Thursday, June 10, 2021

June 10th 1992, The Ramones at RPM

In 1992 I went to see The Ramones at RPM with my friends Brooke and Liz. In the late eighties and early nineties it was kind of an annual event that the band would come to town to play a couple of nights, and Brooke and Liz and I went to see them on a few of those visits. 

Their set was about an hour long and they played about thirty songs. There was a lot of counting by the band and a lot of jumping by the audience. RPM was really hot that night, and we were all covered in sweat when it was over. The Ramones were always a good time and this was a great show.

Monday, June 7, 2021

June 7th 2014, Interpol at Field Trip

There's something special about festival shows, isn't there? An outdoor concert on a night with nice weather out by the lake or in a field somewhere, a bunch of bands, I love that kind of thing. Over the years Toronto has played host to countless music festivals in a variety of genres, and I've been lucky enough to see touring shows, city specific events, a whole ton of different things that all speak to the joys of getting outside and listening to some music under the night sky.

Field Trip is one of the best of those city specific events, an annual festival held on the grounds of Historic Fort York down by the Lakeshore. Field Trip is unquestionably a music event, but it also encourages kids and families to attend and enjoy the show along with other activities like arts and crafts and stuff, and it's a really great fun summer vibe. Over the years it's played host to an impressive list of bands like Metric, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The National and more, and based on those bands and the idea of it being a cool family event, Field Trip has gained a strong reputation as one of the best festivals in the city. 

The 2014 edition of Field Trip had Interpol as the Saturday night headliner and I kind of love Interpol, so Carolyn and I made sure that we picked up a pair of tickets. June in Toronto is pretty much Goldilocks weather, not too hot and not too cold, just right, and that evening was particularly glorious. On the way in we had the good fortune of running into my friend Wardy working at the box office and that seemed like an auspicious beginning to the day. Carolyn and I wandered around the grounds looking at vendor booths and checking out food trucks and stuff, and we spent a little while playing hula hoop which is when I learned that Carolyn is actually pretty good at hula hooping. We also learned that I am not nearly as good at hula hooping as she is and there is photographic evidence of this disparity in skill for those of you who are interested.

We checked out A Tribe Called Red who were really great, and I was really impressed with The Kills' set, swampy Blues-y Garage rock that intersects with Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. We got dinner from a booth set up by the people that run Kanga, and that began my long time love for Australian pies, particularly the ooey gooey delight that was their Mate's Masala. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. But as much as we enjoyed everything else going on that day we were mainly there for Interpol's set and I'm happy to say that they totally delivered.

My first introduction to Interpol was through my friend Janet, who suggested I might like them and played their first album "Turn on the Bright Lights" for me as we drove through the city one winter's night. She was right, I did like them, and from that point on I've been a solid fan of their Post Punk artistry and technique, a sound that really transcends styles and becomes something more. Their show at Field Trip was a great example of that artistry and technique in action, featuring a selection of fan favorite tracks mostly from "Turn on the Bright Lights" and "Antics", along with a couple of songs from "El Pintor" which was scheduled to come out later that Fall. Evil and C'mere are always solid additions to any Interpol set, and I'm always up for seeing them play Narc and Take You on a Cruise, a pair of tracks from the "Antics" album that stand at the top of my list of favorite Interpol songs. Lights was performed as an encore, an epic spiraling take on the song, fully dramatic and fully impressive, a piece of music that I could easily get lost in under the right circumstances.

Interpol played a great set that night, a really great performance that highlighted all of the qualities that made me a fan. After the show Carolyn and I walked home from Fort York, stopping at Smoke's Poutinerie at Queen and Bathurst where they were offering a special samosa poutine that I've only had the one time but remains the standard by which all later poutines have been compared, and y'know, between hula hooping and Australian pies and Interpol and samosa poutine it really was a great time that sticks out in my memory as a pretty much perfect day. I'm very much looking forward to getting back to Field Trip and other festivals in the future, and making more memories of perfect days and beautiful nights spent outside seeing bands under the night sky...

Saturday, June 5, 2021

June 5th 1997, Prince at The Warehouse

I was lucky enough to see Prince in a variety of settings over the years, and while there's no question that he was always a dynamic and amazing performer, there's also no denying that seeing him in a small venue really brought all of his artistry and talent into particular focus. In a big venue like the Air Canada Centre or Maple Leaf Gardens he was well aware that he was entertaining a crowd that numbered in the thousands. But in a smaller venue like Massey Hall or the Sony Centre there was a greater sense of intimacy to what he was doing, a relaxed looseness that gave him the opportunity to stretch out and do what he wanted. In a big venue Prince was performing for an audience, but in a smaller space it very much felt like Prince was performing for Prince, and that distinction meant anything could happen at that point.

In 1997 I was able to see Prince at the Warehouse, a club gig that was only announced that morning, and it was definitely the most free form and spontaneous show that I ever saw him do. It felt as though he was making up the set list as he went along, calling out shots to the band and jamming on whatever he felt like at the time. There was little interest in promoting his current album "Emancipation" or any of the hits, it really just felt like he was playing whatever he wanted, with a handful of covers and B-sides, some deeper album cuts and just two or three singles. Yes, he played Purple Rain and Raspberry Beret, but it was songs like 17 Days and If I Was Your Girlfriend, The Cross and Take Me With U that really defined the show for me, electric and elastic takes where the band stretched out the songs and jammed on whatever groove came to mind.

It was an incredible night, but that was what you expected from a Prince show, amazing music by an amazing artist. As a longtime fan I was thrilled to see him up close in a small venue, and the chance to hear some favorites that weren't normally part of his live shows was especially exciting. There have been a few times since his death where I've been listening to his albums and I'm struck and saddened by the fact that I'll never have the chance to see him play another concert again, but I'm also very grateful that I had the chance to see him as many times as I did. At the end of it all I'd rather be happy to have experienced the shows that I did see rather than sad about any shows that I missed, and I'm especially happy to have experienced his show at the Warehouse in 1997...

Friday, June 4, 2021

June 4th 1997, Switchblade Symphony at Lee's Palace


There's no question that the internet has been a huge resource for music fans, literally making an entire world of music available at the touch of a button. It's an unprecedented era of choice and discovery, and I'm truly grateful to live in a time where there are so many different opportunities to hear and discover new artists. But as rich as today's musical landscape is, it's worth remembering that before the internet there was another way to find out about new bands. Gather 'round and let me tell you about 'zines...

Growing up in the eighties and nineties a lot of my early musical discoveries were made through radio and video shows, suggestions from friends, right place/right time coincidences and the like, but an important piece of the puzzle was 'zines. Before the internet 'zines were huge, a thriving counter culture that served much of the same function as a blog or a website, only in a hard copy paper form using lovingly hand-crafted layouts, put together with glue and scissors and eight and a half by eleven stock, photocopied and mailed out to readers or given out at shows or sold at indie record stores. Like the internet, 'zines gave a voice to people's interests, a way to share the things that you cared about and to connect with others that felt the same way that you did.

Anybody could start a 'zine and in the early nineties there was a thriving scene focused on a huge range of topics like skateboarding, and urban exploration, and fashion, and anime, and pretty much anything else that you could think of. I was most interested in the music 'zines, particularly the Goth/Industrial ones, and they became a gateway to find a wide range of new bands and musical projects that I probably wouldn't have had the opportunity to discover otherwise. 'Zines were an incredible resource in helping me find new music, and a lot of my music collection was shaped by the advice of Stained Pages and Corpus and The Sentimentalist and Sombre Souls on Prozac and any number of other great 'zines. 

A number of smaller record labels also recognized the impact that 'zines had in spreading the word to a fandom, and many of them would send promo copies for review in hopes of reaching a wider audience that were looking for new sounds to hear. Cleopatra was one of the labels that got a lot of  'zine coverage back then, a label out of California that were mostly known for their cover song compilations where up and coming Goth and Industrial bands would record cover songs by popular artists. It was actually a pretty genius idea, giving a new band something familiar that would probably appeal to fans of the original. You like Bauhaus?  Check out these new artists playing Bauhaus songs! You like Siouxsie and the Banshees? Here's a bunch of artists playing Siouxsie and the Banshees songs! 

But Cleopatra weren't just about covers, they also had a handful of bands on the label that released full albums, and one of my favorites was Switchblade Symphony. The first time I heard about Switchblade Symphony was in an interview that appeared in The Ninth Wave, a really great Goth culture 'zine that my friend Liisa did. The interview interested me enough to track down a copy of their first album "Serpentine Gallery", and it proved to be a pretty awesome debut, a fresh blend of electronic and organic elements with smart arrangements and ideas that crossed a variety of forms and styles. I listened to that album pretty regularly after that and when they announced a show at Lee's Palace in 1997 I made sure to go and check them out.

Lee's is one of my favorite places to see a show, and Sunshine Blind opened the night strong. Lead singer Caroline Blind was particularly awesome that night, a great singer and solid guitar player, a really charismatic lead. They played an excellent rendition of their club hit Release and a great cover of I Ran by A Flock of Seagulls, and it was a solid set of songs that I was pretty impressed by.

Switchblade Symphony's set followed and they were truly exceptional, with lead singer Tina Root and keyboard/instrumentalist Susan Wallace joined by a guitarist and drummer that filled out their sound really well. In a live setting Root's voice was just as versatile and fluid as it was on album, able to shift from a quiet whisper to a roar in seconds, truly distinct and unique. The set was based largely around "Serpentine Gallery", as their second album "Bread and Jam for Frances" wouldn't be released until later that fall, but they did play an excellent version of Drool which had been released as an advance single around the time of the show. The highlight of the night for me was when they played Dissolve, and it was just as dreamy and amazing as I had hoped it would be, swirling and beguiling, a sound that completely surrounded and enveloped the audience and maintained my focus so strongly that all the rest of the world vanished and, well, dissolved from my mind until all that existed was the band and the music. It was pretty intense...

As far as I know Switchblade Symphony don't have any particular 'zine connection themselves outside of what others did to support them, but for me they'll always be firmly entrenched in 'zine culture. I realize that I could have discovered them just as easily any other number of ways, but it was that first write up in The Ninth Wave that piqued my curiosity, an inextricable link in my mind and a connection that sets them aside as being something that I may have missed if it hadn't been for glue sticks and scissors and late nights with a photocopier. Thanks to my friend Liisa for making that introduction all those years ago, and thanks to Tina Root and Susan Wallace for making some great albums and playing some great shows that have stayed with me for years...

Sunday, May 30, 2021

May 30th 1992, Curve at the Opera House


Of all the bands that came out of the nineties, Curve are probably the one that made the biggest impact on me. From the release of the "Blindfold" EP in 1991 they existed fully formed and perfect in every way, a stylish blend of processed sound and electronics that fully complimented haunting and otherworldly vocals. Over the next few years Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia went on to produce a series of amazing albums and EPs that include some of the best songs of that era, forging a unique and distinct sound who's impact and influence is still felt today. Their debut album "Doppleganger" from 1992 stands out as one of their best, and remains a claustrophobic and unsettling masterpiece that simultaneously haunts and seduces the listener, drawing them deep under it's spell and leaving them changed upon it's completion. I'm pretty sure that there's never been another album quite like it, and I have my doubts that there ever will be.

Curve did a North American tour to support the release of the album that included a stop at the Opera House in May 1992, and I was lucky enough to be there. I had a spot on the floor relatively close to the stage when Curve's set began, but there was a wall of dry ice and fog that prevented me from really seeing any of the band. The fog continued to obscure my view for most of the night so all I really saw were lights that would occasionally flash and some movements or shadows when band members came closer to the edge of the stage. But even though I couldn't really see anything it was still an amazing experience, a complete immersion in the music. Halliday's voice rang out through the Opera House offering a focus for the senses that pushed and pulled like waves, alternately soothing, frightening, inviting, and warning the audience. Garcia and the band were especially tight that evening, building an incredible wall of sound, a slick blend of processed feedback and joyful noise, stretching tones and pulses in ways that expanded beyond the studio work that I was already familiar with and adding new and unique elements and colours to the music. 

The set was about an hour long and focused mostly on material from "Doppelganger" along with some tracks from the earlier EPs as well. Die Like a Dog was intense and driving, Halliday's smooth vocals contrasting with jagged feedback and wah wah distortion. Their performance of the title track from the album arrived around the middle of the set, the chorus of "You must hate me for being born, you must hate me for being me..." chilling me straight to the bone, a deliciously anxious and unsettling moment. Zoo was towards the end of the set, lyrics about psychotic dreams, dressing in black, and being frightened by sunlight rising and falling in intensity while a funky beat propelled everything forward, keeping us all from harm. Fait Accompli closed the night, rolling bass and a frenzied whirl of sound, Halliday's voice at the centre of it all. 

That night at the Opera House Curve crafted a complete and total sensory experience that stands as one of the best concerts I've ever been to, a balanced synergy of artistry, creation of space, tension, and engagement. I was lucky enough to see Curve perform a few more times after that, and they always impressed and inspired me with what they were doing, but it was this first show I saw that's really stayed with me all these years, a fully formed and perfect moment from a fully formed and perfect band...

Friday, May 28, 2021

May 28th 1995, PJ Harvey and Tricky at The Phoenix


Some shows stand out in your memory for a variety of reasons, a convergence of moments that work perfectly together and become magical in the retelling, and PJ Harvey and Tricky at the Phoenix is one of those magical shows for me. 

The release of "To Bring You My Love" in 1995 signaled a shift in Harvey's work, moving away from the stripped down Southern Gothic Blues of her earlier albums and stepping into a more polished and confident style embracing a wider and more expansive sound. Where her first two albums were largely based around a standard trio, "To Bring You My Love" found Harvey using the studio to focus on finer details and nuances that made for a more immersive listening experience. It was a significant step forward for her as an artist, an early example of the kind of re-invention that would define all of her albums to come and would establish her reputation as a dynamic and engaging artist, a reputation that stands to this day.

Shortly after the release of the album, Harvey announced a tour that would bring her to the Phoenix along with opening act Tricky. Not only would this be another chance for me to see PJ Harvey touring on the strength of an awesome new album, but it would also be a chance to see Tricky's first gig in Toronto, and that had me pretty interested. I really enjoyed the Goth-y Trip Hop style of Tricky's debut "Maxinquaye", a dark and claustrophobic sound that fully connected with the Darkwave and Post-Punk stuff that I was mostly listening to at the time and I was curious about how it would all come together live. On the album Tricky showed a real gift for mixing together samples and sounds in jarring and abstract ways to create unsettling and uneasy musical spaces, and his alternating whispered and growled vocals sat in rough contrast with partner Martina Mobley Bird's more controlled vocal range to create a truly engaging musical tension. There was no doubt in my mind that the pairing of Tricky's creation of space with PJ Harvey's new approach to her music promised a really exciting concert.

The show was set to start at 630pm, probably because the Phoenix had a live to air broadcast scheduled for later in the evening, so my friend Bevin and I made sure to get there early so we wouldn't miss any of Tricky's set. While we were waiting for everything to start we played a few games of pool in the lounge to the side of the theatre space, and I'm reminded that Bevin and I were constantly playing pool at that point in our lives. I haven't played in years but I miss it sometimes, there's something about the physics and math behind the game that I really enjoy. Anyway, we were playing pool in the side room when Tricky's set started, the haunting opening notes of Overcome drifting in and drawing us out  toward the stage. It was a short set, maybe only half an hour, just a handful of songs from "Maxinquaye" but it was mesmerizing from start to finish. I don't remember it as individual songs, more a steady wash of music and sound that flowed around the audience, with Black Steel performed at the end, a frenzied finish to an awesome set that fully solidified my appreciation and admiration for Tricky in the process.

By contrast PJ Harvey's set was more defined and focused in it's performance, but it was by no means less awesome. Harvey had expanded her band for this tour, adding a keyboard player and an extra guitarist which meant that she didn't have to play any of the guitar lines herself. That freed her to roam around the stage more actively, making for a more dynamic and physical performance that ran parallel to the more fulsome sound of her work at the time. 

Her set was primarily focused on the new album, and she played most of it along with a couple of tracks from "Rid of Me". About midway through the set she did a wicked version of Naked Cousin, all screaming vocals and apocalyptic guitar chords played in raw and bloody contrast to the other more slick songs of the night, and it was particularly amazing. She played Down by the Water shortly after that, droning guitars and ebow'd notes wrapping around her vocals, her arms outstretched while she played castanets. Seeing that song live for the first time was an incredible study in tension and atmosphere, an amazing moment that held the audience spellbound.

After Harvey's set ended and we were ushered out of the venue by security Bevin and I walked back to my place on Gerrard, talking about the show the whole time. There were a lot of big moments, little moments, grand gestures, and subtly graceful movements that stood out amid everything else, magical things that needed to be recognized and spoken to by each of us. Both Harvey and Tricky were on fire that night and the show gave us a lot to talk about, and when we got back to the apartment we went on an on to my girlfriend for at least an hour about what an amazing night it was, not to brag about it or to make her feel badly for missing it, more to try and share what we had seen and experienced, trying to share a little bit of the show's magic with her. I don't know how well we succeeded but it was well worth trying to share with her, some shows are special like that.

For years afterwards there was a picture taken from that night hanging in the hallway of the Phoenix outside of the lounge leading into the main theatre, Harvey crouched and coiled as if she was about to spring into the audience, black hair in mid swing cutting thick lines across the spotlights that shine around her. It's a really stark and powerful image, fully capturing not just that moment, but the spirit of the show as a whole, a reminder of an exceptional concert by a pair of exceptional artists. Every time I'd go to the Phoenix I'd take a moment to look at that picture and remember what a great show it was, and even though it was taken down a few years ago, I still make a point of looking for it in the hallway whenever I'm there in hopes that somebody has decided to put it back up again. It's a pretty amazing picture, and while the show it came from was over twenty five years ago, there's still a lot of magic captured in that image, magic that's still well worth sharing...

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

May 25th 1991, Deee Lite at the Concert Hall


I heart Deee Lite. Their debut album "World Clique" is an essential Pop classic, an excellent collection of sampledelic awesomeness wrapped in rainbows and butterflies, music for clubs and parties and anywhere that feels like a good time. It's a revelation, a larger than life cartoon world filled with bright colours and kaleidescopic swirls, a smorgasbord of carefully curated samples and beats blending Pop, Soul, R'n'B, Dance, Jazz and a million other sounds, all emphasizing the idea of the DJ as a musician in their own right. It was fresh and new and really quite incredible when it came out, and in it's strong embrace of so many different styles and musical eras it succeeded in creating a sound that remains both timeless and relevant even now, thirty years after it's release.

The tour for World Clique had a pair of nights in Toronto at the Concert Hall, and I went to see the Saturday night show with my friend Leah. I had just moved into a new apartment over the Carleton Cinemas, so Leah met me at College subway and we walked north to the show. I remember along the way we got ticketed for jay walking when we crossed the street at Yonge and Isabella, but that distraction didn't really make a difference in our mood though, we were still pretty pumped for the show. 

When we got to the Concert Hall we found a good spot about halfway back on the floor in front of the stage, and it was also central enough that we could see most of the audience around us. Everybody was really well dressed, serious club wear and fashions all around, a lot of sunglasses in the half light of the venue, more than a few wigs. It was all pretty cool, and I remember thinking that the black jeans and hoodie I was wearing made me a tad underdressed, but I figured that when the lights went off and everybody started dancing it wouldn't really make a difference.

The show began with Deee Lite Theme, the band vamping on the track and building up anticipation until Lady Miss Kier and her dancers strut out onto the stage, catsuited, be-wigged, and Fluevog shoe'd, proud and fierce like the Superstar that she is. From there on the rest of the show was a blur of funkified electric dancing and non-stop groovilicious beatz. In an effort to keep things interesting Deee Lite were playing with a live band for this tour and it was their job to play all the samples from the album in a live format, which made for some pretty incredible sounds. Bootsy Collins played bass for them, deep and groovy, stars and top hats, everything you could ever want from a classic bass Superhero.

Over the next hour or so Deee Lite treated the audience to a choreographed and tight set that had the whole room shaking and grooving, with an instrumental break for a costume change here, a shout out to New York City there, feather boas, high kicks, and dancing, a whole lot of dancing both on stage by the band and on the floor by the audience. Given that they only had one album at the time they played it all pretty much in it's entirety, with Groove is in the Heart in the middle of the set, elongated and given a funky breakdown towards the end. At one point near the end of the show Kier pulled out a Polaroid camera and started taking pictures of the audience, and I remember thinking that was because she wanted to remember the night just as much as we did. In that pre-social media era that was the 90s, a gesture like that seemed really sincere and genuine, and as I write this I hope that she still has those Polaroids and I hope that they still make her smile when she looks at them.

Deee Lite at the Concert Hall was an incredible show, a moment in time that I'll never forget. It was the only time I saw them live, but in some ways that may be for the best as it would be hard to live up to the awesomeness of that show in 1991. I kind of wish that I had some Polaroids from that night though, they'd be a nice memento to go along with all of my memories of the show...