Post #134: Concert Etiquette au Centre Bell.


14jjpxpxSo, my wife and I ventured up to Montreal last weekend to see John Mayer at the Bell Center. Mayer shredded, wailed, crooned, and serenaded us at one point with a fake Japanese garden projected behind him while he sang songs solo acoustic. It was a great show, featuring Mayer’s full band and his blues trio, and I recommend catching Mayer on his current world tour, but that’s not what I want to talk about. If you’re interested, here’s a review of the show from the Montreal Gazette. Or, if you want to read up on John Mayer and his current goings on, including various non-sequitors and narcissistic ruminations about the nature of celebrity and the strangeness of the modern condition, here’s a recent profile from the New York Times.

No, what I want to talk about is the Canadian crowd. Namely, I want to talk about their deference, their politeness, their near silence, their I’m-not-gonna-stand-up-ness, and their overall laid back and staid approach to seeing a rock show in a large venue, which they responded to with about as much gusto as you would muster for a street performer who you begrudgingly decide isn’t half bad before you drop a buck into the kitty, then go get some frozen yogurt.

Let’s start with contrast. Five or so years ago, I went to see Phish at a hockey arena in Albany, New York. There was no smoking allowed inside the venue. Did that stop the Albany crowd? Please. By the middle of the first set, the place was like a bar in Mad Men, washes of smoke clouding your vision, wispy swirls of it gray and pink in the stage lights. So thick you just knew you’d never quite get the smell out of your clothes and likely have to burn or throw them away. And, being a Phish show, at least half the smoke was not from Camels or American Spirits, but had a more, shall we say, herbal inflection.

I’m not saying I liked the smoke. I did not. I’m just making a point.

john-mayer-vaguely-teases-title-of-new-single-01John Mayer also played in a hockey arena. The Bell Center is home to the mighty Montreal Canadians. But there was not a single puff of smoke, tobacco or otherwise present. When’s the last time you went to a concert at a large venue and you didn’t see anyone smoking? Even indoors. In fact, I think if you’d lit up in that place, the locals would have smothered you in gallons of warm, overpriced Molson, then escorted you from the premises.

The couple to our left arrived late, mid-way through Mayer’s first whole band set. They sat down, settled for a moment, took a couple cell phone pics. After that, they did not move. At all. They clapped politely between songs, but otherwise stared down at John Mayer as if he was no more real than a vision on a television screen. They did not stand for the encore. They did not show any more animation following a wailing solo, or a song’s crescendo, than they did for a ballad. In fact, virtually nobody moved in the whole place. The crowd was appreciative and I think genuinely enjoyed the show–they were cheering by the end–but the lack of hooting, dancing, or any other kind of external pleasure or tom-foolery, which I’ve come to expect as part and parcel of seeing live music, mystified us. I’m not a rowdy concert goer, but I like to whistle and cheer and get my white man’s overbite on as much as the next guy. Usually, I follow the flow of the crowd. The crowd stands, I stand. They hoot, I hoot. But that night, the crowd was so mellow as to be almost sedated, and I kept looking around wondering if I was missing something. Wondering if I should lead the charge. But we were afraid to stand up since nobody else was and so kept our seats and clapped politely like everyone else.

A couple of times I went to the bathroom, only to find the beer lines empty, the hallways bare and silent, the souvenir stand abandoned.

I began to wonder if there are unwritten codes around concert  etiquette that are regional and perhaps even national. Thoughts on this? Was I witnessing some sort of national politeness that felt utterly foreign to my crass American instincts? Or was I myself that brash, noisy, hard drinking American that a Canadian citizen might be quietly judging as uncouth or uncivilized?

pere-lachaise_chopin_graveI was once standing near Chopin’s grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, admiring the weeping virgin atop it and the maudlin bust of the great man at its center, some of Chopin’s haunted and tinkling melodies dancing through my memory, when I heard a man shout, “It’s over here baby!” I shit you not that at that moment, my reverie was broken as an obese family of four ambled down the dirt path wearing matching American flag t-shirts on their way to Jim Morrison’s grave. I hid in the bushes until they passed, lest I be accidentally linked to their horribleness in the eyes of a local.

That’s not what I’m talking about.

I appreciate quiet and being able to sit and enjoy a show. I don’t talk at the movies and I’ll shush you if necessary. And generally, I’m not in favor of smoking at indoor venues because it’s gross, but the near capacity crowd at the Bell Center last weekend brought a Lay-Z-Boy vibe that I found wholly unfamiliar, and not a little disconcerting.

I believe in wearing it on your sleeve. Someone rips a sweet blues solo, how else are you supposed to show your approval save shouting into a crowd, whistling, or high-fiving the person next to you? You gotta let em feel you. Arms folded, dead eyed, and silent is no way to rock and roll, Canada.

But perhaps I’m being too harsh. Too judgmental. Dare I say, too American?

I still love you, Montreal. But you gotta loosen up a little. A $13 Molson should do the trick.


Post #83: Kat Edmonson, a worthy infatuation

Things you should be watching

Kat Edmonson 0412 CoverI’ve been infatuated the past months with Kat Edmonson and her scrumptious (Yeah, I said scrumptious. Screw you. Listen to it. That’s the right adjective) new album “Way Down Low.” It’s been one of those great can’t-stop-listening to it experiences that comes along a few times a year, when you decide that a certain music is the perfect soundtrack to a wide variety of life moments. Usually, this ends with over listening and burn out. But that comes later. Now, in spite of “Way Down Low’s” sultry splendor, and the general adorableness of Ms. Edmonson herself, it still didn’t seem quite blog post-worthy. That is, until earlier today when I bumped into her performing on Tiny Desk Concerts (accompanied only by acoustic guitar) and fell even further in love. If you don’t know Tiny Desk Concerts, it’s an NPR Music concert series where musicians perform basically in this really small office space for these mini 10-15 minute concerts that are sort of awkward and intimate and wonderful. If you’ve never seen it, it’s one of the coolest and most random things in the world and the kind of gift only the Internet could provide. Enjoy. Then get Kat’s record and tell me scrumptious isn’t the only damn word in the dictionary that will do.

Post #68: Fallen Idols? Not even close.


Out of nowhere a couple days ago I found out that one of my favorite rock bands, the criminally underrated and barely known Canadian quartet Sloan, were making a stop at Higher Ground here in Burlington and last night I drove over and caught the show. There’s something utterly bizarre about knowing a band’s music for a substantial amount of time before you see them live. It’s almost hard at first to accept that this band that you’ve only known through photos and pop hooks and long drives through Pennsylvania is actually composed of four flesh and blood men who wear t-shirts and tennis shoes. Who adjust guitar straps between songs, sweat after a while, and sip water from generic bottles. At first you feel like you’ve wandered into some dream in your past, a basement party or a long ago conversation, a scrap of high school kicking down the windy streets in your mind. But no, it’s real. Just another rock and roll show.

My first thought when I arrived at the show was embarrassment and sadness for Sloan. The place was dead. Not sparsely populated. Dead. I did the math, then texted my wife at home: there are 18 people here I wrote.  She wrote back: hahahahaha. At the show’s peak, there were maybe twenty-five people in a room that holds probably four hundred. I hadn’t expected a packed house, but I hadn’t expected a morgue either. Who knows if it was poorly promoted or the band just isn’t known in these parts. Or maybe it was just a Thursday in October. But Sloan, though they seemed a bit bummed by the sheer lack of audience, and quipped about it before plunging into their set, gamely put on a terrific rock show. They were promoting a special edition vinyl re-release of their 1994 opus Twice Removed and the first set consisted of the album in its entirety, followed by a second set full of choice B-Sides and some of their biggest hits. I was in heaven. The band sounded great. Robust and energetic, tight and well rehearsed, yet loose and playful. All the great things we love about rock music. Not too serious music played seriously by professionals doing what they do, bringing the same abilities to their craft whether for a thousand listeners or for twenty. They looked good, too. They’ve been around a while and I wondered if they’d look a bit sad, as aging rockers can. But they didn’t. All were thin and youthful and looked healthy and vibrant.

I first discovered Sloan through my older brother, Jacob, who passed along their album One Chord to Another, still my personal favorite, and I’ve been a fan ever sense, secretly enjoying their music and wondering why no one else ever seemed to know who they were. I haven’t always kept up with purchasing their new albums, but I’ve stayed aware of them, wandering occasionally through their catalog on iTunes to see what they were up to, popping into their website from time to time, or catching random YouTube interviews with the band. But so infrequently do I meet another Sloan lover that when confronted by one, as I occasionally am, and was last night, I feel an instant kinship, as if reunited with an old war buddy with whom I can swap stories that we alone will understand because you just have to have been there.

When a band lasts a long time, but never makes it huge, the tendency is to feel bad for them. We tend to weigh success in volume. And when a band like Sloan can’t draw a decent crowd in a music town like Burlington that’s not too far from their own home base (originally from Halifax, they all now live in Toronto), it would be easy to wonder why they still bother. Or how they cope with never having blasted into the rock stratosphere, which means that they still have to endure tiny crowds in already small rooms. But there’s other ways to look at it. How about the victory of lasting so long with your original membership? Of continuing to put out new music every couple years, and music that stays consistent, the newest selections holding up against anything in their catalog? I spent the set break talking to Sloan’s merch guy, Jay, and before buying my two sons Sloan t-shirts (and one for myself) I asked him about the crowd. What he told me was that in Canada, the band remains a radio stalwart and very popular, as they always have been, but in the States it’s still, and always has been, hit or miss. In the larger markets (Philly, Boston, New York), he said, Sloan brings out several hundred on a given night, but in smaller market towns–and here he politely swept his arm over the handful of people in attendance–it was usually a small collection of die hards. I was struck, though, by Jay’s energy, by his joy in working for Sloan, by how unapologetic and unworried he seemed by the small crowd, because, hey, it was just one night, and suddenly I felt bad for pitying Sloan. They’ve been around forever, consistently playing music, so they must make money, at least enough to keep doing what they love. Any they sounded good. Better than good. They blew me away with their song craft and musicianship. What is success anyway?

To celebrate the band’s recent twentieth anniversary, during which they’ve released an astonishing ten albums of original material, NPR featured a story about Sloan. It’s a nice piece and offers some perspective on the victory of longevity and the benefits of being a band that’s always flown a bit under the radar and why that might have been the only possible path between there and here.

Rock on, Sloan.


Post #8: Abbey Road & Risotto


There are only a handful of moments in recorded musical history as near to an audio orgasm (“eargasm,” if you’re an Outkast fan) as those few unbearable seconds when “Polythene Pam” swells and swells and finally bursts into “She Came Into The Bathroom Window” on The Beatles Abbey Road, the band’s impeccable farewell statement to the world.  Impeccable because they weren’t even a band anymore, yet knew that Let it Be (though eventually released as such) wasn’t good enough to be the last Beatles record.  The moment, though more so the product of some amazingly clever editing than carefully wrought medley (Lennon’s Pam and McCartney’s Window were written separately and the decision to blend them came later) is nonetheless visceral, a perfect accident the likes of which only the Beatles were capable, and always rearranges my loose parts into something beautifully whole.

When I listen to Abbey Road, it owns me in a manner that should come with a warning label.

For instance:

Recently, I was pulled away from a pan of touchy lobster risotto, for which I made the stock myself.  Have you ever made lobster stock, by the way?  We may have to move if the smell doesn’t.  And risotto of any variety is a dish, which, once embarked upon requires constant stirring and attention and babying. But, see, I’d put on Abbey Road.  And I couldn’t keep myself from invading the adjacent living room and dropping to my knees and cranking my stereo’s dial to better hear the aforementioned moment.  For a few timeless seconds, I was absent from the waking world, lost in John Lennon’s punchy “Oh, Look Out!,”the beautiful ugliness of George Harrison’s string bend response, that barely noticeable pause, then the way Paul McCartney picks up the melody and runs with it like a giddy tight end with an interception.

The risotto, by the way, was ruined.

But have you ever listened to Abbey Road?  Really listened, I mean.  Here’s what I want you to do.  I want you to get out your copy of it and listen to it from start to finish.

You don’t have that kind of time?

Okay.  Do this.  Put on “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” turn off the lights, open your ears, turn the stereo really fucking loud, and tell me your face isn’t on the floor when it’s over.