Friday, November 06, 2009

A Neon Rome

Being a wee bit of a geezer, I’ve seen plenty of reunion shows. Almost all of them have been disappointing to some degree. Part of that is the inevitable diminishing of the initial spark; part of that is unreasonable expectations of the present compared to the idealized memories of the past.

So perhaps it helps that I had no expectations of A Neon Rome, Toronto legends who broke up 22 years ago. I’d never seen them before. I don’t even like their one album, 1987’s New Heroin, very much at all.

I know them only on reputation, and because they were the real life inspiration for the Bruce McDonald movie Roadkill; like the lead singer of the film’s Children of Paradise, A Neon Rome frontman Neil Arbick took a vow of silence and left a life of rock’n’roll shortly after, shocking many local observers who thought he was the best performer in the city.

Seeing him earlier tonight at the Dakota, all of this makes sense. Years of yogic living have left him svelte and with a kind and gentle face—which makes it all the more alarming when he hurls the microphone around the stage, throws himself in the drum kit repeatedly, and writhes on the floor unleashing bloodcurdling screams. The man clearly has a lot of pain and has come out the other side, but can access the anguish in his subconscious in an instant.

It’s a tired cliché to refer to a rock frontman’s “shamanic” attributes, but no better adjective exists to describe Arbick’s wild abandon on stage. He can whip a microphone with more precision than Roger Daltrey in his prime, but every other one of his moves resists rote rock moves and surrenders to the swirling intensity of the band behind him.

And what a band: guitarist Kevin Nizel not only hasn’t aged physically—much like the rest of this remarkably well-preserved band—but he’s still full of swagger, with his hips cocked and guitar held out in front of him, facing the audience, feedback constantly coaxed from the amp next to the monitor.

John Borra, who has been fronting country acts for at least 10 years now, brought back his dextrous bass playing, egged on incessantly by the undeniable force of guest drummer Glenn Milchem (Blue Rodeo, Holy Fuck); both of them played in Change of Heart at one point, but not together.

A Neon Rome’s Bernard Maiezza was Change of Heart’s keyboardist from beginning to end; his textures were much more audible tonight than they were at the CoH reunion in June. (Finally, Change of Heart/C’mon’s Ian Blurton was the original A Neon Rome drummer, heard on New Heroin; tonight, he was content to watch from the back of the bar.) I don’t recall the second guitarist’s name; he’s not featured on New Heroin (Crawford Teasdale?).

The trance-like elements that gained A Neon Rome their rep were never really apparent on the album—at least to me, who was in Grade 11 when they broke up. Seeing them live now, however, it was impossible not to get completely immersed in the rapture at full volume, especially with Arbick conducting and contorting.

Yes, A Neon Rome is druggy music—but it’s the kind of music that, because it exists, makes taking drugs entirely unnecessary. I can’t imagine seeing this band while high; it would be fucking terrifying.

It’s easy to see why, in his heyday, people thought Arbick was equal parts Peter Murphy, Iggy Pop, Ian Curtis and Jim Morrison; he has as much charisma as any of those dudes. Do they make frontmen like this anymore? Even when his lyrics might not stand up in the light of day—as on the Velvet-y encore song, “Human Beings” (what was to be the single from their never-released second album)—Arbick is capable of carrying you wherever he wants to take you.

It was my first ride, but the audience could well have been culled from the Beverley Tavern in 1986. The audience skewed exclusively 45-50, with only the odd whippersnapper (or progeny, in one case) thrown in there. Members of Blue Rodeo, Handsome Ned’s band, Groovy Religion, Broken Social Scene, and many vaguely familiar faces were evident; it was a reunion of sorts for many former scenesters, as they caught up on who was still single, who had settled, who was still making music.

The gig was to celebrate the CD release of New Heroin (also available on iTunes); it was apparently the fourth reunion since the initial, acrimonious breakup (the first was a 1993 show at an Exclaim! party). That admission lessened the once-in-a-lifetime sense of excitement I had walking in, but it didn’t diminish the fact that this was still a rare, beautiful and wild experience.

And thankfully, unlike in the movie, the manager didn't show up to shoot anyone on stage.


Unknown said...

Glad you liked the show Michael. I have to say it was refreshing to play with a singer who kept knocking my shit over. And yes, that was Crawford Teasdale on 2nd guitar. - Glenn Milchem.

Will The Circle said...

Well, said. I did see the old shows, and this simply outshone them. One of the top musical moments of my life - and I saw T-Rex at 12, and opened for Iggy Pop at 20.
Before the show I put my arm around Neal and asked was he ready. AS he whispered back that he was, I remarked to myself. 'I forgot how quiet and gentle Neal is.'
Five minutes later I was thinking, 'Holy shit, I forgot how wild and violent Neal is!'
A stunning tribal gathering of a night.

Crawford "Crocky" Teasdale said...

Nice job Michael. Thank you!