Saturday, January 30, 2021

January 30th 2020, Föllakzoid at the Garrison


There are a lot of things that can make a great show. There's talent and technical ability, which paired with passion and enthusiasm can lead to amazing and impressive moments. There's also a level of connection between the artist and the audience, whether it's through a set list that covers all the classics or the ability to engage and interact with each other at an emotionally intimate level. Sometimes it's just the circumstances that surround the show, that night out with friends that becomes a storied part of your shared history. And sometimes it's when the band is able to take you to a whole new space like Föllakzoid did at the Garrison on January 30th 2020.

I'll admit that I don't know much about Föllakzoid. They're a trio from Chile featuring guitar, drums, and synths. Since 2009 they've put out a handful of releases, all of them really great, really amazing albums, each of them an epic aural journey. Individually they're all very solid musicians and together they're an exceptionally tight musical unit. Annnnnnnnd that's about all I can say about them...

But I can say more about their music and in particular the music they made at the Garrison. Whether it's on record or in person, Föllakzoid make an expansive sound that fills both your head and the room you're in, whether it's your bedroom or a big venue. It drifts languidly through the soundscape with a living rhythm all of it's own, looping in and around itself until it becomes beguiling, hypnotizing, mesmerizing. But don't mistake the idea of repetition as just a simple format, because careful listening reveals random elements and textures, along with a more numerical than temporal structure. And those elements and textures and numerical structures all come together in such a way as to create a whole new focus for the senses, a new space for listeners or an audience to exist in.

And that's exactly what happened when they played that night. Shroud in blue light and fog throughout the whole performance, the band made an enormous sound that filled up the entirety of the Garrison, wrapping around all of the audience and taking us somewhere faraway from the physical confines of the room, someplace new where we were all happy to exist and explore a new sensory space with them. 

It was a pretty incredible experience.

"So what does all this sound like?" I can hear some of you asking and that's a really good question but it's not an easy one to answer. Their music immediately brings to mind Space Music, along with elements of Ambient, and Trance, and maybe even a little bit of Prog. There's no denying that Föllakzoid's work runs parallel to all of those genres in some ways, but it's really that sense of immersion and movement within a sonic space that truly defines what they do, and that's a hard thing to describe without having actually been there. The nearest I can explain it is to ask you to think back to any of those teenage sensory deprivation experiments you may have tried in high school where you'd close your eyes and lay in bed listening to your favorite albums with headphones on and the lights off, really intently listening, paying close attention to the ebb and flow of the music, the ways that it rose and fell, the highs and lows, all of that. It may not have happened every time, but I'm sure you'll remember a few times where you were swept away from where you were, transported somewhere else by the music, even if it was only for a few minutes.

That's a beautiful and incredible feeling, an intense and amazing experience, isn't it? That's what a Föllakzoid show is like, and that's what it was like that night at the Garrison, a great show where the band was able to sweeep us all away and take us to a whole new space. 

I can't wait to experience that feeling again...

Thursday, January 28, 2021

January 28th 2019, The Soft Moon with Hide and Concavity at Velvet Underground


Winter is a tough time for a band to go out on the road. Weather can pose serious travel problems for touring bands, especially in the snow belt that runs around Toronto, Montreal, Buffalo, and New York, and it's not unusual for a sudden snow storm to prevent a band from being able to make the trip between cities. Over the years there have been more than a few times where a show I was looking forward to in January was rescheduled at the last minute for warmer months when the likelihood of weather issues wouldn't be as much of a concern.

Knowing what a difficult time it is to tour in the winter, I can truly appreciate and admire anyone that makes the effort to go out during those long snow filled months. And if a band I like is willing to make a four or five or six hour trip to Toronto from wherever then I'm more than willing to brave a storm for an hour or so to get from my place to a venue. And that's what I did when The Soft Moon were playing with Hide and Concavity at Velvet Underground on January 28th 2019. Heavy snow had started earlier in the day and had fallen pretty steadily throughout, faster than it could be cleaned up by any of the road crews. That makes for a lot of chaos traveling through the city by road, and by dinnertime there was a thick layer of snow on the sidewalks too, just in case you were thinking of walking to avoid public transit. It was a pretty miserable night to leave your home, but I didn't want to let a bit of weather stop me from seeing the show if I could help it, so I bundled up with boots and a toque and headed out into the night.

Velvet Underground has been a consistently solid venue since it opened in the mid nineties, featuring live music, different nights for different scenes, and a really big space with a good dance floor if you feel like dancing. I've danced there a lot over the years, making regular visits on Sunday nights with DJ Lazarus, Monday nights with Die J Mars, Thursday nights with Osaze, and more. It's where I played my first show as mara's torment, and I've seen a bunch of gigs there, The Legendary Pink Dots, Murr, Drab Majesty, Boy Harsher, others. It's a space with a lot of fond memories, and it's a place where I feel both comfortable and happy, a really great place to see a band.

Normally it's about half an hour's walk from my place to Velvet, but with all the snow it took me about an hour and a half to get there that evening, a slow tread through a cold night with the wind blowing against my face. It was a pretty miserable trek to be honest, but I forgot all about that when I got there just in time to see the opening band. I hadn't heard of Concavity before then, but their set really impressed me, dark and gloomy Post-Punk Synthpop that was all kinds of awesome. Since that show I've become quite a fan of their work and would recommend their debut release "Castles", particularly the haunting opener "Forget Me", as really impressive, dark and evocative twenty first century Goth that bears further listening. Their follow up "Eyes Never Know" shows even further growth and development and I'd strongly suggest checking them out if you get the chance.

I'd already seen Hide play the year before at the Garrison where they were a force of nature, so I was really looking forward to seeing them again at Velvet. Rather than playing from the stage that night, they opted to perform on the floor level with the audience, a table of hardware set up to the side along with a strobe light and a fog machine, carving out a new space to play from whose boundaries were defined only by light, fog, and sound. It was a pretty bold performance gesture, bringing a greater level of inclusivity and active participation between the audience and the band, adding greatly to the energy of the evening. Singer Heather Gabel weaved and paced around the perimeter of the area, filling it with an almost tangible tension that perfectly complimented the wall of sound built up by Seth Sher's synth work and samples. It was a really incredible creation of space within the venue, running parallel to the band's themes of internal strength and the autonomy of self. A truly amazing set on a variety of levels.

The Soft Moon came on last and they were exceptionally awesome that night, an evocative performance that recreated and built on songs from across Luis Vasguez' catalog in a way that really impressed me. I have a lot of respect for Vasquez and his ability to craft richly textured musical moments that are almost cinematic in their presentation. Listening to his music on my own at home has often inspired my imagination to wander through new mental spaces, and seeing the songs performed live that night had a similar effect for me, taking me on a guided tour led by the band through dark alleys and shadowy places given form and shape through the music. I really enjoy when an artist can transport me to a new place, and The Soft Moon did an excellent job of picking me up and taking me somewhere new at that show.

It sounds kind of trite to say it, but I'm really glad that all three bands made the effort to push through and get to Toronto despite the hellacious weather happening outside that day. It gave me the chance to see Hide again and immerse myself in the space that they created, it let me visit new places with The Soft Moon, and it introduced me to Concavity's music for the first time. These are the kinds of rewards that come from seeing a good show, and I'm glad that the weather didn't prevent that show from happening. Touring in the winter can be a real challenge, but I'm happy that it was a challenge that these bands were willing to take, because it ended up being an excellent night of music...

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

January 19th 2017, Drab Majesty at Lee's Palace

Sometimes a show is more about seeing the opening act than it is about seeing the headliner. And such was the case when I went to see Cold Cave at Lee's Palace on January 19th 2017. Don't get me wrong, Cold Cave are great, and I'll have another post where I talk about them at length later in the year, but the show in January was all about the opening act for me.

Drab Majesty were one of those bands that I kept hearing about before I actually heard them. I'd see their name in playlists or mentioned in posts on Facebook and Instagram, and they seemed to be building a certain level of interest with a lot of people who share the same taste as me. So I decided to check them out on YouTube where I found the video for "The Foyer", and what I heard was amazing, absolutely amazing. There was something fresh and exciting about Drab Majesty's sound, a beguiling blend of Darkwave and Shoegaze that touched on nostalgia but went beyond and became it's own thing. I really enjoyed what I heard and within moments of that first viewing I was listening to their album "Careless" on Bandcamp. "Careless" is an excellent debut with a solid musical vision and ideal, songs written and produced from a place of confidence and surety. All of the elements are there, everything is laid out for the audience and it's quite impressive to hear everything so well executed at such an early stage in the band's career.

Where "The Foyer" piqued my curiosity "Careless" made me a fan, and a little while later when they announced a show with Cold Cave at Lee's Palace in support of their upcoming second album I made sure to scoop up a ticket. By that point I had already heard a couple of advance tracks from "The Demonstration", and I was impressed by how they had built on their vision and ideal even further and showed an even greater ability to capture the ear and the imagination of the listener. With all this in mind I was looking forward to seeing a good show.

I've mentioned before how much I enjoy Lee's Palace as a venue, I've seen countless concerts there and it's always been a great space, especially for a new band on their first trip through Toronto like it was for Drab Majesty. When I got to the venue there weren't many people around, so it was easy enough for me to get a spot towards the front of the stage on the left side where the keyboard stand was set up. I like being as close as I can be at shows, I like being able to see guitar and keyboard rigs and how certain songs are played, it all adds to the concert experience for me so this was pretty much the perfect spot for me to be.

The stage set up was fairly simple, with a keyboard stand where Mona D would play and a mic stand where Deb Demure would sing and play guitar on the right side. In between the two spots was a sculptured bust on a rotating platform and all through the show it slowly spun in place, a nod and a wink to the visual aesthetic of live music. As stated, it was all pretty simple but it was effective and I liked that.

The band came out wearing choir robes and face paint, blond wigs and eye makeup giving them a retro futurist Liquid Sky style that was in immediate contrast to the traditional look of their robes, and that contrast set the tone for their set, a collection of songs mostly from "The Demonstration", songs about UFOs and suicide and more, all with beautifully spiraling guitar lines and rich keyboards that anchored the sound and filled out the spaces inside the songs and inside the venue, wrapping around the audience and drawing us under it's spell. "39 by Design" sparkled with arpeggios and set a haunting mood, and "Too Soon to Tell" was perfect and exquisite, crystalline in shape and form. And all the while the bust rotated on it's pedestal, slowly turning to mark the passage of time...

It was a short set, only about six or seven songs, maybe forty minutes in length, but that was enough to impress me and make me a fan for life. After they were done the band started to tear down, but even in something so mundane there was a kind of artistry about them, rolling up cables and packing away gear with a kind of choreography, an order and process that seemed every bit as rehearsed as the songs in the set. They packed the bust last, picking it up with a care and reverence that suggested it was more than just a prop, and in many ways it was, wasn't it?

I've seen Drab Majesty a couple more times since that first show in 2017, and each time they've been more polished, more slick, tighter than the time before, always growing and building on their past experience and becoming more and more impressive with every trip through the city. But that first time seeing them? There was a sense of discovery, connection, and the initiation of a process that continues to this day in terms of my appreciation of their music. That first show seemed special and magical for me, and it stands as a particularly cherished concert memory for all of that. 

Or maybe I was just beguiled and hypnotized by that rotating bust? I can't really say...

Monday, January 18, 2021

January 18th 2020, Laurie Anderson at Koerner Hall

Laurie Anderson has always been an artist in the truest sense of the word. Intelligent, focused, and committed to her work, I've always admired her singular vision in what she does. I saw her on January 18th 2020 at Koerner Hall where she gave an amazing performance, and like the Tempers show that I wrote about a few days ago it has an even greater appeal given it's status as one of only a few shows that I saw in 2020.

My appreciation for Anderson goes back to the mid-eighties when I first heard her track with Peter Gabriel, "This is the Picture (Excellent Birds)", a CD only bonus on the "So" album and a sound that was haunting and vaguely unsettling amid all the other songs. Curious about her work I soon discovered "Home of the Brave" and it's lead single "Language is a Virus" where Anderson blended story telling with musical elements in really effective and engaging ways. Her use of voice processing and spoken word elements was completely different from everything else that I was listening to at the time, and while I'm sure that there were other artists doing similar kinds of work, Anderson was the first I was aware of to bring everything together so effectively which gave her a certain status and distinction in my mind as a result.

A few years after discovering her music I had the opportunity to see her live during a trip to London at a show on the Empty Places tour. She was fascinating, totally in control of what she was doing, using synths and voice processors to create this otherworldly backdrop for her comments and observations. The show ended with her crouched at the front of the stage with a tiny synth and a single spotlight shining down on her as she spoke. It was pretty amazing.

Since then I've seen her a few times at different spaces, always enjoyable and always entertaining. This last time in 2020 she was at Koerner Hall, a venue on the University of Toronto campus just a few minutes walk from where I live. It's not a venue I've been to many times before, maybe only a couple of times for book readings (I saw Stephen King do a talk there a couple of years ago on the "Sleeping Beauties" promotional tour). It's a good space with great acoustics, well suited for a show like Anderson's.

She was touring with a cellist named Rubin Kodheli and his playing provided a fabulous improvisational backdrop to Anderson's stories about life in New York City in the late twenty-teens. She spoke on a number of topics, made a number of observations and reflections. Anderson is an exceptional story teller who paints richly detailed images with her words, and over the course of the show she flowed seamlessly through stories about primal scream therapy, and Yoko Ono, and birds, and life, and birds, and death, and birds, and Lou Reed.

Anderson and Reed were a couple from the early 1990s until his death in 2013 and over that time their individual influence had a tremendous effect that built on and complimented each other's work. His presence was very evident in her performance that night, with samples of him reading and Anderson speaking to the Dirty Boulevard. In all of her references to New York there was an implied sense of Reed still being a part of the city, an intrinsic element that runs through it's heart, making for a touching tribute to him both as an artist and as her partner, beautiful, and really quite moving...

Over the course of that night in January Anderson kept the audience spellbound and engaged, beguiled and amused under a spell that she and Kodheli had cast, and I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish. Seeing Laurie Anderson has always been a particular delight, and I'm glad that I had the chance to see her once more before everything changed in the world. I can only imagine the stories that she'll have to tell when life returns to normal, when she has the chance to come back to Toronto for another performance. And I know that I'll be there to hear them...

Friday, January 15, 2021

January 15th 2018, Lana Del Rey at the Air Canada Centre

I've always believed that a well written song can transport you to another place for a few minutes, make you forget what's happening in your life and send you somewhere far away from the stresses of everything else. Maybe there's an algebra test you have that morning or maybe you're nervous about that job interview you've got coming up. Maybe it's something far worse, like dealing with a bad breakup or the loss of a loved one, or any one of a thousand other situations. Whatever it might be, my own experience and the experiences of many others is that listening to the right piece of music at the right time can ease those pressures and stresses. The right song at the right time can make all the difference.

Similarly, a well written album, a collection of cohesive songs that all share a common thread of some sort, that can become a fully immersive experience when it's done right. A great album can offer the chance to travel to new places, the opportunity to tap into the same kind of alternate life that we live in our dreams. It's a simple but effective escapism that music fans have been using for generations, music as release, as an opportunity, as a place to escape from it all.

Lana Del Rey is an artist who recognizes the escapist opportunities in music, the chance it offers to get away from everything. In many ways her work embodies a certain California vibe, a particular West Coast dream that's run through popular music for decades with the promise of open roads, beautiful beaches, and the wind in your hair. It's a dream filled with possibilities and opportunities, where it's always summer and you can always escape to the beach. And while that blissful California ideal might only exist in dreams and pop songs, Del Rey does an excellent job of tapping into it, giving that dream shape and substance and a little more detail, a little more substance to add to it's appeal. That dream may not be explicitly stated, it may only be the backdrop or a suggestion in any particular song, but there's a feeling of escape that runs through most of her work, a yearning to find happiness and connection that may exist somewhere else, and I can appreciate that idea.

I'll admit that I don't know much about Lana Del Rey's past, or about her life before she became an artist, but I very much enjoy her sound and her style. I was introduced to her music a few years ago when Carolyn started listening to some of her stuff on YouTube so I bought her a copy of "Born to Die" for her birthday. Listening to it I was immediately struck by her lyrics, and how they had a sense of dreaming that resonated with me on a deep level.

"Born to Die" has some great tracks that I often think of as poetry disguised as well crafted pop songs. Videogames, Summertime Sadness, the title track and more, all of them are great songs. That album inspired me to pick up her next album when it came out, ostensibly for Carolyn to recognize a holiday or an anniversary, but also for me too, along with her next album after that, and her next album after that, and pretty soon I found that I was eagerly anticipating releases from Lana Del Rey, always curious and interested in the new music she was making, interested in where her lyrics would take me next. I still buy them for Carolyn to add to her own musical collection, but it's understood chez nous that I'm buying them just as much for my own listening enjoyment. I just gave her a copy of "Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass" for Christmas a couple of weeks ago, and she accepted it with a raised eyebrow and a knowing smile.

Carolyn and I missed seeing Lana Del Rey on a handful of her early visits to Toronto, but we finally had the opportunity to see her when she was touring for the "Lust for Life" album in 2018 and had a stop in Toronto at the Air Canada Centre, a big arena in the downtown core that alternately hosts basketball, hockey, and concerts. It's a big place, it holds about fifteen thousand people, and while it's the best chance you have to see some of the larger acts that come through the city, it can be a little overwhelming in terms of distance if you're in the upper seats, and we had tickets in the upper rows in the highest level of the venue. But I wasn't too concerned because I had always felt like Del Rey's music could take me to other places, and I was hoping that it would do the same for us at the show too. My feeling was that it didn't matter if we were going to be far away from the stage if we were going to be transported somewhere else anyway. And I'm happy to say that I was right, Carolyn and I and all of the audience were taken somewhere else that night.

When the lights went down and Lana Del Rey came out to open the show, the stage was revealed as a sixties beach grotto with palm trees, long beach chairs, and videos of the tide coming in. It was really pretty amazing. And within a couple of songs we were transported far away from the Air Canada Centre in both space and time, escaping to somewhere else far away from all of the stresses and pressures that may have existed in our day to day lives.

She played a number of songs from "Lust for Life" that night, and they all sounded great in a live setting with a tight band. Given that she was in Toronto I was hoping that the Weekend would do a guest appearance for a duet on the title track like he does on the album, but it didn't happen. I suppose that a lot of people were hoping for the same thing as she made a joke about it before she sang the song, saying that he wasn't there to sing it with her live, but she'd try to do it justice on her own. And she did, it was still great...

She played Videogames, and Music to Watch Boys To, and Summertime Sadness, and there was a medley that included a shortened version of Young and Beautiful, which has always been one of my favorites. I would have liked to have heard a full length version of that song, but it's okay, maybe in some ways it's better to have only heard a bit of it so I can look forward to hearing it the next time she comes around on tour. I have faith that Carolyn and I will go back to see her again.

It was a great show and I'm so glad that we finally had the chance to see her live. 

At the start of 2020 in the Beforetimes I was really hoping that she'd come back again and play a show for the "Norman Fucking Rockwell" album too, it really is a masterpiece and it would have been perfect to hear those songs played live under a warm summer sun at a venue like Echo Beach or even the Molson Amphitheater. But y'know, 2020 and all that. I'm optimistic that I'll get my chance to hear those songs live one day though, it's just a question of when. And in the meantime Carolyn (and I) still have all of her albums to listen to, and they're all able to take me away to distant places while I wait for that next chance. 

That's enough for the time being...

Saturday, January 9, 2021

January 9th 2020, Tempers at the Baby G

Given how few concerts I saw in 2020 before COVID-19, it feels like I should recognize and celebrate each of them for the precious moments that they were. There weren't very many of them, but all of them are worth remarking on.

On January 9th 2020, I went to see Tempers at the Baby G with my friend Ryan. It was a cold weeknight show, but that's never been a reason to miss out on a gig, and I'm glad that I went as it was a pretty amazing night. 

Tempers are a really talented duo from New York who make a melancholy blend of dark Post-Punk and Shoegaze that drifts beautifully, yearning and liminal. I got into them a little later in their career just before they released their second album "Private Life" on Dais Records in 2019, and I immediately fell in love with their sound. Songs like "Leonard Cohen Afterworld", "Daydream" and "Exit" resonated with me and prompted me to check out their earlier album "Services" as well, which I found equally impressive and equally as inspired. When they announced a tour for "Private Life" that would bring them to Toronto it felt like a no-brainer that I would pick up tickets for us to go. 

Ryan drove in from out of town and we met at a nearby bar before the show so we could head over together. I go to a lot of shows on my own, it's kind of a thing I've always done, but I also like to see a show with a good friend 'cause it always adds to my enjoyment of the night. Ryan has been a good friend who's been to a lot of shows with me over the years, and he had been the one that turned me on to Tempers with a Spotify link a few months before, so it seemed right that we should see the show together.

We got there early and sat around for a little while catching up on things before the show began. The Baby G is a small room in the west end, and in many ways it reminds me of the Rivoli in terms of layout and shape. You enter the venue through a front room that faces onto the street and then once you're inside there's a bar to your left and the stage takes up about two thirds of the back wall. It's a smallish venue, it only holds a couple of hundred people maybe, so it makes for a nice intimate space to see a band. Good sound, good sightlines, clean washrooms. It's a great space for a show and I look forward to getting back there sometime soon when we're all able to see more shows.

The night started with a set by Gore Gloss, and I didn't know them before that evening but I enjoyed and appreciated their pairing of nuanced electronics and vocals, definitely a band that I'd like to see again when I have the opportunity. As stated in previous posts on this blog I have a respect and an appreciation for anybody who's willing to get up on stage and perform for other people, so I try to make a point of checking out openings act whenever I can. I think it's important to show support and encourage new acts who are starting out, and it's also a great opportunity to see bands early in their career. You never know who's going to break out and be the next big thing, and Gore Gloss, if you're reading this, I'm looking forward to your big break...

Tempers came on shortly after that, and as expected their set was pure Post-Punk Shoegaze bliss, an evening of songs that connected with me and took me to new places and spaces in all the best ways. The duo came out in matching uniforms with white sweatshirts that spelled out "Tempers" when they stood next to each other and shiny black pants that looked like PVC or some other kind of plastic material. I may not be doing justice in my description, but it was a cool look and their outfits gave them a visual symmetry that really added to the idea of them being a cohesive and connected unit on stage. 

And they really were connected! They had an almost psychic link between the two of them that seemed exceptionally deep and intense. That shared link contributed to an exceptional performance at the Baby G, a synergy that was completely amazing to see. They responded and reacted to each other in perfect synchronicity, a natural choreography that was utterly fascinating. I totally admire that kind of connection and I was spellbound watching it unfold in front of me on stage.

Their set was amazing, a number of songs from "Private Life", all of them delivered in a haunting and beguiling way that made me forget about the rest of the world, each song drawing me deeper into a secret nocturnal alternate reality that they crafted over the course of the evening. By the end of their set when they closed with "Leonard Cohen Afterworld" I really didn't want to leave the musical space that they had made for us, and it was a bit of a shock to the system when the lights came up and we all headed out into a less blissful physical world. 

A couple of weeks afterwards Tempers announced a shared tour with The KVB with a stop in Toronto that was scheduled for May. Having been so impressed with them from the Baby G show, Ryan and I both picked up tickets to see them again and invited our friend Carrie to join us 'cause she would have loved to be part of that blissful drift that they make live. But, well, 2020 happened and... y'know. I'm still holding out hope that the same pairing will happen in the future though. And even if it doesn't, I'm sure that we'll have another chance to see Tempers. 

I'm really looking forward to being immersed in their secret nocturnal alternative reality all over again...

Friday, January 8, 2021

January 8th, 1996, Imaginary Friend at Lee's Palace

In an overview of concerts that I've gone to, I can't help but be self-indulgent in my recollections and talk about some of the shows that I've played myself. I have no illusions that those memories hold anything more than a passing interest to anybody else, but the shows I've done over the years are all special and important to me. So with that in mind, please indulge me as I tell you the story of the first concert I ever played. I've told this story a few times before, so my apologies if you've already heard it, you're welcome to skip this entry if you'd like. I have something good planned  for tomorrow that you may be more interested in... 

Still here? Awesome...

So January 8th 1996 I played my first show at Lee's Palace. And that night stands out as a pretty big deal for me. Since then I've played dozens of shows, I've played a lot of times over the years, but you always remember the first time, right? That first time always has a particular resonance and value, or at least I think it does...

Before I begin, let me go back a bit and tell you about my first guitar. When I was growing up I had a magical Aunt who owned the Sun and the Moon and the Stars. And when she passed away she left me some money, not a whole lot, but enough that I was able to take a couple of small trips, to buy some records, and to buy myself a guitar. 

I had always wanted a guitar, I had always wanted to learn how to play, and I had always seen it as some kind of key to unlocking an expression and voice that I had inside of me that I wasn't able to share otherwise. I spent a lot of my youth confused and uncertain of language, unable to communicate to others, and in that confusion I had an inkling that if I was able to play guitar I'd be able to somehow express myself more succinctly, more clearly. I'd be able to share all of the thoughts I had in my head more easily, and in turn that confusion that clouded my life would start to lessen. In hindsight I probably put a lot more value in that idea than I should have, but I believed in it with all the unshakeable surety of youth. And that kind of surety can move mountains, can't it?

Anyway, thanks to my Aunt I bought a basic Ibanez, black with a white scratch guard and a couple of standard pickups, and I devoted all of my free time into learning how to play it. I practiced for a few hours a day, I learned my fingerings, my chords, all of that stuff. I took lessons, I tried to learn songs through intonation, I guess I did all of the things that anybody learning how to play guitar does. Thinking back about those days spent practicing I'm reminded of the joy in discovering how to do something, the excitement of learning something new. It's a magical thing to make those kinds of discoveries, isn't it? 

I'll admit right now, despite all of my best efforts I never became what you would call a great guitarist. At best on a good day I'm a passable rhythm player. But I had a passion for what I was doing, and I fully believe that passion is just as important as talent when you're making music. Add my passion to my passable rhythm playing, and I was just good enough. And when you're young and just starting to play music, good enough is more than good enough.

And in being good enough, I started playing with a guy named Kevin that I had met at Death in the Underground. My girlfriend at the time introduced us, telling me that he played guitar and sang and telling him that I played guitar too and we should get together to jam some time. So we did. And we were actually pretty good together.

If you haven't ever played in a band I should tell you that there's something that happens when you start making music with other people. I've done it enough to know that when it's good a circuit is formed between players, a unique kind of responsiveness that can sometimes lead to magic. And while it might sound like I'm overselling this a bit, I can honestly say that playing with Kevin there was a bit of magic in what we did, at least in those early days. 

We jammed around for a few weeks, getting to know each other and getting comfortable playing music together, and then Kevin suggested that we ask his buddy Mark to join us. Mark played bass and that would even out our sound, make it into something a little more fulsome and complete. We also needed a drummer but we didn't know anybody, so we printed out a bunch of ads and started posting them around the city at places we would go to, thinking that we'd be more likely to attract like-minded people if they were going to the same places as we did. 

This would have been in the summer of 1995, and I figured that it might be a good idea to hand out some of the ads at the Lollapalooza show that year, 'cause, y'know, like-minded people, right? So in between sets by Elastica and Cypress Hill and Hole my girlfriend and a couple of friends and I handed out ads to people hoping that we'd find a drummer to fill out the band. And we did. Anastasia was one of the people that got an ad and she got in touch and we met up with her and everything clicked together really nicely and really quickly.

Our newly minted foursome started practicing at my friend Brooke's place, she used to rent out her basement as studio space with a drum kit, and we started writing songs. Anastasia came up with the name Imaginary Friend, Kevin wrote some solid jangly pop songs, I wrote some depressing jangly pop songs, and Anastasia and Mark filled out both kinds of songs really well. Before you knew it we had a set of about five or six things that we were ready to share with other people, so we started looking for a gig.

At the time, Lee's Palace was playing live music every night, and the booking agent Craig had a pretty open policy about giving bands the opportunity to play. He was a cool guy and when we reached out to him with a dubbed tape of one of our rehearsals he was willing to book us on a Monday night opening for a couple of other bands. Mondays aren't really the best night for a show, but it was our first gig so we took what we could get, and when we were given a choice of dates to choose from I jumped at the chance to play on January 8th, 'cause it was David Bowie's birthday and it seemed like an auspicious date to make our live debut. 

We practiced a lot before that show and we got pretty tight with our own songs, but I had a lot of trouble with a Cure cover that we were going to close the set with. I was fine with the rhythm section in "Just Like Heaven" but there's a kind of ascending lead line that plays in the opening that sets the tone for everything else, and I just couldn't get the hang of it. I knew the notes, I knew the song, I knew what I was supposed to do, but my fingers just didn't seem to know how to do it despite all of my best efforts in practice. It filled me with a lot of angst leading up to the show because I really didn't want my first live performance to be defined by my inability to play the solo to a beloved Cure classic. So I kept practicing and practicing, hoping that I could do it but even on the day of the show I was still fumbling around, and my nerves were getting pretty stressed.

We got to Lee's around 6pm to do our soundcheck along with the other bands, and I'm not gonna lie, that first time standing on the stage where I'd seen so many bands play was a pretty big thrill. Lee's has a history of being a starting place, a launching pad, so pretty much everybody that comes through Toronto has played there at least once at some point in their career, and now it was our turn. That didn't do much to calm my nerves, but it added to the excitement we were feeling leading up to the show. That kind of excitement is a good thing when you're about to play out for the first time and it carried us through the next few hours until we took the stage at 9pm.

And I'm happy to say that it went pretty well. 

We had practiced long enough, and we knew the songs well enough, and we knew each other well enough that we did a pretty good job. Kevin's jangly pop songs sounded pretty good, and my jangly depressing songs sounded okay too (and didn't sound nearly as depressing as I thought they were). Anastasia sang a song that she had written, and then it came time to play the Cure cover and close out the night. And in keeping with the joyous conclusion of every John Hughes movie you've ever seen, I played the solo perfectly for that one show. It was the only time I was ever able to do it, but it was really the only time that mattered, right? For the next week or two I tried to recreate it at home but no luck. That's okay, I was able to do it when I needed to.

Were you there that night? I'm pretty sure that a couple of you were so thanks for making it out, it really meant a lot to us that you took the time to come and see our debut, and now you have the singular distinction of having seen the only show that Imaginary Friend ever played. We never booked another gig and we slowly went our separate ways after that. It's alright though, I'm proud of the fact that for one night the four of us were a solid unit and we made some solid music. That's enough.

I've played a lot of shows since then, some in a band, some solo, some behind screens, and some buried in dry ice impossible to see. But it was that first show at Lee's that really introduced me to the joy of playing live music, and gave me a much greater appreciation for the effort and hard work that goes into putting on a show. That's definitely a part of why I enjoy seeing music played live, I have a good sense of what goes into making a show happen and what it means to be on stage. I have a respect for every artist and band that gets up in front of other people and plays a song or two or twenty. 

My first gig at Lee's Palace inspired a life long admiration for all the people who have the courage to play music for others, and I'm looking forward to someday soon when I'll be able to see people play music for me, and I'll be able to play music for other people too...

Monday, January 4, 2021

January 4th 2008, The Dresden Dolls at the Phoenix Concert Theatre

One of the key elements of live music is that it’s a shared experience. When you go to a show you’re going to a space with other people who share your interest in an artist or a style of music, you’re surrounded by people who want to be there for the same reasons that you do. They might have different associations with the songs, they might draw different inspiration from it, but ultimately you're mostly surrounded by like-minded people with a mutual appreciation for the music.

And in the mutual appreciation that comes with the audience experience there can be a strong sense of connection, sometimes even a feeling of community, and for somebody like me that’s always felt isolated and on the outskirts of interaction there’s a huge appeal to that feeling. When you go to a show you’re not listening to a band on your headphones late at night by yourself, rather you’re in a room with other people who have connected with an artist in similar ways to yourself. As an audience member you become part of something more, and it’s really quite an amazing feeling.

A good show that you see with friends becomes something that connects you through shared experience, memories formed together that can make or strengthen the bond between you. A really good show might become the stuff of legend or notoriety within your social circle, taking on a mental shorthand within your minds that says “That was a good time that we had together, wasn’t it?”

On January 4th 2008 Carolyn and I went to see the Dresden Dolls at the Phoenix. It was a cold Friday night in the heart of winter, but we only lived a couple of blocks away and we knew that it could get really warm inside the venue once everybody got in, so we dressed pretty light that night. Which in theory made sense, but didn’t really take into consideration that we’d have to line up before the doors opened.

It was okay though, because when we turned the corner onto Sherbourne there was already a line up that stretched all the way down the street, and as we walked past familiar faces it seemed as though we knew everybody else going to the show that night. It was an evening filled with friends and acquaintances and we were able to keep warm together in little huddles and groups. It was a nice way to start the night, seeing so many people we knew.

In 2008 The Dresden Dolls were still touring for their second album “Yes, Virginia…”, building up a larger audience and greater interest in their work. Amanda Palmer and Brian Viglione had been strong proponents of the early 2000s Dark Cabaret scene, and by 2008 both they and the scene had a fairly decent following around the world, and it seemed like all of our social circle were listening to them at the time. And that’s not surprising, their music was intelligent and engaging, drawing from the kind of dark aesthetic that appealed to a lot of us, along with a literary and cinematic/theatrical inspiration that also interested. From a technical standpoint, they were an incredibly tight band, vocals, piano, and percussion, and they had a punk-y DIY spirit that kept them down to earth. All of these elements came together and made for a strong bond with their audience, and because of that bond The Dresden Dolls kind of transcended the idea of being a band, and become more of a movement that appealed to myself and a lot of the people that I knew. They had built a community around themselves, and their shows drew out like-minded folks and tapped into something that resonated with each of us.

That night the show opened with the band doing a cover of “In the Flesh” by Pink Floyd, an ironic wink to the audience, and then they launched into “Girl Anachronism” which is probably the track that best captures their aesthetic and their musical ideal, clever, manic, fast and furious. Somewhere around the middle of that song I'd say that the boundaries between audience and artist had fallen and we weren't at the Phoenix anymore, we were all just friends at a house party, living in the moment and reveling in the excitement of being able to share that moment together.

It was a short set, maybe only about an hour, but it was kind of glorious, kind of wonderful, kind of magical. They played songs from both albums, a new track that would later be released on Palmer’s first solo album, and a bunch of covers, most notably “Fight For Your Right” by The Beastie Boys with Viglione coming out from behind the kit to play guitar and sing while Palmer filled in on drums.It rocked pretty hard.

It sounds cheezy to say it, but after the show ended and the lights came up there was a glow shining around everybody in the audience, we were all in a state of bliss that comes from the connection that I was talking about earlier, a great live music experience that we had all shared together. It was all pretty awesome, and in the weeks that followed that show would come up from time to time when we’d run into friends, “Did you go to the Dresden Dolls show at the Phoenix? I didn’t see you but I figured you were there, it was awesome…”, and we’d nod and smile. “Yeah, it was pretty awesome,” we’d say, “Fight For Your Right rocked pretty hard…”.

And together we’d all smile thinking about what a great show it was, what a great night.

Today marks thirteen years since that night, but I still remember how much I enjoyed it, and I still remember that feeling of community, that after show glow we all had and the bond that was formed with everybody else that was there that night. Bonds like that are strong, tight, and they don’t break very easily.

If you were there, you know what I mean…

Saturday, January 2, 2021

January 2nd 1995, Pop Will Eat Itselt at the Phoenix Concert Theatre

Recent events have inspired me to return to one of my earlier blogs and start writing about concerts again. In a year where there haven't been many opportunities to see live music I've found myself exceedingly nostalgic for those days when there were, and I've taken some comfort in thinking about the great music that I've been lucky enough to see, the shows that I was at, and the moments that I was part of.

So with that in mind, I thought I'd re-launch A Pile of Concert Tickets, to look back at some of the shows I've gone to over the years and to reflect on what they mean to me. I don't have any illusions that I'm going to make any great observations or grand statements about the nature of life in these posts, but I look forward to taking a trip down memory lane and to connect with some moments that I haven't thought about in a while. Maybe in reading these posts you'll find some connection as well, and who knows, maybe that'll trigger your own recollections, your own reflections. I hope that it does, and I hope that you benefit from that experience...

On January 2nd, 1995, I went to see Pop Will Eat Itself at the Phoenix Concert Theatre with my buddy Robin. It was a cold winter's day, the sky had already taken on that frigid gray look that it has in the long stretch between the holidays and spring, and I seem to remember that everybody, myself included, was all still kind of hungover and exhausted from the revelries of the last few days. It wasn't really the ideal time to see a show, but we were there and I guess we were all hoping to make the best of it.

You'll notice from the ticket stub above that it says the show happened at the Opera House, but it was actually moved to the Phoenix Concert Theatre at the last minute. I'm a fan of the Phoenix, it's a good place to see a show, a long room east of Yonge Street that holds a good sized audience, maybe about 1500? Something like that. It's a good space, good sightlines and high ceilings, and generally pretty good sound. I've seen dozens of shows there, countless bands, it's one of those venues that feels like home to me, and I've always been of the belief that a good venue, a place where you feel at home, that's the start of a good show.

In 1995 Pop Will Eat Itself were pretty much at the peak of their career, having moved away from their Grebo roots and embracing a more Industrial sound after signing with Nothing, and their current single at the time "Ich Bin Ein Auslander" was doing well at clubs. I'd already seen them a couple of times by that point, but 1995 was a particularly good period to see them, that sweet spot in the band's career where they were experienced enough to put on a good show, and their back catalog of songs was strong enough to make for a solid set of music. 

They opened the show with "Auslander" and right from the start the band were in full manic energy mode, literally jumping throughout it's entire length. Clint Mansell was still with the band then, and he was wearing wrap around sunglasses and a turtleneck with short bleached blonde hair, which combined with all the jumping made him look a lot like Frank Gorshin's Riddler. This was not a bad thing. In later years Mansell would become one of the best soundtrack artists in the business, crafting unforgettable music for "Requiem for a Dream", "Moon", and countless other films, and I admire his work greatly, but in my mind's eye whenever I hear his name associated with a soundtrack I can't help but think of The Riddler.

PWEI were always about energy, always about being on, and the show that night was no different, they gave it their all, and pretty soon they had the entire room giving back that same energy, holiday hangovers forgotten amid that feeling of connection and synergy between artist and audience that comes with a good show. That feeling can take a number of different shapes, sometimes it happens on a cerebral or emotional level, but that night it was entirely physical and had the audience all stomping and dancing and singing along with the band.

Over the next hour and a half they played club hits, singles, new songs from their latest album, and everybody in the room was totally into it. "Wise Up Sucker" rocked hard with a million pop culture references, and they played "Def Con One" as an encore, resplendent in beats and scratches and Siouxsie and Stooges samples, and even though I've been vegetarian for most of my life I was more than happy to get Big Mac Fries to go at the time. 

It was a pretty amazing night, and I can't help but smile thinking of what an incredible experience it is to be able to share that experience with a group of strangers, that carefree abandon that comes from the shared enjoyment of live music. PWEI in 1995 wasn't the best show I ever saw, to be honest it was just one of dozens of shows I saw that year, one of hundreds or thousands of shows I've seen in my life, and I haven't really thought about it very much in the years since then, but as I reflect on it now in a time where live music seems so far away from all of us I'm struck not only by my memories of this particular show, but also by what an amazing experience concerts are and the magical way that an artist can connect so easily with an audience to build an energy and an excitement together, an incredible shared moment that can last through the night and in some cases through the years.

I miss that energy so badly. I miss those connections, I miss those moments. But I know that we'll get back to seeing live shows eventually, and I know that we'll find new energy, make new connections, and share new moments again in the future. 

I can hardly wait for it...