. It felt like spending a day following him around as little pearls of wisdom were dispensed without coaxing. The great thing with Lanois is that he doesn’t really impose his sound on others. Listening to Lanois’ own stuff, you don’t really hear it on other’s records. He’s a bit of a musical chameleon who is able to take a good band and make them better. Or maybe not better, but he is able to bring out something deeper out of what is already there. I liked the story of recording “Where the Streets have no Name” during The Joshua Tree sessions. I had heard this story before, but never from Lanois’ point of view. The timing and key changes are quite complicated, and the band was having a difficult time keeping together. Daniel Lanois stood at the front of the studio with a chalkboard and a pointer, like a grade-school teacher, with the different chord changes and time signatures mapped out. He’d point to a chord when it was time to change. Bono, normally in control, was humbled and eventually called uncle and told everyone “Just tell me when to come in.”

Lanois and U2 working on "No Line on the Horizon" in Morocco

Still, the Junos couldn’t escape some mis-steps. Each time they came back from commercial, we were shown clips of various musicians and celebrities over the years reminding us how great a country is Canada. Do we really still suffer from such collective low self-esteem that we need Yoko Ono to tell us how we inspired “Give Peace a Chance”?

And there there’s Justin Bieber.

We couldn’t escape him, obviously. The little guy wasn’t even in attendance; he was on tour in Europe. This didn’t stop his presence from being felt. He participated via Skype in the opening skit with host Drake, and he won the people’s choice Juno and some other one. Each time there was a pre-recorded message from the Biebs giving a shout out to all the fans. This had me thinking: Did the Biebs know he won ahead of time, or did he record acceptance videos for all his categories as a precaution? I guess it doesn’t really matter. These aren’t the Oscars, after all.

The Junos ended with a crazy performance by Chromeo, a Montreal based group that were a lot of fun. This year’s Juno’s really went in the right direction: performance heavy and award light. I’d like to see them take it even further and give out all the awards the night before, and have the broadcast be a massive 3 hour concert and celebration made up of a cross-section of as many nominees as possible. Wouldn’t that be fun? You could have Contemporary Christian/Gospel nominees teamed up with Blues nominees, you could pair up classical and electronic and do something cool. Spoken Word nominees could read snippets from their work over top of musicians from the Instrumental category? Why not? And who wouldn’t enjoy hearing the Children’s Album nominees do a number with Arcade Fire?

Come on fan base! The three of us can make it happen!

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