Great Big Sea at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

I remember a few months ago, my trip to Minnesota with K to transport her apiaries in preparation for her and E’s move from Massachusetts.  We drove 26 hours over the course of two days, then spent a week at her parents’ house.  One night I spent 12 hours in bed.  I’d wake up every few hours and then fall back to sleep after a few minutes.  I’d never spent that much time in bed before.  I was wrecked; completely emotionally spent after months of emotional upheaval and heart break.  That trip was very healing for me.

At some point in the trip, K told me that I’m like a hipster, except that I earnestly enjoy the things that hipsters enjoy “ironically.”  I never would have thought to put it that way, but after a few months’ reflection, I think she’s right.  I do only enjoy earnestly.  The idea of enjoying an experience solely to mock it for its kitsch value is foreign to me; does not even sound like enjoyment, but rather the ghastly phantom shell where genuine enjoyment ought to live.

I spent most of last week in Ottawa.  Partly I came for Bluesfest (which I’ve been promising myself I’d make it to for many years), but mostly I came because being in Canada, especially being in Ottawa, is an experience which I earnestly, wholeheartedly enjoy.  The evening I saw Great Big Sea perform on LeBreton Flats was a capstone experience from my trip (at least, the Bluesfest portion of my trip).  There was something incredibly moving about seeing them play for an audience of 30 thousand, all of whom knew and loved their music at least as much as I do.  My tastes for Canadian cultural touchstones usually separate me.  They introduce an element of otherness.  To find myself in an enormous crowd of people who also knew every word to every song and were singing along at the top of their lungs transformed, for those moments, something that in my day-to-day life distances me into something that connected me.  I am so accustomed to the distance that I am scarcely conscious of it, but it does pervade.  To find that distance lifted, briefly, was validating.  I can think of no better word for it.

It’s not just about Great Big Sea.  It’s not really about them at all, though I did thoroughly enjoy the show (and the Waterboys who played before them – between the two acts, the evening felt like a giant céilidh).  But it wasn’t about the music.  It’s about Canada; but more than that, it’s about feeling validated in my experience; and even more fundamental than that, it’s about feeling connected.  There is a subtext here having to do with other issues in my life and not feeling quite right in my assigned identity, but I don’t want to overlook the text itself, the most obvious level of this.  My Canadian fixations are not simply a veneer for other things, attractive and tidy as that explanation may be.  I genuinely, earnestly connect with this place and love my experiences there by their own rights.

As far as the show itself – I loved it.  The band from Newfoundland (Great Big Sea) and the band from Ireland (the Waterboys) were unabashedly joyful in a way that perhaps only the traditionally downtrodden can be, and I found myself thinking about the conversation K and I had about hipsters and ironic enjoyment.  No one in the audience was enjoying the music ironically – and unlike bands that may curry greater favour with trend setters, Great Big Sea was not playing music which deifies ambivalence and mediocrity.  They were playing their hearts out on songs that they love; songs they’ve written about the people, places, and things that they love.  And we, the audience, were reflecting that beautiful, earnest, joyous energy right back, giving back 100%.  And that’s what was so validating for me – simply letting the soft animal of my body love what it loves, to paraphrase Mary Oliver, in the midst of many others doing exactly the same.

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Björk at Ottawa Bluesfest 2013 – a review

“Review” is perhaps not the right word for this.  My thoughts on the show are wholly unencumbered by any illusion that I understood what I saw or heard, so it’s hard to know exactly what to say.

As limited as this word is, the show was awesome.  Throughout, I kept thinking that this was what magic must look like.  I knew something amazing was happening, but I understood not a bit of it.  It was just amazing to watch.  My first intimation that this was going to be Something Completely Different was when a giant Faraday cage descended from above.  The  two van de Graff generators it contained arced across the gap between them during some of her songs.

Her backup singers were a choir of teenage girls from Iceland.  In addition, there was someone working the synthesizer/iPod/computery thingies and someone else on percussion.  That was it.  Björk in a blue dress, all of five feet at most in her heeled ankle boots and wild red hair wider than she was; some cute kids dressed like extras from an episode of Star Trek TOS; a guy at a desk; a guy on the drums; and a gigantic arcing electrical apparatus dangling from the ceiling that would have impressed Tesla himself.  Prior to her set, I’d noticed a few pipe organs on stage and had assumed they would be part of her show, but they were not.  Possibly they were part of a prior act’s set?  But none of the prior acts seemed very pipe organy.  Possibly Björk just likes having pipe organs on stage?

I didn’t know any of the songs she played, but that really didn’t diminish my experience.  Possibly it made it richer.  She played for a little over an hour, then gigantic jets of fire erupted from the stage, she played one song for an encore (“Raise Your Flag?”), and the night was over.  I was transported from whatever inter dimensional portal Björk had taken us through back to a field in the middle of Ottawa surrounded by happy Canadians.

In the distant future (when misogyny is just a myth we tell each other but which no one quite believes), archaeologists who discover footage of Björk will, I hope, look on us more favourably.  After seeing her perform, I am convinced that she is evidence of higher mental processes at work.

Maybe the best thing about this amazing, amazing show is that the next time someone wants to tell me about how great the National’s new album is, or Vampire Weekend’s, or the Decemberists, or whoever, I now have a perfect response.  Do they use a Faraday cage?  No?  Well, where’s the Faraday cage if they’re so great?

This should stop any conversation in its tracks.

Prior to the show, an image displayed on the screen asked in English (then French) not to take pictures as Björk finds it distracting.  I did take this one, surreptitiously, and although it is not the best photograph I’ve ever taken, I think it captures the quantum fuzziness of the evening perfectly.

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This review is dedicated to my dear, dear friend T, who desperately wanted to be at the show but couldn’t.  I was texting with her to tell her what was going on for the first few songs, but after the Faraday cage I stopped.  It just seemed cruel.  T, if it is any consolation, I kept wishing throughout the show that you could have been there too!

“You’re nervous because it means something.”

Woke up this morning around 5:30 and knew I had to start writing.  I didn’t want to.  I tried to find distractions.  Checked my text messages, narrowly fought off the urge to check email and facebook as well.  I wrote the date and the topic of my free write in my journal, then lay back down with the journal next to me in bed.  Standing on the cliff’s edge.

The same question keeps coming up in this round of TMI, and I keep not knowing how to answer, so I coyly avoid it and work on other things.  Wednesday, I finally heard the question in terms I understood.  Unsurprisingly, the terms that finally clicked with me involved a Canadian, which is a useful reference point for me.  And on Thursday I figured out my way in, how to start answering the question.  So eventually I did pick up my pen and start writing, and I didn’t come to a stopping point till I was three pages in.  I did some editing this afternoon to get the chronology right, but stopped myself before I’d edited all the life out of it.  Hopefully.  And I think where I stopped sets me up to pick up my pen again tomorrow morning.

I’m a simple person.  This is pretty much all I ask out of life.  Challenging work, and some sense that it’s coming together, or will.  I can usually tell when I’m onto something interesting because it spurs more questions.  Sort of the way fractals unfold.

Anyway, I watched this interview of Gord Downie on George Stroumboulopoulis’ show afterwards, and somehow, it made sense to me.  What Gord says towards the end about not holding back, using it all up – I need to keep reminding myself.  There’s nothing to hold back for.  This is it.

(Oh, also this article Gord wrote a few months ago for Maclean’s.)

The Tragically Hip, 15th November 2012 at Clifton Park, NY – a review

I should probably start by saying that during the course of the hour and a half drive to the venue last night, I was alternately bawling and screaming.  It was that kind of a day.  I’m not going to go into why; I just want to set the scene.  I’d more or less worked out my issues by the time I arrived and I felt a lot better, but I was still raw.

This is hard for me to admit, but Tragically Hip fans are weird.  I don’t mean “Insane Clown Posse Juggalo” weird; I mean “How the hell do these people love the same band that I love?” weird.

I hate that I just used the word “Juggalo” in a post.  And now I’ve done it twice.  Damn.

It was a general admission standing show, and I got there early enough that I was pretty close to the stage, even after going to the bar for a pint.  I was about 4 rows back.  The trouble with being that close to the stage at a Tragically Hip show was that everyone around me was a Tragically Hip fan.  Gord Downie is pulling off an impressive slight of hand; he’s front man in a band that passes as bar rock.  But beneath the surface he packs his songs with more obscure literary references and unanswerable questions than you can shake a stick at.  Based on what I see at shows, I think most of the Hip’s fan base is there because they like bar rock.  On the other hand, I love the Hip mostly because of the lyrics.  Also, the rambling Gord does between and sometimes within songs is epic; major world religions have been based on far less than what he spews out off the cuff. I feel like I need an extra session with my therapist half the time after their shows.

Anyway, last night’s show.  I was way up close, sandwiched between a drunken bearded man who seemed to keep vacillating between either wanting to beat me up or wanting to make stinky Canadian hippie love to me (he eventually got escorted out for lighting up during “Ahead By A Century”), and a drunk young woman who kept trying to get me to finish her drink for her. I think she was trying to roofie me.  Or maybe she was just too polite, even when drunk, to just drop her drink on the floor as everyone else had done.  Which, you know, was kind of sweet of her.  My bearded associate, when he was not either:  1. Putting his arm around me and staring me dead in the eye while singing to me, 2. Grabbing my shirt in preparation for a fight, or 3. Telling all the women around us that I was hot for them – when not otherwise preoccupied with any of these noble tasks, my new bearded BFF/frenemy was himself hitting on every single woman within sight, including the woman who kept trying to give me the dregs of her gin and tonic.  She pulled me over at one point and slurred, “He’s a jerk!”  To which I replied, simply, “Yeah,” with a sympathetic nod and smile.  Because, really, what else was there to say?  But towards the end of the evening, I guess she’d put her grievances with him aside because they were grinding against each other, and I’d rather not picture what may have happened later.  Is this how Hip fans are made?  Gross.

The music – when I could focus on the music, when I wasn’t preoccupied with the fascinating antics of my fellow Hip fans – was, of course, delicious.  It really helped to pull me the rest of the way out of the funk I’d been in on the drive up.  Gord introduced “Gift Shop” by saying, “I promised myself I wouldn’t cry,” which for me was the best intro he could give to that song because pretty much every time I hear it the water works start, and last night was no exception.  “Fireworks” was fun, and slipping “Nautical Disaster” into the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking” worked really well (I think that’s how “Nautical Disaster” began, actually – as a ramble in the middle of “New Orleans Is Sinking”).

Wow.  I know a lot about the Hip.

The new material was very good, too, though I’m not as familiar with it.  I was a little disappointed not to hear “Goodnight Attawapiskat;” I kind of expected them to close with it.  Otherwise, it was a great show!  But I’m kind of glad that at least until the next time they tour, I can go back to enjoying the Hip on my own, without the peculiar ministrations of my fellow fans.

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Another old poem – I wrote this about a year ago, in response to a prompt to write something inspired by a song.

Have you listened to the river?
I mean listened – really heard it.

Lay your body down upon its caramel coloured banks –
Nestle in the cradle of its butterscotch swirling waves
And I promise, it will share its secrets.

Stories of ice fishing trips gone awry;
Earthy odes to house flies and flood plains;
Deep, slow songs of resignation, hitting the muddy bottom, rebirth.

And if you listen long enough
You may hear the river whisper your name.
Then you will know the river has heard your secrets, too –
You will know that you belong.

My Pet Dragon, 5 November 2011, Market Market, Rosendale – a review

A few months ago, I wrote a glowing review of My Pet Dragon’s new album, Mountains and Cities.  Since then, I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing them perform live.  Saturday night I had my chance, and it was well worth the wait.  They played an hour long set at Market Market Cafe in Rosendale, consisting of both material off their album and newer songs.  The show was amazing and the playing was incredibly tight; even the newer material felt well polished.  The energy that front man Todd Michaelsen brought to the stage was off the hook, barely contained.  Watching his fingers on the fret board of his guitar was like watching a swarm of bees, or Brownian motion in microscopic particles, or modern dance; frenetic action which is ordered in some way that is impossible to describe in words, but produces amazing beauty.

During the show, I thought about something that Jim Morrison is rumoured to have said after an early Doors show.  The crowd was small (ie, single digits), and his girlfriend had asked him why he’d put so much energy into a show for such a small audience.  He told her it was because you never know when you’re playing your last set.  That was the sort of energy My Pet Dragon played with on Saturday; the energy of a band that is not holding back for any reason.

The only fault I can find with the show was that the space was too small to hold the sound.  While they played, I found myself thinking that there was too much percussion in the mix, but then realized that the drums weren’t being amped at all.  There was too much percussion because we were in a tiny room and drums are really, really loud.  So I couldn’t hear the guitars as clearly as I would have liked.  As grateful as I am to have seen them at such a small venue, a larger club would suit their sound very well.

Given the quality of their material, how well they play, and how much energy they bring to performance, I don’t think it will be long before they are playing much, much larger clubs.  So go see them now, while you still might have the opportunity to rub elbows with them before they go on.  It was a genuine pleasure to meet Todd and Reena before the show; it’s not often that I get to shake hands with rock stars of their calibre.

Indigo Girls, 23 October 2011, Woodstock Playhouse – a review

I have seen the Indigo Girls far more often than I’ve seen any other band.  I have seen them in small venues, I have seen them in large venues.  I have seen them at colleges, folk festivals, and theatres.  I have seen them in New York, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.  I have seen them play with a full band, and I have seen them play by themselves.  I’ve had front row seats, I’ve had nosebleed seats, and sometimes, I’ve had to stand.  I even met them once, after a show in Poughkeepsie.  (I was too awe struck to say much, but I did ask Emily about a line in her song “Caramia,” and she said I’d have to figure it out on my own.  I’m still trying to figure it out.)  I have many great memories from their concerts; maybe the best was when my brother and I saw them in Saratoga Springs, and in the midst of the parking lot gridlock on the way out after the show, we rolled down the windows and blasted “Ice Ice Baby” as loud as the speakers would crank.  Music-wise, the best show I’ve seen may have been at the Garden State Performing Arts Centre in 1997; I think it was the only time I heard them play “You And Me Of The Ten Thousand Wars”; they also covered “Cortez the Killer” that night.  This past Saturday, I tallied the number of times I’ve seen them, and I came up with 17.  Then I saw them again on Sunday night, so now the ticker is up to 18.

I mention all of this because I want you, dear reader, to understand that I love the Indigo Girls, and have for a long time, and will probably continue to for a long time.  Might be important to keep in mind as you read the following paragraphs.

Sunday’s show was… okay.  Not great, not terrible.  The set list was somewhat lackluster.  I thought they played entirely too much material from the new album, which, well, more on that later.  I was glad to hear them play “Love Of Our Lives” and “Salty South.”  The violinist and keyboardist who played with them were good, and just watching Amy thrashing away was, as always, pretty great.  I enjoyed the opening act, Common Rotation; they were quite funny, and since Moxy Früvous went on permanent hiatus ten years ago, I’ve been sorely missing bands that are funny on stage.

Regarding the Indigo Girls’ new album, Beauty Queen Sister – oy.  One or two tracks are not terrible, but on the whole, it’s pretty disappointing; all the more so because their preceding album, Poseidon and the Bitter Bug, was so astonishingly good; maybe their best.  I can’t think of many other musicians who put out such a superb album more than two decades into their career (Neil Young’s Sleeps With Angels is an obvious exception).  I feel uneasy with my disappointment in their new album.  They obviously don’t owe me anything, and after all they’ve given me already with their music, I feel like I am the one in their debt.  So part of me doesn’t even feel entitled to criticize.  Except… well, they do, sort of, owe me something.  It’s the same thing that we all owe each other and the world (the whole wide world!); good quality work.  This idea is not much in favour, currently, perhaps never was, but I hold to it nonetheless.  If we’re going to make an effort at something, it should be something that we care about, and our effort should not be half-hearted.

I know full well that creativity comes in fits and starts, and it’s almost a fool’s mission to try to make a career out of it.  I also know that any time we really do let the creativity flow, it’s impossible to see the results clearly for some time.  Is it good?  Is it bad?  Impossible to say before the dust settles, and sometimes not even then.  I don’t think that’s what happened with this new album though; it really feels as though they just plain ran out of steam.  I hope I am wrong; I hope they find their muses again and return to form.  I’ve looked up to them for a long time, because they haven’t been complacent in their writing or playing, and they haven’t rested on their laurels.  They have given me hope that aging does not have to be a process of losing one’s values and capacity to grow.  I hope I can look up to them again in the future.

Beauty Queen Sister by the Indigo Girls – in stores now.

I’m not suggesting you buy it, mind you, I’m just letting you know.