Sunday, April 26, 2009

Gig: Great Lake Swimmers / Art Bergmann

Great Lake Swimmers / Art Bergmann

Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Saturday, April 25, 2009.

A lovely warm day that turned menacingly grey as I was getting ready to go out, but still met with R. for cake before grabbing the Bathurst streetcar and heading to the end of the line to find the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Despite knowing more or less where we were going, still ended up ambling the long way around before finding our way in — certainly the wayfinding on site leaves something to be desired.1

It's probably an unfair assumption on my part, but I always tend to assume anything at the CNE is a bit Miss Havisham-y, so it was pleasantly surprising to see that the recently refurbished Queen Liz was actually fairly nice digs. Decent sightlines to the stage,2 comfy seats, good sound. In terms of size and typical sort of show, this venue is probably most directly comparable to the Danforth Music Hall, and I would say the Queen Liz is probably the better of the two.3

When Art Bergmann was announced as the opener for the show, I was a little excited. Here is, after all, a genuine Canadian punk-rock hero and something of an institution. In our eat-our-own (or politely ignore-own-own) cultural tradition, though, his absence has not made people's hearts grow fonder. I was a bit worried at the possibility of it being some sort of a trainwreck, a recent news story not stinting on the grim toll rock'n'roll has taken on him, stating that he can't sing and play guitar at the same time. ("It's fucking horrible, because I just love playing guitar, I love kind of rocking out, and I can't now. My hands stiffen up, and I just can't play. So I'm just going to be singing – in a wheelchair or something.") Billed as "a special acoustic performance", this didn't sound promising.

Perhaps for the best, then, that Bergmann came out backed by a well-rehearsed four-piece band. Rumours of his decline seemed somewhat exaggerated, as, while he wasn't tearing it up, he played his guit parts competently. Bergmann is certainly looking a bit older and frailer — put him in a sweater and he could pass as an endearingly distracted, slightly dotty classics professor.

It was pretty clear that, except for some dedicated fans up front, a lot of people had no idea who he was, and the suburban louts behind me simply thought he was some random old jakey. Although it seemed, between songs, that he was a bit befuddled, and at a few points like things could fall apart, the band was very solid and lifted him up. If anything, the band was a little too-smooth, and the sound a bit rooted in 1987, with that 80's keyb sound and boxy drums. Fortunately, Bergmann's gloriously wrecked voice gave things some chaotic edge. Not everything worked: A couple ballad-y songs didn't fare so well, and "Our Little Secret" is a little heavy-handed, but it was nice chance to remember that the man wrote some good songs, and we got good renditions of "Buried Alive", "Remember Her Name" (with its "She feels like / Marianne Faithfull" hook)4, and "Hospital Song". The set ended with Tony Dekker coming out to contribute backing vox to a take on Gram Parson's "Sin City", a fitting end to the proceedings.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Between sets, ran into K., who'd been a bit late, having guessed wrong on whether the 8PM on the ticket meant "doors" or "show"5. She joined us as the stage was changed over for GLS. The place was full but not totally sold out, as there were easily a couple hundred empty seats in the back. But still, a good-sized crowd for a local band made good.

GLS is a band I've seen a fair number of times, and in a lot of different settings — in libraries and churches, on lake shores and record stores — so any performance I see has a lot of context to be weighed against, and a lot to live up to. On this occasion, the band was five deep behind Tony (six, including the part-time cello), graced by Bob Egan's presence on mandolin and pedal steel, and Julie Fader's sympathetic keybs and backing vox. The band was quite spread out on the wide stage, which might explain why there were a few moments where they seemed a bit out of sync. Overall it seemed like they were trying to make their sound fit the big room, when, with their talent they could have chosen to shrink the room down to fit the songs.6 The drums, in particular, were sometimes a little heavy-handed.

Still, there were no shortage of highlights, including "Various Stages", "Moving Pictures Silent Films", "There Is A Light" and an entirely lovely "Song for the Angels". From the new album "Everything Is Moving So Fast", "Pulling on a Line" and "Still" were given especially pleasing treatments. Basia Bulat came out to add her voice to the main set closing "I Am Part Of A Large Family". The band now has such a deep catalogue that some stone classics can no longer break the setlist, despite playing seventy minutes plus encore.

Walking back through the light rain to the streetcar loop, we agreed that this wasn't the best GLS show we'd seen, but given the fondly-remembered shows we were comparing it to, still a good one overall.

1 And in one of those contemporary things that we take for granted until they don't work, the Google Map for the CNE is less than entirely useful, not showing the large football pitch beside the place we were going.

2 My only complaint is that whoever put the seats in didn't offset the rows, so each seat was directly behind the one in front of it. We were sitting dead centre, and I had a great view of the stage — until a guy sat down in front of me. And being dead centre, my view of the edges of the stage was fine, but my glimpses of Tony Dekker would be fleeting.

3 In terms of ease of getting to the venue, it's no worse than, say Kool Haus — a bit of a walk from the streetcar loop, albeit with the likelihood of a bit of a crammed ride back home after the show.

4 Admittedly, this one has a lot of 80's sound for a song released in 1991 and played in 2009, but it still works.

5 In this day and age, venues and/or promoters have no excuse for not posting clear door and set times online for everyone to find. Maybe I'm just spoiled by the good work that Lee's and the 'Shoe do on their sites, but this just seems like a reasonable thing to expect.

6 Perhaps this is why the quiet mid-set pairing of "Concrete Heart" and "Merge, A Vessel, A Harbour" (the latter solo, the former accompanied only by cello) were so rewarding.

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