Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Studio Theatre, Hamilton Place

The Studio Theatre in Hamilton Place is an intimate venue, just right for a singer-songwriter (Stephen Fearing), but also very suitable for some blues (Steve Strongman), or the music of The Rankin Sisters, or even the intricate keyboard noodlings of Garth Hudson. In the last week I've been there twice. A week ago Friday for Bruce Cockburn and last Wednesday for Billy Bragg. Both singer-songwriters, I suppose, but both with very political agendas. They were great!
I'm not a big Burce Cockburn fan. I don't know what it is. He plays the kind of music that I usually go for. Guitar based, folky, with a touch of blues, and I generally agree with his message...so what is it about him that I don't like? Maybe I only had room in my ears for Richard Thompson doing that stuff. Anyway, last Friday I went along with my good friend Frank (who is also not a Cockburn fan) and we sat in the front row, just to the right of centre. This is not a good place to sit, when seeing Bruce. Right of centre is definitely not the place to be! But that's where the seats Ann and Emmitt had saved for us happened to be.
Bruce came out dressed in a baggy outfit, dark pants and an oversized jacket, and picked up one of the two green-topped 6-string guitars and began to roll through his songbook. Tunes from the 70s, 80s, 90s and new songs. Not too many "old songs" mainly "middle-aged songs". And a couple of new ones. "Slow Down Fast," "This is Bagdad," mixed with "Wondering Where the Lions Are," "Waiting For a Miracle," and "Lovers in a Dangerous Time." It was good to have so many familiar songs, because some of the others sounded similar, like riffs just designed to carry the words. There's no doubt that Bruce is an extraordinary guitarist, but there was a sameness to much of what he played. The virtuosity lifted these moments. I was touched, personally, by the new song written after visiting his brother (an army doctor in Afghanistan). My own son is training to go there, and Bruce's lament brought me to tears. Cockburn answered three curtain calls and on his last encore claimed he "[didn't] know what to play." He satisfied the rabid fans, and he satisfied us hangers-on too. All in all a fine night.
Wednesday's show with Billy Bragg was also a dandy night of music, and politics. This time our seats (again, saved by Ann and Emmitt) were in the front row, but appropriately well left of centre! Where else would you want to be for the author of "Power in the Union," and "All You Fascists"!!
After an intriguing set by Toronto's Ron Hawkins (check that guy out!) Billy took the stage. He had played for 2 hours the night previous at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, and his tour manager wanted to keep this one to 90 minutes. But once Billy got rolling there was no stoppping him. Playing an electric guitar turned up loud, he rocked the joint with songs of love and justice! He sipped from a mug of tea (he called it Throat Coat) and sang in his London drawl, songs from his long career. He called Woody Guthrie "my boss" as he introduced the songs he had completed (with Wilco) for Woody's daughter Norah, for 2 albums. He sang a classic Guthrie children's song about wetting the bed, and Woody's "Ain't Got No Home". He spoke about oxyomorons like "military intelligence" and "american football". The English call it "runny, runny, catchy" since it has very little to do with the pure "footie" they play in the rest of the world. He expressed his displeasure over France "cheating their way to victory over Ireland" referring to Thierry Henry's handball the night before. He played a few tunes on an acoustic guitar, with STRUMMER emblazoned on the front. He went well beyond his 90 minutes, much to the chagrin of the manager. And then he came out for a meet and greet during which he spoke personally to each person who waited. He heard their stories, and answered their questions, signed their scarves, and LPs, CDs, tickets, and shirts. He gave everyone their money's worth. Long live Billy Bragg!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Spectacle: Elvis Costello with Elvis Costello

Last Friday I received an e-mail from the Elvis Costello fan site (which I hadn't even remembered joining). It said that the first 50 people to reply would receive 2 free passes to the taping of the final episode of Season Two of Spectacle with Elvis Costello. Well, who could resist an offer like that? Especially since it was going to take place in Toronto! I replied within 3 minutes, and waited. Later that night I received another message. It said !!CONGRATULATIONS!! You've won! and laid out the rules for picking up tickets. Monday my wife and I headed out early to find parking and a place to have dinner. Parking, no problem, right across the street and only $15. Dinner, two blocks down at le Pain Quotidien, zucchini soup, fresh bread, and smoked salmon salad. Good coffee too! It began to rain, a steady drizzle. We arrived at the Masonic Hall on Yonge Street at about 6:15, a lineup had begun. At 6:30 they checked our photo ID and gave us wristbands. Then they checked our coats, searched my wife's purse, and showed us to our seats. The theatre is beautiful, very art deco. The set featured chandeliers, a 1000 lightbulbs showing the Spectacle logo behind a drum kit, and amps and guitars. We sat in the front row. The front three rows were reserved for the Fan Club winners! Here's someone who knows how to treat his fans.
The place was alive with a buzz. "Who's the guest?" "I hear it's Paul McCartney!" "It's McCartney for sure! I got the word!" People from as far away as Rhode Island were there.
It was 8:00 before the show began, and the air conditioning was blowing on us all the time. "Oh, it'll get hot in here once the lights go on!" But it never got that hot, by the end we were frozen (more of that later).
Elvis came out, followed by The Imposters, did his usual Spectacle rap, picked up his Fender Jaguar and launched into "Accidents Will Happen". It was fantastic. After another tune ("Chelsea") he explained that Elton John was to have been the interviewer and he, Elvis, was the guest tonight. Elton was sick (as the newspapers had told us all weekend) so they looked for a "rock journalist" do perform the task of raking Elvis over the coals. Since they couldn't find a presentable rock journalist...they got Mary Louise Parker (she of Fried Green Tomatoes fame). She came out dressed in black. She looked very slim, and quite lovely, although her interviewing techniques were adequate at best. It was clear that she was a bigger fan, more in awe of her idol than most of the rest of us in attendance. When she closed her eyes and swayed to Elvis's crooning, I thought she might fall off the chair! Nevertheless Elvis was charming and forthcoming with information about how he wrote and recorded, and his life in general. Marriage and fatherhood has agreed with him, and not drinking!
For over 2 hours he shared stories, and songs, some solo on acoustic guitart, others backed by Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher. I saw Elvis on his first tour of North America. He played about 14 songs and was done in 35 minutes start to finish! Wow! He explained that the Attractions were using "speed up drugs" and that later when he listened to My Aim Is True to relearn it for a tour, he "couldn't believe how slow the songs were"!
He spoke about writing with McCartney, Bacharach and trying to co-write with Sammy Cahn (it didn't work out) and played songs from each era. "Almost Blue," "Brilliant Mistake," "So Like Candy," "I Still Have That Other Girl," "Bedlam," "I Hope You're Happy Now," all done beautifully whether accompanied by himself on the Gibson, or with the band.
After the show, he came out to re-take the first two songs. "Accidents..." and "...Chelsea". Then he sang a couple more, a couple after that, and more, giving us a 40 minute concert to end the night. At 11:00 he said "Goodnight" and bowed, and walked off. It was tremendous. The audience had been standing through the final few songs. It was rock'n'roll!
On the way out everyone received a copy of the new CD. It was a night to remember. And I can't wait to watch Season Two.