Shameless Friend-Promotion

One of the excellent friends I made in Toronto is Kari Maaren.  A bunch of cool stuff has happened to her recently that I feel compelled to share.  (This is internal compulsion, not from her—she might be appalled/embarrassed that I’m doing this, if she notices.)

First of all, some of my few readers may be familiar with her because she has been writing the West of Bathurst webcomic (linked from my sidebar) for the last seven years or so.  In the midst of recent server troubles which eventually saw me helping her migrate the site hosting, she/the comic got nominated for an award!  Specificially, the Aurora Award, for “Best Graphic Novel – English”.

If you happened to click through on that link to the Aurora nominees, you might have noticed that her name appears a second time!  (Cue dramatic music.)

Yes, she was also nominated for “Best Fan Filk”.  (That’s a kind of music.)  Kari writes and performs geeky songs, and has finally actually recorded some and released some of her stuff on not one but TWO albums!  (Okay, so the first album, Pirate Elves in Space, is a collaboration, but it has 3 of her songs on it.)  Her album Beowulf Pulled My Arm Off even got a mention on SF Signal, a popular science fiction/fantasy/horror blog.

You can listen to her stuff at those Bandcamp links, or find her YouTube channel.  If you enjoy nerdy folk music—or think you might—you should definitely check out Kari’s work.

Anyway, that’s about it for my shameless friend-promotion.  I will endeavour to check in again soon with another movie update—we’ve started the summer season.

Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm: Another Triumph!

Last night, I saw Jonathan Coulton (with Paul and Storm) for the third time.  As expected, it was a great show.

In general, I prefer the music of Coulton to Paul and Storm (though I like both quite a lot), but in the live shows, Paul and Storm are absolutely hilarious in their between-song banter.  Most of the stuff they had played in their previous shows, but that included favourites like “Nun Fight”, “Live”, and “The Captain’s Wife’s Lament” so it was much appreciated.  They also played a couple of songs I hadn’t heard before, and I very much enjoyed “Frogger! The Frogger Musical”.  By the end of the opening act, my jaw was aching from laughing so much.

Coulton took the stage after a short break, and basically played all of my favourite songs of his.  He also did a few I was less familiar with, although “Sunny Blue Day”, which I first heard at his last show in Toronto, is rapidly becoming another favourite.  An excellent set indeed.

About the only thing I’m unsure of  was the venue.  Previous shows were at the Lula Lounge, which didn’t have assigned seating, but had a friendly and comfortable atmosphere, and felt like a more intimate space.  In contrast, the Enwave Theatre was a bit bigger and a proper theatre, with a stage, balconies, and the like, but it felt… stodgier.  The staff enforced no food/drink/photography rules, when a quick search of YouTube will demonstrate that Coulton is not shy about letting fans record his shows.  And while everyone had a good view thanks to how the seating was arranged, the openness of the theatre space made it feel sort of empty.

(However, that may be an issue unique to me.  My seat was on the balcony nearest the stage—great view, but no one in front of or behind us.  So I didn’t get that feeling of being in a crowd at concert.  During the chorus to “Re: Your Brains” when the audience joins in, I wasn’t surrounded by a horde of singing zombies as I was at the Lula Lounge.  But even down below, the crowd seemed tamer than previous year’s shows.)

Anyway, an excellent show all around.  If you ever get the chance to see either Coulton or Paul and Storm, take it.

Valentine’s Day with The Planet Smashers

When February 14th rolled around this year, I found myself tragically on my own, as my wonderful girlfriend had gone back to her studies in Germany.  I did find one bright spot in the evening however — The Planet Smashers, my favourite ska band, were playing a show in Toronto.  (You can check out some of their music here on their website.)

So it was that I found myself heading out to The Opera House — not to be confused with the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts — that evening, venturing into parts of Toronto hitherto unknown to me.  It was easy enough to find, marked as it was by people lined up outside and around the corner down a side street.  I was mildly miffed at this — I was arriving some time after the doors opened, and still there was a line.  In fact, even after I joined the line, it was over twenty minutes before I actually got inside.  That just seems so… inefficient.

At this point, you may have gathered that I am a crotchety old man, and apparently always have been — this is not a new thing since I turned thirty a month ago.  I’ve never been especially happy with these sorts of club shows — too many opening acts that I don’t care about, and the band I actually want to see doesn’t start till late and never plays as long as I’d like.  So I was bracing myself to spend most of the evening in a grumpy mood.  This expectation was further reinforced when I heard there would be two opening acts, not just one.

I was even more disheartened when the first act took the stage, and I saw four guys with guitars (of various kinds) and a drummer.  I am of the mind that four guitars is too many, when they’re the only instruments in a band.  They introduced themselves as The Snips, and, thankfully, were actually all right.  They weren’t all-guitar all the time, and in fact used a trumpet and trombone is some of their more ska-like songs.  In general, they weren’t quite my cup of tea, but unlike many other opening acts I’ve seen at shows and venues like this, they did not fill me with rage.  They played for about 45 minutes, and then ceded the stage to the next act.

The Creepshow (also on Myspace) were on stage next.  I actually quite enjoyed this band, so much so that I bought their CD after.  They stage a good show, play off each other well, and their music was quite catchy.  Also, I have something of a weakness for female vocalists for rock/punk bands.  The audience responded really well to them, throughout their 45 minute set, before they cleared out to set the stage for the main event.

Now, before I get to the Smashers themselves, let me set the stage a bit.  The Opera House is set up in a sort of tiered arrangement.  As you enter from the back, you pass a bar and the merchandise setup, and then step down to a level with a few tables and the soundboard in the middle, and then you can go a couple of steps further and down to the main floor, which takes up maybe half the venue and runs right up to the stage.

For a crotchety old fellow like me, staying in that second level, behind the sound board, was all I was willing to do.  All those (literally) punk kids crowded the main floor, and there was “moshing” or whatever they call it these days.  There were a few stage climbers/divers and crowd surfers throughout the first two acts, but clearly everyone was waiting for the main event.

In anticipation of the Smashers taking the stage, the main floor became even more crowded than before.  This was something of a boon to those of us who were on the middle level, as things eased up around us.

The Planet Smashers took the stage around 11:00 PM, and they were great!  Some bands don’t sound quite so good live as they do on their albums, but the Smashers aren’t one of them.  Right from their first song, the lower level — jam-packed as it was with people — turned into a roiling mass of people: moshing, skanking, crowd surfing, stage diving, bouncing, crashing off each other.  People got hot and sweaty; shirts came off, and not just of the guys.  The venue staff — who had largely been keeping stage divers under control for the opening acts — never quite gave up, but they were definitely losing the battle.

I’m something of a latecomer to The Planet Smashers, so I don’t really know which are their most popular songs, just which ones I like best.  I was quite happy to hear many of my favourites, including “Life of the Party” (which I first heard in an episode of Undergrads), “Missionary’s Downfall”, “Bullets to the Ground”, “I Like Your Girl”, and “Surfin’ in Tofino”.

While happily bopping along as I was, in the second tier, I still had a few crotchety old man moments during their set.  For example, some of the stage divers who got on stage would actually run behind the band as they were playing, and I just thought to myself, “That seems awfully inconsiderate, getting in the way like that.”  See?  Crotchety old man am I.

Anyway, they played a solid hour-long set, or a bit more, and then were lured back out for an encore, where they graced us with three extra songs.  I don’t remember the first of the three, but the second was another of my favourites — and apparently a favourite of everyone else — the delightfully-titled “Super Orgy Porno Party”.  They even called off the stage-minders, and so soon the stage itself was full of skanking fans in an orgy of dance.  They closed the evening out with “Sk8 or die”, leaving us happy and exhausted and still wishing there was more.

I snagged myself a T-shirt, as well as their two CDs I hadn’t been able to find in stores (since they were so cheap), and so I was pretty happy with my haul.  I rode home on the streetcar with a bunch of other concert-goers, many of whom were drunk, or high, or just elated by the concert, but it was one of the more amusing streetcar rides I’ve had as a spectator.

I think I was home before 1:00 AM.  It felt late, even though it was earlier than my normal bedtime, but I’d been on my feet for a while.  Despite all my grumbles here, this was the most enjoyable show at one of these concert halls that I’ve ever been to.  (I’ve always enjoyed the main act, but this was by far the best overall show.)  I’m hoping I’ll get a chance to see The Planet Smashers again, and might even seek out another show by The Creepshow.

Not a bad way to spend a solitary Valentine’s Day, if I do say so myself….

A Tale of Two Concerts: The Police and Vanessa Carlton

In recent months I’ve had the good fortune to take in a number of concerts by bands that I love. I want to talk about two in particular, both of which were excellent but vastly different experiences: The Police and Vanessa Carlton.

I saw The Police at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on November 8th, 2007. As you might gather, this was part of their reunion tour. Sting and The Police have long been among my favourite bands — I had seen Sting on tour with Annie Lennox back in the Fall of 2004 (a fantastic show), and figured that was the best I’d be able to do. I was glad to be wrong.

I had gotten the best (and thus most expensive) seats available, in one of the pre-sales. I figured I might as well go for the gusto, since I might not have any other chances to see them. Luckily, my girlfriend graciously considered her ticket an early birthday present, in return for the Billy Joel tickets she had gotten me for his Toronto show in April 2007. Anyway, the seats were good ones — but in a venue the size of the Air Canada Centre, there are good seats and great seats, all in the same price range, and these were only good. To see any real detail of the performers, I still had to rely on the projection screens. I’m sure I’ll figure out how to get the great seats one of these days.

Fiction Plane — a band fronted by Sting’s son Joe Sumner — opened for The Police. They seemed all right, although everyone was clearly waiting for the main event. The anticipation was palpable in the arena.

When Sting (Gordon Sumner), Andy Summers, and Stewart Copeland took the state, that anticipation paid off. As the band started with “Message in a Bottle”, the crowd was electrified, the energy erupting from the stage and spreading through the audience in an expanding wave, pulling everyone to their feet. (I have long wondered if you could quantify the awesomeness of a band by calculating the range and distance of its ability to get an audience on its feet, but, alas, I do not have the resources to mount a study.)

Naturally, The Police played all of their expected hits, but not necessarily in their expected form. More than 20 years had passed since the band had toured together; each of them had pursued solo careers in that time, and — as was noted in the concert program — they should be better musicians now. Rather than tossing out straight live versions of their studio recordings, many of the songs were now musically richer, with complex solos and percussion sections, altered tempos, and lengthy instrumental fills. This completely transformed some songs — to the point where they were unrecognizable until the lyrics came in — but they still retained the core of the original embedded within them.

The songs largely blended together into an ongoing musical landscape, which is a testament to the quality of the experience they provide. I did have the presence of mind to take some notes, and thus can provide the full set list.

  1. Message in a Bottle
  2. Synchronicity II
  3. Walking on the Moon
  4. Voices Inside My Head
  5. Don’t Stand So Close To Me
  6. Driven to Tears
  7. Hole in My Life
  8. Truth Hits Everybody
  9. Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic
  10. Wrapped Around Your Finger
  11. De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da
  12. Invisible Sun
  13. Walking In Your Footsteps
  14. Can’t Stand Losing You
  15. Roxanne
  16. King of Pain
  17. So Lonely
  18. Every Breath You Take
  19. Next To You

As I said before, they performed all of the big hits, though they left a few for the encore. It was, in essence, everything that could be hoped for in a concert by The Police — energetic audience, fantastic performance, and excellent music. The only drawback was that it was an arena show — despite the good crowd, there were still more than 20,000 people there, most of whom were nowhere close to the stage and could only see anything worthwhile on the screens. Even with my good seats, there was a certain element of impersonality to it, that is endemic of all arena shows. Perhaps this impersonality isn’t there if you manage to get seats up really close, but I haven’t had a chance to figure that out just yet.

And thus we come to the second concert I want to talk about: Vanessa Carlton at Toronto’s Mod Club Theatre on November 23rd, 2007.

I have a strange relationship with Vanessa Carlton. I really enjoy her music, and have all three of her albums, but I’m sort of ashamed to admit that and I don’t know why. She has a unique sound, and though sometimes she’s a trifle saccharine, she has interesting lyrics and melodies — and she’s cute, to boot — so I don’t really know where this shame comes from, especially given some of the other music I enjoy *cough*Avril Lavigne*cough*.

Anyway, I had seen her at the same venue in the Fall of 2004 when she was touring with her second album, and quite enjoyed that show, despite the incredibly sucky opening act that pissed me off all the more because I had assignments due that I could have been working on instead of listening to them. Thus, even though I was really enjoying her new album, I was kind of iffy on seeing her again, given how busy I was at the time. I decided to go at the last minute, paid dramatically less for the ticket this show than the ones for The Police, and set out with some other people I knew to see her again. It was a decision I would not regret, as she put off a great — albeit short — show.

Admittedly, I was in a better mood right from the start at this latest concert, with no deadlines looming the next day, and the opening act was decently inoffensive. Still, when Vanessa finally took the stage, it was a welcome sight. She started with “Nolita Fairytale”, the first track and single from her latest album Heroes & Thieves, and once she got going, her fantastically smooth and strong voice wrapped the audience up and dragged us in. I had never seen anyone swoon before, but the other guy in the group I was with literally swooned for her.

She necessarily performed slightly altered versions of her songs — she only had a guitarist as back-up, whereas her album tracks are typically heavily orchestrated. In a lot of young performers, this lack of studio support would lead to a rather anemic stage presence, but Vanessa Carlton’s piano-focussed and lyrically melodic songs worked surprisingly well in the more minimalistic staging of the the Mod Club.

She played mostly from her new album, and in fact performed most of it, hitting nine of its eleven tracks, and then taking her biggest songs from previous albums to round it out. By my recollection, she only did fourteen songs (listed in no particular order below), and performed for a little more than an hour.

  • Nolita Fairytale
  • Hands On Me
  • Ordinary Day
  • A Thousand Miles
  • My Best
  • Who’s To Say
  • White Houses
  • The One
  • C’est La Vie
  • Half a Week Before the Winter
  • Heroes & Thieves
  • Fools Like Me
  • Home
  • More Than This

I really liked her first album, so I wished she had done a few more besides “A Thousand Miles” and “Ordinary Day”, but as is often the case, the songs I like best are probably the least popular and thus least likely to show up in concerts. Fortunately, I was more than satisfied with the songs she did perform, and my only complaint was that I was left wanting more.

Part of my absolute enjoyment of this show certainly came from the venue — the Mod Club is a much smaller (and thus more intimate) concert space. We were able to get up close and get a good view, without even having to push through crowds of young girls at the stage. Vanessa’s voice and stage presence filled the room, and wrapped around us and pulled us in to an intensely personal experience as she attacked the piano keys and poured her heart into her vocals. While I’m sure she’d love to be able to fill arenas with tens of thousands of screaming fans — and while I wish her all the success she desires — I’m kind of glad that she’s still at a point where she’s playing smaller venues.

A smaller venue is the only thing that can guarantee that intimacy that I so enjoyed about the show. Even if my mind were inclined to wander, the proximity and the intensity of the performance would command my attention, and in that respect, it makes me feel like I’m part of the performance myself. I get some of that feeling in larger arena shows — especially if it is one of my favourite bands — but a smaller show always feels warmer and more inclusive. Alas, I suppose it would be wrong of me to begrudge them their success and wish for my favourite bands to be washed up and reduced to touring tiny venues.

This contrast between venues and the affect it has on my impressions of a show really stood out after seeing The Police and Vanessa Carlton mere weeks apart. While both were excellent shows, the intimacy of the show in the smaller venue has me wondering whether I should explore more such performances with bands I’m less familiar with. Recommendations are most welcome.