Friday, June 17, 2011

Men Without Hats NXNE

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Men Without Hats “reunion” show, but I definitely didn’t expect Ivan Doroschuk to open with a techno cover of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and conclude with an Erasure-worthy cover of ABBA’s “SOS.”

I also didn’t expect him to have the body of an 18-year-old, or to be every bit the rock star he was almost 30 years ago at the height of his fame. Or to be specific, what his friend John Kastner of the Doughboys described as a “gay pop star”: Ivan prances about like a fey hippie on ecstasy, and frankly it doesn’t look like an act. One wonders if the impish frontman leaps around his house like this while performing menial chores (“Where did I put those keys? Oh, over here!”).

And yet Ivan is nothing if not charming; you can’t help but like the guy. The fact that he has an arsenal of pop hooks in a surprisingly strong catalogue helps a lot; contrary to common misperception, this was not a one-hit-wonder band. Even the one new song in the set wasn’t a buzzkill—that slot was reserved for the clunky relic “Living in China,” with lyrics that rhyme “Ping-Pong” with “egg foo young.” All the hits from 1982-1987 were here: “Moonbeam,” “I Got the Message,” “I Like,” “Antarctica,” and of course the set-closing “Safety Dance.” (The female keyboardist who spells out the song’s title vocally seemed to be studying her laptop a bit too closely, prompting my friend to comment, “Is she reading the lyrics?” “S-S-S-S-A-A-A-A-F-F-F-F…”) Double-barrelled non-sequitur intro of the night: “But enough political songs. Here's a song about mescaline,” said Ivan, introducing “Pop Goes the World.”

One song was dedicated to long-time Toronto supporters Michael Hollett and Alice Klein of Now magazine, which was the only publication to claim that Ivan was a serious songwriter in the late ’80s: in 1989 they picked The Adventures of Women and Men Without Hate in the 21st Century—an album title that could have been brainstormed during a Now editorial board meeting—as the #3 album of the year, after Lou Reed’s New York and Blue Rodeo’s Diamond Mine, and ahead of Sarah McLachlan, Daniel Lanois, Kate Bush, Neville Brothers, and The Tragically Hip. Alas, Ivan didn’t think the album was important enough to play anything from it anymore.

In Have Not Been the Same, Ivan provides what I always thought was one of the book’s most bizarre quotes. When trying to align himself with Montreal’s punk scene, he says, “I always thought of Men Without Hats as an electronic hardcore band with a hit single.” And while I still don’t think there’s anything “hardcore” about Men Without Hats, one could argue that the relentless eighth-note assault, delivered here by a loud electric guitarist as well as two keyboards, owes more than a bit to the Ramones. Indeed, I’ve seen more than a few reunion shows in my time; the vast majority of them have been at least somewhat limp and nowhere near as loud or aggressive as Men Without Hats were. Who knew?

Ivan is the only old Hat in the band. He and brother Stefan had a major falling out (there are lawsuits involved), and brother Colin showed up at this show (in a doo-rag?!) just for “Where Do the Boys Go.” But no offense to the original band: anyone could play these songs, and people only ever remember Ivan, the man who advised us all that “You can act real rude and totally removed and I can act like an imbecile.” Except that this wasn’t a rude, arms-crossed convention crowd; everyone at this intimate show was ready to “surprise ’em with the victory cry.”

Men Without Hats play a free outdoor show in Yonge-Dundas Square—presumably to considerably more people than the 150 at this show, and with kids in tow—on Saturday night at 8 p.m., opening up for Devo.

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