SLCR #233: The Art of Time Ensemble (March 3, 2016)

This was a pleasant surprise. There was no big announcement for this show – at least not one that I saw. Instead, I heard about it on Twitter – really, just offhandedly retweeted – a unique one-off concert with a favourite singer joining forces with the Art of Time Ensemble to perform an evening of covers of one of their biggest inspirations. I didn’t seriously think I could go – I mean, I’d have to hop on a plane for it – but I checked the ticket availability just to satisfy my own curiosity and dang if there wasn’t one seat still available in the very front row. It was a sign from a god that I don’t believe in except for when I need justification for doing something extravagant.

I look forward to copying and pasting that paragraph in a few months’ time when I have to write about Hawksley Workman and the Art of Time playing Bruce Cockburn songs in Toronto. But I am in Calgary, where Steven Page (once of Barenaked Ladies), Craig Northey of Odds, Andy Maize of Skydiggers, and Glen Phillips of Toad the Wet Sprocket played all of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And a few other Beatles songs.

This is not as much of a one-off as the Hawksley show (which itself is actually on for two nights) – these guys are on a short Canadian tour. Four cities, I think, with a studio album version released a few years ago. Plus, finding out about the Hawksley show led to me planning that trip, whereas for this one, I had already booked my Calgary visit and just happened to be arriving a few hours before showtime.

After visiting with my grandma, watching the news and promising to bake bread and sharpen knives during my stay, I caught a C-Train to go two whole stops to the Jack Singer Concert Hall, the same place where I saw Bahamas last fall. It’s still nice and conveniently located and still a good idea for a city to have and I still like the light rail too. I need a default Calgary paragraph that I can just paste into these things.

Today is still Thursday, if we assume it’s not after midnight (depends which time zone I feel like recognizing), and I only found out about this show on Monday or Tuesday when Steven Page retweeted something about the gig. I’m not sure how I managed to luck into a front-row seat. And when I say front row, I mean I was right up there. I could – and did – rest my feet against the base of the stage. It was almost too close, like watching a movie from the front row. I couldn’t really see too much of the orchestra. If I looked straight ahead, I had a great view of the singers’ footwear. Looking up, their faces were obscured by the music stands they were using for their sheet music and bottled water and iPads. This situation thankfully didn’t last – Phillips lowered his stand and it honestly seemed like he was doing it just so I could see better. Page then followed suit and actually leaned down and said, off-mic, “there, is that better?” to the people sitting to my right.

From left to right were Phillips, Page, Northey, and Maize, with me being positioned slightly closer to Phillips than Page. Behind them was the Calgary Philharmonic. Now, as I understand it, the Art of Time Ensemble is eight or so musicians, and that’s who I expect to see performing with Hawksley in Toronto. If those folks were here tonight, I couldn’t tell you. They either weren’t there or were dressed to blend in with the Calgarians – and not with the usual cowboy hats and belt buckles, so if they were there, they clearly did their research. But I got the impression that for tonight, the four singers and artistic director (and tonight’s pianist) Andrew Burashko WERE the Art of Time Ensemble. I suspect that kind of appellation is flexible. Fine by me. You get the point – four singers, orchestral versions of Beatles songs.

The show opened with Northey singing Strawberry Fields Forever, which Page pointed out is not, technically, ON Sgt. Pepper. He attributed this to confusion between the Sgt. Pepper album and a mixtape which happened to have the title track on it (and also Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night). Northey does a fine imitation of the booooooooooweeeeeeeeEEEEEEEEP noise that tells you that your tape is starting.

I used to have an Odds mixtape I’d made myself that was just the right length to listen to when mowing the lawn. I think it cut off the tail end of “Yes (Means It’s Hard to Say No).” The other side of the tape had all of Wide Mouth Mason’s major label debut.

I digress. After Strawberry Fields, they played all of Sgt. Pepper (with an intermission around the halfway point), with the different singers taking turns singing lead. Do you need me to tell you about Sgt. Pepper? I feel like it is somewhat of a known commodity at this point, and while I like the Beatles, I am far from a scholar. Suffice it to say that it is commonly regarded as the Beatles’ masterpiece. Recorded in response to the Altimont riots and the Kent State shootings, Sgt. Pepper is widely credited with kicking off the grunge revolution and introducing hip-hop to mainstream America. John Lennon, or as he was often called, Mr. Mojo Risin’, rode the success of Sgt. Pepper to great fame in Pepsi commercials until he tragically died in a plane crash with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, a day that will forever be remembered by music fans as The Day The Airplane Crashed. But you know all that if you’ve ever heard Hotel California.

Anyway. This was a really fun evening! The arrangements were interesting and the vocals were done well. It was all still recognizable as Sgt. Pepper but had some neat twists – the jazzy version of Lovely Rita being a particular standout for me. Being so close, I kept getting distracted because it was easy to discern the different parts in the vocal harmonies, which is not something I really ever think about or even entirely understand – I can’t sing, I can only imitate. Anyway, it was interesting to really see who was singing what harmonies and think about how the vocal parts were related. This probably sounds dumb as hell to anyone who actually understands music on any level. Don’t care. Write your own reviews.

During the intermission, I just stayed in my seat and played iPhone games, and I’m so glad I did because the folks behind me had the most fascinating conversation. Between not knowing what building they were in or who they were watching and then the guy professing his love for “Raspberry Fields Forever,” it was hard to stifle the giggles. In his defence, he came back with a solid “Dr. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” joke once he realized his mistake. Unfortunately, he didn’t let it go and subsequent attempts (“Banana Submarine!”) fell flat, but it was still a decent recovery.

Once the ensemble had played through all of Sgt. Pepper, they had one of those encores where you don’t bother leaving the stage. There were three closing numbers – Page sang Penny Lane, Maize did Here Comes The Sun, and all four led a singalong of All You Need Is Love, during which I’m pretty sure I heard Northey or maybe Page singing a bit of Sunglasses at Night. I don’t think there’s a “so I can so I can” in the original, but I’m far from a scholar.

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