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Saturday
Nov212015

Ian Rankin at the Bluma Appel Salon- November 18th, 2015

I have an extensive list of favourite authors whose work I admire and wait for eagerly after I reserve their new release on the public library’s online system. I do not buy many books anymore; despite a wrap-around, built-in shelving unit in our large basement, we have exhausted almost every available corner for our collection of literary treasures. Wednesday night, Ian Rankin’s recent release, “Even Dogs in the Wild”, was squeezed in between some other special books after I came home from his Q and A with fellow crime writer Linwood Barclay at the Toronto Reference Library’s Bluma Appel Salon with a signed copy.

The home library. Always room for one more special book…

My favourite corner of the home library: Klein, Rice, Rankin, and Townshend…

There are many musical groups who are both my contemporaries and artists I have followed from the very beginning of their careers, but Ian Rankin is the only author I can add to that category. I picked up “Knots and Crosses” when it was first published because I was (and still am) always looking for new detective fiction: I have had a lifelong love affair with the genre, from my first Nancy Drew as a child to discovering Poirot as a teenager, but it was the references to music and Rebus’ cranky character that grabbed me as a young adult in university and has yet to let me go almost thirty years later. I picked up every new book as soon at it came out, and remember thinking that it was possible for authors of our generation to become successful because he had done it. It inspired me to dust off an old manuscript I’d written in my late teens and eventually led me to publish my rock fiction novels four years ago.

The book that reeled me into Rebus’ world back in 1987.

The interview with Linwood Barclay was enjoyable on many levels: the humour flowed with ease between them as it does when friends are chatting, and I found Ian to be as natural a storyteller in person as he is on the page. Linwood was exceptional as an interviewer: he let Ian offer personal anecdotes effortlessly, rarely stopping except to add his own details or a personal connection to the story being shared with the capacity crowd. The format worked really well, and people were treated to a highly informative and entertaining dialogue between the two men. I laughed uproariously when they discussed Ian’s reticence for sex scenes and gruesome descriptions of violence in the Rebus novels: they referred to author Lawrence Block’s recent work for including so many anal sex scenes that it could read as a manual. Ian Rankin later tweeted that we had been a raucous crowd, but I would argue we were led there by the conversation, which was, like all good banter, peppered here and there with mild cursing that Rankin successfully curbed with a self-bleeping gesture except for one or two slip-ups. I was glad to see that I did not imagine my recently-made Scottish friends having a disproportionate tendency towards potty mouth language, but that this is true of literate, PhD students with a wide vocabulary as well. My cursing Scottish pals, I hasten to add, are likewise well-educated, highly intelligent, and in possession of a vast bank of words.

A capacity crowd at the Bluma Appel Salon on Wednesday night. Fifth row and second to the right is where I am hiding in black next to my friend Carol all decked in white.

As a fan of his work and someone who adores both the city of Edinburgh and music, I appreciated his insights into his characters and locales, chuckling at his references to Scotland’s annoying motorway “average speed cameras”, which we experienced during our recent trips there. I laughed and felt the collective but distant groan of Scottish police CIDs when he shared the story about their retirement ages being upped by a government official and fan of his work so that his fictional John Rebus could stay on at his imaginary post a few years longer. I really hope that was a spun yarn and not something that really happened…

The twentieth Rebus novel. What an incredible run that continues to this day.

As a writer, I was fascinated by the way he completes his initial draft, which in some way mirrored my own process of getting the story down first and then researching particular facts to make everything within the narrative accurate. His retelling of imitating Rebus’ drive to Ullapool and back from the far north down to Edinburgh in one day is not unlike some of the recreations I experienced to ensure that my book details were exact, and it was a relief to hear that I am not alone in being so meticulous.

There were also poignant moments, and the one that struck me in particular was when Linwood asked Ian about his recent sabbatical. Ian spoke of mortality and the recent loss of some dear friends, including fellow Scots writer Iain Banks. When asked if he’d read his posthumously published last novel, “The Quarry”, he replied that it still sat on his nightstand because, “as long as it remains there unread, there is still another book of his to read, and he is still not dead to me.” What a powerful, touching moment that was.

One of my favourite exchanges came when we were invited to ask questions and a Scottish gentleman asked him if a certain Edinburgh club owner (no last name, only a last initial mentioned) was the real life inspiration for Big Ger Cafferty’s character. Rankin laughed and qualified his answer by stating it depended on whether not the man was still alive. I asked whether or not Rankin could see himself crossing into new genres, something I genuinely have been wondering about since so many others are doing it very successfully. I was particularly thinking of J.K. Rowling, whose current series is one of my favourites. Ian’s answer, after joking about a slim volume called “The Rebus Cookbook”: a firm no. That’s my rock fiction writing career safe from a more talented invasion then.

At the end of the evening, Ian signed personalized copies for the long line of fans. He was attentive and patient with everyone who waited to speak to him, and I was delighted to finally meet him and tell him how much I have enjoyed reading his work for almost three decades now. I meant to tell him how he had inspired me to find the motivation to write again, but our brief conversation went elsewhere instead. He was gracious enough to let my friend take a photograph of us together, and I must say, my generation is pretty photogenic for a group now middle-aged.

Yours truly with the man of the hour.

I now need to go buy another copy of the new Rebus novel, and had I been thinking clearly, should have done so at the venue itself. My habitual reading sanctuary is the bathtub, where bubbles and essential oils have ruined many a copy of the library loans. There is no chance I am doing this to the treasure placed in my hands on Wednesday night.

Too precious for the water.

Sunday
Oct182015

Paul McCartney at the Air Canada Centre, October 17th, 2015

Inside the ACC.

The last time I saw Paul McCartney play in Toronto, the Blue Jays won the World Series the same year. I only mention this because a few of us were chuckling outside the main entry points of the Air Canada Centre last night wondering why the “Doors Opening at 7pm” routine was still not in effect as we closed in on 7:30pm. Were the stadium crews watching the Blue Jays trying to tie up their series away in Kansas City? In fact, we were being held outside because a soundcheck was still being carried out, one which included a pipe band from nearby Paris and Port Dover, a rehearsal of what would be for me one of the most memorable moments of the evening.

The ACC seating chart showing the wheelchair friendly sections. We were up in 319.

This show, for me, is one for the ages for many reasons. For the first time, I accompanied someone with a knee injury that has placed her temporarily in a wheelchair and using crutches, and being seated in the Air Canada Centre’s wheelchair-accessible section was an interesting experience in itself. The special boxed area had a total of eight seats, and each disabled person could bring up to two attendants (each requiring a ticket). A washroom was nearby in the public concession area, the view was unobstructed by anyone dancing or standing in front of us, or even by the regular movement of others going to and from their seats during the performance. The seats themselves were generously padded and not fixed to the floor, which meant marvellous legroom and lateral movement as well. The only way this section could be improved, in my opinion, would be with a personal bar or some kind of waitressing service, and with a private washroom immediately next to the seats. That said, it was one of the most pleasurable experiences, right from the elevator ride up to our return to the outside many hours later.

A view of the arena from section 319.

The concert itself was remarkable, and I must apologize to Frank Turner for bumping him out of my “best concert of the year” ranking with full kudos to him for entertaining me in early March and outlasting Mumford and Sons, Ed Sheeran (twice!), U2, Imagine Dragons, Walk Off the Earth, Chvrches, and Passenger. Sir Paul, in his early seventies, deserves the nudge forward for a few good reasons: he played many deep cuts from his Beatle days, he looked and sounded wonderful, and he was genuinely impishly amusing, modest, and generous throughout his three-hour marathon show of 41 numbers. I love you dearly, Frank, but this was spectacular in a way that will stay with me a long time.

A few flickers of old-style lighters in a crowd of cellphone flashlights.

The deep cuts were incredible: some were from his tenure with Wings, gems like ‘Another Day’, ‘Hi Hi Hi’, ‘Nineteen-Hundred and Eighty-Five’, and ‘Let Me Roll It’, while others were treasures from the Beatles period. Those numbers were made special because some of them were originally sung by his bandmates, such as ‘For the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, while his version of George Harrison’s beautiful composition ‘Something’ was memorable because it began with a ukulele accompaniment. He also gave us some of the big standards people expect when he is on tour: ‘The Long and Winding Road’, ‘Let It Be’, ‘Lady Madonna’, ‘Band on the Run’, ‘Hey Jude’, on and on it went with his classics, all flawlessly delivered. ‘Live and Let Die’ was an explosive moment in the literal sense, with fireworks and bomb bursts coming from all corners of the stage every time the song crescendoed to its chorus. We could feel the heat all the way up to the top of the arena where we sat, and it was loud, so loud.

Explosions! Fireworks!

Visually, the stage was open and simple, with a backdrop that was mirrored by a video floor showing the same footage in a perpendicular manner. This was helpful for us since we were nearly side-stage and could not always see the background of video enhancements. Musically, his band was tight, and it was interesting to watch the synthesizer emulate all the brass and string instruments that were so prevalent in the Beatles’ 1966-1967 period. From a fan’s perspective, this was a Paul McCartney who felt nostalgic and wanted to connect with many generations of fans, something not surprising given his age and longevity in the industry: he told stories throughout the evening, sharing personal anecdotes about Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton, and his lost bandmates. He reminisced about Linda but also played a song written for his present wife, and his banter with those who were near the front of the stage with all their signs was endearing and light-hearted. It is apparently a ‘thing’ on this current tour that signs are held up so he can choose a few fans to come up on stage and get his autograph. Last night’s cross-section was touching (‘Married 35 years, anniversary tonight’ was one winner) and often humorous (‘Sign me and I’ll go vegan’ was my favourite). He poked gentle fun at some of the attempts to charm him (’58 years old and still want to marry Paul when I grow up’ was one such cute sign) and seemed to enjoy the exchange with his fans. The second winners were a mother and daughter team: she got a signature for a future tattoo, and her child got a tee shirt autograph. He was also often taken aback by the adoration and loud applause, and seemed genuinely humbled by it all.

The video floor.

In the end, my favourite moments were simple ones: hearing him perform ‘And I Love Her’ gave me goosebumps because it is one of the most beautiful melodies from the early Beatles period. I inserted its appearance into a scene in one of my novels because it is just the perfect, simple love song, enhanced by George Harrison’s stunning guitar riff and Paul’s heartfelt vocals. Last night, it still managed to stir the same emotions in me.

Paul McCartney signing the drum of the Paris-Port Dover pipe band before it gets retired.

‘Mull of Kintyre’ being played as an encore with the Paris-Port Dover pipe band.

The highlight of the evening for me, which not only made me happy but will also bring a smile to my friend Ian’s face, is that one of the encores was ‘Mull of Kintyre.’ I’ve always loved the song, but to have been told by my Nottingham pal that McCartney would likely bring it out for the Canadian audience (we have a large proportion of people with Scottish ancestry) was all I needed to make sure my phone was ready to capture it on video to enjoy over and over. Everyone who knows me is aware of my love affair with the land of the unicorns, and it was so neat to see a pipe band from Port Dover, a lovely town just southwest of Toronto where many great summers were spent at my sister’s cottage. It was the perfect end to a near-perfect evening, my only complaint being of a bit of echo from our corner of the arena when Sir Paul spoke; this show was vastly superior to the one I saw in the early nineties, if only because the setlist was more diverse, and spanned the length of his career instead of focussing solely on Wings material. I appreciated that he played current songs as well, although I will cheekily admit that I used the moment of his Kanye West collaboration for a much-needed bathroom break.

A final wave of the Canadian flag before saying goodnight.

All in all, a wonderful night. All we need now is for the Blue Jays to get it all together now.

Thursday
Oct152015

The Legendary Billy Connolly at Massey Hall, Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

Billy Connolly is a legend of comedy. One only needs to plug in his name on Youtube to find a long list of videos showcasing his hilarious standup routines, film clips, appearances on talk shows, and televised interviews. Start with “Terrorist Attack at Glasgow Airport” and you will soon be in stitches: it’s one of my favourites. I’m also quite fond of his “Fuck Off” routine. The man is a global superstar, and one of the few comedians who can made my sides ache with painful, uproarious fits of prolonged laughter.

The stage after the performance.

Last night in Toronto, Billy Connolly performed the first of three shows from his “High Horse” tour at the iconic Massey Hall. He came on stage less than half an hour after the city’s baseball team had won their first playoff series in 23 years, and the atmosphere was already electric because of the victory. He paid tribute to the Blue Jays, gave us a lovely story about meeting Gordon Lightfoot in the 1960s to celebrate the hall he was performing in, a venue closely associated with the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter. Having connected with the crowd through the use of local references, Billy began his routine with personal anecdotes about his battle with prostate cancer and more recently, with Parkinson’s disease.

What struck me the most, between loud fits of laughter in the almost-two hours of comedy, is what a gifted storyteller he is. He is all about the tale rather than the joke, and has a way of painting a scene with the most perceptive details, reeling you in and throwing parts designed to make you giggle often. Eventually the story reaches a hysterical climactic ending that leaves you clutching your sides as he assures you that everything he’s told you is “absolutely true”. I believed him at every turn last night, and especially loved the story of trying to buy a cigar in Margaret Square in Aberdeen and being besieged by autograph seekers wanting their money signed. It will remain forever memorable because of what happened after the show.

The Connolly-ed fiver.

To see a legend performing at any point in their career is one of the greatest joys, and for me, having never had (or taken) the chance to see him before, I thoroughly loved the experience of finally seeing him live. While he is no longer at the top of his game and sometimes lacked the physical energy that is so evident on those Youtube clips, it was a complete joy to listen to him: not only was it a raw and brave performance, but he was absolutely funny in a way I never doubted. He made great jokes at the expense of his shaking left hand, regaled us with tales of what his treatments for prostate cancer had done to his sexual abilities, and then encouraged the males in the crowd to get checked. If only all PSAs were this hilarious.

There were tales about Glasgow football teams and Scottish films, all weaved into little vignettes that often made interesting observations about the absurdities of life. One of the things that endeared me the most to him last night was how he started the show with four or five quick uses of the word “cunt”, only to completely remove the word from his vocabulary for the rest of the evening. It was as though he began the night thinking he was in the UK then readjusted himself when he realised he was in North American. “Cunt” was quickly replaced by the frequent use of the words “fucking” and “wanker”, often used together.

The author with the legend.

Amazing hair on both of them.

After the show ended, we somehow ended up in a laneway with about a dozen other fans. It is not my usual habit to wait for an artist outside a venue, but the small group was friendly and we chatted and shared stories as the possibility of his appearance at the stage door grew more possible. One couple had come from Inverurie in Aberdeenshire for a Canadian wedding, and had driven four hours from Windsor to see him because, to use their own words, “He’s so big in Scotland you can’t get tickets to see him.” Again, that legend thing. About twenty minutes after we had all hung out together, a security guard told us he wasn’t sure there would be any autograph signings or photos (he had apparently stopped to sign upon his arrival hours before), but that if it did happen, he wanted an orderly affair. How beautifully Canadian. We assured him we would comply and were greeted by a very charming and obliging Billy Connolly soon thereafter. We had formed a short line, and he was gracious and patient with all his fans, including the Scottish couple who were delighted to finally meet their idol. I presented him our polymer plastic five-dollar bill and said I doubted my pen would work on it as it would have in the Aberdeen story he had told; he pulled out a Sharpie and I am now the proud owner of a Connollyed fiver. He was also kind enough to sign my ticket, and to allow himself to be in a picture with me, and then in another one with my husband. They made quite the well-coiffed pair. I was surprised at how tall and majestic he still seems despite his more frail condition, and still look at him and see a strong face and solid frame.That said, it impressed me to no end that as fragile as he appeared up close, he took the time to greet all his fans before and after a long evening spent entertaining us so beautifully. Pure legend.

Monday
Oct122015

Chvrches at Danforth Music Hall, Monday October 5th, 2015

The Danforth Music Hall is one of my favourite Toronto venues. It has a long history of hosting incredible bands on their way to mainstream success, and I was lucky enough to catch a relatively new and unknown trio called The Police in 1979 there before they climbed to the top of all the global record charts and became superstars.

On Monday, October 5th, I was treated to a performance by the electronic Scottish trio Chvrches. The opening act, Mansionair, hailing from Australia, delivered great melodies with a rich sound with elements of prog rock. By the time Chvrches came out after 9pm, the audience was ready for a change of pace, and they gave us an evening of high-energy, keyboard-based music.

With a discography of two albums, “The Bones of What You Believe” from 2013, and the recently-released “Every Open Eye”, the set was never going to be a long one, but it was filled with great songs from both records. The trio is fronted by the talented Lauren Mayberry, whose voice evokes Kate Bush (and a touch of Cindy Lauper at times with the newer material) while still maintaining her distinct personality. Flanked by Iain Cook and Martin Doherty on keyboards and various instruments, she is full of warmth and energy as she delivers most of the lead vocals and occasionally bangs a mean drum.

The light show behind them did not detract from the music, bur rather enhanced it as it mirrored their beats and gave the stage greater visual interest. The only strange moment of the show happened halfway through their set, when Lauren stopped the performance to go comfort a young lady who was in tears on the floor just in front of bassist Iain Cook. I found out later, by sharing a subway ride home with the unhappy fan, that she had been harassed by a member of the security team for the use of a digital camera, and that her emotions had gotten the better of her. She received a warm hug from Mayberry and the show, as they say, went on.

Because of a foot injury, I had purchased mezzanine-level seating instead of the general admission floor section where fans stood where they wished and could dance. I do not regret the choice, given how sore I was and also because I had secured two first row seats on the balcony. The view was unobstructed and I thoroughly enjoyed the show. One of the interesting observations I could make from my high vantage point was that cellular phones were rarely evident in the audience below me, despite the young age of the average fan. This to me spoke volumes of the connection Chvrches made with their fans and the high level of personal engagement that came from the crowd. If you can, do yourselves a favour and catch these two bands on their current North American tour. They are both great fun and I believe that Chvrches will no longer be playing such small venues when they next hit our shores. This is a group on the rise, much like The Police were after I first caught them in this wonderful venue so long ago.

All photos by Anne-Marie Klein

Saturday
Sep192015

Passenger at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, September 19th, 2015

I’ve been a fan of Mike Rosenberg, or Passenger as he’s better known, for over three years now. He broke out globally with his hit “Let Her Go” and the album it came from, “All the Little Lights,” caught my ears. I’ve been trying to catch him live ever since, but until today, every time he’s come to Toronto, I’ve been elsewhere.

He played for an hour at the Toronto Urban Roots Festival, acoustic guitar in hand and heart on his sleeve. An accomplished songwriter and natural storyteller, he blended those two gifts to give an inspired performance. That he remains humble and slightly incredulous of his success despite his tremendous talent and achievements just makes him all the more charming. He bantered in between songs, said “thank you so much” more times than I could count, and it all seemed genuine and heartfelt.

The weather was warm and the rain held off until very late in the set, and the audience was treated to material from all his albums. After beginning with the beautiful “Fairytales and Firesides,” the crowd was invited to participate by singing along and assured “that it’s not important to sound good, but to be loud.” The hour went by quickly, with everyone clapping and singing and then quietly listening to some of his most beautiful ballads; in particular, his cover of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” captured the audience and kept them with him until he left the stage one encore and thirty-five minutes later.

Despite his claims of being a depressing artist, I found the entire experience uplifting and joyous: he made and held eye contact with his fans, responded to calls with polite gratitude and a wide smile, and delivered an all-too short set filled with great songs. I didn’t get to hear my three favourite numbers, “Feather on the Clyde”, “Hearts on Fire”, and “Coins In a Fountain”, but he did play some fantastic numbers and give me a day to remember. I am hoping that he will make a surprise appearance at Ed Sheeran’s Air Canada Centre show tomorrow night: he had been touring with him, they are both good friends, and it would be such a delight to see them on the stage together. Fingers crossed for a second day of magic tomorrow!