Wednesday, 14 November 2018

"Bohemian Rhapsody" review (sort of)

So I finally saw the Bohemian Rhapsody film a few days ago, and it seems the entire world wants to hear my opinion about it.

And everyone knows just how much I loathe giving my opinion.

Of course I'm flattered - because I've been absorbed in Queen's music and history for 25 years now, both professionally and for my personal delight, this has people thinking I'm qualified to give a more valid and pertinent review than most.

But that's the problem - I'm so intrinsically connected to this music and their story that I almost feel overqualified to provide an unbiased opinion.  When you're this deep in it, you're usually one of two things: a sycophantic fan boy, or in a position of wanting to show respect and gratitude to the people who have basically provided you with a career.  I'd like to think I'm somewhere in the middle, never wanting to pigeonhole myself into anything I can't safely crawl out of.  But I'd say I'm closer to the latter.

Ultimately I don't feel any more qualified to review this film than anyone else, because I'm but one person in the grand scheme of things; art is designed for everyone, after all.  The same way that everyone eats food, not just bourgeois chefs.

And this is perhaps disappointing for those who want to hear me say it was crap because of all the historical inaccuracies that undoubtedly would have had me wincing every 30 seconds.

Alas, that's not what happened.  Far from it.  I'd heard enough reaction from people who'd already seen it, so I reset my metric of expectation.  If we've learned anything from previous music biopics, it's that Hollywood is all about entertainment, not accuracy.  If you want accuracy, watch a documentary.  So I went in expecting to be entertained and not much more. After all, understanding the intent of art is often paramount to appreciation of it.

As I sat down in my (strangely more comfortable than usual) cinema chair and was transported back to 1970, all kinds of feelings went through my head.  My life insofar as my history of loving this band flashed before my eyes: hearing We Will Rock You for the first time on a cassette tape lent to me by my grade 6 music teacher, learning how to play it (and the rest of the Queen catalogue) on guitar at some point in the ensuing few years, meeting Brian May for the first time, launching a website about Queen's concert history, playing in my own Queen tribute band in a theatre for the first time, playing A Night At The Opera at the prestigious Massey Hall in Toronto, the countless wonderful people I've met as a result of all of this, and a whole lot other memories, both public and private, that I can't even begin to quantify.


And then I saw the characters who were overall very well cast (the guy playing Brian was uncanny).  And those characters told a story.  Not necessarily Queen's story exactly as it played out - but "a" story.  It was largely accurate, with some fabrications, and some anachronisms to advance the story wherever necessary.  And then there were those two or three scenes that even the most ardent experts on the band would say were complete fiction and never happened.  But shift around the timeline a bit, and maybe that scene where Mercury is begging for his job back is more true than one may realize.  The definitive Queen documentary called "Days Of Our Lives" came out in 2011, and there were plenty of stories told by Brian May and Roger Taylor that hadn't been previously told.  Were those 35 year old stories untrue in 2010 just because they hadn't been told yet?

And of course there were plenty of omissions, but what can one possibly expect from a two hour movie?  It will never be comprehensive.

I'd walked in thinking I wasn't the target audience.  That the film was intended more for people who knew three Queen songs than for people like me.  But by the end of the film, as I watched the triumphant Live Aid scene (which was brilliantly reproduced) with tears in my eyes, it dawned on me that tens of millions of people are now experiencing some semblance of the joy that this music has brought me over the past 25 years of my life.

No matter what we think of the film, its influence on popular culture is already in motion.  As of yesterday, the Bohemian Rhapsody soundtrack is Queen's biggest album in the US since The Game, sitting comfortably at #3 on the Billboard charts.  And another Greatest Hits album of theirs is also in the top ten, making this the first time two Queen albums have charted that high simultaneously.

My adolescent self was bullied incessantly for liking this band.  And now 20 years later, they've never been bigger in my lifetime than they are right now.  Teenage me and current me are pretty thrilled with the idea.  It is a moment I will cherish.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

review: Jeff Beck at Budweiser Stage, Toronto

I saw Jeff Beck tonight.  It was transcendental.

The evening began with sets by Ann Wilson of Heart and Paul Rodgers of Free/Bad Company.  Both were brilliant, and showed no signs of slowing down in their late 60s.  Rodgers finished his set proper with Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy, with the final words being the ad libbed "it's my dream".  In that exact moment I realized how grateful we should all be that these legendary musicians are putting their bodies through hell for months at a time on the road so that we can be entertained for a couple hours, despite being past what the rest of us would reasonably consider to be retirement age.

And then Jeff Beck began his set with a piece off his latest album.  It didn't take long to realize that his guitar has as unique a voice as the singers who preceded him.  He's possibly the best rock guitarist I've ever seen, demonstrating pure artistry through and through.  As Jimmy Page repeatedly said when he inducted Beck into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2009, "he just keeps getting better and better."

So many of the performers from days of yore rest on their laurels, but Beck has always pushed himself to stretch the limits of where the guitar can go.  This was the furthest thing from a nostalgia show.  Now age 74, he has thus long earned the right to play what he wants.  Despite having 17 studio albums under his belt, he did mostly covers, crossing many genres.  The second song was the beautiful Nadia from his early 2000s electronica period, and Mná na h-Éireann is a folk song based on an 18th century Irish poem.

Many of the pieces were different arrangements from what he had done on previous tours, like his encore of the Corpus Christi Carol, this time performed only with his cellist Vanessa Freebairn-Smith.  The man is constantly innovating.

Like Frank Zappa, the guitar is an extension of his brain, and he never plays a piece the same way twice.  Instead of using a pick, he oscillates between his thumb and index fingers.  He has created a secret handshake on his instrument that is so distinctly him.  His sound is as instantly recognizable as David Gilmour's or Brian May's.  But to call him an innovative guitarist doesn't entirely capture his essence.  He has carved his own brand of creative expression.  He is without equal.

Beck always chooses the finest musicians to tour with.  Canadian bassist Rhonda Smith, known for her work with Prince, played brilliantly throughout.  Beck is always playing with new people, expanding the sound of his ensemble and never wanting to repeat himself.  But legendary drummer Vinnie Colaiuta is one of the mainstays, whenever he is available.  I can't believe I paid $45 to see this many of the greats on one night.

Vocalist Jimmy Hall wasn't on stage for the first four songs, which leaves the audience thinking it's an instrumental show (which I would have been entirely fine with).  A brilliant vocalist, Hall sang six songs to add variety to the show as it progressed, including two of the more recognizable tunes, Little Wing and Superstition, the latter of which Beck helped Stevie Wonder write.

Stevie's Cause We've Ended as Lovers, one of Beck's signature pieces, was delivered with authority and grace, as was the set closer, A Day In The Life.  The latter sees a fine balance of Beck's emotive and playful style, and the build to the final chord left the audience in great anticipation for the crashing finale.

His British humility showed at the end of the night after introducing the band.  After Colaiuta signaled to him, he joked - "oh, it's just a piece of wood with wires."

I haven't been this inspired after seeing a show in probably a decade.  It reinforced every feeling and thought I've had to date that has told me I don't ever want to have a day job.  One cannot have a day job and work on their craft to become even 1/10th of the well-rounded musician Jeff Beck is.  It is a dedication that requires focus, persistence, and zero compromise.

Big name Toronto musicians like Kim Mitchell of Max Webster fame and Geddy Lee of Rush attended the show.  Mike Turner, formerly of Our Lady Peace, summed up the show to me in two words:

"The. Master."

And when your peers are that bold and conclusive, that says it all.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Ten Canadian albums that most people under 50 do not know and should

#1 - Hope by Klaatu

Klaatu was a big deal when they came out in 1976. In a time (keep in mind it's barely post-Vietnam) when nearly everyone thought the world would be a better place if The Beatles reunited, along came Klaatu with a couple tracks on their debut album that sounded so close to The Beatles that people thought it was the fab four in disguise. It was actually a Canadian band who'd just dropped onto the map. But for me it's their sophomore effort that best defines them. 1977's "Hope" is a concept album, beautifully crafted with an uplifting conclusion. Essential listening.

#2 - The Langley Schools Music Project

This is a piece of art unlike any other. Recorded in 1976-77 but unreleased until 2001, this is an hour of music sung and performed by several groups of school children in British Columbia, although with a twist - it is not traditional children's music. The children and their teacher (who started the project) rejected the idea that kids' music should be perpetually happy and upbeat, as it didn't accurately reflect the range of emotion children feel. While there are some peppier numbers like Good Vibrations and Sweet Caroline, they balanced the scale by expressing equally genuine and universal feelings like loneliness and sadness. Pieces like God Only Knows, Space Oddity, The Long and Winding Road (sung solo by a 10 year old), and Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (see: Klaatu above) are beautiful and sometimes challenging listens.

The kids play all the instruments too, and the songs carry vibes that range from Philip Glass to Phil Spektor to Gregorian Chant. I'm Into Something Good sounds more like gospel than a silly pop song.

Even in 2001, it took ten record labels for one to finally say yes to releasing this. That in itself is proof that we have such a long way to go in undercutting stigmas in our understanding of children (and ourselves). This music serves as a reminder that it is okay to express any feeling or idea, not just the ones that society or Facebook say are more worthy of air time than others.

Even if the technical execution isn't always perfect, this is one of the most genuine expressions of feelings through music you will ever experience.

#3 - Jaune by Jean-Pierre Ferland

While plenty of Canadians may not be in touch with their musical heritage, this cannot be said for Quebec and Newfoundland, who tend to wear their culture on their sleeve. While the rest of Canada is used to looking at magazine racks with mostly American content, in Quebec they have their movie stars and their music. And they have classic albums that they cherish like this one from 1970.

It is easily as good as anything the British or west coast folk movements came up with in the period. The sound is warm, the arrangements are beautifully crafted, and the influences and colours are many. It somehow manages to sound both of its time and like it was recorded yesterday.

"God Is An American" is satire at its finest (and decades before Bowie's "I'm Afraid Of Americans").  It's almost like it's Quebec's answer to Glenn Gould's "So You Want To Write A Fugue" - absolutely brilliant.

And if you're not sold yet - in 1971, John Lennon said this was North America's best album of the year.

And for all you prog heads - a young Tony Levin is on bass.

If Lake Louise and the Bay Of Fundy are what Canada looks like, then albums like this are what Canada sounds like.

#4 - The Goldberg Variations by Glenn Gould

Undoubtedly one of the most visionary and influential musicians ever to play an instrument, this is his definitive work. His original 1955 interpretation of these piano works by Bach are what put him on the map, but the 1981 version has a certain maturity and wisdom to it. His playful approach towards this musical scripture set him apart from his peers, and his iconic and subtle humming along (which no recording engineer could ever manage to remove) is not a detraction - it is all part of the charm. He was seen by many as an eccentric mad man, and I'm sure he wouldn't have resented that label. It takes a mad man to make 200 year old music completely new again.

This is one of the most important recordings of the last hundred years. And it is Canadian.

#5 - High Class In Borrowed Shoes by Max Webster

While virtually unknown outside of Canada, Max Webster were a massive force in their day. Led by Kim Mitchell, they were a sort of Canadian Frank Zappa, but more accessible. All their records went at least gold here, and at their peak they were regularly cited as being amongst the top few acts in the country.

Their 1977 sophomore effort is likely their finest. Their left of centre quirkiness (both musical and lyrical) defined them, and they created a sound entirely of their own with slick musicianship and hooks all over. No two consecutive tracks have the same vibe, yet it is a cohesive piece. Many of them remain radio classics, like the title track, Gravity, and Diamonds Diamonds. On The Road is perhaps the finest travelling musician song ever written, and In Context Of The Moon says more in 5 minutes than most prog bands could say in 20.

They are often seen as Rush's little brother, but anyone who was around then will tell you that they more than held their own, and how criminal it is that they did not get their due. Max Webster may well be Canada's best kept secret, and High Class In Borrowed Shoes is probably the best explanation why.

#6 - Cyborgs Revisited by Simply Saucer

Simply Saucer are best described as a proto-punk band. They recorded just one album in 1974, although it wasn't released until 1989 (only a 7" single was released while they were around). Their sound was kind of a cross between the Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk, and Television - and that third one is what makes them most interesting, as they came up with this punky sound several years before punk even happened, which is nothing short of revolutionary.

Side A of the album is the aforementioned studio material, and side B is a live recording from 1975. Although this Hamilton, Ontario band remains pretty obscure, the album was reviewed by two publications as, I quote, "the best Canadian album ever recorded." It garnered favourable reviews from bigger magazines like Spin and New Musical Express as well.

The music is simultaneously visionary and kind to its predecessors. Well worth a listen.

I'm also happy to report that after several decades of absence, they have reunited and play pretty regularly.

#7 - Acadie by Daniel Lanois

Not only is this musically one of the greatest records ever made (not just in Canada), but sonically it is beautiful.  Released in 1989, when technology had gone amok and most records had snare drum triggers and dated synthesizer sounds, this still sounds like it was recorded yesterday.

Lanois had come off the success of producing two massive albums for U2, and had nothing to prove.  He had time and space (and he had Brian Eno, which also didn't hurt), and that's exactly what this album sounds like - it breathes freely.  The songs are marvellous and soulful.  "The Maker" is one of the finest tracks ever written, easily as good as any of U2's best songs from the period.

This record is one of the most genuine pieces of art to emerge from the 1980s.  There is nothing quite like it.

#8 - Discovery by Ron Hynes

Ron Hynes was Newfoundland's Gordon Lightfoot, only he wasn't nearly as prolific. This 1972 album is his only released pre-1990s work, and it's easily as good as anything released by Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen in the period. It has everything you'd expect from a quality folk album - introspection, longing, and wisdom far beyond the years of a man at 22.

Albums like this reach into the psyche of a person better than any therapist or bottle of booze could. It's as real as it gets.

#9 - Somewhere Outside by The Ugly Ducklings

The Ugly Ducklings only put out one album in their heyday, but they made their mark.  This 1966 long player was psychedelic garage rock mostly influenced by the British invasion (particularly The Kinks and The Who), but a bit more rough around the edges - and I mean that in the most flattering of ways.  There is attitude, musicality, and songwriting as good as anything happening at the time.  Their most commercially successful song was Gaslight a year later, but it is this album that remains their most important work.

The last song, the bluesy instrumental Windy City, is way ahead of its time.  Its loose guitar and harmonica is early Led Zeppelin before early Led Zeppelin.

The Ugly Ducklings opened for The Rolling Stones at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto in 1966.  Mick Jagger called them his favourite Canadian band.

#10 - Canadiana Suite by Oscar Peterson

Oscar's trio is at the peak of their powers in a 1964 to create one of the most beautiful jazz albums ever recorded.  The eight tracks are named after different places in the country, and they are eight distinctly different musical landscapes, with influences ranging from ragtime to blues.

While Oscar's chops are out of this world, he plays with a sensitivity that creates a musical expression of the vast space this great country has.  It leaves the listener with the feeling that no matter where you are, there is empty space for peace and solace not far from you - a takeaway that is probably more relevant today than ever.

Sonically it is also a marvel.  It's almost impossible to believe that technology over 50 years old could create an album that sounds this magnificent.

#11 - Les Cinq Saisons by Harmonium

Narrowing it down to ten albums was impossible.  And this last one is more than an honourable mention.

Harmonium was once referred to as the "most important Canadian band ever" by the Toronto Sun.  1975's "Les Cinq Saisons" (or "Si On Avait Besoin d'Une Cinquième Saison," roughly translated as "If We Needed a Fifth Season") merited a mention in Rolling Stone magazine's long overdue list of their top 50 progressive rock albums of all time in 2015 (and they also declared it the best progressive folk album).

The traditional rock band instrumentation notably isn't employed here, as there are plenty of woodwinds and no drums.  The music is often playful and whimsical, executed without the slightest sense of inhibition.  The album begins with four shorter tracks, one for each season of the year.  The summer track "Dixie" has a jazzy ragtime feel to it, and the autumn track "Depuis l'automne" is haunting and pastoral.

But it is the longer fifth track (representing a mythical fifth season) that takes up most of side two and elevates the album from excellent to otherworldly.  This track, the mostly instrumental Histoires Sans Paroles (Song Without Words), is one of the most beautiful pieces of music ever committed to tape.

And to much of Quebec, this is their folk music.  There are numerous videos of bands covering this piece.  Here's a group of high school kids performing it note perfect:

Saturday, 6 January 2018

review: The Musical Box at Danforth Music Hall, Toronto

Last night I saw The Musical Box - truly one of the best shows I've ever seen.
Maybe it's not the greatest idea begin a review with an editorial, but this is one those shows that was so obviously good that no time should be wasted in building up to a punch line. To those not in the know, The Musical Box are not just a tribute band, but the standard for what a tribute band can and should be. They perform the music of Genesis, but not the "Invisible Touch" Genesis most of us know. It's the Genesis fronted by Peter Gabriel in the early to mid 1970s, when they created progressive rock music that told stories, kind of like Mark Twain in musical form.

The music isn't just rock songs. It is densely layered and intricately arranged. It is intense. It creates moods anywhere between 1 and 23 minutes long.

This particular show I saw aimed to replicate the Genesis tour of 1974. The set before the encores was 9 songs and over two hours long. Sounds like a pretty niche thing, you say? Well, it is. Most things are these days.

When Genesis performed live at this time, not only was it a musical performance, but Peter Gabriel donned outfits and masks of the various characters portrayed in the songs. This tribute band replicates the Genesis shows to perfection, both musically and visually, to the point that the Genesis band members gave them their blessing in the form of their multi-track master tapes to work with so that they could improve the show.

Gabriel once took his son to see them and said, "that's what daddy used to do."

Is there any higher praise?

If you had dementia and didn't know what year it was, you were seeing Genesis. There are a lot of good tribute bands out there doing all the great artists, but no other act gets this close.

This is art in its purest form. It's rock, it's classical, and it's theatre. I walked away from this show realizing that this is the classical music of our time. People may have been stoned in 1974 at Maple Leaf Gardens, but last night at the Danforth Music Hall they were sober, and absorbing every word and visual delight they could.

It kind of makes me want to create a counterpart for Queen's shows in 1976-77. They were a pretty majestic entity at that time, with a similar balance of music and visuals. Similarly niche, and therefore possible. Food for thought.

Believe it or not, they actually existed before We Are The Champions.

If you have even remotely good taste in music, then The Musical Box is a show you absolutely must see. It is one of the very finest productions the music industry has ever produced. They tour every year.