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Thursday
Jul302015

Ghost Rider: Travels On The Healing Road

Sometimes a book comes along just when you need it to. You turn the first few pages and it grips you, refusing to let go.

More than eight weeks ago, Neil Peart’s “Ghost Rider: Travels On the Healing Road” finally arrived from the library’s city-wide hold shelf. I’d been meaning to pick it up for many years, but for whatever reason, never followed through. It was mid-June, a crazy time at school like no other in the calendar, and I already sensed there would be at least one renewal before I got through the thick memoir. I was optimistic as it turned out, and it has taken me up until this morning to finish my reading.

None of the sluggish pace is any fault of the book, in fact, quite the opposite is true: I didn’t want my journey with Neil to end, and I know I deliberately slowed my pace to savour it, to carefully read every word, going over some of the descriptions of landscapes more than once because they were so evocative and vividly portrayed. Sometimes I stayed away to absorb the ideas and reflections he put across, and at other times I got too involved in my own work-in-progress to give it the proper attention it deserved. Even so, it stayed with me these last two months in a way a book hasn’t managed to do in a long time.

I’ve not suffered the loss this man has endured, although like everyone else, I have lost family dear to me in years gone by and I could thoroughly identify with his feelings of helplessness and intense grief. It took me a long time to “get over” my father’s death, and reading this account reminded me of that emotional journey in many ways. I have always found that each death in one’s circle brings back all the previous ones, making one relive what we think of as long-settled grief back to the surface in unsettling ways. As I read the book, it brought me back to 2001, and my own healing road, which was a two-week holiday in Scotland after my father had passed away. Much like Neil, I found peace and acceptance in the midst of stunning landscapes and the company of someone I cared for deeply. His advice to “keep moving” is certainly sound, and I also nodded at his other four directives for coping with grief: kicking one’s own ass gently, avoiding replay syndrome, making peace with others where you could, and allowing others the pleasure of helping you. All of these tips are remarkably simple as statements, much harder to implement in actuality, but likely instrumental in getting whole again.

These last few months, my loss has been one of a friendship I valued, a big nothing when compared to the death of two family members, but difficult in its own way. It is perhaps with this on my mind that reading this book was so personal to me, but time and place are often what attaches you to a song, a piece of art, or some writing. And so it has been with me, and I am a better person for having turned the last page, as I suspected I would be midway through. His words leapt off the page, so raw and brutally honest, so eloquently written and framed with dry humour and hilarious anecdotes, especially those in the letters he wrote to a dear friend who was in prison for a good part of his riding days. He helped me to put things in perspective, which has allowed me to put the ghost to bed and genuinely accept that life, though often unfair, is what it is and there’s no sense in fighting against what has already happened. Again, though he phrased it very differently, I am reminded that ‘things will be some way’, and that this may not be ideal, but it’s certainly okay. So thank you, Neil, for reaffirming that notion, which I hope to carry with me through any other difficult days that may lie ahead.

One thing that freaked me out a little, as these things often do, is that the journey he undertook was eerily similar to that of one of my novel series’ characters, who was actually modelled after Neil as a band lyricist (though I made him a bass player and not a drummer). What made the connection give me goosebumps was that I wrote the parallel scenes in 1979, long before they happened in Neil’s actual life. As I told a friend yesterday, meeting my first husband after I’d written my first book gave me the first goosebumps because his young life mirrored my main character’s difficult childhood right down to the same timeline of horrific trauma, and my recent trips to Scotland have rekindled those bizarre feelings because Edinburgh was long established in pivotal scenes of my current work-in-progress long before I fell in love with the city last summer and last spring. Life is indeed stranger than fiction sometimes.

As I get ready to return this library copy back, I am overwhelmed with a strange sense of gratitude for having read it at the right time. I’ve got a personal copy that will follow me to Scotland in a few weeks’ time, not because I want to reread it, but because I know just the person who will appreciate it and maybe get out of it as much as I did and because, to quote my favourite lyric from the book,

We are islands to each other building hopeful bridges on the troubled sea.

Tuesday
Jul072015

U2 at the Air Canada Centre, Monday July 6th, 2015

October 3rd, 1987, and I have a dilemma: my brother has offered me a free ride to the Arctic Circle and back on the British Airways Concorde, but I have tickets to see U2 for the first time at CNE Stadium in Toronto. My reply is quick, and the logic is as follows: “I have to go see U2. Concorde will always be there but I’ve heard that U2 might be breaking up after this tour.” In 1987, the air was cold in the outdoor arena, and the young band was on fire, with a setlist heavily celebrating their Unforgettable Fire _and _Joshua Tree albums. We sang along to a great cover of the Beatles’ ‘Help’, and to the beautiful medley of ‘Bad’ and Lou Reed’s ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. I came home in love with the live version of a group whose every record I owned, and crossed my fingers that the rumours were false. Thirteen years later, having seen U2 three or four more times, I gasped in horror as an Air France Concorde crashed in Paris and all the beautiful birds were retired from service before I could step aboard and experience the magic of supersonic flight.

The British Airways Concorde. Sadly missed.

Last night, watching U2 at the Air Canada Centre on the Innocence and Experience tour, I came as close to forgiving myself for the monumental moment of stupidity I had twenty-eight years ago as I ever will. My heart still aches for the loss of the aircraft I once saw takeoff at Heathrow and found so beautifully elegant, but I’ve made my peace at last.

U2 announcement just outside the Air Canada Centre.

U2 concerts were always a feast for the senses: from the Trabantis hanging in mid-air on the Achtung Baby tour to the lemon elevator of the Pop era, the band has always added visual effects and three-dimensional backdrops to their performances. Last night was no exception, with a runway that went across the floor of the Air Canada Centre from the main platform and finished with a circular, banjo-like secondary stage. From one end to the other, an intersecting screen was at times transparent, then suddenly filled with moving images and graphics, as well as used for enlarged video of the group. What was interesting was that the first few numbers, including the rarely played gem ‘Out of Control’, were played on the stark, open stage, leading me to whisper to my sister that they had gone back to their early roots and stripped the show of any props and enhancements. No sooner had I said that than we were transported back in time to the Dublin of Bono’s childhood, to his house on Cedarwood Road, with graphics that only hinted at the magical moments to come

Scenes from Cedarwood Road fill the video screen.

There was a largely Irish theme to the first part of the concert, culminating with a powerful rendition of ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ that had the flag of the Irish republic lighting the runway floor and news reports of the terrible Dublin bombings of 1974 along with photos of the many victims appearing on the screen. It ended with a plea for a Truth and Reconciliation committee to be formed so that there could be justice for the forgotten.

The Irish Troubles on display.

From the Irish Troubles, the band moved to the fall of the Berlin Wall, with graffiti on the big screen and songs from Achtung Baby, before the band took a break as an animated Johnny Cash delivered a stirring version of ‘The Wanderer’. It was amusing watching some younger fans using the moment to take a bathroom or beer purchasing break— one beside me asked if this was intermission music!

Graffiti to evoke the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Johnny Cash interactive piece.

The band steps behind the transparent screen to play in between graphic enhancements.

From their return to the stage, the energy shifted and kicked into high gear. A belly dancer was plucked from the audience after being spotted by bassist Adam Clayton, and she swivelled her hips for the better part of ‘Mysterious Ways’ before being handed a camera to participate in a live Twitter feed; I was mostly amused by repeated tweets that kept mentioning, in large block letters, VIVE LE QUEBEC LIBRE, but it was really cool that the woman, Jessica, had been on stage dancing with them ten years before at a Toronto tour stop.

The tweet that held my attention and made me laugh.

One special moment was followed by another as a cover band named Acrobat was generously invited to take over the round side stage, from which they delivered a superb version of ‘Desire’, complete with a harmonica duet with Bono. It was a magical display of generosity and fan engagement that reminded me how much U2 are masters when it comes to connecting with their followers. The Edge took to the piano for the lovely ‘Stuck in a Moment’, and a beautiful, acoustic ‘Every Breaking Wave’, both songs gorgeous, soft, and stirring before the volume and intensity rose again.

The video backdrop for ‘Every Breaking Wave.’

The final shift went westward to America, with two consecutive songs pulling from current headlines to deliver strong emotional responses to injustices committed recently. I stood stunned at the end of ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ when Bono fell to his knees and lifted his hands in the air to plead, “Don’t shoot me! I am a Canadian!” The imagery and words were powerful, and a reminder of recent police brutality. Then came the anthem ‘Pride’, and a segue that rejected division and violence in favour of celebrating immigrants and contributors through the song ‘Hands that Built America’. From there, Bono launched into the magnificent ‘Bad’, and the crowd responded with a passionate sing-along that continued with the huge hit ‘With or Without You’ to close the main set.

Bright lights as the band returns to the front stage.

Video of our planet to accompany ‘Beautiful Day.’

When the band returned for their encores, the video screen had been lit in red, the colour and brand name of their one.org campaign to eradicate HIV and AIDS. Bono implored us to abandon our shyness and modesty and to take our “Canadianness” to the global stage; he encouraged us to demand that more governments emulate our unique qualities and told us that the world needed more Canadas. We cheered, we basked in the love fest he offered, and then we were off to sing once again. The two opening numbers of the hugely successful Joshua Tree album brought the crowd to its feet, fists raised and bodies jumping up and down, and the group took its final walk down the runway to the great Ben E. King song, ‘Stand By Me’.

The Red campaign lights up the entire ACC.

I can honestly say that this was the best U2 concert I’ve been to: it took songs from each era, and the approach worked well with the video montages and retrospective of the band’s different periods. Bono seemed less preachy than I remembered him being in previous years, although I must finish this review with a nod to Glen Callender, the founder of the Canadian Foreskin Awareness Project: he stood in front of the Air Canada Centre before the show, like he had in Vancouver, to protest Bono’s promotion of a campaign in Africa which seeks to force mass circumcisions to stem the spread of HIV and AIDS. When I caught his attention and asked him if I could take a photograph, my immediate thought was, “What’s Bono gone and said now?”

Glen Callender protests outside the venue before the show.

Like U2’s musical excellence and unwavering ability to deliver performance magic, some things just never change.

Sunday
Jun212015

Mumford and Sons at Butler's Barracks, Niagara-on-the-Lake, June 15th, 2015 and Rush at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto, June 19th, 2015: A Tale of Two Concerts

My week started and ended with a concert, both sold out and highly anticipated by the respective fans of each band. The first, on Monday night, took place in picturesque Niagara-on-the-Lake, across the U.S. border on the Niagara River, and headlined Mumford and Sons at Butler’s Barracks. Friday night, Toronto’s Air Canada Centre welcomed hometown favourites Rush for a second night. The only statement I can make to link these two evenings is that I enjoyed myself tremendously at both shows.

Part of the fun of concerts for me is getting to and from the gigs and milling about outside the venue with fellow fans. The last time we saw Mumford and Sons, in the summer of 2013, it was also a long drive to a rural festival destination. For the ride down to Niagara, we were in the comfort of our own car with control of the radio and in possession of good food and drinks; it helped make the horrific four-hour journey in heavy, rush-hour traffic palatable. Once on the grounds, we made our way past the vendors towards the main stage. Our wait was very short due to the horrendous commute, and we found ourselves off to the left side with a decent spot on the lawn; as the sun went down at 21:00, the Mumford Tramps (as I affectionately call them) took to the stage and a wonderful two hours of solid entertainment began.

Heading towards the main stage from the main doors. A beautiful night in Niagara-on-the-Lake begins.

There have been grumblings about the new Mumford and Sons record, as the band has left its banjo folk-roots and moved towards what can best be described as a U2/Coldplay hybrid sound. While I will admit to preferring what a close friend calls the “jingly-jangly” music of their first two albums, I don’t mind that bands shake things up and try to evolve with their music as they mature. The group cautiously began their set with two familiar favourites then switched gears to present their newer songs. The evening went back and forth between the recent release and old numbers, and each piece was well-received by the audience of 30,000. While I still prefer the first two albums, I’m warming up to the new one and loved how rich the sound was in the live renditions of “Snake Eyes”, “Wilder Mind”, and “Tompkins Park”.

The main stage at the Gentlemen of the Road stopover.

Much was made on social media about the nightmare that ensued as 30, 000 patrons tried to leave the parking area, and the organizers rightfully deserve the blame they received for the fact that it took two hours to emerge onto a main road. The disaster was inexcusable and we will likely never attend another festival at this venue. That said, I found it more amusing that across the Niagara River, in Youngstown (maybe let’s rename it Oldstown?), the sheriff was besieged by calls to somehow make the loud music stop over in Canada. The actual drive back to Toronto took an hour, with a detour through Niagara Falls, and it’s no overstatement to say that Tuesday was very rough for those of us who had to work.

Friday night was a different beast altogether. Having missed the initial sale, we didn’t pick up our Rush tickets until Wednesday night, once the stage had been erected for the first of the two shows and a late block of seats were released. There weren’t weeks of anticipation like I’d felt with the Mumford and Sons gig, but by Friday night, I was excited; news of the amazing retrospective setlist from the first local concert had leaked out, and we knew we were in for a magical night.

The train ride into the city lasted 17 minutes, where I mingled with other fans and we chatted about past experiences with Rush and other classic rock bands. In front of the Air Canada Centre, I was reunited with two lovely gentlemen who work for Toronto’s Rock Station Q107 and are arguably the company’s best ambassadors. We took a great picture together and soon it was time to get inside. It wasn’t until we made it to our seats that I realized we were in the last row of the highest section, lurching above everyone on Alex Lifeson’s side. Luckily, we had four hilarious, jovial kilted friends in front of us to banter with until the curtain rose. It helped bring ambience to the dizzy heights of our seating area, and we were pumped by the time the house lights went down and the band came out to roars of delight.

Yours truly with Q107 ambassadors Harrison Mercer on the left and Johnny “Flairboy” Garbutt on the right.

How does one describe an evening with Rush? I’ve seen three times before—on the 1978 Hemispheres Tour, at Sarstock, and most recently during the Clockwork Angels tour—and each one holds a unique, special memory. The first time was special, Sarstock brought Neil Peart back after such personal tragedy, and the last show allowed me to introduce the band to the young son of a good friend. Friday night, it was the possibility that they were gracing the Toronto stage for the last time with a chronological retrospective spanning 40 years that had all the makings of a magical show.

Magic!

And there was magic. So much magic! The first of two sets featured newer material, and the mastery of each musician was on full display right from the start. The gem of the first set was the first ever live presentation of ‘Losing It’ from Signals, with Ben Mink on the electric violin. Have a listen to this gem.

A fun panoramic shot from high above the crowd.

The second set went back in time to classic Rush: the songs were more familiar (huge hits such as “YYZ”, “Tom Sawyer”, “The Spirit of Radio”) but the rarely played “Jacob’s Ladder” was thrown in before fans were treated to music from “Hemispheres”, “A Farewell to Kings”, and “2112”. It was a feast for the senses as lasers and video montages enhanced the performance of each iconic song; in contrast to the light show, the stage itself grew more bare as the band went back to a simpler time before they had their washing machines and electronics with them. The audience pumped their fists and played air drums and guitars from the front rows to the rafters, and you felt at times like the roof would burst.

Towards the end of the second set.

The encore of four songs included “Lakeside Park,” which Canadians warmly associate with the long Victoria Day holiday weekend, and the show ended after three solid hours with “Working Man”. I still hold the hope that we will see this power trio grace their hometown stage again, but should this have been their farewell tour, we can at least take comfort in the knowledge that it was filmed for a future DVD release.

Sunday
Jun142015

Ed Sheeran at the Air Canada Centre, June 6, 2015

I’d never, up until last weekend, gone to a concert by myself before, but Ed Sheeran tickets were very hard to come by when they went on sale a few months ago, and I was determined to put myself much closer to the stage after catching his show last September at the Air Canada Centre. I managed a 30th row ticket, but it meant being on my own. I am always up for trying anything once and so I talked myself into it and off I went on Saturday night.

Foy Vance opened and I sadly missed all but his last two numbers because of a late dinner with fellow concert-goers. He too is a talented singer-songwriter, and he held the attention of the large crowd well as he closed the set with the beautiful “Guiding Light”.

So how did the two shows compare? The setlist difference was minimal; there were little tweaks here and there to remove or add a song (“One” was replaced by “Photograph”, while “Runaway”, “Kiss Me” and “Afire Love” all disappeared to my great chagrin, and “Nina” was added to the “Don’t/Loyal/No Diggity” medley. There was an interesting rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her” which by Ed’s own admission is still evolving as a cover. Overall, this setlist was shorter than the last one, and I wondered if vocal fatigue was the culprit since he has been touring for a long time without much of a rest.

There is something exciting about seeing an artist live for the first time, and I remember being blown away last fall just watching him alone on stage creating his sound layers using loop pedals and a simple acoustic guitar as a drum and stringed instrument. He has mad skills adding his individual tracks until a wall of music is unleashed and comes at you in the most exquisite manner. I’ve recognized now when I see him in duets on television that he is most comfortable on his own; he has mastered his pedal techniques and his timing and shines as an individual. On the live stage, it is a spectacle to behold like no other.

Video from the film “The Lord of The Rings” in the background as Ed Sheeran sings “I See Fire”.

Being so close to him this time around was also interesting because I took the atmosphere in from a different vantage point. He reached me easily due to my proximity to the stage, but it is impressive to watch him command a large crowd to sing along. It was once again a Freddie Mercury moment for me, which might seem like an odd comparison at first. However, I was 14 when the Queen frontman first delighted me with call and repeat vocal exercises and I’m sure the young ladies doing the same with Ed fell under the same under his spell. Lighters have been replaced by the flashlight glow of cellphones, but the warmth is same spell. It made the singing of “A-Team” by 18, 000 fans a sweet communal experience under soft lights and I am not so cynical yet that I didn’t enjoy it.

The official video for “Thinking Out Loud” accompanies Ed Sheeran as he sings the song to an enthusiastic crowd.

And finally, despite my annoyance that some people were determined to watch the entire concert through the lens of their cell phones instead of enjoying a direct view, I am happy that Ed Sheeran’s typical demographic meant that my sight line on the floor was not obstructed by a giant of a man, which is usually the case.

This young man is the real deal, and I hope to report a hat trick of concert enjoyment when he passes our way again in September. I’ve got two tickets, but I may yet trade them up for a single seat up close.

Sunday
Oct192014

Fleetwood Mac at the Air Canada Centre, October 18th, 2014

I caught Fleetwood Mac at the Air Centre two springs ago, realizing a bucket list dream to hear them perform live. At the time, their line-up included everyone but Christine McVie, who had left the band more than a decade earlier. It was, I believed then, as close to the magical ‘Rumours’ supergroup as I would ever experience, and it was a remarkable evening. It left such an impression on me that I was unable to review the concert immediately, preferring to give myself time to absorb what I’d heard before committing my ideas to paper. Much to my surprise as I went digging into my blog archive, I never did write my thoughts down.

I still have strong recollections of the April 2013 show; like last night, it was sold out and at the Air Canada Centre, but our seats were much closer to the stage and there had been huge anticipation building due to a four-year absence from touring. The excitement in 2014 was for the return of the songbird, as Christine McVie joined her old band once again.

The similarities were easy to find: stellar musicianship from all five members, especially Lindsey Buckingham, whose guitar-picking and overall talent is in my opinion hugely underrated. The set list once again borrowed heavily from “Rumours” and they played for over two and a half hours.

Those generalities aside, I witnessed a more nostalgic, emotionally charged show in 2013: it was perhaps because of Christine McVie’s absence then that Buckingham and Nicks opened the vaults of their catalogue and reached in for some deep cuts; by choosing songs from their turbulent history, they enabled longer conversations and explanations of lesser-known tracks that connected the audience on a personal level with their troubled past and the steps they took to repair the relationship. Last night, despite the obvious adoration bestowed upon McVie, the mood was lighter and joyous. I was delighted that she sang her most famous pieces, especially closing the evening with a stirring rendition of ‘Songbird’. With just her voice, a piano, and the tender plucking of Buckingham at the side of the stage, it was perfect.

Buckingham and Nicks perform ‘Landslide’.

The 2013 show got under my skin, which is why I needed time to process the emotional minefield I’d waded through at the time. I remember shedding a tear or two as Nicks and Buckingham spoke candidly about the hurt they’d caused each other and the power of time to heal and forgive. In contrast, last night was like revisiting one of my favourite eras in music and simply enjoying the stroll down memory lane. The only brief moment where I felt choked up was during ’Landslide’, but that has more to do with my emotional connection to the song and its power to evoke a strong reaction. When it was all over, Stevie Nicks came out and addressed the audience, thanking us for the warm reception we had given them in 2013. She spoke of dreamcatchers and universal love, and the idea that our positive energies had allowed Christine McVie to return to Fleetwood Mac to continue the dream. It was a beautiful, heartfelt moment from the poet soul of this band, and all I could do was nod my head as if I not only understood her words but believed them to be true. She, Mick Fleetwood, and Lindsey Buckingham all made mention at some point during the show that this is a renewed group, ready to begin a new chapter that will include fresh music. I can only wish them well on this journey together and look forward to the results.

All photos courtesy of Austin Ziegler.