Saturday, April 24, 2021

April 24th 1996, Garbage at the Opera House



Garbage are pretty excellent. With the release of their first album in 1995 they emerged fully formed and pretty much perfect from the start with a fresh sound, an impressive energy, and crazy tight musicianship. Tracks like Queer, Only Happy When it Rains, and Stupid Girl were all great singles that received tons of play in any number of spaces, and their videos were in high rotation on most of the music outlets available at the time. It was clear from the beginning that lead singer Shirley Manson was born to be a Rock Star, presenting a confidence and talent that was totally inspiring, a charisma that few before or after have ever been able to match. There's no question that Garbage were one of the best bands to come out of the nineties and they remain awesome to this day.

Garbage toured a fair bit for their debut album, and though it wasn't their first trip to Toronto their stop at the Opera House on April 24th 1996 was the first time that I was able to get tickets to see them, so I was pretty excited leading up to the show. My friend Helen was also a fan and we thought it would be a good idea to see them together, because a show is always better when you see it with your fan friends. That's science, right? It's an indisputable fact...

We met up at Futures on Queen just a little bit west of Bathurst around 730pm and decided to have a coffee before heading out to the Opera House, thinking that we'd just take the Queen Streetcar out to the East end. Doors were set to open at 8pm and we figured that we'd have loads of time before the show started, so we sat at Futures and caught up. We hadn't seen each other in a while so it was a nice chance to get together and shoot the breeze, talking about Garbage and songs that we both liked on the album and how much we were looking forward to seeing them live. We agreed that Vow was their best song and that was the one that we both wanted to see live the most. 

Around 9pm we decided we should get going, figuring that the band would be on around 10 or 1015pm, and it usually takes around half an hour for the streetcar to get from Bathurst to Broadview. We waited outside of Futures for the Queen car to come along, and we kept talking, a little bit more catch up, some gossip. Nothing too deep or engaging, mostly just light conversation, stuff that made us both laugh, the comfortable kinds of things that friends talk about while they're passing the time. I can't remember much of it very specifically, but I remember that it was good talk, and I was happy to be sharing that time with Helen.

When we got to the show the band were already on stage playing Only Happy When it Rains and they were pretty into it. Shirley Manson was at centre stage and she was radiating confidence and charisma, a dynamic and riveting presence that commanded the entire room. The rest of the band were tight and slick in their playing, but it was clear to every one in the audience that Manson was the star of the show. The crowd was really into it, the song was a hit and everybody was really happy to be hearing it live, it was one of those magical concert moments where the band and the audience were in perfect balance with each other, an electric feedback loop that everybody was feeding off of. 

After that the opening notes of Vow began and Manson started the first line, "I can't use what I can't abuse...", not so much singing as intoning, conjuring, then it all erupted into an amazing version of the song that was fiery and angry and Punk-y and Pop-y and all sorts of awesome. The sound rose and swelled and then came back around and it was incredible, totally incredible. The band had already reached a peak, and as the outro was playing I remember turning to Helen and asking how they could maintain that kind of energy for the rest of the show?

And almost as soon as I finished my question, the band waved to the audience and said, "Thank you! Good night!" and walked off the stage. Evidently we had gotten there late and what we had thought was the start of the night was actually the end of it. Garbage came back out and did a short encore which softened the blow for us a little bit but it was still kind of a drag, and as we were leaving Helen and I were kicking ourselves for not getting there earlier.

In the years following I've seen Garbage a few more times, and they've always put on a great show, always delivered a great performance, but I learned my lesson that night and since then I've always made sure to check with the venue to find out when the band is going on so I'm not late. I'm actually pretty OCD about that to be honest, but y'know, I'd rather not miss anything if I can help it.

But even though we missed most of the show, I still look back on the evening fondly because it was good time spent with a good friend. We may not have seen much of Garbage's set, but Helen and I got to talk and connect and hang together. That kind of thing is it's own reward, and that's something I'm especially aware of now when I've seen so few of my friends in person over the last year. 

In the end I had a good night out with a friend and we got to see an excellent band play a handful of great songs including the one that we both wanted to see the most. 

That sounds like a pretty great time to me, and that's why I always remember Garbage at the Opera House as a great show and a great night out...

Saturday, April 17, 2021

April 17th 2019, Ministry and Cold Cave at the Danforth Music Hall


My interest in concerts has always gone hand in hand with an appreciation for record stores. Being able to browse through bins of albums, being curious about new releases, getting excited about rare finds, that familiarity in seeing old favorites again, I enjoy the record store experience a lot and I've really missed it over the last year. I miss the sense of community that record stores offer in being a place to talk to random strangers about music, whether it's staff or other people who are browsing the same way that I am. My experience is that a lot of the people that shop or work at record stores enjoy music just as much as I do, and they're often happy to engage in conversation with me about it. That's always struck me as being pretty cool.

As a fan of concerts and record stores, I'm also a big fan of Record Store Day. It's been going on for about twenty years now, and the idea is to bring more people into bricks and mortar physical record stores by releasing special albums, limited editions, picture discs, special things that aren't available anywhere online, stuff that you have to actually go to a place to buy. A lot of times record stores will tie in special events throughout the day to add to the celebrations, live shows, listening parties, things like that. It's a pretty great idea, and it further emphasizes and builds on that idea of community that I mentioned earlier.

As part of the 2019 Record Store Day event, Wax Trax and Vans teamed up for a deal where anybody who bought a copy of the "Industrial Accidents" compilation would also receive a pair of tickets for a show at the Danforth Music Hall featuring performances by Ministry and Cold Cave along with the screening of a documentary about the label. And I'll admit, if you mapped all of that out in a Venn diagram I'd fit pretty squarely in the centre where everything overlaps. I thought it was a great idea, and I lined up at my local record store in hopes of scoring a copy so I could go to the show, and in a fabulous stroke of luck I was able to get the last copy they had. That may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I was wearing a well worn pair of Vans classic slip ons at the time, just in case I needed to pop an Ollie afterwards. Anyway, the album is pretty great, bringing together rare and unreleased tracks from across the Wax Trax label's history, with bands and artists like Ministry, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, Chris Connelly, and more, a really great soundtrack from that era that fully captures a moment in time.

I went to the show with my friend Ryan, and we made a point of getting there early so we could see the documentary before the concert, and I'm glad that we made the effort to do so because it was a pretty amazing story. I knew some of the broad strokes about the label going in, but I didn't really have that much of an understanding of how significant they were in terms of creating a community, a space, a tribe around itself and how far back it had gone into the early seventies. It all started with two guys meeting at a David Bowie concert in 1972 who fell in love and started a record store. And that would seem like a pretty normal story, except for the way that they approached the store, how they did things, and the music they sold. It was all on the fringes far away from the mainstream, and because of that fringe nature in their approach and the work itself, it became something much more than just a record store. Wax Trax became a haven for outsiders and loners and people who didn't feel like they had a voice who wanted to be heard and people who did have a voice who weren't being listened to.

As a record store and as a record label, Wax Trax made something special that filled a gap nobody had ever identified before, and in many ways they set a standard and an ideal for other record stores in other cities all over the world, which is a pretty awesome thing to have done. I feel a particular gratitude to them for doing that, 'cause I was one of those outsiders, one of those loners, one of those people who benefit from the kind of community that they encouraged. I expect that a lot of you reading this feel the same way.

The concert itself was pretty awesome too and Cold Cave did an opening set that was really great. When I had seen them in 2017 with Drab Majesty their stage set up was pretty stark and minimal, relying instead on the strength of the songs themselves, which was great at the time but the addition of videos and better lighting at the Wax Trax show really upped the drama of their performance and expanded on the whole experience. The band were really tight and that made the sound more accessible and direct, and songs like Confetti and People are Poison both captured their album appeal and built upon their strengths in a live setting. Great stuff that really impressed me and has left me looking forward to their eventual return to Toronto. I really hope that we'll get the chance to see a new Cold Cave tour following the release of their new album later this summer.

Ministry were also great, big dumb fun that I really enjoyed. They've always been lumped in with the Industrial genre, but as their show at the Danforth Music Hall proved, they've always been pretty metal at heart. It was originally billed as a Wax Trax era set, but in the end they played a career spanning selection of old favorites that the audience really got into, and Ryan and I both had a great time. Songs like Thieves, NWO, and Stigmata were heavy and impressive, and when Chris Connelly came out to join the band for a couple of songs I may have wept tears of joy. Then again it may have just been sweat from bopping my head so hard during So What. They closed the show with an acoustic version of Every Day it's Hallowe'en, and I think that was the perfect ending for an evening about community, a song that was introduced as being about feeling comfortable living in your own skin. And really, isn't that what's at the heart of being part of a community? Being comfortable in your own skin with those around you?

It was a great show and a great night, and a reminder of many of the communities that I've been lucky enough to be a part of over the years, the places that have welcomed me and taken me in when I've needed it the most. And whether those communities were made with friends like Ryan, or music that I've listened to and enjoyed through the years, or physical spaces like the Music Hall or all of the record stores I've gone to since I was a young kid, all of those communities are valuable and special to me, all of them mean something to me and have become part of who I am.

So yeah, record stores, community, big ideas for me, and I have no doubt that I'll speak more to both of those in the weeks and months to come. I hope that you'll stick around to read those entries as well...

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

April 13th 2017, PJ Harvey at Massey Hall

PJ Harvey's show at Massey Hall in 2017 was her first visit to Toronto since playing the Phoenix in support of the "Uh Huh Her" album back in 2004. Thirteen years is a long time between shows, especially given that Harvey had been producing some of the best and most relevant work of her career during that period, playing gigs in Europe and some of the larger US markets but missing Toronto each time she toured. It was a long stretch between shows.

In 2007 Harvey released "White Chalk" shortly after my partner Carolyn and I started dating, and that album became our soundtrack for a number of months. I remember the first time we played it, actively listening, not moving, just lying there staring at the ceiling while we heard it for the very first time. We didn't say a word, we were just so fully absorbed in its sparse piano based structure and Harvey's restrained vocals, completely spellbound by what we were hearing. When it was done I started it over again, and I think we listened through maybe four times before either of us could speak, we were just so overcome by the experience. I had hoped that Harvey would tour for it, I was really looking forward to seeing her play live again and I wanted to take Carolyn because she'd never seen her in concert before. But there weren't any shows in Toronto that year, with Harvey opting instead for a tour through Europe and some promo in New York and Los Angeles. So we waited.

In 2009 when Harvey released her collaboration with John Parrish, "A Woman a Man Walked By", I was sure there would be a tour but again no such luck. And when she released "Let England Shake" in 2011 it seemed like a foregone conclusion that she'd tour for that album, I mean, by that point she hadn't done a major North American tour in years, wasn't it obvious that she would play some gigs? And she did, but she didn't come to Toronto then either.
As stated, it had been a long time since PJ Harvey last played here, and the more time passed, the more I was hoping that Carolyn and I would get to see her live at some point. With the release of every album I became more and more curious to hear her new songs live, to see what she'd do with them, how she'd recreate them in a concert setting. So when she announced that she'd be doing a North American tour for her latest album "The Hope Six Demolition Project" and that it would be opening at Massey Hall in Toronto, I was justifiably excited.

The weeks that led up to the show were spent familiarizing myself with the new album, listening carefully for clues in the music about what to expect at the show, along with revisiting older stuff to get into the mood. Throughout Harvey's career she's displayed a definite habit for reinvention, and she's always presented a very distinct focus and persona on each album, with a sense of purpose and clarity that defines each of them as a unique musical entity. "The Hope Six Demolition Project" was no exception to that rule, with Harvey taking on the part of impassioned journalist and observer, and I was very curious about how this role would translate live in terms of both newer and older material, but I resisted the urge to watch any video of her performances in Europe earlier in the tour, opting instead to be surprised when I finally saw the show. And even though I really wanted to, in retrospect I'm glad that I didn't do any prior viewing beforehand. The feeling of anticipation and prickly excitement leading up to the moment when the lights dimmed at Massey Hall were well worth all of the wait.

The set opened with Harvey and the band marching in a line onto the stage to perform Chain of Keys, a dramatic opening executed with precision and focus, and it perfectly set the tone for the rest of the night. This wasn't going to be a loose rock show where anything could happen, this was a planned and choreographed performance designed to highlight the strength of the songs being played. It clearly suggested that there was no ego here, the music was much more important than Harvey or the band's individual talents. And true to this idea, after the song was finished Harvey retreated to the back of the stage where she drank some water and let the rest of the band build up the next song, The Ministry of Defence. There was no in between song chatter, there was no "HELLOOOOO TORONTO!!!!" carefully enunciated over a searing guitar solo leading into the big new single, it was all very understated and planned out.

And I really liked that.

Over the course of the next ninety minutes Harvey traveled backwards through her catalog, focusing largely on material from the new album, playing a suite of songs from "Let England Shake", a pair of songs from "White Chalk", and a handful of classics from earlier releases, including 50ft Queenie and her manic cover of Highway 61 Revisited from "Rid of Me", the album that introduced me to her work and made a lifelong fan out of me. Each song she performed was perfectly executed, masterfully played. New songs like The Wheel and Orange Monkey sounded great, and I quite enjoyed the stomp and urgency of The Words that Maketh Murder from "Let England Shake".

But it was When Under Ether and The Devil from "White Chalk" that really stood out as particular highlights for me. On album both tracks feel very fragile, reveling in their sparse arrangements, coming across as almost delicate in their execution. Performed live they took on a new life with a more fulsome arrangement that complimented their strengths without lessening their beauty. I'm sure that my own personal connections and appreciation for the songs made me more inclined to like those two over the rest of the show, but I really do think that they were the two best songs of the evening.

Throughout the night Harvey had minimal interaction with the audience, choosing instead to creep forward to the front of the stage to sing a few verses, and then retreating to the back or the side to let the band spend some time in the spotlight. It was a habit that brought to mind waves on a beach, and that idea struck me as significant as it fits in so well with Harvey's work, filled as it is with water imagery, rivers, seas, and drownings. I'm probably just projecting my own thoughts onto the experience, but in some ways that ebb and flow added to the performance for me, bringing together the themes and concepts in her songs even more effectively, a holistic approach to her work that spoke to the totality of her vision.

Or maybe she just wasn't feeling very talkative that evening. That's a possibility too...

I suppose I could go on rhapsodizing about the show, saying how awesome Harvey's feathered fascinator was, or the way she brandished her saxophone like a sigil meant to conjure up magical forces, or how great The Community of Hope sounds live. I could tell you about the little finger gestures she made during Down by the Water, or the glory of hands clapping, or just how happy I was to finally see a PJ Harvey show with Carolyn after all these years, but I worry that's getting into minutiae that won't matter to anybody else but me, so I probably shouldn't bother telling you about all of that. Suffice to say that it was an incredible performance where Harvey fully demonstrated the wealth of talent and artistry within her work. 
And here we are four years since the show, and that talent and artistry continues to amaze and inspire me. New material from Harvey during that time has been limited to a few soundtracks and a couple of singles, but a recent reissue campaign with her back catalog being released on vinyl along with companion albums of demo tracks has me revisiting her work and rediscovering it in a new context. A context that reaffirms her standing as a true artist who's vision and ideal have remained strong and focused throughout her career.
But as much as I enjoy listening to her back catalog, of course I look forward to the next time she comes to Toronto. Whether she's looking back on older material or touring in support of something new, I have faith that it will be another awesome show in keeping with her past visits. PJ Harvey has always been a dynamic and engaging performer and I'm sure that her next tour will fully demonstrate that...

Saturday, April 10, 2021

April 10th 1996, Gavin Friday at The Rivoli

Gavin Friday may not be a household name, but he's had a solid career beginning with his early days as lead singer in The Virgin Prunes through to his work as a solo artist. Possessed of an impressive vocal range that shifts easily from commanding depths to outstanding highs, he's an excellent story teller in his songs, a spellbinding and mesmerizing presence who is beguiling, hypnotic. His 1995 album "Shag Tobacco" is an excellent example of his sound, a classic release that plays fast and loose with the Pop aesthetic and kind of transcends the genre in hindsight, becoming it's own distinct style and sound. There are elements of Dark Cabaret, Glam, Opera, and Punk, all mixed together in a richly textured blend that works really well and sounds quite unique.

In the spring of '96, Friday went on tour to support the album and I went to see him with my friend Bevin, one of dozens of shows we've seen together. Bevin and I both share similar tastes, and over the years we've seen a lot of live music, sharing in the joy and rapture that comes from a great show. She feels much the same way as I do about concerts, about performance, and her enthusiasm and excitement make her an excellent companion to see a gig with. 

Friday was playing at The Rivoli, a small club on Queen Street just a few doors east of Spadina, and it's always been a great place to see a show. It's a small venue, I can't imagine that it holds any more than maybe two or three hundred people, and you enter by walking through the restaurant in the front and the venue is a tiny brick walled space in the back. There's a short bar that runs along the back wall opposite the stage, along the East wall there are a few stools, and the West wall has a few cushioned seats, but it's the kind of place that gets crowded enough that you can't really sit down if you want to see the stage very well. 

I love the Rivoli, and I've seen tons of shows there over the years, a lot of local bands, a lot of touring shows, I've even played there myself a few times. I saw Mourning Sickness there once, they were an incredible artistic and musical collective that have a legendary status in the Toronto scene, and I've seen dozens of friends' bands play there over the years. I saw Hole play a show in support of their first album, and a solo gig by Amanda Palmer from the Dresden Dolls. The first time I saw Thrive play was at the Rivoli, part of a 'zine launch for The Ninth Wave and I made a number of lifelong friends that evening. In the early nineties The Riv used to host industrial video nights during the week, and I remember those nights being the first opportunity I had to see videos by Einst├╝rzende Neubauten, Nick Cave, and others. The Rivoli has always been a special place in my mind, and it will always hold a special place in my heart.

Friday wore a simple black suit with a white shirt that night, and looked rather dashing I thought, and over the course of the evening he and his band played almost the entirety of  "Shag Tobacco" along with a couple of covers. It was a strong performance, an excellent blend of charisma and talent that worked really effectively and entertained greatly. He sang through a megaphone on Caruso, a track that stands out on the album as kind of a conceptual centrepiece around which everything else is built. The live version was delivered really well, with Friday's vocals building a manic intensity as the song progressed. It was pretty awesome.

There was a great performance of Angel, a spotlight shining on a disco ball overhead that brightened the room with a million sparkles. Friday came down from the small stage and started to walk through the audience, singing directly to people only inches away from them, moving from one person to the next. It was a high point of the night, an example of tearing down the walls that separate artist and audience and bringing them closer together, an amazing and sensual moment that's stayed with me for years. I may have swooned at the time. I still get a little flustered writing about it now...

There were other songs, My Twentieth Century, You and Me and World War Three, more, each of them capturing the spirit of the album and building on Friday's charm. It was a good night, an excellent evening of music and performance by a charismatic performer and a great band, the kind of show that leaves you with a smile on your face. When Friday came back to Toronto later that year for a show at Lee's Palace Bevin and I made sure to go to that show too. He played largely the same set along with a cover of The Jean Genie which was pretty amazing, a big song for a big personality. 

As far as I know that second show was the last time that Gavin Friday ever played in Toronto, and in hindsight I'm glad that Bevin and I were able to see him at the Rivoli and again later at Lee's. Friday is a dynamic and impressive artist, and even now twenty five years later I still look back on those evenings fondly, a testimony not only to Friday's performance, but also to the wonder of live music and the memories and feelings that it can inspire...

Thursday, April 1, 2021

April 1st 2004, David Bowie at the Air Canada Centre


David Bowie's last show in Toronto was at the Air Canada Centre on April 1st 2004. He was touring for the "Reality" album and of course nobody knew then that this tour would be among the last chances to see him live. "Reality" was a strong album, a continuation of a return to form that started with "Heathen" signaling an end to the troubled nineties era where he drifted between sounds and styles without the same direction and purpose he had shown earlier in his career. "Reality" saw Bowie with a renewed purpose, a vitality that he hadn't shown in years, and of course the shows that he played in support of that album reflected that same purpose and vitality.

Originally set for a date in December the year prior, the April show was a rescheduled date due to illness so by that point there was some considerable anticipation from the audience who had been waiting extra long for the show to happen. I went with my friend Charlotte with a pair of tickets in the stands along the side a few rows up from the floors just one section away from the stage. Not too close, but not too far, just the right spot to get some perspective and still see things in detail. 

The show opened with a reworked version of Rebel Rebel, the band walking out and vamping on the instrumental opening for a bit before Bowie appeared. Earl Slick was on guitar, Gail Ann Dorsey on bass, Mike Garson on keyboards, and a few others from past tours rounded out the band making for a slick and tight unit that complimented and built on the songs well. Having all played with Bowie for so long there was a great chemistry between them and that added a lot to the show.

The set was pretty diverse and covered a wide range of tracks from across the years with a fair focus on "Reality" but enough classics to keep the excitement going. New songs like New Killer Star and Never Get Old were paired well with Hang on to Yourself and Fame. There was a spectacular version of Ashes to Ashes with an extended piano solo from Mike Garson that was a particular highlight in my mind. The encores included a suite of songs from "Ziggy Stardust" which was an excellent way to end the evening.

Overall it was a great show, and I try not to dwell on the fact that it was the last time I saw him live, especially because this tour wasn't so much a marked ending as it was a transition into the next phase of Bowie's career, where he would become more private, more reclusive, and would create a new role and a new sound for himself yet again. I prefer to think of this show that way, as another transition in a long line of changes and growth that defined Bowie's entire body of work over the course of his life. 

I guess that's one of the lessons I've learned from listening to Bowie for so long. When we think about things it's best not to look at beginnings and endings so much as we should think of transitions.