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Sunday
Oct192014

Bastille at the Air Canada Centre, October 15th, 2014

I first saw Bastille just over a year ago, at a fairly small club in Toronto called The Phoenix, and just reread my initial review of their show. Here is part of what I wrote in September 2013:_ At the end of the night, I knew I had witnessed some early magic. This is a band going places, and I predict they will be huge a year from now if they stay on this path and there is any justice in the musical world. _ I’m not sure they are huge yet, but they did return to Toronto to play the Air Canada Centre Concert Bowl, which has a seating capacity of over 8000-10000. Not a bad prediction on my part.

How to compare the two shows, a year later? Grizfolk, the LA group opening for them, were enjoyable to listen to: their lead singer’s voice evoked Bono of U2, but their sound was more in a folk-rock vein. The Bastille set differed slightly from their previous Toronto show, in that they remained on stage for over an hour and a half, adding a few more songs from their older catalogue and giving a couple of previews from their next release. Musically, they sounded as clear and strong as the had in the smaller venue, and Dan Smith’s voice has remained rich. They now have a proper backdrop for their larger shows, which is essentially their triangular logo with a video screen filling the inside space. The band plays with the same energy and competence that impressed me the first time, right down to Dan’s lap around the floor during the song “Flaws.” I was hoping yet again to hear “Daniel in the Den” and was once more disappointed, but did enjoy the performance in its entirety. I’m getting used to the cliché of lit cellphones during slow numbers (in this case for “Oblivion”) and would still like to scream at the amount of people who come to shows and chat through the entire set. I suspect I am fighting a losing battle in both cases.

The bottom line? I liked the first concert much more, if only because it was a smaller, more intimate venue, but I think I’d go again to catch them if their next album is as rich as “Bad Blood” was.

Concert photos courtesy of Austin Ziegler.

Thursday
Sep252014

Ed Sheeran at the Air Canada Centre, September 18th, 2014

Ed Sheeran is arguably the hardest working and most talented singer-songwriter on the current global music scene. Everything I’ve read and seen about him suggests that he is also very grounded and a genuinely nice guy. He plays a variety of genres, blending acoustic ballads, well-crafted pop songs, and rapid-fire rap flow, all using a simple guitar and some well-worn loop pedals.

He headlined a double-bill with Rudimental at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre on Thursday, September 18th, giving a sold out show to 20 000 eager fans. I fully expected to be surrounded by throngs of teenage girls and young women in their twenties, but knew he would draw a diverse audience that would include my generation and men, primarily because I have friends who fit both profiles. Indeed, there were hipsters, college kids, and middle-aged types like me who weren’t there to chaperone their children, and everyone was there to let loose.

Rudimental were great fun as they warmed up the half-filled arena, and I enjoyed listening to their set; beyond the stairwell, the lines to the merchandise tables snaked around the entire floor of the venue, and I can honestly say I have never seen so many people rushing to buy accessories in more than 35 years of concert-going. It was an impressive sight.

Ed Sheeran took to the stage at 8:30, presenting himself to the cheering crowd with his guitar and a simple video display behind him. He balanced songs from both his debut and second album in his two-hour set, alternating between ballads and songs with a rap flow.

There was much to impress a music lover with: he is a naturally confident performer who can move back and forth between poignant love songs, older acoustic hits, and intense numbers with crescendoes without losing momentum or pace; his use of a single guitar and loop pedals to build layers astounds the ears with a depth and breadth of overlapping sound, and he reaches out across genres by blending songs from other artists to remind you that he too is a not only a musician, but a fan as well.

Visually, I was impressed by the simplicity of the stage design. Video panels were mainly used to project his image to those farther away, and to perhaps add a few flashes of colour behind the open stage. It is clear that he believes doesn’t need bells and whistles to entertain a large audience, and his instincts are right: his call and response techniques, so spontaneous and unforced, took me back in time 35 years, when a certain Freddie Mercury used to provoke the same response in my much younger self. The audience complied readily, providing him with the back-up choir he requested for a stirring rendition of “Give Me Love”, and sang every word of every song they knew as the evening unfolded The overall effect was quite remarkable, and I can say that I lost my teaching voice for the next day because of his ability to engage the whole crowd. A very Freddie thing, for those of us old and fortunate enough to have seen Queen live back in the day of the dinosaurs.

There is always a moment that stands out during any concert, and for me it was when Ed Sheeran slowed things down and implored us to sit back, rest our voices, and just give him a listen. He hushes thousands with such ease, and it is endearing to watch. He then began to play what he considers the most personal song in his catalogue, the beautiful “Afire Love.” When I first heard the song, I not only loved the melody but was very moved by the subject matter of the lyrics; hearing it performed live was a deeply touching experience that will stay with me forever.

I loved watching the glow of cellphone lights swaying as he delivered “A-team” near the end of the show, and will also remember chuckling as he told the Toronto audience that we are apparently just a “little more mental” than anywhere else he plays.

There is something of an “old soul” quality to Ed Sheeran that I believe partly explains his multi-generational appeal, and his growing success can quite rightly be attributed to his unwavering determination and strong work ethic. He has also made himself readily accessible to the media, and there is the likability factor of this quietly unassuming, nice ginger kid who is polite to interviewers and kind to fans. You can sense that he loves what he does, and that he brings his best game out on stage every night. His final number, the recent hit “Sing”, evoked a memory of seeing U2 finish their set with “40” in the mid-eighties: having corralled the entire arena into singing the chorus repeatedly, he quietly left the stage as the chants continued long after he was gone. I have no doubt he will have a long and successful career to rival that of his Irish cousins.

Monday
Sep082014

Biffy Clyro at Belsonic, Custom House Square, Belfast, August 17, 2014

One of the highlights of a recent visit to Scotland was the chance to jump over to Belfast to catch Biffy Clyro at Belsonic. The Scottish rock trio is largely unknown in North America, and I was excited about the Northern Ireland gig because the Ayrshire lads are major festival and concert headliners in the UK. I was looking forward to the energy of a larger crowd in the same way I sometimes prefer the intimacy of a small club venue. My first live experience with this band came over a year ago, when they opened for Muse at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto: the setlist was too short, but the intensity of their performance and a recommendation from two people whose musical tastes I respect made me seek out their catalogue. Four album purchases later, they are in heavy rotation on my iPod. There is something orchestral and innovative in their song arrangements, a hybrid “prog rock meets metal and grunge” sound, and I can’t get enough of listening to them. You might say even obsessively so. I started to watch live footage on Youtube and marvelled at their command of large crowds, hoping one day I’d be in the middle of one. The 2014 Belsonic festival gave me the chance to see them in ideal outdoor numbers, along with 5000 other fans.

Loch Ryan before heading out to the open waters of the Irish Sea.

The weather had been ugly as we left Cairnryan that morning; I am not too proud to admit that the swell of big waves during the Irish Sea crossing made me physically ill and that I arrived in Belfast in poor form. Nevertheless, we headed to Custom House Square for the outdoor event, bundled in long pants, hoodies, and waterproof gear to endure the elements. It is no exaggeration that my next trip to this region will include gloves,a scarf, and a hat. We settled about one hundred feet from the stage and off to the right-hand side, giving us a good view with a lot of personal space. Having spent the last 35 years going to general admission shows, I’m not one to relish being crushed up front, especially given that fans seem to have gotten taller and become obsessed with waving cell phones above their heads instead of actually watching the bands.

The Belsonic venue at Custom House Square in Belfast.

Little Matador opened the show with a short but reasonably good set. I’d not heard their music before, and found the songs enjoyable though not particularly memorable. They were followed by Twin Atlantic, whose music I’d been exposed to on local radio during our drives in Scotland the previous week. They were energetic and likeable. The crowd began to grow, the weather started to turn again for the worst, and as the sky darkened, the temperature plunged to 12C. Not exactly ideal for an outdoor summer concert, but I was determined not to let conditions dampen my enthusiasm for the impending arrival of Biffy Clyro.

With my new friend Lisa Marie on the left. Yes, named after that one.

They opened their set with a rousing rendition of “Different People”, the first track on their most recent album Opposites and a perfect example of the type of crescendo song they do so well. From there, they bounced us through “The Golden Rule” and “The Captain” from Only Revolutions, and the rest of the show largely came from these two most recent albums. Out of the 20 songs in the setlist, only 5 were from older releases: “57”, “All the Way Down: Prologue Chapter 1”, “Glitter and Trauma”, the intense “Living is a Problem Because Everything Dies”, and one of my personal favourites, “Who’s Got a Match?” I was disappointed that there wasn’t more material chosen from the exquisite Puzzle LP, especially “Folding Stars” and “Machines”, two beautiful numbers written by frontman Simon Neil about the loss of his mother; the poignant lyrics of these songs have touched me deeply for personal reasons, and to hear him perform them live would have been truly special. Perhaps at another point in time, I will get the opportunity.

Singing “Many of Horror” with 5000 people.

One the things that I love the most about this band is also what frustrated me because I live too far away to see them live repeatedly: they change their set lists from show to show, keeping their performances from getting stale and repetitive. I admire this greatly, but along with many omissions from Puzzle that I adore (maybe hoping to hear “Get Fucked Stud” was ambitious, but I would have happily settled for “Love Has a Diameter”), some of my favourite new tunes from Opposites were also excluded on this particular night: “Spanish Radio” (bagpipes and a mariachi band!), “The Thaw”, “The Fog”, “Skylight”, and the very beautiful “Opposite”, to name a few obvious ones. I was also crossing my fingers that “Know Your Quarry” would sneak in there, but alas, no. That said, so many great songs did make the final cut, including “The Rain”, the classic hits “Many of Horror” and “Biblical”, as well as the playful “Bubbles” and “Whorses”.

With each new number, the band played with greater energy, turning every moment into a singalong opportunity that was immediately accepted by eager fans. The only other time I’ve witnessed such word-for-word vocal devotion was at a Frank Turner gig that became my favourite show of 2013. In the middle of the same kind of enthusiastic, supportive crowd, it was easy to understand the magic of this trio: they give their all in every song, and work hard to engage every member of the audience. On top of that, their years of touring have made them competent musicians and have given them a tightness as an ensemble that can only come from hours and hours of practice together.

Simon Neil doing what he does best.

If I could be granted one wish, it would be for North American rock fans to discover this band in large enough numbers to send them touring here on a major scale: given their penchant for varied setlists, the only way I could have my fill of favourite tunes in megadoses would be to follow them from show to show at nearby venues. In the interim, the solution is to turn to Youtube for my live fix.

Saturday
Jul192014

Queen with Adam Lambert - Air Canada Centre, Toronto, July 13th, 2014

In 1977, at the tender and impresionable age of 14, I saw my first concert: Queen. I begged my parents to let me go until they relented, and was inevitably spoiled for life by the stage presence and vocal mastery that made Freddie Mercury the greatest showman of his generation. Indeed, nothing ever came close for me to seeing this band live and I will always be grateful that I had the chance to witness a few more performances over the years before Mercury passed away.

 My original ticket stub to see Queen in 1977. The price!


The concert I saw at the Air Canada Centre on July 13th wasn’t Queen as I remember them: Freddie is gone, John Deacon has retired, but Brian May and Roger Taylor have every right to want to tour and play the songs they wrote with whomever they please. In 2005, they chose Paul Rodgers, and the blend of the two music catalogues made for an enjoyable evening out. This time around, American Idol runner-up Adam Lambert has been added to the bill. My initial reaction to the news was mixed: it could be spectacular, or it could be disastrous. With Paul Rodgers, there was no mistaking him for Freddie or fearing that he would be tempted to try; with Lambert at the helm, the possibility existed that he might imitate Freddie, and this had me concerned. In the end, it was not an issue.

 

Waiting for the curtain to rise at the Air Canada Centre.

 

The stage was simple and open, in a large Q shape that used its tail as a runway to reach the audience. The show opened with some older material, with the first three songs, Procession, Now I’m Here, and Stone Cold Crazy taking me back to their earliest albums. There were big hits everywhere in the set, but that In the Lap of the Gods and Seven Seas of Rhye were included just made my night. It’s not often anymore that bands with huge back catalogues play deep cuts, and it was a highlight for me to hear these two old gems.

 Adam Lambert, looking very much like a young George Micheal.


All in all, Adam Lambert proved to be a good fit as a frontman: he certainly has the vocal chops and confidence to deliver the songs with flamboyance and energy, and at times evoked the vaudeville style of Mercury. This was especially true with his camp delivery of Killer Queen, complete with a velvet sofa to lounge on and a bottle of champagne to drink from. Lambert held his own, even with occasional reminders of Freddie in his choices and manner: there were call-back sing-alongs with the same affectionate teasing, even an alternating lead with Mercury during Bohemian Rhapsody, both sentimental moments that made the crowd cheer in appreciation. One can only imagine what Freddie would have been capable of in these more enlightened and accepting times, but perhaps that is what make him all the more remarkable more than 35 years ago. It is, no doubt, part of what inspired Lambert’s generation to be more open and for that freedom, they owe the glam era a huge debt of gratitude.

 

He’s a killer queen…

 

Brian May and Roger Taylor proved that they can still deliver great musical performances, and it was nice to see young Rufus Taylor play competently behind his dad’s drum kit. Both May and Taylor gave instrumental solos, which frankly, seemed dated and out of step with the rest of the show. There were lasers shooting in all directions at some point, and I couldn’t help but think that this too was more retro than futuristic.

 

 

 

Laserquest!

 

I did love the acoustic portion with just Brian May, his guitar, and 20 000 fans singing along to Love of My Life, which ended with Freddie delivering the last lines on the big screen. It was followed by a group rendition of the beautiful ’39, to which the audience added claps and chorus chanting. 

 

 “Bring it back, bring it back, don’t take it away from me, because you don’t know what it means to me.”

 

Brian May introducing ‘39.

 

Overall, the show had some beautiful moments, from Taylor’s These Are The Days of Our Lives performed with a backdrop of nostalgic footage from the 70s to Lambert’s powerful version of Love Kills, a reworked Mercury solo recording that will be released with new material from the band. It is a testament to Lambert’s energy that his collaboration seems to have inspired the remaining members to record fresh material for the first time in many years. I appreciated the brave choice of deeper cuts, loved the rousing versions of the big hits (Somebody to Love, Radio Gaga, Crazy Little thing Called Love, Fat-Bottomed Girls, and Under Pressure, to name a few) and felt a chill at Who Wants to Live Forever.

 

 “Anyway the wind blows, doesn’t really matter to me…”

 

Despite the effort, it was during Bohemian Rhapsody that I felt the loss of Freddie so deeply because great pains were taken to include him in the presented version. He sang a full verse on video before passing the torch to a live Adam Lambert. It became apparent to me that what was lacking before me was the utter joy and spark that was Freddie and that without him, the kind of magic I remember was just not there. 

 

 All concert photographs taken by and used with the kind permission of Austin Ziegler.

Sunday
Mar302014

Storytellers

I’ve promised myself that the Behind Blue Eyes series will be completed by midsummer, and this should come as a relief to those who have been eagerly awaiting the last novel since last August. Unlike the first three novels, this one is being accompanied by a more modern soundtrack. As I am editing BBE #4: Empty Glass, the musical landscape has shifted for me because Dominik Diamond, the deejay who kept me entertained in the background for the first three books, has moved from his evening slot on the local classic rock station to the morning show on The Edge 102.1, Toronto’s alternative voice. He starts on Monday, and while I will be enjoying his return to the airwaves here in the city that I love, he won’t be with me during the writing hours as he was in the past.

Empty Glass takes place in the early 90s, when alternative music took over. Some twenty years later, we are in the midst of a traditional revival, where singer-songwriters and their groups have regained their rightful place at the forefront of modern radio. I am excited about music again in a way I haven’t been since U2, REM, and Oasis were huge, and have found new bands to listen to while I hammer out this last novel. There is much to be excited about in the recent releases of Bastille, Frank Turner, Chvrches, Mumford & Sons, Ed Sheeran, Passenger, Biffy Clyro, Of Monsters and Men, to name but a few, and a slew of choices to accompany me in the background as I edge ever closer to finishing this book series that began with the Who and one small song back in 1978.

My latest blog is a glimpse into my latest musical obsessions, which you can read here.

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