A couple of weeks ago I went to see a friend’s band play. Their name: More Cowbell.
I hadn’t seen a cover band in a long time and I had forgotten how good it feels to know song after song and be reminded of old favorites. There is a real pleasure in the experience of hearing the soundtrack of your life and sharing it with other people. The Cars, the Cult, Areosmith, Blondie, U2, No Doubt, the Foo Fighters, the Ramones… More Cowbell ripped things up for the duration of three satisfying sets. They didn’t play any Rush songs (it’s not often that you hear a band cover Rush), but my buddy on the kit was doing his best to sneak in fills when he could. I found myself singing along and grinning all night.
Weirdly, it felt like a vacation — a vacation from all the new stuff out there, and I don’t only mean new releases. I mean anything new to you – bands your friends suggest, albums that critics write about, music you hear on TV or in movies…There is so much out there and I really do want to give it all a try, but sometimes I just want to listen to the Cars’ first album for days and not feel like I’m missing out on something.
Seeing More Cowbell, and the happiness I experienced that night, made me realize that maybe I’m reaching my cut off point. I might be full, no more room for new stuff. I have assembled my musical cannon and I’m happy with it. I don’t like to believe this. I like to think that I will always be open to new music, but something inside me smirks and says stop foolin’ (immediately thought of Def Leppard) yourself. I remember when it began for me: in 1979, buying 45s at records stores with my allowance money…and now I’m buying my music on the internet with my credit card — innocence lost!
Am I really ready to end my search for new music? No, of course not…but I believe I have learned a valuable lesson: take a vacation, have fun, go out and see a cover band.
All right, got my ticket to the concert, check the calendar… 3 weeks to go, what’s next? Train man — train hard like Rocky would.
A typical training regime begins with listening to the artist’s latest CD, over and over again. Sometimes it’s easy. The songs come to you and you feel them immediately. Your body and brain react unconsciously, like Neo dodging bullets. You understand, accept and feel the music completely. This is rare. Training is usually difficult because you have your favorites from the artist and when the new stuff is not measuring up, it becomes work — like running in Siberia with a log on your back (Rocky 3).
I have been training very hard over the last few weeks, and at times have felt totally overwhelmed. I feel like I have given myself only 3 weeks to train for a marathon. Sometimes I question myself — do possess the endurance and mental fortitude necessary to rise to the occasion? Self-defeating thoughts have been entering my mind: I should have started training for this years ago (or maybe when I was 14)… it’s too big, too complex…I’ve never been challenged like this before, and I need more experience. But something brings me back each day to listen again and again, and search the interweb for different interpretations of the music. It is exhausting and excruciating, but then I feel my music muscle memory kick in and I’m starting to get the music version of a runner’s high. I just want to keep listening. I think can…I think I can — I just might be able to — get my mind and body in tune for The Musical Box‘s performance of The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway this Saturday at the Danforth Music Hall.
This record is the New York Marathon of progressive rock concept albums. Genesis released the epic double album in 1974, and it is the sprawling storey of Rael, a streetwise kid from Brooklyn and his quest to make a name for himself. Transpose the “a” and “e” and it’s Real — or is it a play on Peter Gabriel? — and that’s just the beginning… I found pages and pages online written by people attempting to deconstruct the plot and explain the symbolism. I feel like I need an English teacher to help me understand this. And this has been the great fun of my current training exercise — remembering the things I love about concept albums. It’s pure escapism, suspension of disbelief, entering Rael’s world and following him along the gritty streets of 1970’s New York and through fantastical magical caves and endless staircases.
Spending time with this album has reignited my interest in revisiting some of my old favorite concept albums and taking a chance on some new ones. Maybe its time for me to give some of the contemporaries a shot – Coheed and Cambria come to mind. I took a break today from training and listened to Arcarde Fire’s concept album The Suburbs. I thought to myself “damn, Rush said all of this in one one song, ‘Subdivsions,’ and also released 3 concepts albums – one about necromancers, one about a dystopian society and one about Greek gods fighting for man’s conscience — and they still didn’t win a Grammy”. Maybe Arcade Fire’s Grammy for The Suburbs was more of a recognition of the brilliance of the concept album. A calling card to other artists to take an idea, add adventurous music, dare to be grandiose, and something special might happen. So special it is still being recreated 37 years after its’ release.
For more on the history of The Musical Box & their collaboration with Genesis, click here.
Saturday, October 1st — Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto
Tonight in the city there are no neighborhoods, only letters — A, B and C. Nuit Blanche has begun and the streets are coming alive with people ready to interact with art and each other. You have to decide which letter will begin your experience. For me, it’s B for Blue Peter and C for Chalk Circle. These names sound like Pop Art and minimalist paintings — I am obviously getting into the feel of Nuit Blanche.
I arrive at the Phoenix Concert Theatre halfway through Blue Peter’s set. On stage Paul Humphrey is sharply dressed. He looks like he could be on the set of Twin Peaks. His delivery is a collage of David Byrne, Ian Curtis and Bryan Ferry — so much coming at you at once, he is a compelling front man. I get to hear my favorites, ‘Radio Silence’ and ‘Don’t Walk Past’. These songs seamlessly fuse the condensed drone and angles of post punk with the smooth crooning of the New Romantic period. “Don’t walk on past”– you just wanted to whisper it to that girl in the hall, but it seemed so hard. A great, earnest, self-conscious love song. Check the video – it won Best Video of 1983 from the Canadian Film and Television Association.
Chalk Circle takes the stage and I overhear a group of people discussing how pleasantly surprised they are by the turnout. I am too. Chalk Circle recorded one EP and 2 albums during the 80’s. Their biggest selling record, The Mending Wall, was recorded at Quest Studios in Oshawa, Ontario and dubbed ‘The Oshawa Tree’. Is Chalk Circle Canada’s U2? Maybe, but only if you insist on viewing all things as derivative of others. If creating earnest, thoughtful and politically conscious rock & roll makes them Canada’s U2 then sure, it’s a fair comparison. But it always pissed me off when people would say that about Chalk Circle. It is so rare when an artist is able to create a new color in the spectrum — when it happens it is monumental and everyone is affected. I would argue (and I wouldn’t be alone) that The Edge created a new color with his guitar sound with U2. And yeah, Chalk Circle were inspired by that, along with millions of other people — but to dismiss their music as “U2-lite” does them a disservice. These are some great songs. Whew…looks like this show is stirring up lots of thoughts and emotions for me. OK, I’m done for now. But I will never stop taking the piss out of music snobs — no room for them.
I’m feeling fired up. Chris Tait is sneering away and Brad Hopkins’ bass is punching, pushing, and pulling me around. It’s nice to hear the bass way up front. As I’m getting my groove on I’m beginning to feel the political weight of the 80’s. It starts with ‘This Mourning’ with Tait spitting out the lyrics: “It’s 11 o’clock and they talk of him / About the eve of destruction / And a new ray gun / For my defense / A mended fence”. I’m taken down memory lane right back to “Ray-Gun Reagan”, Star Wars weapons in space, and the arms race. Later, they play the pretty guitar song ‘N.I.M.B.Y.’ — a term that was new to me in high school. Now that I am a land owner ‘N.I.M.B.Y.’ tests me, revealing things I didn’t know about myself and my ideologies. Wow, I am tripping now — loud music and politics filling my head. Then comes the hammer fall of ‘Sons and Daughters’ a seething indictment of Free trade: “They see gold in your trees and gold in your people / They’ll be panning for it in your water”. I begin to remember the uncertainty and anxiety during the 80’s about how Free Trade would change Canada. It felt like our sovereignty and economic future was up for grabs and the Americans were getting too good of a deal.
I leave the concert with a warm feeling and a head full of politics, and I like it. Election signs are all over the place, on people’s lawns and on store fronts. Election week is upon us, and this is the perfect time to think about what kind of politics we want for Ontario.
It’s been 20 years since Ten was released and I was feeling a bit nostalgic, but I didn’t want the show to be a nostalgia trip. I just wanted to Rock Out in the here and now.
It was hard, though, not going back to the 90’s — angst, aggression and apathy. The whole concert for me was a mix of feeling very connected to that 90’s stuff (I am a Gen X’er) and very removed from it (I’m 43). It was easy feeling the rage in ‘Jeremy’ and ‘Corduroy,’ screaming along with everyone else. Damn it feels good to scream amongst thousands. And then they played ‘State of Love and Trust,’ which used to take me instantly to a violent and angry place, but I was now somehow removed from Vedder’s screaming and pleading and had difficulty connecting with his energy. Like I said I’m 43 — I only have so much angst and aggression…or maybe that just says a lot about me because the band had no lack of it. They were near the start of their tour in Toronto and they were fired up — Eddie was always close to his bottles of red wine.
Stone Gossard’s family was in the house and during an extended ‘Even Flow’ jam Gossard filled his solo with reckless aggression and emotion. It felt like he was pushing the guitar further than it could go — but it still went there. I kept thinking that if his guitar just split apart after the solo I wouldn’t be surprised, maybe even a little relieved. It was a great ride and the crowd responded with amped-up enthusiasm.
Eddie dedicated ‘Wishlist’ to Doug Gilmour and I thought to myself “nice one Dougie”. I smiled as I thought of Dougie rocking out to Pearl Jam and how fucking amazing he was in the ‘93 playoffs and how good it felt to believe in the Leafs.
Eddie talked about how NYC stood for Neil Young Country and the crowd went nuts — like I said, it’s so good to scream with thousands of people — especially in praise of Neil.
And that was the night for me: sometimes screaming, sometimes feeling far away from the 90’s and the way I felt then, and sometimes thinking about hockey. I will give the concert a 7, and the band a Ten.
In the days leading up to seeing The Cars I had that same excited feeling I had before seeing The Police. I’ve loved both of these bands since I was first able to buy their 45’s with my allowance money. Now I had the money and means (my bike) to see The Cars play on Friday, May 20th at the Sound Academy in Toronto. I chanced it and did not buy a ticket. It was a Friday night on the first long weekend of the summer — of course I’m going for scalpers. After some haggling I got a $76 ticket for $35, not bad. It was an early start, 8pm — that’s the way I like it nowadays. You have choices after the show — go out or go to sleep.
I love going to reunion gigs. You get a chance to mingle with your contemporaries and relive all the great moments that the band has given you over the years. The first challenge was finding a good spot. I settled in about halfway back from the front near the bar, and there he was: Mr. Rick Ocasek — standing like a statue delivering his beat poet prose. To his left, Greg Hawkes ripping synth riffs that laid the blueprint for New Wave and cut into you, making you question “do we even need guitars?” After a somewhat sluggish version of “My Best Friend’s Girl,” Ocasek dedicated the next song, “Touch and Go,” to Benjamin Orr with Greg Hawkes playing bass. The audience responded with warm applause. I got the feeling we were all thinking about how much Orr is missed, recognizing the loss and pulling for them to play his songs (“Just what I Needed”, “Let’s Go”, “Candy-O”, “Drive”…)
The highlights included “Touch and Go” — going from lonely despair to a clickety clack country ride, “Let’s Go” — with the audience screaming “I like the night life baby,” the condensed pounding of “You’re All I’ve Got Tonight,” and the trippy, uneasy “Moving in Stereo” (yes, I did think of the scene in Fast Times Ridgemont High). “Sad Song” and “Free” from the new album Move Like This reminded me that they can still craft smooth ballads and angular, bouncy pop songs with equal aplomb.
Was I blown way? No. Did I have smile on my face all night? Yes…and I bought the T-shirt.
Have you ever had a moment when you’re listing to a song and you wonder “what’s he saying? I can barely hear him,” and then you think “who cares, I love it”. If you have had this experience, you’ve probably been listening to an inside singer.
You’ll never catch one of these guys complaining to the studio engineer or sound guy that they can’t hear themselves in the mix. They lack the LSD (Lead Singer Disease) gene that initiates that sort of behavior.
Inside singing requires lots of mumbling, whispering, and sighing, and most importantly a desire to be a part of the song, but not the main part.
Inside singers serve the song, sometimes cresting above the music – but never for long – and then retreating back into the mix, finding their safe place amongst the din of guitars and rhythm section.
Seeing inside singers live can be problematic. Your first thought may be “I can’t hear him”. It’s confusing, as we are conditioned to pay attention the singer in a band. So now what do you do? You become disoriented…who do you watch? Solution: watch them all, or better yet close your eyes – that’s when inside singing starts to make sense.
Here are some classic inside singers…listen closely…
First and foremost is the king of mumbling, Mr. Indecipherable himself, Michael Stipe. The title of R.E.M.’s first album is “Murmur” and that is exactly what Stipe did throughout the record. You can catch word here or there, but for the most part his voice is hidden by chiming guitars or, more often, by his own intention. When you are able to discern a word or a verse it is satisfying, like finding a pearl in murky waters. It’s this very device that makes R.E.M.’s early albums so engaging — you feel his words without understanding them. Interestingly, though, on the band’s highest charting albums (Document, Green, Out Of Time and Automatic for the People) Stipe’s voice is way out front, articulate and audible.
so you go see a band you love and they play a lot of songs from their yet-to-be released cd. hmmmm. there used to be consequences to this sort of thing. i’m thinking of the neil young trans show at maple leaf gardens in ’81. my cousin has told me glorious stories with a smile on his face of the whole crowd booing neil. maybe i should have booed last night — at least i would have felt something and been moved to participate.