Posts Tagged ‘big secret theatre’

SLCR #295: Wordfest (October 10, 2017)

October 16, 2017

When you think about concerts, one word comes to mind: books.

I had a few shows already scheduled for Calgary when this thing popped up on Facebook and it sounded pretty neat. As part of a week-long festival of words by the name of Wordfest, there was a concert-slash-reading featuring musicians-slash-authors Geoff Berner, Rae Spoon, Kris Demeanor, and Caroline Connolly. There are readings and other events with all kinds of authors all week long; this particular session was called “How to Be… Wordy & Wild” and it was at the Big Secret Theatre downtown, where I first saw Hawksley Workman’s play The God That Comes a few years back.

I didn’t catch this initially, but that “How to Be” up there was selected because these are (mostly) the authors of the How to Be series of booklets. I am slow. But sometimes I get there eventually.

Or sometimes I get there early. The Big Secret Theatre is only two LRT stops away; for some reason, I still felt I needed to leave my grandma’s place over an hour beforehand to make sure I wasn’t late. This put me downtown with too much time to kill. I found a Tim Hortons and ordered a hot chocolate and played iPhone games until I could wander over at a more appropriate hour. The hot chocolate was both chocolatey and exceptionally hot; I wasn’t convinced it was going to cool off in time for me to make it to the show, but I powered through because I am an intrepid reporter and I am committed to my tasks. Unless I’m sleepy or it’s cold out or I just change my mind about going.

Let’s meet our authors. Klezmer punk accordionist Geoff Berner shows up regularly in these here reviews. He wrote the first volume in the series, How to Be an Accordion Player. Note that this booklet will not teach you how to play the accordion. It’s called How to Be an Accordion Player. This is an important distinction. Berner opened the event by explaining how the book series came to be; namely, they were commissioned by a shadowy, possibly Lithuanian, possible billionaire who may or may not have been in attendance.

Singer/songwriter Kris Demeanor is someone whose name I’ve heard forever but had never had the chance to see him perform before. He was Calgary’s inaugural poet laureate and he works with inner-city youth, so his booklet is titled How to Be an Asshole of Calgary.

The last time I saw Rae Spoon, it was probably 15 years ago and they were performing in the basement of a Cajun restaurant in Saskatoon. Since then, they’ve released a number of albums and gone on to widespread critical acclaim. I remember very little about that last show and I don’t have my old reviews immediately accessible (for which I’m thankful, as I probably sounded like a real dope), but I was really looking forward to the chance to see Spoon again. I also really miss that restaurant. Spoon’s booklet, the newest release of the four, is How to (Hide) Be(hind) Your Songs.

Caroline Connolly is an Alberta musician from a band called The Lovebullies. She also makes and sells gluten-free perogies, which is the noblest of callings. To the best of my knowledge, she’s never written a book. I feel like if she had, this would have come up. Carolyn Mark did, and it’s called How to Be a Boozy Chanteuse, which is how she was described in the New York Times. Mark was unable to attend, away “at an undisclosed location, doing very important things, like her hair,” so Connolly filled in for her. Mark did send her guitar, but upon inspection, it was just a guitar case filled with wine bottles and underwear. I’ve seen Carolyn Mark a few times and I’m 100% prepared to believe that this was legitimate and not a comedy bit.

The format was pretty simple; “like a folk festival workshop where no work gets done,” said Berner. They all took turns reading, then they read some more but also sang some songs, and then more reading and songs. The order was Berner > Connolly > Demeanor > Spoon > repeat, but folks would play and sing on each other’s songs.

You can probably infer how the readings went by the titles of the books. I mean, each booklet is about how to be something, so that’s what they talked about. And you may have also gathered that these are not super-serious instruction manuals for your life. Except maybe they should be? Spoon’s seemed the closest to being sincere, but all four authors got great laughs from the crowd – and, at times, from each other. Berner in particular has great comedic timing when telling stories.

He also nearly shot beer out his nose when Demeanor read the following lines about Calgary: “At the time of writing, our city is going through hard times. Aleppo hard.” Demeanor’s book seems like it might have the most laugh-out-loud potential of the four.

As for the songs, Connolly kicked it off with Mark’s tune 2 Days Smug and Sober, with Demeanor on guitar (and I believe Berner on accordion for this one). I really like this song and hadn’t heard it in forever. She did a fine job even if she needed a lyric sheet for reference.

I will break here to mention that if you have Apple Music, you can search for my SLCR 2017 playlist which features most everyone I’ve seen in concert this year. I had to make the hard choices about whether or not to include 2 Days on it, since Mark didn’t actually play here, but I ruled in favour of adding it to the list since I like it. It’s good to be the guy who makes rules.

Demeanor was up next with his song Liquidation World, which he played in lieu of reading the chapter of his booklet entitled How to Shop Like an Asshole. With witty lyrics and great guitar playing, I immediately decided I like this guy.

I couldn’t add Spoon’s first song to my playlist since it isn’t being released until next year. This made me sad because it’s called Do Whatever the Fuck You Want and I think this song presents some solid life advice. It also has a bridge where they spell out exactly what the song is about, so as to avoid any sort of misinterpretation. It was observed that Born in the USA should have had a bridge for that exact purpose. Spoon also noted that the more folk festival-friendly version of the song, Do Whatever the Heck You Want, is a big hit with children. I can totally see that.

Berner’s first tune was Hustle Advisory, off his brand new record Canadiana Grotesquica. It also has plenty of f-bombs in it and I’ve caught myself humming it all day. I’m not sure grandma approves.

The next round of songs was Swang Swang (or possibly Swing Swing said with a flourish?) by Connolly, which was one of her own, not Mark’s. Demeanor had the best title of the night with his next song, The Drunk You Is You. Spoon played their song Cowboy, and Berner covered Mark’s song Edmonton, one of my favourites of hers. The mention of Edmonton actually raised a gasp from one person in the audience, which Berner called attention to (“Yes. A sharp intake of breath.”) before encouraging us all to be open to learning about other cultures.

These were all interspersed with more readings, where we learned about asshole role models, how a boozy chanteuse should dress (if police aren’t suspicious, you’re not trying hard enough), Stalin, and how you can talk about Jesus when you secretly mean Carla. There was also some audience participation as we debated the pronunciation of halcyon and deigning (which I knew) and fecund (which I’m still not certain of).

After a round of very exuberant plugs for books and upcoming concerts, Spoon closed out the show with another excellently named song, My Heart is a Piece of Garbage. Fight Seagulls! Fight! This was picked to end the show since it references the Calgary Tower, only blocks away.

They were selling stuff and signing stuff after the show, so I went on a shopping spree. I already had Berner’s booklet from long ago, so I got the other three. They were $10 each or four for $30, so I picked up a second copy of How to be an Asshole of Calgary, since Colin just moved here last year and he could probably still use some advice. Demeanor kindly signed both copies and Spoon signed theirs as well.

While I didn’t need Berner’s booklet, I did pick up his new novel, The Fiddler is a Good Woman, days before its official release. His previous novel, Festival Man, was a great read so I’m really looking forward to this one. I got it signed too because I’m a dork like that.

This whole show was a goddamn delight and I smiled the whole time. What great, talented folks. Go see them all and go buy their books.

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SLCR #186: The God That Comes (March 22, 2013)

March 25, 2013

This might be the most expensive show I’ve ever been to. I once spent $250 per person to see Simon & Garfunkel, but that was my mom’s money and at any rate, that show was cancelled due to “illness” (a symptom of which is an overabundance of good seats still available weeks after the on-sale date).

My ticket to The God That Comes, on the other hand, was only $40, but you know how they get you with the hidden fees. For example, I paid an extra $2 to have the ticket mailed to me, and an extra way-too-much to change my flight.

See, I knew that Hawksley Workman’s musical was coming to Calgary. And every spring, I spend five days or so in Calgary visiting my grandparents and burning off last year’s unused vacation days. Naturally, I had hoped these two events would overlap. When WestJet had a seat sale, and I still hadn’t heard about when the musical would run, I booked a week off in April and hoped for the best.

Being the hip, ever-connected, social-media-savvy dude that I am, I figured I’d hear about the Calgary dates as soon as they were available. As such, I Googled nothing. This would prove to be unwise, since the show dates had been available for months and my trip put me in good ol’ Cowtown two weeks late. I spent about a day bemoaning my fate before a burst of motivation encouraged me to FIX ALL THE THINGS and I sucked it up, paid WestJet’s reasonable rescheduling fee, ate the less reasonable difference in fares (did I mention that the seat sale had ended?), and looked forward to the show.

All told, this bit of stupidity cost me somewhere in the range of $200, not including the show ticket itself. I chalked it up to an expensive life lesson (“just payin’ the ol’ idiot tax”) and I was okay with it until actually writing the dollar value down and telling you fine people. I feel it is relevant to the story and needs to be noted for posterity, but Jesus Christ, I get irrationally mad when I forget about some grapes in the fridge and I have to throw away the bad ones.

But oh well, what’s done is done. And then I called my grandparents two weeks before the trip and my grandma wanted to know if I had anything planned for the Thursday night. I don’t need to tell you that was the night I had the ticket for, right? It wasn’t the first performance – there were two preview shows – but it WAS the official opening night. And now my aunt was in town for one night only and family was coming over. Sucked it up, fixed all the things, bought a ticket for Friday night. Another $42.

You will note the presence of the $2 fee to have the ticket mailed to me. I left for Calgary on Tuesday morning. A ticket-shaped envelope was in that day’s mail. The mail comes in the afternoon because OF COURSE IT DOES. I was prepared to suck up fix things yadda yadda but the nice box office lady I called assured me that I could show up with the original credit card and some photo ID and all would be well. I am pleased to report that this actually worked out. These are the benefits of not dealing with Ticketmaster.

The God That Comes was held at the Big Secret Theatre, which is not all that big and if it’s supposed to be a secret, they might want to consider taking down all the signs that point the way. The Theatre is part of the EPCOR CENTRE for the Performing Arts. I picked my ticket up at the box office for the Martha Cohen Theatre (which is also part of said oddly-capitalized CENTRE). The show was put on by the 2b theatre company (again with the capitalization) as part of the Enbridge playRites Festival of New Canadian Plays (“playRites” – somebody’s screwing with me), which is under the auspices of Alberta Theatre Projects (ATP). All of this is a long way of saying I have absolutely no idea who was really behind this. Possibly it took all of Alberta to stage this production. I do not know.

According to the website, the Big Secret Theatre seats 190 people. There were a number of small tables close to the stage; these were reserved for people who were ATP subscribers. There was some auditorium-type seating a bit further back (but still quite close – the theatre was pretty small) and a balcony which I never saw. There was a bit of confusion at first; When they let us in, one (usher? attendant? host?) said that we could sit in the auditorium seating if we weren’t at a table. When some of us did so, the other host said that we couldn’t. This seemed odd as there were twice as many people milling about as there were table seats. Anyway, pointless story short, they sorted everything out and eventually filled up the tables, the auditorium seating, and part of the balcony. I had an aisle seat in the second row, so I got to do lots of stand sit stand sit stand sit as people came and went.

In talking to people, it became clear that none of my Hawksley-fan friends knew what, exactly, The God That Comes actually was, whether it was a concert or a play and who all was involved. I’d read a bit about the show but wasn’t entirely sure myself. It turns out that it’s a one-act play entirely performed by Hawksley. There’s some talking, but it’s mostly sung. You’d be forgiven for thinking of it as a concert with the setlist known in advance. Hawksley plays all the instruments himself, though Mr. Lonely is credited (under that name, which is awesome) as the Sound Operator. I saw him after the show at the soundboard, but he was never on stage.

The play is the story of Bacchus, the god of wine and sex. (“He’s bringing sexy Bacchus” has already been used in reviews and I’m sad I didn’t get to it first.) People worship this god by, appropriately, getting drunk and boning en masse. The king does not approve of this, especially once his mother gets involved, so he has his soldiers bring the god to him. The god says “if you want to know what we’re doing, why don’t you dress up as a woman and go spy on us?” The king sees nothing wrong with this plan, so he gets all ladied up and heads off for the orgy. In the darkness, the writhing mob mistakes him for a wild animal and murders him. His own mother tears his head off.

That’s basically the whole story, minus a few minor details. Hawksley opens the show by explaining all this (hence the lack of a spoiler warning above), and then he spends the next 75 minutes or so telling it again through song. The prologue made following along a lot easier and was appreciated, at least by me. Maybe you are a mythology genius and don’t need the hand-holding?

The accompanying album, Songs From The God That Comes, was released on Tuesday. As the only way to buys a physical CD are to get one at these shows or online, I didn’t get a chance to hear it before going. I did listen to the samples on iTunes, and was decidedly optimistic. They were weird in a way that reminded me of the Hawksley of old, of his first album, For Him And The Girls, of the Hawksley that made me a fan.

That’s exactly what I got at this show, and it was amazing. The songs had the dramatic flair and strangeness and played with gender in the same way that Hawksley did on that first record. It’s a sound and style that Hawksley has strayed far from in more recent albums and it was great to hear it again. When he picked up two poles, I wanted to turn to the people near me and freak out. “He’s going to beat them against the ground and stomp and it’s going to be AWESOME” and it WAS. I haven’t seen him do that in concert in years!

There were lots of new additions too. There was a light show the likes of which I’ve never seen at a Hawksley show (with notable changes as the story progressed – if you ever see this and think “hey, that text looks blurry,” you’ll find out it’s for a reason). More interestingly, Hawksley played all the instruments but used looping pedals to create layers of sound – it’s something I’ve never seen him do before and he was able to really build the intensity, even though he’d already told you how the story went.

There’s only so much detail I want to go into. There are lots of surprising touches that you really should see and hear for yourself. This won’t be easy; it’s in Calgary for the next few weeks, and stints in Halifax and Toronto are planned, but if you’re not in one of those places, you’re out of luck for the time being. The CD will surely be a decent substitute, but without the lights and props and whatnot, it will be missing something. I’m hoping that he eventually releases a video.

I really only had two nits to pick about the evening. One was the length; 75 minutes just felt short. I know that it isn’t a concert and it’s not really fair to compare it to one, but I wouldn’t have said no to an encore with some classic Hawksley songs. And in a related (and somewhat contradictory) note, the last song, “They’ve Decided Not To Like Us,” didn’t really have anything to do with the story and felt tacked on. I liked the song when I first heard it at Hawksley’s Saskatoon show last year and I liked it tonight – but it didn’t quite fit. So there you go; my complaints are “I loved it and wanted more” and “yay, extra song.” I need to learn how to bitch better.

Right after the show, I said on Twitter that the show is a must-see if you’re any kind of fan of Hawksley Workman. If you’re not a fan, then I’m not so sure. I’ve told this story before, but the first time I heard For Him And The Girls, I didn’t like it at all. It was just too weird and I was immediately put off. Obviously, it grew on me (to the point that it’s one of my all-time favourite albums), but it took some time and multiple listens (I’ve been known to give that album as a gift and tell people that they need to listen to it at least twice before making up their minds on it). I can see this show having the same effect on some people. I’m not saying that non-fans shouldn’t go; just adjust your expectations and your weirdness tolerance levels accordingly.

As for me, I went back and caught the matinee the next day, and I didn’t have to change my flight to do it. If my grandpa has taught me anything, it’s that you should always average down.