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Tuesday
Mar112014

Legends: Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Billy Joel

Three legends in the last few months have all taken centre stage at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see them all: Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Billy Joel have performed to separate sold-out crowds since mid-December, each show as different as it was spectacular.

Rod Stewart has not only aged gracefully since I last saw him live at Maple leaf Gardens in 1979, but he is still full of that wild, boundless energy that made me love him so much 35 years ago. His long set was all about embracing his 60s roots and celebrating his 70s successes, with generous tributes to the Motown sound and strolls down many different memory lanes: we were treated to his “Rod the Mod” hits as well as to the big chart-topping numbers that made him a global superstar in the latter half of the 70s.

 

Rod Stewart serenades the sold-out crowd: Motown, an acoustic set, and then a parade of hits.

He went from a brassy 60s vibe to letting his daughter Ruby sing on her own before joining him on ‘Forever Young’, and then moved to an acoustic set that included his beautiful cover of Cat Stevens’ ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest’. I loved his nod to a cancelled April concert with the inclusion of a Christmas number well-suited to the festive season before he launched into his final numbers, including a rousing version of ‘Proud Mary’ whose presentation owed more than a passing nod to Tina Turner and her flapper go-go dresses.

 

‘You’re In My Heart’ playing to footage of his beloved Glasgow Celtic team. Mon the Hoops!

It was when he paid tribute to his beloved Glasgow Celtic team and kicked 50 signed soccer balls to the crowd during ‘Hot Legs’ that the energy levels of the arena went through the roof, with balloons and streamers spilling from the ceiling. It was a lively, joyous night that I will remember for a long time.

Great sense of humour. And great legs still too. Some of the soccer balls he kicked out almost reached the upper seats.

Elton John, in early February, was a more subdued affair, and a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the release of his classic ‘Goodbye Yellow-Brick Road’ double album. Much like Rod Stewart, he brought his huge catalogue of hits with him and delivered a long evening of solid entertainment. We were treated to the entire first side of the LP, as well as to other deep cuts from it (including ‘All the Girls Love Alice’) as the evening progressed. What impressed me the most about this almost three-hour performance was Elton John’s willingness to tinker with the melodies of his classic songs and to alter the arrangements they were known for. It made for a show that was surprising and delightful in so many places with riffs and instruments we did not expect, and he delivered a level of mastery at the piano that was stunningly impressive. My only complaint was that the sound quality was uneven throughout the concert, owing to either poor acoustics or problems with the mixing board.


‘The Bitch is Back’ being performed by Elton John, Air Canada Centre, February 6th, 2014

Billy Joel, on Sunday, March 9th, was a show I thought would mirror Elton John much more so than Rod Stewart. However, he bantered and spoke between songs just like Rod did as he took us through his vast back-catalogue. There were jokes about our terrible, endless winter, endearing imitations of Gordon Lightfoot and The Band, apologies for staying away so long, and then there was the music. It takes a certain amount of courage to choose deep cuts that the casual fan would not recognize, but it worked. Joel could have easily thrown out hit after hit to fill the two hours on stage, and it was an unexpected joy to hear ‘Vienna’, ‘Zanzibar’, and ‘the Downeaster Alexa’.

Billy Joel singing ‘Piano Man’ at the Air Canada Centre on March 9, 2014.

The back-up musicians were stellar, and much like I loved the strings and horns that accompanied Rod Stewart, this was a group of accomplished players, and the sax, trumpet, and conga drum solos were flawlessly executed. My favourite musical moment of the night had to be  his moving rendition of ‘She’s Always a Woman”, with ‘Scenes From an Italian Restaurant’ a close second. My only regret was that the show barely lasted two hours. Much too short, I’m afraid, for someone with his talent, energy, and 50 years of professional history to his credit.

In the last week of February, I was also lucky enough to get a heads-up to a smaller local gig by Scottish indie band Glasvegas. They played the Mod Club in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood, and they too were fun to watch. Between their backdrops of black and white film and the great 80s lamenting vocals of James Allan, who carried on despite being stricken by a flu, I was much impressed by the sound and performances. They didn’t play my favourite song of theirs, ‘I’d Rather Be Dead Than Be With You’, but the hourlong set was filled with great tunes. I’d see them again in a heartbeat. How did I ever hear of them, you might be asking, and why are they included in a review about legends? The answer: in a little Facebook post, radio presenter and Gamesmaster legend Dominik Diamond mentioned their appearance in the small Toronto venue. Dominik has been responsible for some of my more eclectic musical education, and this was one more recommendation that turned me into a fan of yet another fairly obscure band (on this side of the pond). So thanks, Dominik, for giving me the chance to check them out.

Glasvegas performing ‘Geraldine’, Mod Club, Toronto, February 22nd, 2014.

The legend (on the left) and the rock writer after the Glasvegas show. 

All photos from Rod Stewart, Elton John, and Billy Joel taken by Austin Ziegler, used with kind permission.

Photo of Glasvegas taken by Dominik Diamond, used with kind permission.

Wednesday
Dec042013

Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls, Sound Academy, Toronto, December 3rd, 2013

Last night at Toronto’s Sound Academy, I had the great pleasure of seeing Frank Turner & The Sleeping Souls. It was a magnificent four-hour evening of great live music, beginning with two Canadian warm-up acts: Billy the Kid, followed by July Talk, who are local to the Toronto music scene.

Billy the Kid hails from British Columbia, and she opened with an acoustic set that was a confident display of her guitar and songwriting skills. Her voice was strong and had an interesting, rich tone, and I enjoyed listening to her. Next up, July Talk was a more frantic, high-energy band, with two lead singers who bantered and provided us with great interplay and theatrics as they played a harder electric sound. They had great stage presence and clearly enjoyed themselves, and while I didn’t like their songs enough to consider buying their album, I would gladly go see them perform again. Highly entertaining and energetic.

Frank Turner came on just before 10pm, right after the sound system gifted us with a loud version of Meatloaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’. From the first moment he hit the stage with his band The Sleeping Souls, you knew this was going to be a show for the ages. He was without his customary guitar, which he explained early on in the evening with the disclosure of a back injury and the display of a brace under his shirt, but the effect on his energy levels was negligent: he flew around from side to side with his microphone stand, oblivious to his own limitations and determined to whip the sold-out crowd into the same frenzy that gripped him from start to finish. He sang with passion and force, dropped f-bombs in an inoffensive, causal manner that was completely charming, and bantered with the audience with such genuine affection that you felt the sincerity of his words: a gig is an exchange between performer and fans, and it demands engagement from both sides to make the show stellar.

And it was stellar last night. From every song he delivered, many of which came from the latest album ‘Tape Deck Heart’, he took us along for a great, energetic, fun ride. We danced, we jumped, hands were raised and clapped, and everyone sang along to every word, whether he invited them to or not. There was a sense of community and inclusion with each little joke shared onstage, with the sight mention of Toronto and his affection for the city he has performed in three times this year, and the love was sent right back in thunderous applause and immediate responses to his requests for louder singing or chanting. I loved the self-deprecating lyrics and comments he threw at us, the mosh pit that he bravely allowed himself to be lifted into, and the personal, grateful tone he adopted throughout the evening when addressing the crowd. Most of all, though, I loved his music, his energy, and the passion with which he delivered every note. When came out for the first encore with his guitar (‘Please don’t tell my doctor’) and sang a heartfelt version of Neil Young’s ‘Oh Lonesome Me”, I closed me eyes for the first time. It was that spectacular.

The night wasn’t perfect, thanks largely to a drunken fool next to me who almost tempted me into my first concert brawl for thumping his elbow into my recovering shoulder one too many times and being largely unapologetic about his behaviour, but nothing took away the magic of seeing Frank Turner live. Not even the overly sweet Molson cider I ordered. This is easily the best performance I have seen in Toronto this year, which is a huge compliment to Frank Turner considering the bands I’ve had the good fortune to hear in the last eleven months. Do yourselves a huge favour, folks, and give the man a listen. Preferably live.

Sunday
Dec012013

David Bowie Exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario

I will start my review of the David Bowie Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario by taking full responsibility for leaving it to the last minute to pick up my ticket, on the last day of the exhibit (which was then extended two more days to accommodate the huge demand). Perhaps going mid-week at 8:30pm was not the best choice in terms of crowd navigation, but my problems with the exhibit, which made its first North American stop in Toronto after a run at the Victoria & Albert Museum, went much deeper than just feeling squeezed by the volume of visitors to the gallery.

There were plenty of great things to enjoy: Bowie was a great hoarder, and it made for a very detailed collection from his personal archives. There were costumes, sheet music, and photographs that spanned five decades, and I enjoyed the feast of vision and sound. The personal audio guide worked on a GPS system which was activated by one’s proximity to a particular section. The videos and film clips from his acting career were fascinating, as were his influences and segments from his early days. My favourite part was his creation of “The Society for the Protection of Long-Haired Boys.”

Despite receiving a timed ticket, we ended up in two separate waiting lines instead of being able to go right through. As well, the space seemed poorly designed in many instances, causing traffic jams and bottlenecks in certain areas. I think the gallery oversold its tickets, resulting in huge crowds that made moving around awkward and at times difficult. The set-up was not conducive to the large group of visitors: video screens were in the centre of certain displays, and people stood and watched the footage for four to five minutes, effectively blocking the artifacts and the write-ups for all of them. It was frustrating and time-consuming to wait for the film clips to end before I could read certain explanations of costumes and stage designs.

The crowds added to the mayhem by being largely oblivious to those around them. As a result of the awkward flow, I missed seeing Bowie’s “golden coke spoon”, which I would have found amusing. I was disappointed that I didn’t find anything about the collaboration with Queen, and wondered whether it was not included or whether I missed it in the clutter of visitors. It would be fair to say that the exhibit was very good but that the experience was not. I wish I had initially gone in September, and then made the effort to return for the things I missed or glossed over.

Sunday
Oct202013

Rock Fiction Article by David Biddle

David Biddle is a music fan like me, and the author of Beyond the Will of God. He featured me in an article about the rock fiction genre, which you can read at his website.

Rock Fiction Centre Stage with Behind Blue Eyes.

Sunday
Oct202013

Melissa Craig and Charity Parkerson Podcast

In July, I was kindly invited by Melissa Craig and Charity Parkerson to be a guest on their podcast. These two lovely ladies are best-selling authors, and their podcasts can be found at the link below. We discussed my rock fiction series, the need for research and accuracy in historical fiction, and the exciting changes in indie music and fiction. I also read an excerpt from Love Reign o’ver Me, the first book in the series. Through it all, we managed to laugh endlessly. Have a listen!

The Melissa Craig and Charity Parkerson Podcasts

Episode 68 with Anne-Marie Klein

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