Sunday, April 01, 2007

Kings of the Past

Massey Hall pic with snow by Karla Livingston

“I have all your records. I’ve even bought some of them twice.”

The last song of the last Rheostatics concert was “Record Body Count,” played acoustically in the middle of the Massey Hall floor. The entire crowd sang every line, empathetically covering up the fact that Martin Tielli’s recovery from laryngitis had been preventing him from hitting the high notes all night.

It was a career pinnacle concert doubling as a loving farewell, and its conclusion proved that as the voices of the Rheostatics fade away, an eager constituency thousands strong are ready to carry on in their place.

“So we’re breaking up,” said Bidini on stage at the Horseshoe the night before, sounding decidedly unsentimental. “And it feels alright.” “The dinosaurs are dying each day,” he sang at Massey Hall, and while that line was originally written in youthful defiance of boomer nostalgia, now it may just as well refer to himself, retiring CBC DJ and Rheos champion David Wisdom, and the removal of Brave New Waves and Radio 3 from the airwaves. Indeed, there’s a record body count this year.

But this show was not a wake, and this was hardly an occasion to mourn. To quote the Trudeau-era idealism that the Rheostatics’ generation grew up on: the land is strong. The seeds have been sown. As the coming months prove, it no longer takes a beloved Canadian artist 27 years to get to Massey Hall. Arcade Fire did it in four, Feist in a little more.

Some of this weighed on the occasion. Bidini thanked “the Masseys for letting us play their hall” and talked about WWI soldiers, Hitler’s anti-fascist crusader of a cousin, Charlie Parker and Bon Scott all filling the hall in decades past.

But with typical Rheostatic self-parody, nothing summed up the affair better than the autobiographical “First Rock Show.” The song includes a verse about how Joe Jackson rescued a young dancing Dave Bidini from being manhandled by Massey Hall security guards, a scenario which was re-enacted in front of the stage, in wonderful period costume, by the comedy troupe the Imponderables.

Even the final electric song of the set was gleefully irreverent. “Dopefiends and Boozehounds,” perhaps their strongest encapsulation of suburban ennui as set to an epic rock backdrop, collapsed into a drum solo that included all three Rheos drummers, augmented by Bidini and keyboardist Ford Pier slapping on a pair of goalie pads.

If that wasn’t ridiculous enough, this somehow segued into the calypso instrumental “Alomar,” a throwaway track from Introducing Happiness celebrating the Toronto Blue Jays’ second baseman Roberto Alomar, before returning for the solemn coda to “Dopefiends.” The collapsing chords of the song’s final moments ended everything on a suspended note—after all, we all know that one can never say never again.

There was no more fitting venue than Massey Hall to hold the final Rheostatics show. As the most storied of Toronto’s very short list of venerable venues, it’s a vital part of Canadian music history. And of course, so are the Rheostatics. This band was Gordon Lightfoot and Bruce Cockburn, Mary Margaret O’Hara and Jane Siberry, BTO and Max Webster, DOA and Stompin’ Tom Connors, Neil Young and The Band. Anyone who ever mistook being “too Canadian” as a criticism needs only to look at that lineage to reconsider.

The Rheostatics have been the one band in the land that not only inherited those traditions, but could successfully absorb them all, modernizing them and mythologizing both the mountains and the urban underbelly, and singing their songs in pubs and art galleries. The Rheostatics are much more than a great Canadian band. They are/were/will always be The Great Canadian Band.

“Joey stepped up on a block of ice, put a rope around his neck, and fell asleep before he died.”

The week’s proceedings began last Sunday at the Starlight in Waterloo, Ontario, across the street from the site of the Rheostatics’ first ever out-of-town gig at the Kent Hotel. Then, they were opening for L’Etranger, who had just drove in from Toronto themselves after opening for the Dead Kennedys at the Concert Hall. Now they were going to play their last out-of-town gig ever, hastily assembled at the last minute, in front of a curious group of fans who had no idea what would transpire that night. Neither did the band.

Along with the ambiguous feeling one gets watching a self-conscious wake, the set was hampered considerably by the fact that Martin Tielli had contracted laryngitis the night before, rendered unable to speak or sing. This meant that many of the band’s moodiest, most expressive numbers were absent from the set list.

It also didn’t help that the four members had not played together as the Rheostatics in over a year, and there had only been one band practice earlier that week. Sadly, it showed. Much like the opening nights of their annual week-long Fall Nationals at the Horseshoe, this seemed more like a live rehearsal than a gig. The fact that this was the last waltz for many in the audience—on a sedated Sunday night, no less—only added to the weirdness.

The set opened with “Fat” from The Blue Hysteria, perhaps one of my least favourite Rheostatics songs, and one that usually only works when placed later in the set. The chorus features the lyric: “Bye bye Mr. No One/ Bye bye Mr. Woebegone,” a line that, back in 1996, someone tried to convince me was written about then-recently split drummer Dave Clark. I never understood why, as the rest of the lyrics never really added up to me anyway, but it was certainly an odd choice to open your final hat trick, especially when one member was principally responsible for pulling the plug.

There were plenty of unusual choices in the set list, which also included four songs from the latest album 2067. Despite it being the one album featuring my favourite Rheos drummer Michael Phillip Wojewoda, 2067 is also the one Rheos album that I can’t bear to listen to. I should have known that writing songs about WKRP and Ozzy Osbourne presaged an imminent end. In his fourth little song on this night, Bidini sang: “you’re only as good as your last song/ It’s better to burn out than to be proven wrong.” It was a sentiment that hung over the whole night.

Weirdness aside, there was nonetheless plenty to make it a memorable evening. Opener and longtime friend Paul Macleod told us: “Some people have their Beatles. Some people have their Gretzkys. We have our Rheostatics, and it’s one of the great privileges of my life to be on this stage with them tonight.”

He would return to the stage later that night as one of the substitute Tiellis, as one of the few male vocalists in this country who could pull off that formidable feat. Macleod sang “Fishtailin’,” “Jesus Was Once a Teenager Too” and “Record Body Count,” which turned into a long rock jam that found Macleod repeatedly yelling “Best Band Ever! Best Band Ever!” before nudging them into doing “Aliens” as well.

Selina Martin w/ Rheostatics at Starlight, pic by Michael Barclay

Tielli’s special ladyfriend Selina Martin was also up to the task, helming “Rain Rain Rain” and “Dopefiends” with more rock star charisma than the rest of the band seemed willing to conjure for the occasion. Finally, Wojewoda sang a cruise ship duet with his girlfriend Jennifer Foster on “Take Me In Your Hand.”

Keyboardist Ford Pier was—as usual, in any context—the most animated musician on stage that night. When Bidini called on him to lead one of the "Four Little Songs," Pier seized the role that former drummer Dave Clark normally would, coming to the front of the stage and getting different halves of the audience to sing an improv song called “Laryngitis,” one of the more deliciously loony points in the set.

Tim Vesely opened the encore with a solo version of "Row,” which was the only poignant moment of the night that suggested that the end was just beginning: “All the clouds get together and cry. All the trees in the wind wave good-bye. Good-bye.”

“Music belies one’s actual age.”

More than any other venue in the great dominion, The Horseshoe Tavern has been the Rheostatics' home base for the last six years or so. Around the turn of the decade, they moved their annual weekly residency there, after starting at Ultrasound in the mid-90s and continuing at Ted’s Wrecking Yard (both venues now defunct). One year they played there for a record 14-night stand, matching a standard set by Stompin’ Tom Connors.

Stompin’ Tom didn’t show up on Thursday, though they did cover his “Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down” in the middle of their own “Ballad of Wendel Clark.” In fact, very few guests took the stage, and in typical fashion, just as many audience members were summoned as were musicians. (Three musicians: Ben Gunning and Pete Elkas of the Local Rabbits, Paul Linklater of opening act Scribbled Out Man. Two audience members: Tawny Darbyshire and Mr. Anonymous on “Legal Age Life.”)

photo of Tielli at Starlight by Helen Spitzer

As usual, the set was over three hours long, and much more of a joyous encapsulation of their entire career than the Starlight show. Though they may have been the kings of the past, they were still moving forward: there were three songs that night that I’ve never heard before one of which (“New Science?”) it’s safe to say was written on the spot. [ed note: it's since been pointed out to me that this is a cover of "Radios in Motion," from the first XTC album.] (The other two were pointy political folk songs by Bidini: “Pornography” and a song about Tim Horton’s/ Chad Kroeger and Stephen Harper (“you’re killing us now”).)

For many, the highlight of the show was not a classic Rheostatics song, but one by DOA—the Canadian punk legends who, in 1987, played a benefit for the Rheos when they had all their gear ripped off in Vancouver on their first western tour.

In the middle of “My First Rock Show,” Bidini asked Ford Pier what his pivotal experience had been. Pier said he had snuck in to see DOA when he was a teenager in Edmonton. Which is not only ridiculously cool, but also prophetic: Pier would later serve time in DOA during the late 90s. Bidini refused to believe him until Pier qualified it by saying, “OK, what was the first concert that my mom knew I went to? Big Country.” With scant prompting from Bidini, Pier then led the band in DOA’s “Enemy,” with a wide-grinning Vesely on drums and MPW on lead guitar. Rather than a sloppy half-assed cover, it was spirited, powerful and just as raging as DOA themselves.

This was indicative of the lighter mood overall, which also led to a 10-minute scatological diversion that included stories about Geddy Lee, Colin Hay of Men At Work, and a fan in adult diapers and a short skirt who tried to steal Martin’s wallet from on top of his amp at the Town Pump in Vancouver. The details are too many to recount here, but are best summed up by a quip from Wojewoda: “Live and incontinent.”

The evening ended, as so many others at the Horseshoe have, with the band playing acoustically by the merch table, a move that appeared to have baffled much of the audience, though surely they’ve seen them do this before? They did “Bread Meat Peas and Rice” while everyone figured out what was going on, and then a profoundly moving version of “Northern Wish.” The last time I saw them do this they had a small string section and a clarinet player to help bolster the unamplified band. This time, all we needed was the whole crowd singing both the “Land Ho” back-ups and the barely-audible melody from an ailing Tielli.

Horseshoe pic by Michael Barclay

Until then, Tielli’s voice had been restored to about 70% its usual capacity, which meant that he could pull off electrifying versions of “Christopher” and “Self-Serve Gas Station.” Vesely, Wojewoda and Pier ably covered most his high notes and harmonies. Tielli couldn’t seem to be able to predict what notes would work and what wouldn’t, so by the time he tried to tackle “Saskatchewan,” he simply made it work to his advantage. By surrendering to his laryngitis, Tielli manipulated the melody into atonal realms that made the shipwrecked sailor of the song sound even more desperate and hopeless as the water consumes him. On a night when some na├»ve fans may have expected faithful renditions of old favourites, this song in particular was revelatory. Right up to their final moments, the Rheostatics were capable of extracting brilliance from seemingly dire circumstance.

“How can forever not last long enough? Move along. Can’t come back. Move along.”

At 7.55PM in front of Massey Hall, the ushers felt it necessary to remind people that “the show is starting on time in exactly five minutes. Five minutes to showtime, people.” For a band that’s never been particularly punctual or at the right place at the right time, it’s no surprise that most people milling about outside didn’t believe the stated ticket time of 8PM. I was waiting outside for a friend whose ticket I had, so I missed both Dave Bookman’s (undoubtedly eloquent) introduction and the standing ovation that greeted the band as they launched into “Saskatchewan.”

This was one of eight songs from 1991’s ten-song suite Melville that made the final set list, which made perfect sense. The rest of the Rheos discography is tailor made for rock clubs, beer halls, folk festivals and art galleries, but Melville is their one work that has always deserved to be heard in a hallowed hall such as Massey. It’s a near-perfect distillation of their art-rock take on Canadian folk music, with wide open spaces, operatic flourishes, and deceptively simple songs.

Walking into Massey Hall and hearing them play “Saskatchewan” wasn’t as moving or as historic as I imagined it would be: it just seemed natural. This is where they should be; this is where this song should be sung.

That was followed by “Me and Stupid,” a tale of cottage country summers, near-drownings and writing original new wave rock, with a passage from Al Purdy in the middle. Bidini stepped to the front of the stage at that point, as if he was hoping Purdy’s ghost would somehow start calling to him from the gallery. A few fans gladly obliged with the lines in question; Bidini, satisfied, said, “That’s what Al Purdy wrote. This is what we wrote,” before concluding the song.

From there, they sang suburban sonnets, songs “from the dark days of Ontario” in the Mike Harris era, and Western Canadian travelogues that all spoke to the band’s evolution, their lyrical grace and acute sense of place. The performance was proud and majestic, with nary a trace of the unrehearsed awkwardness from the week before.

There were also no guests, except for keyboardist Chris Brown, who hopped up on stage from the audience for two tracks (“Claire,” “Dopefiends”). The rest of the night was primarily Bidini, Vesely, Tielli and Wojewoda, with Ford Pier playing less than half the set.

The first of the three times I got choked up was when drummers Dave Clark (1980-1994) and Don Kerr (1994-2001) joined the core four to perform “Northern Wish.” I’d never seen all six of them on stage together before, and for anyone who has loved the band through all their twists and turns, it was a family portrait we’d waited a long time to see. (They stuck around for “Easy To Be,” and returned later for the final song, “Dopefiends.”)

Tielli’s voice was once again further on the mend, though hearing him crack on the line “once I get good/ once I get better” from “PIN” was heartbreaking to hear, knowing that even a note in the middle of his range was causing his ever-elastic voice to constrict on this night of nights.

But once again, he made that frustration work for him. To avoid wispy croaks, he was remarkably deft at improvising alternate melodies and harmonies on the fly—for that matter, so were Vesely and Wojewoda and Pier backing him up. And he was determined to have fun, acting as animated as I've ever seen him, and utilising as much of the stage as possible.

Nothing was more harrowing than “Shaved Head,” a dramatic centerpiece of their set ever since it appeared on their high water mark, 1992’s Whale Music. With a lyric about a cancer patient, it’s a dramatic song even on the sloppiest nights, but here it was rendered even more emotional while watching Tielli battle with his bug. He normally gets more physically expressive the more he loses himself in song, but such was his consumption that he completely “slipped in the clippings”—he wiped out and fell to the floor in the middle of a line, still clutching the mic stand and not missing a beat.

As at the Horseshoe, there was some things I’d never seen before at a Rheostatics show. Bidini took a bass solo in “Claire,” much to Tim’s chagrin; Martin mocked him by singing Yello’s “Oh Yeah” over top of it, a gleefully absurdist moment as the set was winding down, laughing all the way to the end.

For the first song of the second encore, performed acoustically at the front of the stage (seated on top of an oblivious security guard), they paged Dave Clark to lead the audience in percussive noises for “Legal Age Life.” Anyone who’s ever seen Clark at the Hillside Festival or conducting his Woodchoppers’ Association knows that he can extract magic from a willing audience, and this was no exception.

They then strolled into the middle of the Massey Hall floor to do “Record Body Count.” Before they began, Bidini spoke about how the audience was always the most important thing about the Rheostatics, how what has meant the most to them over the years are the stories of people starting bands and learning Rheostatics songs, or that their music helped people find their way out of the wilderness, sometimes literally.

The devotion always went both ways. Many of my favourite Rheostatics memories were the amateurs who took the stage with them, whether it was an 18-year old girl with a stuffed and mounted chicken singing “Aliens” in Polish, any number of random guitarists invited to take a solo, or as much of the audience that could fit on the stage of the Horseshoe sitting down for a 2AM lullaby. And on the night that my own band finally got a chance to open for the Rheostatics at the Horseshoe, I fulfilled all my rock’n’roll fantasies when they invited me to play keyboards on “Horses.” I could now die in peace.

They were also notoriously benevolent to countless new acts, many of whom return the gratitude on the new tribute album The Secret Sessions: Weeping Tile, Weakerthans, The Inbreds, King Cobb Steelie, Wooden Stars, Cuff the Duke and more. There was also the Peanuts and Corn hip-hop crew from Brandon, Manitoba, Veda Hille and Ida Nilsen in Vancouver, and Toronto’s avant-garde monstrosity Guh, whose Brian Cram would later go on to play with Do Make Say Think. The Rheostatics were—and always will be—a nexus where one can trace much of this country’s musical activity.

My friend and bandmate Tristan O’Malley wondered what would have happened if the Rheos had taken a poll at Massey Hall: How many people here have been in a band that opened for us? Or otherwise appeared on stage with us at some point? I’d guess at least 20 per cent. But even if those who showered several standing o’s on the band that night weren’t musicians, they still felt part of a community that precious few artists manage to cultivate.

In that sense, it wasn’t just the Rheostatics that we were cheering on at Massey Hall, it was all of us. And though they may be fading away for a while, we’re all still here, we still have each other, and there’s still work to be done.

I said earlier that I cried three times at this show, but never once was it out of regret or loss. It was out of pride, of joy, of vicarious accomplishment. This was our band, these are our songs. Everyone there felt the same way: this was our night.

“My days are my lungs, and my love for you is endless.”

Corrections to the following are welcome

Starlight, March 25, 2007: see here

Horseshoe Tavern, March 29 2007: (not in order)
It’s Easy to Be With You (opening number)
Introducing Happiness
In This Town
King of the Past
Ballad of Wendel Clark/ Bridge Came Tumblin’ Down (Stompin’ Tom cover)
Self-Serve Gas Station
First Rock Show/The Enemy (DOA cover, sung by Ford Pier)
Find Me Mookie Saunders
Song of the Garden
Radios in Motion (XTC cover)
Green Sprouts
Pornography new song
Tim Horton’s/Stephen Harper/Chad Kroeger new song
We Went West
Fan Letter to Michael Jackson
Loving Arms
Stolen Car
Joey 2
Legal Age Life w/ Elkas, Gunning, Darbyshire and some guy
Record Body Count w/ Elkas and Gunning (final electric number)

2nd encore (acoustic, in front of merch table):
Bread Meat Peas and Rice
Northern Wish

Massey Hall, March 30 2007: (not in order)
Intro by Bookman with guitarist
Me and Stupid
Bad Time to Be Poor
King of the Past
Northern Wish (w/ Kerr, Clark) (Tielli gestures to everyone on stage for the line “and find another band”)
Easy to Be With You (w/ Kerr, Clark)
First Rock Show (w/ Imponderables)
We Went West
Mumbletypeg (dedicated to the Bidinis)
Tim song from 2067
Aliens (Martin: “I didn’t mean this to sound like Bob and Doug”)
Feed Yourself
Shaved Head (second last song of regular set)
When Winter Comes (last song of regular set w/ snow falling on the coda. Martin: “OK, this is our fake last song, so let’s rock.”)

First encore:
Self-Serve Gas Station (dedicated to the Tiellis. Martin: “not all of this song is true.”)
California Dreamline
Horses (dedicated to Stephen Harper)
Stolen Car
Rock Death America
Claire (w/ Brown)
Dopefiends and Boozehounds/ Alomar/ Dopefiends coda (last song of 1st encore, w/ Brown, Kerr, Clark)

Acoustic encore:
Legal Age Life (w/ Dave Clark)
Record Body Count (acoustic on floor)


Anonymous said...

I was at the concert at Massey Hall - personally I did not think Martin's cold was an issue at all - he was on fire, it was quite a performance -

Mike said...

Thank you sir.

mmmbarclay said...

i don't want to be misunderstood: martin didn't let his condition bring him down at all, and was just as animated and involved as i've ever seen him. lesser performers would probably have been understandably crabby about it.

cinnamon gurl said...

Thanks for this. I was at the show, but your more detailed knowledge added nuances that I didn't pick up... either I didn't hear them or I didn't get them.

I also picked up on the ghost of Al Purdy, as I wrote on my blog at if you're at all interested...

Anonymous said...

Merci monsieur. So nice to hear for those of us too far to attend.

Anonymous said...

check out my site dedicated to the last night at for lots of goodies. Email me your ticket scan to be added to the "I Was There" section at

Anonymous said...

Well written, thank you. Reading all of the commentaries such as yours and O'Malley's has only heightened the emotional impact of this past week. As a long-time Rheo's fan, I've walked a largely similar path as yourself (and shared your company many nights by the sounds of it). It's rare to read something that resonates so personally, but this did.
I guess if I wanted to nitpick, I'd point out the the song Tim sang at the Starlight is actually called 'Row', not 'Clouds', but that would be nitpicking. :-)

mmmbarclay said...

yowsa! duly corrected.

Martin said...

Hi Green Sprouts ... FYI -

Rheostatics Live @ Ultrasound Showbar 1993 - LINER NOTES:

Martin Lomas

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All is as it should be
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