Monday, 2 December 2013

In my ears and in my eyes

Is it just me, or is American Thanksgiving getting stranger by the year?  Up here in Canada, life went on pretty much as usual, our Thanksgiving being in October, but strains of the weirdness next door kept    seeping in.  For one thing, Canadian retailers have, for the past two years, been adopting the completely reprehensible tradition of Black Friday, which sounds like the anniversary for a massacre, but is in fact the busiest shopping day of the year in the United States as it is the day after the American Thanksgiving.  So why should we, non-observers of American holidays, be observing this orgy of consumerism and spending - especially when we go through a similar state of madness on Boxing Day?  Because Canadian merchants want in on the money, of course.  And Merry Christmas to you, too.

This particular Black Friday Eve (shudder), we were eating out prior to going to a special concert.  More on that later.  We were flanked by the now ubiquitous big screens that haunt any relatively affordable eatery these days, and they were tuned to an American Thanksgiving football game.  It was halftime.  Selena Gomez and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were gyrating on a large platform in the shape of the Salvation Army insignia.  The sound was off, and I really didn't want to know anymore.

After dinner, we walked as quickly as the ice would allow, making our way to the utterly beautiful Dominion-Chalmers United Church, host to many wonderful concerts, especially for the Ottawa Chamber Society.  We would be seeing what would be essentially a Canadian super-quartet:  Craig Northey of the Odds; John Mann of Spirit of the West; Steven Page - former lead singer of the Barenaked Ladies; and Andy Maize of the Skydiggers.  If these names mean nothing to you, try to imagine the lead singers of four well-known indie/pop bands in your particular country coming together to re-interpret the Beatles, backed by a top-notch arranger and a chamber group of gifted musicians.

We were seated in a centre pew, about half a dozen rows back from the stage and watched the church fill with people of all ages, kids and teens, university students, middle-aged civil servant types and people obviously in their seventies.  With a pang, I realized that this last category were the Beatles' contemporaries.

The concert began with a kind of overture which began with a quasi-classical feel and glided into familiar queasy chords as Craig Northey appeared, looking boyish as ever, but rather greyer than I remembered him from the nineties.  Let me take you down, 'cause I'm going to. . . . Soon he was joined by the other three, supplying the harmonies for "Strawberry Fields".

After an enthusiastic response from the crowd, pianist and arranger Andrew Burashko explained to us that they were trying to "dis-orient" us because, as most of the audience knew, "Strawberry Fields" doesn't appear on Sergeant Pepper.  (Neither did it appear on the programme nor on the CD for sale in the lobby.)

From there, they marched on, with no further explanation (none being needed, really) into the songs from the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album, each song with a different arranger, with the singers taking turns in the lead.  Of the four, Steven Page is the best-known - younger daughter recognized him with some excitement - and he and John Mann have the strongest and most versatile voices, so I guessed correctly that Mann would be singing stuff like "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and Page would be singing stuff like "She's Leaving Home".  However, Craig Northey isn't chopped liver either, and I was surprised by how moved I was by Andy Maize's interpretations of "Within You Without You" and "A Day in the Life", perhaps partially because George and John are no longer with us.

There was an intermission between the "sides" - you used to have to turn the record over, kids - and the crowd was unusually loose and friendly.  Maybe Ottawa was a nicer place in the sixties.  Several people complimented younger daughter on the Sergeant Pepper logo top she had carefully selected for the occasion.

We had permission to take non-flash photos during the concert, but the lighting was such that the handful of pictures I took were washed out and not much helped by editing with iPhoto.  I wanted to concentrate on the music anyway which ranged from classical to rock to full-blown swing.  I was amused that certain elements were carefully preserved.  In "Lucy in the Sky", for example, the singers and musicians stomped three times before each chorus.

I did dare to video a snippet of "Lovely Rita" with my iPod. The singers are washed out visually, but the sound is good.  Steven Page is the lead vocal (he's second from the right) here, occasionally forgetting the lyrics, but letting his voice power him through.  Just before I stopped recording to listen again, you can hear younger daughter laughing delightedly as those fabulous musicians in the Art of Time Ensemble veer into big band.
As the chamber musicians faded into that final long chord, the audience applauded, whistled and cheered its appreciation before being given, as promised, two encores: "Penny Lane" and "All You Need is Love", the latter, once again, movingly sung by Andy Maize with chorus and harmonies provided by the other three and the whole damn audience.

I was genuinely sorry that it was over and we found our way back into the cold winter's night with the CD carefully tucked away. At home, we were confronted with Lady Gaga and the Muppets presenting some kind of holiday special with five-minute commercials every five minutes.

Very strange.

I can't leave without making sure that you understand the calibre of the singers at this concert. It was, as I told the Resident Fan Boy, my iPod playlist come to life. Here are four of my favourite songs and videos featuring each of the night's artists.

First, Craig Northey and the Odds with this song and video from 1996 in which Bruce McCullough from The Kids in the Hall takes a girl to the roller rink (does anyone roller-skate anymore?) and gets dumped. I'm not sure where this was filmed, but it feels like the Maritimes to me:

On the West Coast in 1988, we have early Spirit of the West and John Mann with hair. (He's been elegantly bald since the nineties.)

And here's Andy Maize with the Skydiggers in 1993 in a rather unstable copy of the video for "I'm Wondering". He's the one in the tractor cap.

And finally, this heart-breaking song and video from 1992. I think both illustrate how mind-boggling awful school can be.
Very strange.

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