Friday, May 06, 2016

Rheostatics: Sorta Itches

Photo from Shauna De Cartier's Facebook page
Massey Hall, Toronto
April 29, 2016

Never in my life have I walked an emotional highwire at a musical performance the way I did at Massey Hall last Friday night. Never once before have I spent an entire show on the edge of my seat, wondering if it would even continue, if the lights would suddenly go up and everyone would be ushered out and thousands of fans would stand outside the venue wondering what the hell they had just witnessed. Never have I seen a show of this size go so severely off the rails, repeatedly—only, it must be said, to have everyone else on stage rally together as a band of brothers to salvage the show and, for a few songs and ultimately for the closing number, ultimately triumph. There was a happy ending, but could just as easily have not reached any kind of closure at all.

But this is the Rheostatics.

The Rheostatics mean more to me than any other group of musicians of my generation, of any performer I've been lucky enough to see live during their prime, of people I've been fortunate enough to know, however tangentially, as a writer and fan and part of an extended circle of friends. When they decided to call it quits in 2007, they played a final show, at Massey Hall, which was one of the most beautiful moments of musical history I've been privileged to witness.

So there's that. 

There’s talk of a reunion of the ones that didn’t stay.

In recent years there had been rumblings of a reunion, all of which made me nervous. A 2012 show at the Horseshoe Tavern, with original drummer Dave Clark (1980-94), was announced and then cancelled due to Martin Tielli's anxiety and stage fright, which he wrote about in a Facebook post (which I reprinted here, and Brad Wheeler wrote about here and here). That came a year after Dave Bidini published a book ostensibly about Gordon Lightfoot, in which the author—in easily the most beautiful, heart-wrenching passage of his prolific career—wrote about the alcohol addiction of an extremely close musical comrade, whom he refuses to name, but whose identity is obvious to any Rheostatics fan able to read between the lines.

Then, last fall, the band did reunite to perform their 2005 album Music Inspired by the Group of 7, at the Art Gallery of Ontario. I went, with some apprehension, but: a) it's a largely instrumental album that is not even in my top 5 Rheostatics records, so I didn't feel the same level of emotional investment; b) they were joined by keyboardist Kevin Hearn and violinist Hugh Marsh, veterans who can handle any musical challenge or curveball thrown at them; c) with visuals by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, the whole performance promised to be more than a regular rock-show reunion gig, and more of an art gallery event.

The show was good (though the sound in that venue was terrible), Tielli seemed in decent shape, and yes, it was great to see all those men together; I also happened to be an AGO event earlier in the week where they made a surprise appearance, with Terra Lightfoot and Mary Margaret O'Hara joining them on vocals. I declined an invitation to a late-night show at the Monarch Tavern at the end of that weekend, where the band played a full set of their regular material, with the aforementioned guests and more. Memories of glory from the 2007 Massey Hall gig were still resonant; I didn't want to tamper with them. As one friend told his spouse before last week’s show, "I've already said my goodbyes."

That brings us to last Friday.

Again, I was apprehensive. This is a band who, as everybody but the die-hard apologists will tell you, were capable of playing the worst show you've ever seen and then follow it up the next night with the greatest show you've ever seen—by any band, ever. (Any time I say this it makes them sound like a jam band. Raised on new wave, punk, Max Webster and arty folk rock, this band has nothing in common with children of the Dead—to which I’m allergic.) How good could a one-off at Massey Hall possibly be? My concerns were only tempered when I heard there was to be a warm-up at the Starlight Room in Waterloo the week before; rave reviews of that show were heartening, to say the least.

No one said this would be easy / But no one said this would be hell

Massey Hall 2016 opened with “King of the Past,” from the beloved Whale Music, a song that plays to many of the band’s strengths: co-written by Dave Bidini and Tim Vesely, sung by Tim, a guitar solo from Martin, and Don Kerr’s drums driving the song to a thrilling conclusion. Solid choice: the song develops slowly, one can hear the band warming up and finding their feet as it evolves. So far, so good.

Then “California Dreamline,” one of many Rheostatics songs that is largely a showcase for Tielli’s voice—a voice that on this occasion started dropping lyrics and eventually flubbed a full verse. The next Tielli-sung song, “P.I.N.,” required Bidini to prompt him with lyrics. Anxiety was building. This was every performer’s stage-fright nightmares coming to life.

Meanwhile, the letters of the band’s name were mounted on wheels behind the band and rearranged during the course of the show into amusing anagrams; at the beginning, they spelled “RHEOSTATISC,” to the confused delight of the assembling audience—even if, in retrospect, that seems to have been an omen. When things first started going awry, the letters spelled “SORTA ITCHES.” As things got worse, they spelled “SHIT COASTER.” Oy vey.

Once I get good. Once I get better.

As another fan has pointed out, Tielli has always been emotionally bare on stage: he has no game face to appease a crowd. If he’s feeling it—joy, amusement, bewilderment, anger—you will see it. Kerr and Vesely are perpetually poker-faced, soldiering through any potential mishap. Bidini will always be the coach and cheerleader, fully devoted to spectacle, craving attention but also exceedingly generous and encouraging to anyone with whom he shares a stage. Bidini was all those things at Massey Hall, and thank God. Never once did Bidini visibly express concern; every one of Bidini’s glances toward Tielli seemed to tell him, “I’ve got your back. We can do this.”

But you will, you will, you will be happy / In spite of the shit and the pain of it

Forgetting lyrics is one thing (and a bit Desmond Howl-ish, but that’s another story). By the time they started “Self-Serve Gas Station,” Tielli’s volume pedal—a key element of his sound and technique—and his gear in general was not functioning. The song’s intro dragged out for several minutes while the problem proved it was not going to work itself out, to Tielli’s visible dismay—he stalked the stage and it looked like he might actually just leave. What’s weird is that Tielli has had this exact same problem with his gear for at least 25 years, since the first Rheostatics gig I ever saw. Here, however, as De La Soul would say, stakes is high.

Tech snafus happen; we’ve all been there. But when they do, you pick up another guitar, you move on—which is what the Rheostatics have always done, which is what I saw the Flaming Lips do at Massey Hall in 2002, after all their sequencers and visual gear stopped working mid-show. As Bidini joked during this show, that’s what live music is all about. Should we all stay home and watch perfectly edited concert videos? (Speaking of which, this show was being filmed for the Live at Massey Hall series.) Isn’t the thrill for the audience supposed to be the tightrope walk of the performers? Aren’t the most memorable shows the ones that go off-script? By the same token, no one goes to professional theatre and tolerates large swaths of dialogue gone missing or sudden curtain drops.

It wasn’t all discomfort; naturally, there were many moments of utter magic. Kevin Hearn’s elderly father was escorted on stage to read a carpe diem poem that brought tears to my eyes. The vocal trio Trent Severn, featuring Emm Gryner, was brought out to sing backups on an inspired “Fan Letter to Michael Jackson.” Don Kerr busted into a few bars of “I Would Die 4 U” over the beginning of “Queer.” After one of the particularly squeamish snafus, Bidini led the band to the edge of the stage to perform an entirely unplugged “Northern Wish,” during which Tielli rallied and triumphed, hands cupped over his mouth, calling out to the furthest corners of Massey Hall; Marsh’s violin danced around the edges of the melody, the way it once did with Bruce Cockburn and Mary Margaret O’Hara at this same venue; 2,700 people sang the “land-ho” backing vocals; Hearn looked particularly verklempt (as a child, he used to sing in Massey Hall with St. Michael’s Choir School).

Yet the show took another turn south, however, for the set-closing “Shaved Head,” the centrepiece of Whale Music. Again: Tielli dropped lyrics, but channelled everything he had left into an intense, operatic and transcendent delivery. It was certainly electrifying, but not exactly pleasurable; it simply encapsulated the emotional roller coaster ride we’d been on.

By this point the anagrams had read “ETHICS ROAST” and “ARTISTS ECHO.” This appeared to be not at all a new beginning for a revered band, but a fading memory of glory days. By the time the set was over, I wanted to cancel post-show plans with friends—friends who had travelled from Vancouver, from Ottawa, from upstate New York—and crawl home.

Forgive me, I don't know what made me this way / But I'll be all right if you'll be okay

But wait: there’s more. (With the Rheostatics, there is always more.) For the encore, the letters had finally been assembled to spell “RHEOSTATICS.” It was revealed that the anagram-assisting stage hands, who had been clad in white hazmat suits, were four long-time associates: Ford Pier (sideman), Michael Philip Wojewoda (producer, drummer 2001-07), Selina Martin (frequent guest singer, collaborator), and Justin Stephenson (video director), who all unmasked and sang back-ups on “Stolen Car” and “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds,” two more epic Tielli-led live staples. Tielli played Bidini’s electric guitar, without incident. All lyrics were there. Negative energy had dissipated during the short set break. The forgiving crowd—and you could not ask for a more forgiving, generous crowd than Rheostatics fans—rallied the band on. We would not let this band fail.

I feel like I'm swimming, and things will work out anyway

“Dope Fiends” is a song in which the lonely narrator feels abandoned by his childhood friends in his snowy suburb; he wonders, “why didn’t they stay here and help me shovel the walk?” Well, here we were, helping hands all, witnessing a concluding performance that was monstrous, powerful, gut-wrenching and glorious in all the best ways. There was a sharp left turn into a noise improv featuring only Hearn, Marsh and Tielli, an exorcism before everyone reassembled for the crashing coda, providing the pent-up emotional release we’d all been waiting for all night. It was what the Rheostatics do best, what they do better than any other band I’ve ever seen.

And as that old song always does, as it did concluding the 2007 Massey Hall show, it ended on a suspended note.

CODA: The next morning, I put on Mary Margaret O’Hara’s Miss America album. It was the only thing that made sense. It’s a Tielli favourite.It features Hugh Marsh. She sang with the Rheostatics at their most recent gig, which sent the Toronto music historian in me into fits of ecstasy. She is someone who is always lost in her own moment, with both brilliant and disastrous results, surrounded by sympathetic musicians who somehow tune into her wavelength. The first time I saw her play was full of false starts, falls, random spontaneous covers, and, of course, some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard in my life. She is someone to whom fans have learned to adjust our expectations—of everything. On this morning, titles, phrases from that record resonated with me in ways they never have before: “Body’s in Trouble,” “Help Me Lift You Up,” “Not Be Alright.” And of course…

You will be loved again.

Set list, not in order:

From Melville:
Northern Wish

From Whale Music:
Self-Serve Gas Station
California Dreamline
King of the Past
Shaved Head
Dope Fiends

From Introducing Happiness:
Fan Letter to Michael Jackson

From Nightlines Sessions:
Stolen Car

From The Story of Harmelodia:
It’s Easy to Be With You

From Night of the Shooting Stars:

From 2067:
Making Progress

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