Thursday, March 25, 2021

March 25th 2016, Prince at the Sony Centre

I've been a fan of Prince for a long time. Pretty much since the first time I saw the video for Little Red Corvette during an episode of The New Music back in the eighties. Maybe you've already seen that video before, but indulge me for a moment and imagine seeing it for the very first time, and revel in that opening with the red lights pulsing in time with the opening synth build. Prince is visible in half light and then the camera pulls back to show him wearing a long metallic overcoat, a frilly shirt, and heels. And he looks fucking awesome.

It feels like an important moment in time, and watching it you can tell that he's right on the edge of superstardom. His band aren't The Revolution yet, but they're so close. Lisa Coleman is there, and so is Dez Dickerson wearing a bandanna and some kind of funky 80s tunic thing. I think Jill Jones and Matt Fink are in it too, but I may be confusing it with the 1999 video. All the elements are there, the swagger, the strut, the funk, everything that Prince would come to define in the years to follow. During an instrumental break he does this amazing side step spinning kick that leads into the splits and he keeps perfect time throughout the whole thing. It's a pretty amazing video, and of course it inspired me to check out some more of his stuff, and that soon led me to  "Purple Rain" which was the album that sealed the deal for me and made me a fan of Prince for life.

I bought a cassette copy of "Purple Rain" at the Zellers at Towne and Country Mall a couple of weeks after it was released, and I remember the first time I ever listened to it, just sitting there holding my Walkman with my eyes closed, soaking up every note and beat on the album. The spoken intro at the start of Let's Go Crazy sent shivers down my spine and the song itself blew my mind, an explosion of searing guitars and spiraling heights that never seemed to end, truly an epic piece of music. I immediately liked Take Me With U, resplendent in strings and drum fills and Appolonia's very politely whispered "Thank you" in response to being complimented. Brilliant stuff.

There was something majestic about The Beautiful Ones, a raw, heartfelt emotion that seemed so poignant to me, earning that song a place as one of my all time favorite Prince songs. Computer Blue followed, a swaggering slab of metallic funk guitar-based monstrousness that still amazes me to this day. And then there's Darling Nikki. What more can be said about Darling Nikki? I've often thought that if "Purple Rain" had been released as an EP and had ended with that track it would still be lauded as a masterpiece. I think the world still would have still embraced Prince and recognized him as a formidable talent and his stardom would have still been assured.

But Prince was never satisfied with doing anything half-heartedly, and so we have the second side of "Purple Rain", which in many ways is even more amazing than the first. It opens with When Doves Cry and I'm sure that I don't have to tell you what an amazing song When Doves Cry is. Have you heard it lately? I encourage you to do so right now, it's a fucking masterpiece. Legend has it that the band just came into the studio one day and it was already recorded, mixed and pretty much finished all in one night, Prince having recorded all of the instrumental parts and sang all the vocals by himself after the band had left the studio the night before. Think about that for a second. Prince wrote and recorded When Doves Cry in one night all by himself. If that's not a sign of musical genius I don't know what else is...

As a kid I thought that I Would Die 4 U was the ultimate love song. Up until that point I'd never heard such a bold statement, such an absolute declaration of love. I mean, Prince was willing to die for his Darling if they wanted him too, that was pretty intense. I was pretty impressed by that, although I often wondered if he was talking about Darling Nikki or a different Darling. At the time I was still kind of feeling my way through personal interaction, and stuff like that got a little bit confusing for me.

Anyway, that song blends seamlessly into Baby I'm a Star, which I'll admit at the time I thought was a little self aggrandizing, but looking back on it I'm okay with it now. I mean, I totally recognized that he was a star, but I thought it seemed kind of arrogant to flaunt that fact all over the place. I'm okay with it now, I mean, really he was a star, he deserves to toot his own horn, but at the time I was a little turned off by that kind of bravado.

And then the album ends with Purple Rain, and I'm hard pressed to think of a more epic and sweeping display of grandeur. Purple Rain is quite simply one of the greatest songs ever recorded, and any failure to recognize and acknowledge that fact is pretty much grounds for dismissal in my mind. Building from a simple guitar and vocals into a fully orchestrated wall of sound, Purple Rain is an astonishing and mind-blowing work that transcends the genre of popular music and becomes something spiritual, and needless to say it's the perfect finale to what is arguably Prince's greatest album.

Now you'd think that after releasing one of the greatest Pop albums ever made, you would want to explore the same formula a little more in your follow up, maybe build on what you'd already done and see if you could top your previous efforts. But Prince was never one to follow trends and when "Around the World in a Day" was released in the spring of 1985, it was revealed as a huge departure from the sheer ecstasy that was "Purple Rain". It was a little less funky, a little more psychedelic, and the record buying public didn't really quite get it at first, even though the first single Raspberry Beret was monstrously catchy. I liked the album a lot when it was released, and as the years have gone by it's become one of my favorites in the Prince catalog. Of course saying that "Around the World in a Day" is one of my favorite Prince albums needs to be tempered by the fact that I have so many favorite Prince albums. I mean, who can resist the funk of "1999" or the brilliance of "Sign o' The Times"? Saying that you don't like "Lovesexy" or "Batman" is kind of like saying you don't like music. And don't get me started on the quality of the later stuff, because "Musicology" and "The Gold Experience" and his later work with 3rdEyeGirl are all just as credible and interesting as his earlier stuff. Ultimately the idea of having "a favorite Prince album" becomes entirely dependent on which one I've listened to most recently. There is a legitimate case that each one of them deserves to be recognized as my favorite Prince album.

But as amazing as his albums are, it was in his live performances where he really shone. Prince is one of the most amazing performers I've ever seen, dynamic, charismatic, an incredibly accomplished musician, an artist in the truest sense of the word. I was lucky enough to see him play a few times in a few different spaces, and every time was a spectacular and amazing experience. The first time I saw him was in 1993 at Maple Leaf Gardens when he was touring for the symbol album. He played the whole thing straight through followed by a selection of hits and fan favorites. There were great versions of She's Always in My Hair and The Max that night, and he encored with Partyman and 1999. It was pretty awesome.

In 1997 I saw him at the Warehouse, a spontaneous club gig that was announced the morning of the show. One of the guys I worked with lined up for tickets and got one for me because he knew I was a big fan. There's an electric energy in seeing big artists in small venues, and that night at the Warehouse the energy was exponentially more pronounced. Prince stayed away from the hits for the most part aside from Purple Rain and Raspberry Beret, and the rest of the show was a selection of gems that seemed chosen just for fans. He did a James Brown cover that night, a spirited run through 17 Days, a deep blues-y How Come U Don't Call Me Anymore, and a really sweet version of Take Me With U among other things. Seeing Prince in a small venue was a magical experience, something transcendent.

I went to see him again at the ACC in 2004. During the set he ordered pizza for everybody on the floor and he played a blistering cover of Whole Lotta Love by Led Zeppelin. Let's go Crazy, Purple Rain, a ton of other hits and tracks from "Musicology" were all part of the setlist that night. He did an awesome version of Shhh from "The Gold Experience", and the band vamped on a couple of Sheila E. tracks as well. It was another great night, another awesome concert from a superstar showman.

I got another chance to see him in 2015 when he came to the Sony Centre with 3rdEyeGirl. It was another last minute show with tickets going on sale the day before the gig, and it was a bit of a scramble but I was able to get a pair on the floor about fifteen rows back from the stage for Carolyn and I. While we were waiting for the show to begin we started talking to this guy sitting next to us who had brought his mother to see Prince 'cause she'd been a fan for as long as she could remember, but she'd never had a chance to see him before. During the show she brought out a pair of mini binoculars so she could see the stage better, and she passed them to Carolyn and I a few times so we could get a better view too. I'm glad she got to see him that night, it was a pretty blistering show. 3rdEyeGirl were an amazing back up band that evening, and each one of them had a chance to shine with solos interspersed throughout the set. There was a certain magic to their performance with Prince, a give and take between the four of them that spoke of great things to come.

The main set was mostly newer work from "Art Official Age" and "Lotusflow3r", even a track from "Emancipation", but it didn't matter that the songs weren't as familiar to anybody, they were still tight and funky and altogether awesome. Carolyn danced through the whole set, even though she didn't know any of the songs he played up until a slowed down take on Let's Go Crazy. For the first encore he played an Elvis Presley cover (our new friend with the binoculars was a big Elvis fan too she told us, so it was pretty much a dream come true for her...), followed by a heart stopping solo version of The Beautiful Ones (YESSSSSS...) and a really sweet Something in the Water (Does Not Compute). For the second encore he did a half hour medley of hits from across his career, and then he closed the night out with Nothing Compares 2 U. Bliss I tell you, sheer musical bliss...

But of all the times that I saw Prince perform, it was his last show in Toronto that will always stay perfectly etched in my memory. The Piano and a Microphone Tour was a free form set of shows that Prince had started doing in 2016, spontaneously announcing dates in a city a day or two before playing. There was no notice, no prior warning, rather he'd just show up in town to play a couple of gigs and then vanish into the night heading to another lucky city to do it all over again.

True to it's name, the idea was that the show was a solo performance by Prince, no band, just him and a piano playing whatever he felt like at the time, and given the depth of his catalog this promised to be a pretty amazing concert. I had been following setlists from earlier dates on the tour, and it looked as though pretty much anything was up for grabs during these gigs with deep album cuts, obscure singles, and surprising covers all making their way into the show. At a night in Melbourne earlier in the tour he ran through a collection of songs that included Little Red Corvette, The Max, and a cover of the Batman theme from the sixties TV show. That possibility and spontaneity were especially appealing to me so when he announced a pair of shows in Toronto at the Sony Centre I jumped at the opportunity to get a pair of tickets for Carolyn and I to see the second set.

We got to the Sony Centre about 930pm and they hadn't opened the doors yet, so the lineup snaked all the way around the venue until they let us in about 10pm. Our tickets were up in the rear balcony, but one of the joys of the Sony Centre is that it has great sound and great sightlines wherever you are in the venue so we weren't worried about being able to see anything. And of course, given the suggested stripped down nature of the show we weren't expecting a big theatrical presentation or anything, just Prince and a piano and a microphone as advertised. And that's exactly what we got. 

And it was spectacular...

He walked out from a door in the back of the stage to thunderous applause, just Prince wearing what looked like a pair of velvet pyjamas, and he sat down at the piano and started to play Joy in Repetition. I wouldn't say that's an obscure track but it's certainly not one of his more popular ones, more of a deep cut for the fans, and it was absolutely amazing. The story of a chance meeting in a bar unfolded with grace and style, just Prince singing and playing piano, and it was among the most riveting and captivating things I've ever seen, hypnotic, beguiling, magical.

What followed was a steady stream of music with hardly any breaks or pauses, a medley that ran on for most of the evening. Prince jammed on a tune for a verse and a chorus here, stretched out another song there, improvised and built something up elsewhere. It was an incredible display of talent, technical prowess, and the sheer glee of making music. I wish you all could have been there, it was really special.

There were some obvious choices like Little Red Corvette and Controversy, stripped down instrumentation bringing the songs to their core, demonstrating the strength in his songwriting and celebrating the catalog of work that Prince had made over the years. He touched on most of the albums that you wanted to hear, some cuts from "Sign o' the Times", a pair of singles from "Diamonds and Pearls", a little love to his early albums. As a longtime fan I can say that it was a perfect mixture of tracks, I mean, an artist like Prince, you're never going to hear everything you want to, but this setlist touched on enough of the things that you were hoping for and more so you couldn't help but be impressed.

He played songs by Bob Marley and Joni Mitchell, and at one point he did a cover of Linus and Lucy by Vince Guaraldi, yeah, that song from the Peanuts cartoons, Doo do do Dododo Doo Doo, and it really wasn't something you ever expected or imagined you'd see, but when it happened, well, of course it did. That's the kind of show that it was.

As one of his encores he played an iconic version of The Beautiful Ones, and the power in his voice, the range of emotions that he displayed during that song, there are no words to describe it. Even in a stripped down format that track stayed true to it's nature, it remained amazing and reiterated itself in my mind as one of my favorites, simply stunning.

His last encore was Purple Rain, and in hindsight that was the perfect choice, the song that changed his life and propelled his career into a whole new level. While there might be other Prince songs that I think of as my favorites, I can't deny that Purple Rain stands as his very best and most personal work, the song that captures the purest essence of the artist that is Prince. And on a night that featured such an extensive overview of his catalog, such a celebration of the music that he had made over the years, it seemed like the right ending for the show. 

A couple of weeks later I was at work when a colleague of mine called and asked if I had heard about Prince, and that's when I found out that he had died. And in a year that had already been filled with loss and death around me, his passing struck hard. Over the last few decades Prince had been a huge part of my musical world, an influence, an inspiration, an icon, and his music had been a consistent joy in my life. It didn't seem real, and the idea of living in a world without him seemed almost impossible to imagine. Even now I can't help but feel like the world is a worse place for his absence, a little bit less musical and a little bit less magical for his absence.

But as sad as his passing was and still is, when I listen to his music I'm reminded how very lucky I was to have experienced as much of it as I did, and I'll always be grateful for the contributions that Prince made to the soundtrack of my life. I'm grateful for all the songs, for all the shows, for all the little things and all of the big things that he did over the course of his career that made him so awesome. There's no doubt in my mind that we'll never see another artist quite like him, and I'm truly grateful to have had the chance to see him when I did.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

March 24th 1992, U2 at Maple Leaf Gardens

There's no question that "Achtung Baby" was a high point in U2's career. It was one of those albums where the band's songwriting, creativity, and popularity all came together in perfect unison, a moment in time where everything just seemed to click. Songs like Mysterious Ways, One, Even Better Than The Real Thing, they were all great singles, great moments that captured and help define a particular nineties sound, and while U2 may have existed outside of the dominant styles and trends of the time, they were still very much a part of what was happening musically.

But as great as the album was, U2's reputation has always been built around their live shows and it was the tour that followed the release of "Achtung Baby" that really cemented their reputation as one of the biggest bands in the world. U2 had already broken through to the Stadium market a few years before with the "The Joshua Tree" and they were well aware of how to make their sound work in a big space, how to create a moment of intimacy with an audience in a venue that wasn't normally conducive to that kind of feeling. But they had visions of using their live show in different ways for the new album, making it into more of a spectacle, more of an event, and those visions were where Zoo TV came in.

Zoo TV was meant to be over the top, a concert experience turned up to eleven where the visuals would be just as important and just as significant as the music itself. And to their credit, U2 did a pretty great job of bringing that all together, crafting a legendary tour that played around the world for a couple of years to hundreds of thousands of people. Zoo TV is kind of a landmark in modern concert history, and deservedly so, as it was a perfect juxtaposition of the band's talent and vision, perfectly aligned with the zeitgeist of early nineties culture.

But before becoming the huge stadium tour that it's remembered as, Zoo TV started with a series of smaller shows in arena sized venues, a lot smaller than the spaces that U2 had been playing for the last few years prior. Their last visit to Toronto had been in 1987 where they played to about 64,000 people at CNE Stadium, so playing at Maple Leaf Gardens with less than a quarter of the number of seats made this show a pretty hot ticket. That scarcity of seats, plus the ubiquitous nature of the album at the time made it one of the most anticipated gigs of the year, setting a high bar for the band to live up to. It should come as no surprise that they not only lived up to it but far surpassed all expectations.

My friend Leah and I went to the show sitting up high in the Green section, not quite at the back of the venue but pretty darn close. We were both fine with that though, reasoning that a little height and  distance would add to our appreciation of the spectacle that the band promised. I mean, if they were going to present an incredible aural and visual experience then we didn't want to miss out on any of it, and we figured that we had pretty much the perfect seats to appreciate everything. 

Pixies opened the show and they were awesome. I had already seen them play a couple of times before, and they were always an amazing live act, big and loud and screaming and just excellent all around. Pixies were pretty much at the height of their powers in 1992 having just released "Trompe Le Monde", and they drew heavily from that album, along with a couple of songs from "Doolittle" and a few more, making for a great set that really captured the essence and tremendous strengths of the band (though admittedly they didn't play Monkey Gone to Heaven which has always been my favorite of theirs...). A few months after this show they broke up, and this would be their last Toronto appearance until they reformed in the mid-2000s so I'm glad that we got to see them one more time before then. 

There was a short break after Pixies' set, and then the lights went down and a number of giant video screens around the stage turned on to a display of static, a granular grey emptiness, and then U2 were on stage and started playing Zoo Station which also opened the album. And after a moment, Bono appeared and started to slide across the front of the screens, a black leather shadow in contrast to the video, an aberration, a fly in the ointment, a glitch in the matrix. It was a simple effect, but it was stunning, and as the song progressed and he moved from end to end of the stage it was really quite an amazing visual, a prolonged entrance that really built up the moment.

Following that, the lights went up a bit more, and the static was replaced with a bunch of slogans and phrases that flashed rapidly across the video screens while the band played the first single from the album, The Fly. I've always enjoyed that track, and that night it was presented in a dynamic and urgent way that really added to the song's strengths, a kind of future-shock anthem that ushered in a new era for the band's sound. I know that it's pretty well agreed upon that "Achtung Baby" marked a stylistic shift for U2, but even more so I think that one song was the start of that change, moving them from one sphere to another. 

Over the next few songs they played a set of tracks taken from the new album, all received with rapturous applause and excitement. "Achtung Baby" had only been released a few weeks prior to the show and the audience hadn't quite had the opportunity to familiarize themselves with it yet, but U2 was still able to keep everybody excited, engaged, and totally into it. Tracks like Mysterious Ways and One may not have been nearly as well known as they would become, but that night they seemed just as vital, just as powerful as they are now having reached a classic status among the band's hits.

About halfway through the show and after having played almost all of the "Achtung Baby" album, the band left the main stage to play a couple of older songs from a smaller stage in the middle of the arena, getting closer to the audience and playing an intimate mini-set surrounded by fans. And while that kind of thing had been done before, and has been done since many times by many artists, as a gesture it had a certain significance, a moment where the band stripped all the pretense of their production and reached out to the audience in a direct and literal way. I have no idea if that was the actual intention or not, maybe they just thought it would look cool to step out from behind all the videos and lights and stuff, but as a member of the audience it was the crest of a wave for that show, another moment like the opening where something simple took on great significance and importance. 

The rest of the set played out with a few songs from "The Joshua Tree" and "The Unforgettable Fire", nothing earlier than that so no Sunday Bloody Sunday, New Years Day, or I Will Follow, but despite the absence of those songs it remained a thoroughly amazing show, and a testimony to the power of the band's new material. They closed the set proper with I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, and after a couple of minutes they came back to play Desire and With or Without You, two solid choices for an encore and an excellent end to the evening. 

Over the months to follow U2 would expand and build upon the ideas behind this tour, eventually returning to the stadiums that they had been playing previously and making Zoo TV into even more of a visual extravaganza. They came back for a pair of shows in the summer at CNE Stadium, and while they were still really impressive concerts, I feel like I enjoyed the performance at the Gardens more as there was still a feeling of freshness and spontaneity to it, a feeling that they were doing something new and different, something exciting. 

I've seen U2 a few times after that and they've always put on a great show, but it very much feels like every show they've done since follows a blueprint that was laid down on Zoo TV. I'm grateful to have had the opportunity to see that blueprint being drafted, grateful to have had the opportunity to see the band finding a space and a sound that would define them in the years to come...

Saturday, March 20, 2021

March 20th 1990, The Creatures at The Diamond



You never know what you'll take away from the concert experience. Every night is unique and special in its own way, and over the years I've amassed a collection of memories and moments from each of the shows I've been to that continue to resonate with me. Some of those memories have become stories that I've told many times over, and some of them I don't know if I've ever shared with anybody else, but they're in no way less precious to me. The Creatures at the Diamond is one of those shows that never really seems to come up in conversation when I talk about shows with my friends, but it was a really great gig and a good reminder for me that you never know what will make the biggest impact when you go to a show.

For many years now, Siouxsie and the Banshees have been one of my favorite bands, a kaleidoscopic dark carnival of Punk energy, immensely talented and immensely powerful, artistic, relevant, resonant. They stand as an ideal in my mind, a near-perfect balance of skill and passion, and I have a tremendous appreciation for their work. Following the release of their album "Peepshow" and the ensuing tour in 1988, the band took a hiatus for a little while to pursue other interests, and during that time lead singer Siouxsie Sioux and drummer Budgie took the opportunity to return to their side project as The Creatures. Based almost exclusively around vocals and percussion, The Creatures embraced a musical experimentalism that captured the Banshees' ideology and aesthetic, but still remained uniquely their own in terms of sound and approach.

The resulting album "Boomerang" builds on the vocal and drum foundation of earlier work and adds horns and other woodwinds to fill everything out. It has a distinct sound to it, something identifiable that you can connect with but it remains simultaneously alien and abstract. It's still recognizably Siouxsie singing, but the setting, the sound, it's something distinct and different from what other albums with the Banshees would suggest, and that distinction adds greatly to its appeal.

Following the release of "Boomerang", the pair announced a tour with a stop in Toronto at The Diamond, which was a club in the same space where the Phoenix stands now. The size of the room was the same, but the stage was set at centre of the space along the South wall, rather than the West end of the room where it is now. That placement gave The Diamond a greater feeling of closeness to the stage wherever you were in the space, and that sense of closeness was one of the reasons that The Diamond had become a particularly popular venue in the Toronto music scene at the time.

I got a pair of tickets for Mara and I to see the show when it was announced, I wasn't about to miss the chance to see The Creatures, though admittedly Mara wasn't quite as interested as I was. Mara's tastes ran more towards classic rock, and a drum and vocal set by a pair of Punk icons who were steadfast in their resolve not to play any of the songs they were well known for was a bit of a hard sell. But to her credit, Mara was willing to try it out because it was something that I was interested and excited about. Mara was cool that way, and I will always be grateful to her for that kind of support. I hope that in the time that we were together I was able to show her the same kind of support in terms of her own interests.

Before the show, we met up with my friend Heather at Kelsey's on Bloor so we could all go to the show together. She had moved into residence just south of Bloor a few months earlier, and the show was a good opportunity for us to catch up. Heather and I were both big fans of the Banshees, and in hindsight I can appreciate that Mara may not have been as interested to hear us ramble on about various B-sides and favorite album tracks, but despite that Mara did seem to enjoy seeing our enthusiasm and excitement leading up to the show. While we were all talking, Mara and I split a hot brownie sundae, because of course there's nothing like loading up on sugar when you're excited about a show, right? And while a hot brownie sundae may not have been the healthiest choice for dinner, it was definitely a tasty choice as anybody who remembers Kelsey's on Bloor can attest to. 

We walked from Kelsey's to the Diamond and got there just before the show was supposed to start so there wasn't very long for us to wait. Within a few minutes of our arrival The Creatures hit the stage, with Siouxsie wearing a black and white striped cat suit and black leather vest, and Budgie all flailing limbs and a huge mop of blond hair. Over the next hour and a half the Diamond played host to a great set of music by two immensely talented artists who were challenging themselves and their audience with new sounds and ideas, and it was all pretty amazing. Siouxsie has always been an incredibly dynamic and charismatic performer, a captivating singer who keeps the audience spellbound throughout her performance. That night she was in particularly fine form and her voice was especially strong and powerful, hitting notes and carrying the show like the consummate artist that she is. Budgie was a force of nature, keeping the beat and shaping sounds on his drum kit, triggering MIDI signals and samples that added to everything that he was doing percussively.

They played Standing There early in the set, as the lead single from the "Boomerang" album it had been getting a lot of rotation on radio and MuchMusic at the time, and playing it near the start of the show was a good hook to draw the audience deeper into what the band were doing. From that point on the pair were on fire, bringing the "Boomerang" album and earlier music from the Creatures' catalog to life with a passion, a vision, and a ferocity that truly impressed. The frantic beats of But Not Them, the misleadingly playful sounds of Fury Eyes, it was all pretty incredible. I remember a few people shouting out for Banshees songs, and while I would have totally enjoyed hearing something, I'm glad that they stuck to their guns and only played their own material that night. It would have been easy for them to pull out any one of a dozen singles, but by restricting themselves to the more obscure Creatures material they forced the audience to immerse themselves in a different sound and judge the performance on it's own merits. I admire that and I respect it as an artistic decision. It takes courage to walk away from a beloved catalog of songs that fans are vying for, and still deliver an amazing show. 

The highlight of the night for me was towards the end of the show, a huge and haunted take on Pluto Drive, an invitation to the audience to leave Earth for distant and colder shores. Blue lighting flashed and pulsed in time with the beat, Budgie building a wall of percussive sound, Siouxsie at the centre of the stage with her arms outstretched to either side, her voice rising and falling in waves as the song progressed. It was a pretty amazing moment and I'm grateful to have been there to see it. Definitely a high point out of all the times I've seen her perform.

After the set was done Heather met up with some other friends and said good night to us, so Mara and I took the subway back to her place, and pretty much all the way home I was a raving fan boy about the show, going on about this drum fill or that song or just the way that the show made me feel. Admittedly,  I was probably pretty over the top in terms of my excitement, but Mara still seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm and listened while I rambled on about the Creatures. And when I asked her about what her favorite part of the night was, thinking she'd mention a favorite song or a particularly cool moment, she smiled even wider and told me that she liked sharing the hot brownie sundae with me at Kelsey's before the concert. 

I guess different parts of an evening mean different things to different people, and maybe that show didn't mean as much to Mara as it did to me, but I'm glad that she enjoyed dinner. I would hope that she liked the show too, but if a hot brownie sundae was her favorite part of the night then that's totally okay. Mara got to enjoy a really great hot brownie sundae and I was excited enough about the show for both of us that night...

Tuesday, March 9, 2021

March 9th 1992, My Bloody Valentine at the Opera House


Some shows gain a legendary status in people's minds. It might be a particular night in the history of a band, or it might be the result of a surprise guest. Maybe it was the night they dropped an anvil through the stage, or one of any number of other reasons.

My Bloody Valentine at the Opera House on March 9th 1992 has gained a certain legendary regard in Toronto concert history because it was loud. Really really really loud. The last twenty minutes of the set were taken up with an extended feedback drenched Wall of Sound paired with a bank of strobe lights that were left on in a solid burst facing the audience. People make note of the feedback when they talk about this show, but few of them reference the lights which were just as powerful, just as physical in the way they shone on the audience. I've mentioned Theatre of Confrontation on this blog before, and I would suggest that My Bloody Valentine took that idea and turned it up to eleven. Or twenty-five. This was Theatre of Devastation...

Is there anything more to say about the show? Sure, there were other songs and it was all pretty great, a band reaching an exceptional high point in the Shoegaze genre, but everything else about the show pales in comparison to that extended feedback and lights. It was overwhelming and enveloping and completely immersive, and once you gave yourself over to it there was something almost peaceful and soothing to it. 


I loved it, but when they came back to the Spectrum again a few months later I made sure to wear ear plugs and some sunglasses...

Sunday, March 7, 2021

March 7th 1990, David Bowie at the Skydome

I've been a David Bowie fan since I was ten years old and I saw the video for Ashes to Ashes for the first time. I don't know the exact date that it happened, but it was in the early evening and I was looking for something to watch on TV. Somewhere around this time I had just discovered that if I could get away from the dinner table before anybody else I could commandeer the TV remote and decide what to watch by myself. That was an exciting development for me and even though it sometimes meant missing dessert, it gave me an opportunity to watch whatever TV shows piqued my own fancy, instead of what the rest of the family were interested in watching.

I imagine that a lot of children have their tastes and interests molded and shaped by whatever their parents expose them to, and they share those interests with their parents for however long until they have the opportunity to develop tastes of their own. Presumably a certain number of children are probably content to maintain those same interests into their adult lives and that probably explains the enduring popularity of The Beatles and AC/DC, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I also imagine that some children independently discover something wonderful and new and Awesome that's totally different from anything else they've seen or experienced with their families and that causes those children to head off in a new direction all their own. 

That's what happened to me when I saw the video for Ashes to Ashes.

It was one of those days when I had control of the remote and the rest of the family were eating maple walnut ice cream, and I stumbled across this amazingly surreal landscape of flowing colours and fluid shapes paired with an alien soundtrack unlike anything I'd ever heard. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever experienced up to that point in my life, and I distinctly remember a deliciously cold rush down my spine, a completely new feeling that I really Really REALLY liked. I still get that same cold rush whenever I see the video, even after all these years.

And in that moment my life was changed. Completely and irrevocably changed. I was introduced to a whole new ideal of beauty, the Pierrot costume, the space suit, Bowie tethered to the frame of a decaying spaceship, the bulldozer, all of these images and so much more. I was seeing a whole new world for the very first time, images that resonated with me on a particular frequency that I'd never been exposed to prior, a frequency that I would be attuned to for the rest of my life. For those three and a half minutes the world was filled with beauty and possibilities that I'd never considered and I can honestly say that I would never look at anything the same way again.

For years I've struggled to try and explain the significance that video had in my development, but I just don't have the vocabulary to put it in words beyond what I've already said.  This was a profound moment, a mind-blowing revelation that completely redefined the way I thought, the way that I looked at the world. And yes, I realize that at ten I hadn't really had much experience with either of those things, but damn it, even at ten I knew that I had gone through a change that was an important first step in becoming my own person. No, I wasn't inspired to become a strung out astronaut or a beach combing clown, but it was the first time in my life that I had ever thought of myself defined by my own terms.  I wasn't really sure what those terms were, but I knew that Ashes to Ashes was somehow connected in an abstract way to a new ideal of "me" that was starting to develop in my head. I resolved to find out more about David Bowie, reasoning that if he could do something as incredible as that video then maybe he might have done other incredible things, and in learning about those I also had a vague notion that I might find out a little bit more about this new concept of "me" that was starting to take shape.

It took a while to amass a collection of his work, this was before the internet and Spotify so I had to track down vinyl and rare CDs at physical stores, but slowly I was able to pick up an assortment of releases from the Bowie catalog, and as I discovered more of his music I started seeing more and more of myself in what I was hearing. It seemed as though every song offered a new piece of advice or new context for the world around me or a valuable new secret that I could learn from as I was stumbling through my own teenage wasteland. The more I listened to it, the more I started to see this music as a blueprint for the life I wanted to live, a road map for a future where I could grow up and become the adult that I wanted to be. Being young and bisexual in the suburbs of Toronto in the eighties had it's own unique set of challenges, and Bowie's music helped me find comfort with who I was, helped me gain the confidence to deal with all the scary monsters and changes that I was going through at the time. Among many other things, Bowie's music taught me that it was okay to be bi, and even more importantly it was okay to be me.

In addition to this liberating new sense of self-awareness, Bowie opened strange doors that would lead me to new musical discoveries, new art, new literature, new movies and more, pathways that would further lead me towards a better understanding of myself as a person.  His music inspired discovery and exploration and sex and adventure and a million other things. Bowie was the catalyst for so many of the things I discovered growing up, and I'll always be grateful for those introductions. Through his music I found myself exposed to a multi-faceted carnival of wonders with myriad layers of discovery that shifted and grew with me as I got older.  His music spoke to my nascent interest in science fiction, songs of tragic and beautiful worlds filled with heroes and villains and everyday people thrust into new situations they had to deal with. There was a feeling of strength in his songs, a sense of fragility too, but mostly a shared belief that we were all part of something bigger, we could all be something better if we tried a little harder and hoped for the best. Bowie's music taught me to look for the beauty amidst the dirt and grime, taught me that even amid the existential torment of impending doom there was always something worth living for, something that made everything alright. 

My appreciation for Bowie continued through the years, I kept listening to his records, I saw him play at the CNE on the Glass Spider tour in 1987, I kept poring over used record bins looking for elusive seven inches and bootlegs from past shows. And then in 1990 Bowie announced the Sound+Vision world tour. Timed to promote the release of his back catalog in CD format on the Rykodisc label, Sound+Vision was marketed as a greatest hits tour that would simultaneously celebrate his entire career, and serve as an opportunity to retire a decent chunk of his back catalog from live performances. Bowie explained at the time that he didn't want to be playing Space Oddity and Fame and all the hits for the rest of his life, so he was going to use this retrospective tour as a last chance to play them live, and then move forward with new material in the 90s. The way he was saying it, if you wanted to see Ashes to Ashes or Fashion or Young Americans or any of the other hits, this was going to be your last chance.

Needless to say, I was all in for this idea.

It should be noted that around the same time that the show was announced I had just started dating Mara, and I was head over heels in love with her. She was smart and engaging, she was fun to be around, and she had the most beautiful smile of anybody that I had ever met up to that point. My heart filled with light every time that I looked at her, and being able to spend time with her was the greatest joy I had. Admittedly, Mara didn't like David Bowie quite as much as I did, but she was still a big fan and we were both pretty excited about the possibility of seeing him live. And normally this would be the part in the story where I told you about lining up for a week behind a trash compactor to get tickets, or about selling a kidney to raise some extra cash so I could buy us a pair of tickets from a scalper, or something equally as interesting and compelling that would make for good blog reading. But unfortunately this part of the story isn't as interesting as that. It was really just a simple case of having a friend with connections who knew that I really liked David Bowie and he very kindly and very thoughtfully helped me get tickets for the show. 

Tickets in the first row as a matter of fact

When he handed them to me he apologized saying that they weren't dead centre, they were actually on the left side of the stage, but I knew that Bowie moved around a lot at his shows, so certainly there would be times where he'd make it over to where we were sitting. My friend also told me that he had gotten a third ticket and his Mom was going to be sitting with us. And that was totally fine because his Mom was pretty cool and she was almost as big of a David Bowie fan as I was, so, y'know, Mara and I would be in good company.

Leading up to the show I didn't tell Mara where we were sitting, 'cause I thought it would be more fun to surprise her when we got there. And on the night of the show when we arrived at the Skydome we kept walking deeper and deeper into the depths of the venue, through the stands, past the last section of floors, past the middle section, and past all of the first section until we were pressed up against the barrier just three feet away from the stage, along with my friend's Mom who had gotten there ahead of us, already bursting with excitement about being so close. And as we sat down and waited for the show to begin, Mara smiled wider and brighter at me than I'd ever seen her smile before, the kind of smile that stays with you forever.

When the lights went down the Skydome erupted with cheers, and after a couple of minutes of build up, the darkness was broken by a single spotlight that shone on David Bowie, strumming the opening bars of Space Oddity at a microphone three feet in front of us. All of a sudden, everybody else in the audience vanished, and me and Mara and my friend's Mom were three feet away from David Bowie. And while he would walk around the entire stage over the course of the show, he would spend a better part of the next two hours singing directly to me and Mara and my friend's Mom. 

I'd like to take this opportunity to extend a heartfelt thank you to my friend with connections. You truly outdid yourself that evening, and there will always be a special place in my heart for you for making this moment happen for the three of us.

Bowie was dressed in a pair of black slacks and a white shirt with a black vest that evening. I was pleased to see that he was no longer wearing the mullet that he had sported on the 1987 tour, and his hair was styled in a very fashionable short but sassy cut that was both sophisticated and flattering. I should point out that the white shirt he was wearing was kind of a frilly pirate shirt, but seriously, I'm not going to hold that against him, he still looked fucking awesome. The stage was stark, with microphones for Bowie and guitarist Adrian Belew at the left and right side of the stage respectively, and a drum kit in the back. Erdal Kizilcay played bass on that tour and I have a vague recollection of him being on the right side of the stage. Behind the band there was a large video screen that stretched from the floor to the lighting rig, and many of the songs had really cool black and white videos that played along with the band. 

A really sweet run through Changes followed after Space Oddity, and then Rebel Rebel was up next. I've always loved that song and I was really impressed that he played the single version of the track with the "La la la lala la la la la laaaaa" intro rather than the album cut with the "Doo doo de doo doo de doodoo" opening, I've always preferred the single version. And as the song progressed he spent most of it looking at the three of us, Mara and my friend's Mom and I, staring at me directly and even pointing at me when he sang the line "Hot Tramp! I love you so...". When we talked about it afterwards Mara was pretty sure that he was pointing at her, but I was certain Bowie recognized me as the bigger fan. It just seemed more reasonable that he thought I was a Hot Tramp and that he would love me. Mara and I never settled that debate, but to this day I remain sure that he was talking to me.

So yeah, Bowie called me a Hot Tramp and told me that he loved me, so I've got that going for me.

And that's pretty good...

During Be My Wife, Bowie came up to the very edge of the stage and started reaching out to the crowd. And part of me really wanted to shake his hand, but I just couldn't do it, I just couldn't reach out. As much as I enjoyed the connection we had with him during the show, as much as Bowie's music meant to me, I just couldn't reconcile the idea of him being a flesh and blood human being. I wanted to keep some distance between the idea of David Bowie as the artist that I had constructed in my head and the person that he really was, and while seeing him perform live was in keeping with the Bowie construct I had imagined in my mind, shaking his hand just didn't work for me. I guess a lot of people would have felt differently if they had the same opportunity, certainly a number of people had no qualms reaching out and shaking his hand that evening, but even after all these years I still think I did the right thing. Or at least I did the right thing for me.

As expected, he played Ashes to Ashes shortly after that, and seeing that song performed live was everything I had hoped for and more. The live version maintained the haunting quality of the original but added a certain raw element that made it more visceral and present. It was an inspired performance, and if the show ended then I would have been ecstatic.

But it had only just begin.

Fashion was amazing, Blue Jean and Let's Dance were punched up and made all the more cool. Stay was ferocious and huge, and Bowie's voice was particularly stunning on that one.

After that there was a short intermission and I ran to the bathroom. I bumped into some friends on the way back and they agreed it was one of the best shows they'd ever seen. We spent some time guessing about songs for the second set, and I was pretty sure that we'd hear Station to Station and Scary Monsters among other things. We hadn't heard Fame or Young Americans yet either, those were probably going to be there too, and after a couple more minutes of speculation I headed back to my seat to find Mara and my friend's Mom comparing notes on the high point of the first set. My friend's Mom suggested that Bowie actually pointed at her during Rebel Rebel, and out of politeness I was willing to entertain the possibility to make her feel better, but in my heart I knew that Bowie was singing to me.

And then the lights dimmed again and the second set began with the sound of steam and a swirling guitar, and a smile grew on my face as Station to Station slowly began to take shape. Definitely a high point of the show, Station to Station was epic and enormous, and Bowie and the band ran through the song's movements like the consummate artists that they were. It was incredible, absolutely incredible.

Ziggy Stardust and Suffragette City followed, garage-y versions of both of them that Iggy and the Stooges would have been proud of. There was a fantastic version of Panic in Detroit, that one has always been a particular favorite, and of course Young Americans and Fame rounded out the set as expected. The second set ended after that and then we headed into the encores, which started with a hauntingly beautiful run through Heroes. It truly is one of Bowie's best songs, isn't it? Jean Genie and Modern Love were played as encores as well, along with a track that Bowie sang on Adrian Belew's new album at the time called Pretty Pink Rose. The night closed out with Rock 'n' Roll Suicide, with Bowie reminding us all that we were wonderful. Such a fantastic ending to a fantastic concert. There was no sign of Scary Monsters, but after everything else we'd seen that night I was totally fine with that.  

My friend's Mom and Mara and I all left the show with ringing ears and perma-grin faces, and a feeling of shared experience that I've never been able to replicate in quite the same way again. I can't speak for my companions, but that show set the standard by which I've compared every other gig I've been to after that. And while I've been to hundreds of concerts since then, none of them have ever been able to capture that perfect combination of elements that made the Sound+Vision show such a perfect night. You know how certain moments stay in your memory forever? David Bowie at the Skydome with Mara is a night that I'll always remember.

I mean, really, David Bowie called me a Hot Tramp and told me that he loved me.

How could I ever forget something like that?

March 7th 2020, Bad Breed at the Linsmore Tavern

The last show I saw before lockdown was Bad Breed at the Linsmore Tavern on March 7th 2020. It was a Saturday night in the east end, a little chilly but not so cold that it was uncomfortable, and I wanted to head out to see my friend Mike's band play and show my support for what they do. I've known Mike for years, we were introduced by our mutual friend Brooke in the summer of 1990, and we worked together for a while in the early two thousands. Mike is one of those people I've known for a long, long, long time and I'm always happy to see him.

Over the years I've seen Mike play in tons of bands, sometimes as a drummer, sometimes as the front person, sometimes sharing the spotlight with others. He's a charismatic performer, easily taking command of the audience when he's on stage, a strong and engaging presence that always impresses. I've enjoyed all of the bands that he's been in, but the latest act he's been playing with, Bad Breed, is one that I'm really impressed with, an incredible group of artists who've come together to make a unique and soulful sound that blends styles and genres effortlessly into something rich and exciting all of their own. They're pretty dynamic, pretty amazing, and they're well worth checking out on Bandcamp or Spotify if you're looking for something new.

I went to the show by myself that night and when I got there I found a stool by the front door that had a slightly raised view of the stage. I sat there reading my Kobo for a bit before the show started, and when he saw me Mike came by to say hi for a couple of minutes, asking me how I was doing, what I was reading ("The Stand" by Stephen King if you're interested), that kind of easy and casual conversation that comes with people who have known each other for so long. But as comfortable as it was to chat with Mike, there was a tension all around the room in pretty much everybody else. It was a pretty crowded space so I was able to hear a lot of people talking, and there was literally only one topic on everybody's lips, COVID-19 and what was happening around the world. Everybody had a story to tell or something to say, "I hear that cases are climbing in Montreal...", "I just got back from New Orleans, no cases there but at the airport they were asking me a ton of questions...", "What do you think is going to happen?", "We went to Costco and there was hardly any toilet paper..."

Despite that tension in the air we were all there for a show and when the band started their set nobody was interested in talking about pandemics any more. Bad Breed are an exceptionally tight unit, a solid bunch of musicians that all bring their best to their performance, and that night they were on fire, fully engaging the audience with a strong hybrid of R'n'B, Soul, Punk, and Garage with great harmonies, all blended together and laid out for us to enjoy, a really fulsome sound that worked great in a live space. Their set featured a lot of songs from their latest "Ferocious Love", including excellent takes on "Animal Impact" and "War with Myself", my two favorite tracks from the album, each of them showcasing the immense skills and talents of the band. They have an excellent chemistry between them, a clear sense of shared joy not only in terms of the music they're making but in being able to make that music together, and that joy comes across really well when they play.

It was a great set, and in many ways it was a great example of so many of the best things that I love about live music and going to shows. A small space with a band playing great music, a connection with the audience that speaks to a shared love of music, the opportunity to support friends and encourage them in their pursuits, and some really kick ass tunes that I enjoy hearing. And if any show was going to be my last show for a year then seeing Bad Breed at the Linsmore Tavern was the right way to go, because it captured so much of why I love seeing bands live. In hindsight it was a show that resonated with me on a lot of levels and I'm grateful to Bad Breed for leaving me with that kind of resonance, it's been a good memory to hold onto during these long months without live music. 

I'll be sure to thank Mike and the band for that when I have the chance to see them play live again someday soon...