Been going out a bit more than usual; four nights of live music in the last month. The object of the game here is to convince a few more of you to get off the sofa and go hear people play. The entertainment was Big Sugar, Patricia Barber, Muse and a carol sing. Each was magic.
Big Sugar · Unless you’re Canadian you probably don’t know about them. They’ve never quite decided whether they’re folkies or rastas or bluesmen; have had a couple of hits over the years, you might have heard Diggin a hole.
They were playing Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, one of the nicest places anywhere to drink and dance and listen. Lots of nice seats, huge sprung dancefloor, pretty decent sound. So the crowd boozed it up and danced furiously and had an awfully good time. In between the dub-flavored stuff they covered Dear Mr Fantasy (huh?) and Rollin’ and Tumblin’, leaning so far into the groove it made my whole body warm.
Lots of good guitar, lots of better-than-good bass, OK singing, sharp dance moves, fun fun fun. We’d had a hard day, were tired, so when they said “…and for our last song”, we started shuffling for the exit. But stopped. They ended, of all things, with a straight albeit metallic take on Oh Canada. Huh? The beery audience ate it up, roaring away loud enough to be heard along with the guitars. It was impossible not to smile. Live music, there’s nothing like it.
Patricia Barber · I had a travel routing through Chicago so arranged to stay over a Monday night where, as on most Mondays, Patricia Barber, my personal favorite living jazzbo, holds court, playing two sets for some laughably small cover charge. If you get there a little early you can sit close enough to spill your drink on the stage.
The venue is the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge. The name’s a tribute to the Moulin Rouge and it’s formerly Al Capone’s favorite bar. It’s about booze and jazz; no food for sale of any kind. It’s hard not to love.
The crowd is apparently half local regulars, half jazz enthusiasts from all over the damn planet who can’t believe the intimacy and the price.
Ms Barber’s music is melodic and virtuosic and emotional, but you need to be comfy with jazz idioms. I’ve seen lots of different players with her over the years, all good; these days mostly young pups. Occasional musicians like me go weak at the knees over high-level jazz players’ effortless surfing around and through chords and rhythms that we’d have to practice for months to replicate.
So on this last occasion, a tune I hadn’t heard before touched my heart, seemed to be about “Persephone”. After the first set, I stood up to stretch and, since I was right by the stage, in a break in the band’s conversation with each other I caught Ms Barber’s eye and said “The song about Persephone, that was beautiful. Is it new?” She beamed at me and said no, that it was years old. I was a little surprised since I have most of her records; I said so, and repeated the compliment. During the second set, between songs she said to the band “We got a compliment on Persephone, let’s play it again.” So they did; reached back for more and took it higher. What a thrill. On the way out I called out thanks and got a friendly wave.
There’s a lovely Persephone on YouTube, but maybe a little too polite and controlled, plus Patricia doesn’t stretch out on piano. It’s from her 2006 album Mythologies, which I’ve since purchased and totally recommend.
Speaking of recommendations, here are two more: If you’re going to the Green Mill, get there early, and sit at the bar or in a booth. The plastic chairs they put up in front of the stage will give you severe back damage.
Muse · Ah, a guilty musical pleasure. They’re a power trio and play power pop somewhere on the U2-to-Queen axis. They have some great songs, sing beautifully, and the guitar orchestration is tremendous. There’s nothing innovative in the slightest and you really don’t want to look too close at the lyrics or sentiments; just listen to the guitar and shake your booty.
I took my whole family, including the nine-year-old and the sixteen-year-old. And what a show! The massive set filled most of the floorspace and airspace in the local hockey rink. The latest record is called Drones and sure enough, at the opening the air filled with big balloon-drones in a slow orchestrated dance. It sort of didn’t work because the song is dystopian, but the drones were adorable.
But wow — great staging, great lighting, great visuals, great sound, polish polish polish. The moment the band came on stage the audience leapt to its feet, and then never sat down. There were only a couple of weak songs, and then on the big hits, everyone sang along.
Now… if you’d come looking for spontaneity or soul or blues influences, you’d come up empty. It was obvious that every move, every hell-for-leather charge out to the stage’s wings, every stiff-legged leap, was precision choreography, practiced heavily and pulled off effortlessly. I respect that, a lot; people who take entertaining other people seriously.
By the way, Psycho, from the latest record Drones, is a terrific concert opener, and Dead Inside works well on-stage too. Of the band’s chestnuts, Madness is the most fun as a sing-along.
Are they gonna play a song twice because a fan likes it? Are they gonna cover Rollin’ and Tumblin’? Are they going to raise your consciousness? None of the above. But it’s got a good beat, you could dance to it, and everybody did. Both kids had a good time and we all sang along to the hits.
I recommend taking Muse’s tour in. But I also recommend an evening in a good local rock-&-roll or jazz bar.
Christmas sing-along · Finally, just the other night we went along to a caroling evening featuring Simple Gifts, a Vancouver choir; my wife is one of their sopranos. The choir sang a few, then the whole room sang a few, traditional and modern, and there was a food and clothing drive and we raised a whole bunch of money for charity, and everyone had a good time.
They had all the carol lyrics printed out and let the audience pick the ones they wanted to sing. Here’s what’s surprising; one of the choices was Imagine. I wouldn’t call it a carol but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. I’ve never had a chance to sing it, and it turns out to be a little more complicated than it sounds on the radio.
Also, I suspect there are very few members of my generation who can sing that song without getting all choked up. Certainly not me.
So get out and involve yourself with some music that’s coming from real people in real time. Also, try being one of those people.