Archive for April, 2012

SLCR #168: The Cat Empire (April 6, 2012)

April 20, 2012

Here’s everything I know about The Cat Empire, written before the show: they’re from Australia. A year or so ago, they may or may not have played a show in Regina; the local weekly paper mentioned the show on their website, and included a link to one of their videos (The Car Song), which I liked. However, I couldn’t find any additional information about the show – not on The Cat Empire’s website, not on the venue’s website, and I’m sure I looked elsewhere but really, who knows – so I didn’t go.

By not going, I disappointed Ross. Ross is one of those people that you meet online and while you’re never closest and bestest friends, you’re always sort of aware of each other’s doings. Facebook and Twitter are great for that kind of half-assed keeping in touch. I asked Twitter if I should go to that Regina show, and Ross said YES YES YOU MUST GO DOOOOO IT (paraphrased), but I did not. I asked again a month or two ago when I found out that The Cat Empire would be in Calgary when I was there, but I knew the answer ahead of time.

To make it to MacEwan Hall, which is on the University of Calgary campus, I had to figure out how the C-Train worked. I am writing this part about 15 minutes before my walk to the C-Train station and I think I have it aced. I’ll let you know.

And I’m back! The C-Train is largely really easy, and the MacEwan Centre website has clear directions, so I found the place without incident. More challenging was leaving my grandparents’ place without any bananas, granola bars, cookies, sandwiches, or leftover chicken. Some of you think I am kidding. Others know that I am not.

The MacEwan Ballroom is reminiscent of Prairieland, which is to say, it’s kind of like a warehouse with a stage. They even split it in two, reserving the back for drinkers and leaving the front open to all ages. Given that my drinking habits usually trend to diet sodas, I joined the all-ages section and… yeah, that’s a great way to feel old. I leaned against a wall and played my DrawSomething games as I waited for the show to start (JamesEarthquake, if you’re looking for opponents).

Our opener was Tinpan Orange, a female-fronted five-piece (or four-piece? It’s not like I take notes) from Melbourne, Australia. They were quick to win over the crowd with their songs; plus, they just came across as being really nice. I’d never heard of them before, but that means nothing; maybe they’re famous? If not, the fact that people booed when they said “this is our last song” is that much more impressive. Someone in the crowd yelled “We like you!” which about summed it up.

The Cat Empire has seemingly never met a style of music that they didn’t try to incorporate into their own sound. The list of genres I didn’t hear on this evening would be a short one, and would also probably mean that I didn’t listen hard enough. It was some sort of pop infused with reggae and ska and scat singing and there was a DJ and it was all kinda smashed together into something that I hadn’t really heard before. I have no idea what songs they played, other than they skipped over the one song I knew. That was a bit disappointing, but no big deal.

For a band with seemingly limited visibility around these parts, this place was jam-packed with completely devoted fans; the sing-along-with-every-word types who cheer at each song’s opening notes because they’re excited for what’s coming. Maybe these guys are superstars and I’m just that out-of-touch? It’s entirely possible. It did seem like they play Calgary fairly regularly. I thought they’d be a great fit for our folk festival, and about 10 minutes later, they talked about having played Calgary’s a few years ago.

I really enjoyed this show. The Cat Empire has a really unique sound and great stage presence. They packed the hall with die-hard fans who loved every second of the show. But having said that, I left wishing that I’d been introduced to this band back when I was 21 or so. They’re a great party band and everyone there had a blast, and I could see young me spending all night jumping up and down and singing and cheering and thinking I’d seen the best show ever. This is the kind of concert that Deserée and Pat and I would have gone to in 1997 with no expectations just because we had nothing better to do, and walked away as devout new converts. But 35-year-old me, standing by himself off to the side, felt a bit like maybe this scene wasn’t really meant for me. Again, it’s not like I had a bad time in any way, but I was a bit on the outside looking in.

And with that, I was back on the train, headed home. Mostly. The University stop doesn’t seem to have any of those handy signs saying “this way to downtown/this way to the northwest” so I had a brief detour on the way back. These things happen, especially to me.

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SLCR #167: John K. Samson (March 28, 2012)

April 20, 2012

Many moons ago, a friend-of-a-friend and I had a spirited discussion about Weakerthans concerts. I didn’t get tickets to the Regina Folk Festival that year because I was going to be out of town for most of that weekend, but I was around on the Friday night, so I spent some time in the park listening to The Weakerthans from behind a fence. Without being able to really see the band, and without any friends around, I came to the conclusion that Weakerthans shows sound pretty much exactly like Weakerthans albums, only you have to stand while you listen to them and (on that night, at least) your legs get chewed on by mosquitoes.

The mosquitoes may have accounted for any surliness that I may have felt. Hypothetically. At any rate, I took my bad mood to Facebook, where said FOAF opined that some of the best shows he’d ever been to were Weakerthans concerts. And this was coming from a guy who attends way more shows than I do.

To be fair, he said less about the shows themselves and more about the experience of attending them with friends, singing along to favorite songs, and I get that. Thinking back, those were my favorite things about Weakerthans shows as well; singalongs and road trips and friends and being in the middle of a crowd of people all singing “I hate Winnipeg” in Winnipeg.

Whether fair or not, the thought that Weakerthans shows are not all that special by themselves kinda stuck with me. I still bought tickets for lead singer John K. Samson’s solo show, though my hopes for a good time dwindled as various Weakerthans-loving friends bowed out of the evening (stupid work conference). My last hope was a coworker from a different department, but he declined because, well, he’s just not a Weakerthans fan. So I made Mika go; she doesn’t really care for them either, but she married me so I get to pull rank sometimes. MARRIAGE PRO TIP: I find it helps to complain about having to do things that I don’t really mind doing; this helps earn favor points which can be redeemed at a later date.

For the second show in a row, we aced the arrival time, showing up just as the emcee was taking the stage. We took seats at the back as someone introduced someone to introduce our opening act, Shotgun Jimmie. I am not sure why Jimmie needed two introductions and he seemed equally perplexed by this. If you think about it, it could be construed as insulting. You’ve heard “here’s a man who needs no introduction?” Well, Shotgun Jimmie was apparently a man who needed two introductions.

I had seen Jimmie at this past summer’s Folk Festival, but I think he was serving as an emcee and thus only played a few songs on the main stage. I picked up the split EP he released with Joel Plaskett, and going into this show, his song on that EP was the only song of his that I knew. As it turned out, given some time to actually listen to his music (you could hear the lyrics and everything!), I found that I quite liked the guy. I’ve always had a soft spot for singer-songwriter types, and I can appreciate some clever lyrics, so I wound up picking up his newest album between sets.

The last time we were at The Exchange was to see Michael Bernard Fitzgerald. I mentioned that he asked the crowd to shut up, and I also mentioned that the phenomenon of talkative dinks is not a new one. The thing is, it usually doesn’t affect me in any real way; I hear a lot of chatting during a show and I wonder why people bothered to show up, but it doesn’t stop me from enjoying the concert. On this night, though, holy. There were these two girls sitting to my right. One of them was halfway reasonable, but her drunken idiot friend needed to get stabbed in the face. Loud talking, loud laughing, the stupidest stories, and a voice like a crying baby’s nails on a dentist’s chalkboard. I will admit to being interested when she was discussing her “Wednesday night fuckfest” (no, iPad, I did not mean “ficklest”), but as her story carried on, I realized that it was actually a Wednesday night DRUNKfest, which was much less interesting. After Shotgun Jimmie was done, they left to go get beers (why you have to wait until the set ends when you’re not listening in the first place is another mystery) and I gave their seats away to a very nice couple who weren’t jerks at all and I didn’t feel the slightest bit bad about it. I later saw the annoying pair down at the front of the stage, hollering and swaying off-time while John K. was playing, so they did alright for themselves.

I don’t know why I feel like I should call him “John K.” instead of “John” or “Samson.” Someday I should write a concert review style guide.

Anyway, the man in question recently released a solo album, Provincial, which sounds more or less exactly like a Weakerthans album. I am fine with this. And to no surprise, his show (where he was accompanied by The Provincial Band, which included Shotgun Jimmie) sounded an awful lot like a Weakerthans show. But what did surprise me – again, perhaps unfairly – was how much I enjoyed it.

Granted, he did open with One Great City and I already mentioned how much I love singing along with the “I hate Winnipeg” refrain. But there were a nice mix of new songs and Weakerthans classics; everything from ballads to punk; songs by himself and with the full band; and some new arrangements thrown in for good measure.

And, of course, the crowd was appreciative and sang along. Weakerthans fans are a devoted lot. Having said that, it really was apparent that as good as the new material may be, people were (unsurprisingly) much more into the older songs. There were no singalongs to When I Write My Master’s Thesis, despite the fact that it would fit right into any of the Weakerthans’ albums. I had to laugh at one point when he said “this next one is an old one” and everyone went WOO! And then he swerved me by playing an old Propagandhi number. He played another punk song too; I can’t remember which band he said he was about to cover, but it made one guy in the crowd yell “WHAAAAAAT?!” which was pretty funny.

Especially on the songs where it was just John K. playing guitar by himself, it struck me how many Weakerthans songs sound like each other. The guy is one of my favourite lyricists, but a lot of his songs are quite similar, musically. I can’t remember which songs off the top of my head and I am too lazy to listen to music right now (yikes), but there was one song in particular that had the exact same guitar part as One Great City (I swear he played more than just this one song, despite how many times I may reference it) and when he went to play it, I thought “hey, dummy, you already played that one.” But it was I who was the dummy.

This led to a discussion on the drive home about how The Weakerthans generally appeal to people who are mostly interested in the lyrics and not so concerned with the music. I can see that; I mean, I AM that. I don’t know from music, but I understand how hard it is to writing so the words am good.

This might also explain why I have known really devoted Weakerthans fans and people who couldn’t care less, and not really anyone in between. I don’t think this show would have changed anybody’s mind one way or the other, but it was a great show for those of us who wanted to be there. And much like the other times I’ve seen them, the best parts were singing along to old favorites with the rest of the room.

SLCR #166: Ben Folds with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra (March 29, 2012)

April 2, 2012

Can I type well enough on an iPad to write a concert review?

Can I sleep? (No.) So I may as well try.

What does this thing autocorrect “SLCR” into? Evidently nothing, or “slur” if you write it in lowercase.

I am lying awake in a bed in a motel in Edmonton. I have lots of family in this town, but apart from funerals, it seems that all of my Edmonton trips involve me driving into town, poking around West Edmonton Mall despite there being little of interest there, going to a show, sleeping, and leaving. I don’t feel right taking advantage of someone’s hospitality if I’m not going to spend any time actually visiting. So I hotel it up, always at the same Super 8-slash-truckstop because one time, Dave booked a room for us here because we were going to wrestling and the Super 8 was centrally located between the big mall and the arena. That’s how I make my life decisions: go with what someone else chose for me over a decade ago under different circumstances.

Yesterday’s concert was John K. Samson, the lead singer of The Weakerthans, but since I told my Edmonton history, I may as well talk about Ben Folds instead, since that’s why I’m here. I wonder if there’s a precedent for writing concert reviews out of order? I know I’ve never posted them out of order. If only I wasn’t too lazy to call the front desk and get a Wi-Fi passcode, I could look these things up. Or, more likely, I’d read a bunch of garbage from my Google Reader instead of doing this.

So far, this is no more annoying than typing on the netbook used to be. Check that – editing is a slower process, and using anything beyond the most basic punctuation is a bit of a drag.

I’d seen Ben Folds once before, in Fargo, an eight-hour drive from Regina. Edmonton is also an eight-hour drive from Regina. Mayhaps my city has a force field. You’d think he’d like it there; its pun potential really is unparalleled.

Regina also has a symphony orchestra. When I found out that Folds was going to be playing with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, I immediately began my campaign to bring him to Regina. I did this by asking the Regina Symphony nicely via Twitter. I am sad to report that social media has disappointed me for the first time, and the Regina Symphony was not willing to rearrange their schedule at the last minute at great expense in order to satisfy my whim.

I might even have said “please.” If not, I blame the character limit.

Still stinging from the rejection, I made the long drive from Regina to Edmonton, filled with memories of that Fargo show. It had been worth the drive, but a symphony show is a different beast. By its very nature, it has to be more structured, with less room for playing around. I have the DVD that Folds released of his shows with the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra. I haven’t watched it in a while, and when I got this ticket, I intentionally avoided so much as looking at the track list because I was expecting a lot of similarities.

I found the Super 8 on the first try. You’d think I’d have that pretty much cased by now, but you don’t know of my legendary ability to get lost in my own house. I also found the mall on the first try. The Winspear Centre, on the other hand, that one took some doing. The Google Maps map was actually pretty accurate, but some badly timed glare meant a lot of extra driving around for me. I only tried to go the wrong way down one one-way street, so that was a success.

The venue, it should be noted, is beautiful. Similar in size and function to the Conexus Arts Centre in Regina or TCU Place in Saskatoon, but much more attractive. I felt underdressed. I probably should have considered that this was an actual symphony concert and not just a rock show. But then the conductor took the stage via bicycle, so maybe I need not worry.

I drive eight hours to see Ben Folds because he rarely comes to Canada. I think this is the first show of his that I’ve heard of outside Toronto or Vancouver. Judging by the crowd reaction, a full tour is long overdue. The guy got a standing ovation just for showing up, opening notes of songs got raucous applause, and the crowd knew to sing the horn section of Army without being prompted.

Looking now at the track list for that DVD, I am delighted to see that we got a lot of new songs. As with that show, he opened with Zak and Sara and followed that up with Smoke, and the encore was still The Luckiest, but there was a lot of new stuff in there. Some of the songs hadn’t been released when that DVD came out, including Jesusland, Picture Window, Cologne, Landed, and Effington, which featured an eight-person choir singing “If there’s a god, he’s laughing at us and our football team.” That same choir also sang the “kiss my ass kiss my ass goodbye now” part of One Angry Dwarf & 200 Solemn Faces, which might make them the best choir ever.

At one point, as happens at every Ben Folds show, someone yelled out “ROCK THIS BITCH!” Someone else responded with “NEVER AGAIN!” I laughed. I don’t know if Folds was serious with his threat to quit playing Rock This Bitch (basically, music and lyrics made up on the spot) but I’ve seen him twice and he’s done it twice. He started by giving the different instruments melodies to play, then ramped it up. The saxophones were instructed to “just do whatever you feel like.” The final version involved a mariachi trumpet solo, a tympani solo, the choir (of course), and  lyrics along the lines of “this is what happens when you give the piano guy an orchestra in Edmonton.” This was all great fun and everyone loved it, treating Ben and the orchestra to a raucous ovation. “That was the perfect lead-in for what’s coming up next,” said Folds, and you’ve never heard to opening notes of a song about a teenager’s abortion greeted with so much laughter.

In between songs, Folds confirmed that there will be a new Ben Folds Five album before the year is up, and he talked about the histories of some of the songs, but mostly he just tried to deal with the people yelling WOOOO and WE LOVE YOU BEN and whatnot. I cannot stress enough just how bonkers this crowd was. Dude was BELOVED.

There were two sets of just under an hour each, followed by the “surprise” encore (“It’s just a coincidence that they all have sheet music ready to go.”). Then Ben left, and then the orchestra left, and then I left. I was halfway through the lobby when people started making noise about Ben coming back, so I snuck back in to catch the second encore, which was just Ben and his piano for a few songs, including Army and Annie Waits. And once he was done those, I waited for the lights to come up before leaving because I was taking no chances.

Do I need to say this was fantastic? Because it totally was. Songs I love, expertly played (Folds really is an amazing pianist and I didn’t even talk about the orchestra, who were great, and some of the arrangements of the songs were really interesting, like there was one where I was sure the choir was singing, but they weren’t, it was all the instruments, and that was neat, and one of the songs had really cool percussion parts and I’m sad I can’t remember the specific song right now and I am not editing this sentence because it is now very late and editing things on the iPad is not what I want to be doing and sure I will email this to myself later for final editing before I send it into the world but I am not going to fix this part because it has become a matter of pride or principle or something) and an audience who was thrilled just to be there and their enthusiasm elevated everything from start to finish. I’m calling it: better than Fargo, and I liked that show a lot.

I meant the concert I saw there, but really, that sentence works just as well if you assume I’m talking about the movie.