I feel as though I massively lucked out for my first trip inside the CN Tower. Yes, I’ve lived in Toronto for eight years now, but the tower has always been one of those things that tourists blow money on – looking at buildings for a few minutes from a high vantage point was not something I considered worthy of $40.
When I heard the Canadian Music Week opening gala was at the CN Tower’s restaurant, I was intrigued. If I was ever gonna go up there, this would be the best time to do it. A landmark that shoots gaudy fluorescent lights over the city all night somehow becomes a lot more interesting when musicians are performing at the top of it.
The opening performance was scheduled for 5pm, so I finished up my work for the day as fast as I could, determined to catch at least some of Ben Caplan’s set. Sari from Audio Blood had been inviting me to his shows for some time now, but for one reason or another he was never playing at a time I could make it, so this was finally my chance. I arrived probably halfway through his performance, to a fairly thin but captivated audience. There were a lot of people in attendance – but the majority were industry folks there to network – showing little to no interest in the actual music and completely talking over him.
The fact that this didn’t appear to bother him or take away from his performance one bit was astonishing to me. Most musicians seem easily annoyed in these situations (as they should be – why even come to a show if you’re not there to see the bands? You can network anywhere else in the city) – one of the highlights of CMW for me was the lead singer of the Dears making a joke about all the industry douchebags that come to these shows just to talk over the bands – so Ben’s complete joy onstage and ability to pull in the small audience that was paying attention, was wonderful.
He is usually backed by his band The Casual Smokers, but this was a solo showcase, and as far as I was concerned he didn’t need a band to back him. His gravelly voice and commanding demeanor showed the chops of a true performer. More than just a musician, he exhibits all the charming characteristics of a great storyteller – someone you would want to hang out with in a dive bar all night, just listening to all the stories someone with a beard that epic must have to tell.
The biggest highlight of his set was definitely the inclusion of the sailor-esque “Conduit” – a call and response singaling song that had the audience captivated. It is easily my favorite song on In The Time Of Great Remembering and although he didn’t have the vocal distortion effect featured on the record, the song was note perfect and the audience loved every second of it – eagerly calling back “La da daa da da da daa da daa da daa” after he belted it out. It’s songs like this gem that get him the well deserved comparison to the master of ambiance Tom Waits.
Next up was the biggest name playing the fest (though he only played this little exclusive industry/media/win tickets show which was kinda lame to his fans) Joel Plaskett, promoting his latest album Scrappy Happines – which, after hearing those songs live – could possibly be one of the best Canadian albums of 2012.
I’ll admit this was my first time seeing the Joel Plaskett Emergency play, as I never really went very deep into his catalog post Thrush Hermit (of which I’m quite obviously obsessed with Clayton Park). What I had heard in the past always seemed a bit too cutesy rock for me, so I brushed it off – he also seemed to be the reason Thrush Hermit broke up because his ego wouldn’t let Rob sing on many of the songs – and when I think an artists ego is out of control it completely turns me off of their music, unfortunately.
So maybe i’m just getting older and softer pop rock is suddenly more interesting to me, or maybe it just took hearing him live, or maybe it’s the new material – but I was completely taken away by his set. Despite the high altitude and the unforgiving sound setting – they gave an incredible show. Joel is a funny, engaging, and adorable performer who obviously knows how to keep an audience on his every word after almost two decades of making music.
He told reporters how tough it is to play at such a high altitude:
The air up there is a little bit sort of airplane air. And it’s like a glass room so soundwise it’s not the nicest on stage, low ceilings. So it wasn’t designed with a rock venue in mind. But it was fun. And it was cool, an experience, to have an audience come up there. At soundcheck, I was like, this going to be tough. I was tired, my back was bothering me, the air was weird. It’s glassy sound so it’s not the sweetest sounding room. On stage it was fighting the acoustics of a place that’s not designed for music so that can be a little bit unforgiving as a singer and stuff, where you’re just like, ‘Whoa, my ears hurt.’ But it comes with the gig, and you fight against it and sometimes it makes the show better. Come gig-time, it was really, really fun.
And it was really, really fun. He opened with the fabulous “Nothing More To Say” which caught my attention purely because he screamed the lyrics “I don’t give a fuck” about two seconds into his set, making the crowd and myself very happy. There’s something wonderful about watching someone as endearingly sweet as Joel scream such a word – it just feels out of character in the best possible way.
There were a few epic moments no one will forget from this show, one where he sang a song off the new album called “Time Flies” right after pointing out how there was a plane taking off from the airport behind us, and another where he played “Work Out Fine” engaging our city pride on the line “all my friends, where’d they go? To Montreal, TORONTO!”
If I recall correctly he also played the wonderful “Come On, Teacher” which has to be my favorite of his older songs. Throughout the set he was super comfortable on stage, providing lots of friendly banter in his adorable east coast accent, going on about laying by a tree in front of the tower before his set, and how odd it was to be playing a show that many feet above the ground.
Towards the end of the show he played the best song he has ever wrote, which immediately grabbed my attention though I had never heard it before, called “Lightning Bolt.” The new track is the last song on Scrappy Happiness, and happens to be the song he pulled the albums title from – and I’ve played it about 500 times since hearing it that day. I was immediately into it when I heard the line “Beyond the palisades, your solo record plays, a lonely pine tree sways, somewhere out in the sticks,” but then it just got better with “I do not have a doubt that beauty loves the beat.”
The throbbing guitar it features is unreal, and he really seemed to be into the set at this point, almost being theatrical with the story he was painting. And of course, the whole chorus is just the most fun and reassuring song about the brevity of life, ever. It makes me want to roam the streets of Toronto grabbing people to tell them “It’s not your fault, this life’s a lightening bolt!” It’s like that scene in Good Will Hunting, but with more joy and less crying. Joel is the Robin William’s to our Matt Damon everyman.
Don’t let it bring you down, you get one go around, come walk a while with me, we’ll stand beneath a tree. Baby, that’s all she wrote, my life’s a lightning bolt, all that we get for free is electricity.
Once his set was over I took the opportunity to walk around the room, looking out all the restaurant windows for the view. There was a moment where my heart stopped when I passed by my first musical crush ever, Andrew Scott of Sloan, aka the hottest silver fox of all time. Pretty sure I stared at him in a way that must have creeped him out before I snapped out of it. I eventually found my way to the observation deck and the glass floors, which many little children were running on. I made an attempt to do the same, but immediately felt like I was gonna fall to my death, so that was a fail. Oh to be a fearless child again.
After I finished with my CN Tower experience it was time for my beloved Teenage Kicks at the Phoenix, where they secured the opening spot right before Treble Charger. They had a very short 30 minute set, but they completely rocked it, clearly still buzzing off their recent epic Be On My Side EP release show at the Horseshoe that saw them at the top of their game, packing the place, with a crowd that was moshing and going absolutely insane.
There’s not much more I can say about them that I haven’t already, but my last live review was when they were still a four piece. The addition of incredibly skilled guitarist Christian Turner to their line up has proved to be one of the best decisions the band ever made, freeing up Peter – allowing him to channel the best of Eddie Vedder and Jim Morrison in his performance – completely dominating the stage. His confidence seems to triple when he doesn’t have guitar duties holding him back. The balls to the wall attitude they have during their live show is now is a force to be reckoned with, and there are definitely big things in store for this band. I’m excited to be able to say “I told you so” when it all finally breaks.
Stay tuned for a full interview with Peter and Jeff about Be On My Side on the blog next week.
Since we would be seeing Treble Charger at the Indies days later we decided not to stay for their set, which in retrospect was a mistake because they only got two songs at the Indies, and the bands we saw instead that night were pretty forgettable.
The one exception was Die Mannequin, who, although I’m not super familiar with their catalog, gave a great performance, and I’m always happy to see a lady who actually rocks on stage during these very male dominated festivals. They’ve been around for a long time now, and their fuzzed out grungey punk rock sound remains accessible and solid live. The small but active crowd bounced around during every song, calling out for an encore they weren’t able to give them when all was said and done (CMF doesn’t allow encores because of the tight schedule between bands).
The emcee that night made sure to mention how Care Failure stars in the new sequel to Bruce McDonald’s epic Hard Core Logo.
I don’t even want to mention the cheesy performance that happened after their set, but lets just say it involved a cowbell, a grinder, and sparks. Seriously.