My Life â€” In Concert! 170a.Etc#7 Pt.1: Rush, Lauper, & more
170a. The Shape I'm In: Etc #7 2008-2011 Part One featuring Rush, Cyndi Lauper, John Hiatt, the Levon Helm Band, and comedian Margaret Cho.
NOTE: Over the course of this series, I will occasionally be publishing compilation pieces that are a collection of encapsulated reviews covering gigs I am not writing full entries for. This 7th iteration of the Etc. round-ups is appearing first, owning to my back entries not yet having caught up to Etc. #1. That one will be coming up as no. 29.
In retrospect, the Rush/Hiatt/Helm gig should have been an entry on its own, but ... oh well. Since this piece turned out longer than expected, I'm breaking it into two parts, starting with this overview of three nights out during 2008-10.
So, in sequential order ...
Margaret Cho with Liam Kyle Sullivan aka Kelly, Southam Hall, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Sunday October 19, 2008, $57.
In this series, my focus is on live music rather than the broader spectrum of in-the-flesh performances I attend, such as theatre, but I’m throwing in this Margaret Cho show regardless. Besides, Margaret’s like a rock star anyway: she lives for it, she’s at home on a stage, often over the top, has attitude to spare, and is transgressive in all the right ways.
If you don’t have a developed/askew/sometimes outright silly sense of humour, we’re probably not going to get along. Humour and comedy have a variety of appeals for me — and I perhaps see it in inappropriate places far too often. That said, I’ve never much been one for Stand-up and its surrounding culture. Ms. Cho is one of the exceptions.
Cublet and I had laughed catatonically through her first two live movies/videos: I’m the One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O. But by the time of Revolution, her act was getting stale and repetitive — from her parodic-yet-loving impersonations of her mother through her great-but-we’ve-heard-it-several-times-already championing of sexual minorities. We lost interest in watching the vids after Assassin.
When her first Ottawa date was announced as part of her Beautiful tour in 2008, we went hoping that we’d get a Margaret that was as genuinely fresh and unexpected as she was sharp and risky.
We got our wish. I was physically sore the next day from laughing so hard the night before.
A bunch of us met up ahead of time at the Heart and Crown in the Market and, after a few pints, slunk over to the NAC on a cooler-than-normal October night. We settled into our comfee seats, sitting next to our friends Mr. Bear and S as things got rolling with opener Liam Kyle Sullivan. He's best known for his Kelly character but also has a gaggle of satiric internet videos featuring his larger cast of created personalities which he largely portrays on his own. I’ll be honest: I find most drag a drag, and fairly predictable, but Sullivan’s performance and personas are more in a vintage John Waters vein: something closer to "drag terrorism" as Waters might put it, rather than another boring Bette fucking Midler pastiche.
As for the night’s star, Cho was relentless from the moment she hit the stage in front of a packed NAC. While she evoked her key themes such of gender, race, and sexuality — and the small and large "p" politics around them — the material came off as fresh once again. The entire night was one long chucklefest although I particularly lost it during the bit about her going to see The Passion of the Christ and yelling at the screen "Jesus, use your safeword!," or the bit about the woman who owned the anal bleeching salon and had a framed picture on her desk of her showing off a client’s spread anus like a prized heifer.
Margaret’s returned in 2011 but unfortunately we had to miss last time around. Next time, Margaret, I promise.
A YouTuber has assembled highlights from Cho’s Beautiful show. NSFW or for the prudish.
Cyndi Lauper, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Saturday July 3, 2010, Free Concert.
This show was a textbook example of a blown opportunity.
I mean, think about it: gay icon Cyndi Lauper putting on a free, open air concert at, ahem, Queen’s Park, which sprawls out like a large sylvan blanket in front of the Ontario legislature in downtown Toronto on the Saturday night of the Pride weekend (one of the three or four largest Pride’s in the world), at the moment when everything is building towards the 1-2 fever pitch punch of the late-into-Saturday-night partying and Sunday’s massive parade, possibly the largest attended, single-day event here in Canada. Weather-wise, it was a hot, clear, sultry evening, truly one to be outside on.
The right singer at the right place at the right time with the right conditions at a more-than-right price. So, how come this was such a trying disaster for so many?
Cyndi as part of Pride weekend festivities is a no-brainer. While I’ve never personally been a big, big fan, I was still looking forward to seeing her as part of a fun night out, particularly in this context. I’ve always liked Cyndi, especially that first blockbuster album, She’s So Unusual. My Cublet, 80s dude that he is, loves Cyndi, and it was a given we were going to make our way over for the shindig.
So, apparently, was everyone else.
Based on chatting with many we’d run into over the course of the previous few days, it was clear to us that a multitude of revellers were planning to descend upon the provincial parliamentary grounds to hear Ms. C — something that should have been a surprise to no one with half a clue.
Clearly, whoever was responsible for the logistics of this gig didn't get that memo.
Cyndi Lauper's She's So Unusual (1983) and Memphis Blues (2010). One of these CDs is up on our shelf.
Arriving at around 7:30 pm, our group expected to find a wide open expanse in front of a stage in advance of the legislative building. Instead, we were greeted by The Longest Lineup I Have Ever Seen, peopled by naively optimistic folks with hopes of gaining entrance to the woefully inadequate penned-off area demarcated to hold the crowd. This seemingly endless snake of humanity extended so far back that for the longest time we couldn’t see where it actually ended, spending several minutes walking until its conclusion was in sight.
We speculated that admittance had perhaps been delayed, and that the lineup would start flowing forward fast once they began letting people in. However, within minutes of waiting in this stillborn lineup — and following a recon initiative from someone in our group to find out what the hell was going on up front — it became clear that the overwhelming majority of folks who had turned out wouldn’t be getting inside.
As the hour rounded up to 8, the queue fractured as punters dispersed across the park’s lawn, nesting in the grass and awaiting the consolation prize of at least being able to hear the show. Or something close to it. Once Cyndi started, it became clear that even this back-up plan had its limitations as the sound system barely reached beyond the intended confines. I guess that was because of noise regulations, downtown Toronto being so pin-drop quiet’n’all (rolls eyes).
What we were party to outside the fence was more an of an echoey, bass heavy xerox of what those inside the pen were hearing at a somewhat-audible volume. We, along with hordes of others, tried moving to position ourselves so that we could at least see a portion of the raised Jumbotron. Emphasis on "portion."
So this is what the gig looked like. Lauper performs "True Colors" for thousands during the 2010 Toronto Pride weekend, while thousands more couldn’t even get in to the inadequate audience space. Whoever was in charge of the logistics behind this one ... nice goin’! (YouTube)
Then there was her material. Lauper was promoting a then-new album, Memphis Blues, and while I like blues, Lauper would be one of the last names that comes to my mind to put on if I wanted to listen to it. I prefer the wacky, chirpy, pop-wise Cyndi. Suffice it to say, playing earnest-yet-rococo blues tunes to a E/booze/whatever-feulled, orgiastic patchwork of celebrants resulted in an anti-Cynergy.
It’s not like people were booing or anything. Polite-but-disappointed would probably describe the mood of many that night based on what I witnessed in the shut-out throngs surrounding us.
We left after about a half-a-dozen or so numbers, as did many others, deciding we could better use our time as the evening hours began to tick, but did end up having to walk past Queen’s Park about a half hour later. We were then able to hear reverba-echoing versions of a few of the big pop hits we'd hope to have gotten earlier, while those inside the pen cheered.
Toronto tends to throw its support behind Pride (the current pestilence that is Mayor McCheese and his twisted cronies are an exception) and do a great job, but this was a pretty stupid miscalculation for what could have been a really special night for all who tried to attend. Oh well. I ended up partying until dawn amidst the bacchanalia, so it was hardly a dull night.
Hopefully Cyndi will come back sometime and it’ll be done right next time.
Rush, John Hiatt, & The Levon Helm Band, Ottawa Bluesfest, LeBreton Flasts, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Sunday July 11, 2010, $19.17.
This Sunday was the mid-way point during the 2010 Ottawa Bluesfest and the end of two weeks off from work. A big chunk of Week One and the early part of Week Two was spent in Toronto for extendo-revelry around Pride (including that Lauper fiasco — see above) only to return to Ottawa during a punishing, muggy heatwave that was enveloping Ontario and region. Cublet and I kicked off that year’s Bluesfest shows on the Thursday with The B-52s, Hole and Joan Jett on the Friday, and then The Flaming Lips’ overwhelming set on the Saturday night.I ventured out on this fourth consecutive evening on my lonesome to see John Hiatt and ex-Band man Levon Helm and his group. Theoretically, this more laid back milieu should have been just what the doctor ordered after two weeks of going out almost every night and living it up.
It was one of those serene summer Sundays, gauzy and glistening. I arrived around the dinner hour so as to have a bit of downtime away from the action at the site, with my notes reading that "I’m sitting on the back lawn area of the Subway Stage, overlooking the flowing Ottawa River. The humidity has largely gone and it’s a beautiful, perfect, warm summer evening, with blue sunny skies, while an occasional breeze sweeps off the water, soothing the crowd. People are laying in the grass, some on the riverbanks on the other side of the fenced perimeter, eating, chatting, and in repose. For a few seconds, it feels like Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières."
Ottawa Bluesfest 2010?
I noted that "Tonight is just the kind of proposition I want and need after 3 nights of craziness and volume. Some more laid back, songwriting stuff."
But I was antsy. I also wrote "I’m still reeling from The Flaming Lips’ jaw-dropping show." Whereas an extended period of kinetic activity should have wholly depleted my energy silos, priming me for a more aesthetically "slippers and Ovaltine" type of experience, the ceaselessly chugging, fidgety, unbound adrenaline that table-clothed the bedrock of exhaustion underneath wouldn’t quit. While one interior voice was screeching "for the love of God, slow down!," and even louder one was pummelling the first into submission with a helplessly automated "go, Go, GO!"
Hiatt appeared on the Subway stage at the expected 7:30 to a greeting as warm as the night itself. This was my first time seeing him solo. While I’d been aware of Hiatt’s name since the ‘70s, it was with 1987's career-changing Bring the Family that I really discovered him, as did many others at that time. It remains a gold standard example of soul-baring writing, effortless tunesmanship and an inviting vein of Americana courtesy of a to-die-for cast of backing musicians: guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder, new wave’n’roots legend Nick Lowe on bass, and famed session drummer Jim Keltner.
Bring The Family (1987)
Recorded on the cheap for small UK indie Demon records just as his also-ran career had sunk right to the bottom of the tank, the hastily-yet-tightly recorded Bring the Family unpredictably turned everything around for him, slowly building as a word-of-mouth favourite among plugged-in music fans and driven by a wave of press raves, changing his fortunes and visibility. Bonnie Raitt later scored a big hit with her cover of "Thing Called Love" from this disc.
It’s also another "time and place" album in my life: almost everyone I knew owned and was listening to, talking about, and cheering its success on in 1987. Family is a memorable part of a soundtrack to that important, shifting year for me.
Hiatt had a run of well-received albums following Family, with its core band reconvening as a proper group for 1992’s highly anticipated but disappointing Little Village project (I saw them on their one and only tour at Toronto’s Massey Hall, coming up as no. 74). That period of success enabled him to build and sustain an ongoing career, cultivating a dedicated fan base. Admittedly, I haven’t heard much of what Hiatt has done since the early 90s and hadn’t thrown on Bring the Family in some time, a practice I rectified in the days before this gig. I was pleased to discover that it sounded every bit as wonderful as I’d remembered.
Hiatt came out of the gate with Slow Turning’s "Drive South," sliding into a number of tracks from more recent albums such as the then-new The Open Road and the The Tiki Bar Is Open, ... but owing to that unyielding adrenaline, Hiatt just wasn’t happening for me. He himself sounded fine, but whether it was that still-coming-down-from-the-Lips euphoria from the previous night or the unrelenting vibra-nerves of two sustained weeks of out’n’about’n’indulging, it turned out that I needed less subtlety and something more visceral at that moment. I may have reasoned that laid back is what was good for me, but my id and body had other ideas.
And so it was within this context that I made an unthinkable impulse decision and hauled my ass over to the main stage at 8 pm to see Rush.
While I have been aware of Rush dating right back to the time of their very first album in 1974, I’ve never cared for so much as a single note of music they’ve produced. The styles they’ve traversed in through the years — lumbering Zeppelin-copycat-style hard rock, dweeby prog epics, squarely mainstream RAWK anthems — all hold little to highly negative appeal for me.
However, I’d place them among a diverse personal collection of musical acts that would also include The Tragically Hip, Melissa Etheridge, Frank Zappa, the Barenaked Ladies, and Lady Gaga: artists I have respect for even if I don’t particularly like what they do. Not only have they carved out and nurtured their own niche, I’ve also known a number of people who, throughout the years and in a variety of circumstances, have encountered select members of Rush, with each of those folks reporting that the pertinent Rush-er was friendly and grounded without the standard Rock Star prima donna-isms.
And let's not forget the great job Alex Lifeson did Guest Starring in my favourite episode Trailer Park Boys episode ever, Closer to the Heart.
Let's see now ... Roxy, Rundgren, Sade, Santana, Satie, Scaggs, Schubert ... nope, no Rush on our CD shelves (Photo by VA).
As much as I’d been looking forward to Hiatt, I needed something more immediate than he at that moment. Figuring that this was the one and only time I would ever see this legendary band and that they better fulfilled the "high energy" quota, I decided to check them out, plopping myself down near the ascending back end of the assembled mob, sparked one and sat back, taking in the first hour of their three-hour set.
I can’t say they made me a believer or that I ran out to start playing catch up with their catalogue, but will admit, given that right moment and headspace, I enjoyed taking them in as a live band. For one hour, they worked for me. Opening with the everybody-knows-it (especially up here where Rush and Rush fans are ubiquitous) "The Spirit of Radio," the trio played material during that first third that was either recent or obscure as I didn’t recognize much of it. While the dopey, filmed intro played before their stage entrance was eyeball-rolling worthy, the band themselves seemed engaged and charming, playing their first ever open air gig in Ottawa to an enormous, excited audience.
John Hiatt, "Have A Little Faith In Me," from Bring the Family at Bluesfest, one of the songs I missed because I’d wandered over for this ...That pre-set opening video was/is brutal (Both videos via YouTube) .
Me being at a Rush gig was such an inexplicable occurrence in my life that I phoned up my pal M. Zeppelin on my cell during the set with a "You’ll never believe who I’m watching right now ..." call, as Geddy Lee’s helium wail pierced the surroundings.
At some point during their set, my previously sequestered inner-voice which had been lobbying on behalf of my latent exhaustion gained control of the floor, stealthfully vanquishing my compulsion-powered energy vapours. With my Rush curiosity satiated and my stamina gauge free-falling into the dead zone, I made my way back to the Subway stage to see legendary Band man, Levon Helm.
The Band are truly one of The Great Groups for my money, not to mention having grown up with a stong sense of regional pride shared by many from my originating neck of the woods as all members, save Levon, came from in and around my Southwestern Ontario stomping grounds (Garth Hudson grew up in my hometown of London, Ontario, and attended my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario).
I don’t know if this was the case elsewhere, but I grew up with a succession of hit singles by The Band heavily played all over the AM radio of my childhood, with Levon’s signature drawl on songs such as "The Weight" or "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" imprinted upon my mental hard drive forever. Sadly, a cancer from a few years ago zapped much of Levon’s voice: sadly not only for Levon himself, but also for his audience. Because of that, The Levon Helm Band is short on Levon but long on Band (his own backing band, that is).
The B-side of my "Rag Mama Rag" 45, "The Unfaithful Servant": my all-time favourite Band song. Both tracks appear on their classic, eponymously titled sophomore release from 1969 (Scan by VA).
It’s not Levon’s fault that his voice is now basically gone. Still, that’s small comfort for an audience there to see and hear him but instead finds Helm a bit player in what’s billed as his own starring show. The musicians and singers who dominate the proceedings are all technically skilled but, as with the Brian Wilson concert I saw in 2011 wherein key Beach Boys favourites were disappointingly sung by group members with little involvement from head B Boy, the result is a anti-climax. It was little more than a perfectly competent corner-bar covers band doling out Classic Rock favourites. No thanks.
The vibe of all this resulted in a faint-echo-of-The-Band-meets-yuppie-casino-entertainment nexus. Once again, it was all very ... proficient. But I wanted magic, not proficiency, and after days of getting alchemical gold, three or four of these Birkenstock Vegas numbers were about all I could take before I fled for home and bed and quiet. The Arcade Fire, (a stunning) Crowded House, The Hold Steady, and a sonically-live screening of The Night of the Living Dead all lay ahead of me during the following week.
The Levon Helm Band at Bluesfest doing "The Shape I’m In." Levon’s drumming well ... but still ... (YouTube).
Next On Stage à Part Two of Etc. #7 recaps three gigs from 2011 ...
NOTE: I am now cross-posting current (and previous) entries on my Wordpress blog.
© 2012 VariousArtists
(or should it be © 2112 for this entry?)