Saturday, November 11, 2006

The Tragically Hip vs. the No Neck Blues Band

I went to see two very different concerts this week: The Tragically Hip and the No Neck Blues Band.

The Tragically Hip show gave me a lot to think about. I enjoyed myself, and I’m glad I still can enjoy a rock and roll show – they’re few and far between, for reasons that will become obvious.

The No Neck Blues band was an amazing listening experience. I loved it. If I had to cancel out one of the two experiences, and only have seen one of these two acts, I would have seen the No Neck Blues Band.

A few thousand people went to see the Hip, at four sold-out shows. Dry ice and rockstar lighting were the order of the day.

88 people went to see the No Neck Blues Band, at a venue that was 3/4ths empty. The only accoutrement to their performance was a giant walking mattress in a vinyl cover that staggered around behind the band, fell off the stage, wandered about the audience, and then finally returned to the stage -- where the man inside it came out and began to play an instrument, blending in to their seamless 45 minute jam.

Thinking about the difference between these events, the different responses, the vastly dissimilar turnouts, the different styles of audience engagement -- it almost makes me think that I should swear off rock for good; something got stuck in my throat that night at the Commodore, and I haven’t quite gotten it out. I hope I can choke a bit of it up here; it hurts.

Nov. 7, 2006: The Tragically Hip at the Commodore

Even the scalpers are out of luck. They’re working the queue with more determination than the spare-changers, trying to find tickets to flip. One of the regulars, an intense-looking bearded fellow, is pacing the line with a look of stressed-out worry on his face. At one point he offers the people behind me a stack of cash, thrusting the money out, but it’s not the best offer they’ve received, and they turn him down – “we were just curious, anyway.” He gets angry. He tells them they shouldn’t fuck around with people, that they’re looking to get punched. He storms away, leaving them somewhat shocked and amused. A more professional fellow, with a website and clients waiting for him to call and an easy grin on his face, had offered the same couple $450 for their pair, and they refused that, too. It is just as well, at that point, that I am ticketless, since it would be very difficult to turn down an offer like this.

The stressed-out guy passes by a couple more times on low burn, grumbling, until finally people in the lineup start to notice. One heavy-set fellow affably calls to him, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, why? You got a ticket to sell?”

“No, I just thought you might need a hug.” The guy is pissed at this – or simply not interested, since no money is to be made. He turns his back; the line is starting to move, anyway. The heavy guy, emboldened by the titters around him, calls back, “It’s $400 for a hug!” And then, thinking a minute, adds, “For $500 I’ll give you a reach-around!”

I get as far as the ticket window. “Yeah, my name is Allan MacInnis. I’m, uh, media? I write for a couple of local papers? I talked to the girl at Bernie Breen about getting on the guest list. I don’t think we got that set up, but I figured I’d check.” The girl, during our lunchtime phone conversation, had unhelpfully called back after I’d returned to work and left me the number of someone else to call – someone who was long out of his office (in Toronto) by the time I got home.

“Bernie who?” The girl at the window is expressionless.

“Bernie Breen. The Tragically Hip’s management.” ”Oh.” She glances at her clipboard. “Nope, you’re not here.””That’s what I figured.”

I resume my place by the makeshift metal barrier the staff have assembled on the sidewalk. It’s kind of cold. I’ll wait a half hour more, I tell myself. It’s this or laundry. I watch a middle-aged woman ask one of the courteous and competent Commodore staff what's going on tonight. When he says the Tragically Hip are playing, she asks "Who are they?" It is a source of some amusement after she leaves.

I stand in front of the Commodore for over two hours until, by sheer virtue of the fact that I endure, I am finally hooked up with someone who has an extra ticket to sell. He only wants the cost. “It saves me having to deal with those guys,” he said, referring to the scalpers. I give him $80 and tell him to keep the change. I’ve never sold a ticket for a profit, myself, but then again, I’ve never had a ticket I could sell for that much money. It’s touching to see someone who values shared fandom more than cash, but I almost feel guilty, wondering if he knows just how much profit he’s missing out on. I thank him, and another fellow who helped set me up with the guy, and go inside. (Wisely, the Commodore staff set up the line so that once you have your ticket, you go immediately in – second thoughts of last-minute cashgrabs are discouraged).

I have never seen the Tragically Hip before. I am not wholly convinced, before the show starts, that this is going to be worth the $80. Though I have learned to enjoy Music@Work, the last couple of Hip albums that I’ve heard seemed to suggest a band meandering, in decline; neither was that strong, and In Between Evolution in particular suggested a group that had lost considerable energy and enthusiasm, resting mostly on past formulae. It was so boring that I gave it away before it’s corruption spread and dampened my enjoyment of the rest of their music, which I listen to seldom enough in the first place. I hadn’t rushed out and bought World Container, needless to say. I do not know, as the concert starts, that it has been produced by Bob Rock and is being called by many the best Hip album, their return to form.

Even after the band takes the stage, I am unconvinced. I tend to find big rock concerts odd, anyhow. The stimuli is so intense, there is so much happening, that it can’t but distract: there are screams and jostlings from the crowd, and their often bizarre gestures of rockstar worship to contend with (at one point during the night some yokel in front of me, with a complete lack of irony, holds up his lit Bic). Compared to the audiences at punk and jazz gigs, big rock show audiences tend to be an inattentive, self-centered lot who barely know how to listen.

I’ll stop to cry into the curtains and like the greats, before me, go on stage
And, if half-true, its good enough for this
Cuz the kids don’t get it
No. The kids don’t get it

If I ask you a question, ya gonna lie to me?
Ah honey is that your question? cuz that one’s easy

Kids don’t get it
Just how hard it is
Kids don’t get it
Just how much there is

And then, audience aside, there’s the performance itself to get over; there’s so much bullshit in the world of rock that it is actually not that easy to convince me that I’m not being sold a bill of goods. I walked out, the last time Jon Spencer played Vancouver – he was working hard, but seeing some guy do his job is not what I go to concerts for. When I saw Sonic Youth here, too, on the Sonic Nurse tour, they seemed so not to enjoy playing to the whooping, stupid mass assembled in front of them that it made it really hard for me to get into it – add to which the fact that the most interesting music they made was almost entirely drowned out by cheers and whoops. The herd have a way of making everything about themselves.

Even after the show starts, I worry. Gord keeps a guitar strapped around himself for the first few songs, safely distant. “You’re Not the Ocean” is a well crafted pop-song (meant to resonate off Neil Young’s “I’m the Ocean,” I wonder?) but it doesn’t quite get my blood going. “New Orleans is Sinking,” played surprisingly early in the set, is strong, but the band don’t seem to particularly be getting off, and all the roaring delight from the people around me only serves to underscore that I don’t feel anything yet. This is not my tribe. These are not my tribal rituals. I stand there waiting.

By odd confluence, the first holy-shit song, the first moment where the band really show me what they can do, coincides with the passing around of a joint, which I manage to get several hoots off. The song is “The Drop Off.”

There’s no swimming past the drop-off
Yea we don’t replace ourselves
Ya don’t go swimming past the drop-off
Or else

The fates are amok and spun, measured and cut, and the past is meant to please us
Yer a comet from earth in a Kiss Alive shirt saying, ‘holy fuck, it’s Jesus!?’
The surface is green and the dark interweaves in a lonely iridescence
It’s terribly deep and the cold is complete and it only lacks a presence
And nothing else

I blink: did Gord really just sing, “Holy fuck, it’s Jesus?” What a pleasingly shocking combination of words, what an image. The babbling stream of lyrics hits very, very hard and I notice that Gord’s shirt has become suddenly soaked with sweat. It glistens with a black sheen. The acoustic guitar is long gone; there is no question as to whether or not he is engaged in this.

Here’s an interesting observation about herd behaviour during rock concerts: one guy behind you singing loudly along with a song that you like is irritating as hell. The whole crowd singing along with a song you like (EVERY word) is a phenomenon moving beyond compare. I don’t join in, myself, when the band go into “Ahead by a Century,” though. I feel like I feel the odd time I do when I accompany my parents to church -- oddly fond of the sincerity of the believers, even protective of it, even though I am shut out from it myself. I stand there thinking of a girl I once listened to it with, with the pot spinning my mind into theorizing about how the mass nature of this act of choral singing can alone make it beautiful and valuable. Somehow this resonates with something Reg Harkema said when I interviewed him for Discorder about militant political action, part of the theme of his upcoming film; if activists have no mass movement behind them, if what they do stands out as unusual behaviour, it' s pretty likely that the rest of the herd will shy away from it, or look upon it angrily. Just like I regard the guy with the screechy voice standing immediately behind me, whenever he gets a chance to solo.

And yet when we all sing at once, how beautiful it can be...

In any event: the problem with rock and roll is amply illustrated by a bit of miscommunication Gord encounters with the audience just past the midway of the show. (Note: the following has been changed from the original post, since I was in error about a couple of details; thanks to Dana from the Henhouse list for keepin' me accurate). The band begins to play a slow riff, vaguely familiar. Gord announces that it's "Chagrin Falls," but it sounds quite like the riff of the Hip's signature tune, “Grace, Too.” The crowd cheers, and I suspect they think it is "Grace, Too," though it sounds different to me. Gord's announcement of the title had been drowned out by something-or-other, though. Gord gives a false start singing, then fades to silence, and, after a puzzled pause, begins a patter – something along the lines of, “Hey, you know what – can some of you help me? I seem to have forgotten the first line of this song. Do any of you remember the words?” He holds out the microphone and you can hear it vibrating up from the crowd: “He said I’m fabulously rich. Come on just let’s go.”

I'm not sure what's going on -- initially I think Gord is playing a game with the audience, and remain in error about this until I see a video clip of the performance on Youtube. He really has forgotten the words, but the herd don't even know which song he's trying to sing; diehard fans all, I hear a half-dozen clusters of people call out the opening line of "Grace, Too," as Gord pleads with the people in front to help him out. Unseen by me, I'm told that a roadie actually runs out on stage with a laptop to rescue him -- the "first time he's had to use a teleprompter," as he jokes afterwards:

By design by neglect
For a fact or just for effect
When they met where they connect
At the confluence of travel and sex
More a trip than a quest
Plunged into the deeply freckled breast
Where to now? If I had to guess
I'm afraid to say Antarctica's next or
Chagrin Falls, Ohio where the unknown won't even go
To Chagrin Falls, Ohio where the unknown don't even go

The mistake has illustrated something vividly; the audience, however enthusiastic they are, howevermuch they love the band, are in fact not really even paying attention; the great mass of them can't tell one song from the next. They're too involved in their own image, their own desires, too involved in celebrating themselves to get it right. Though, stoned, I follow things to my own incorrect conclusion, m'self: that Gord had deliberately set the audience up to reveal their ignorance, to taunt them with their inattentiveness. It serves to underscore and perhaps exaggerate the degree to which it seems to me the band are "putting down" the pop transaction during the night (and indeed, they play their song, "Putting Down," as part of the set: "I'm starting to fail to be impressed... I'm starting to choke on the things I say; I'm putting down...;" I'm reminded of Beck's song, "I'm putting it down/ but you're not picking it up/I'm putting it down/but you treat me like a clown...")

It makes the night more interesting, in any event – no wonder Gord sings about how we’re a generation “so much dumber” than our parents. What lost, easily distracted children are we, what sheep; and what an odd, obscure pinnacle people like Gord occupy. It must be really hard, indeed. There’s ambivalence here, hostility in his relationship to this mass. Stoned, I can’t but think of it. I lose myself in spirals of theory: the prevalence of self-awareness, of irony, in our popular culture is necessitated by the fact that the whole fucking transaction is absurd. We know we have cut loose from the planet, from each other, from reality; our culture feeds on itself, sells itself its own image, loses itself in illusion while reality goes begging. Even the reality of the illusion – the nature of the joke – is seen by very, very few. And those who make a living selling the illusion can condemn it all they like; it won't make any bit of difference, or seem at all self-contradictory. It's a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down. It's a swindle.

My interior theory-babble, under the pot, is intense, but the crowd keeps calling attention to itself and distracting me. Some dumb fat chick in front of me, with a dumb fat boyfriend in a baseball cap, is thrashing around wildly, out of step with the songs, and shouting over the music to her man how cool the Hip are. She steps on my feet. She flips her hair back into my face. She bumps into me. She brays inanities to her boyfriend as I strain to hear what the band is doing. She does this through song after song, heedless of anyone around her, obnoxious as hell. I finally lean over during a quiet part and say quite clearly to her, patiently, firmly: “It’s called music. You’re supposed to listen to it.”

She turns and screams something at me that I cannot comprehend; I think part involved her calling me a son of a bitch. I smile at her in return, with no malice whatsoever. Even a bit kindly. She turns her back on me in a huff, but behaves much, much better for the rest of the night, though she continues to dance and enjoy herself (which I begrudge her not at all, if that's what you're thinkin').

Gord begins to stalk the audience with a make-believe gun, and I smile. I fancy I understand exactly what he's feeling. During one long instrumental passage – I forget which song; they’ve all started to blend together – he performs an elaborate routine of hiding behind the guitarists and bassist, peering out over their shoulders, and pretending to take aim at us. He looks afraid, timid, confused; the imaginary gun is his only protection from the bizarre mob he is confronted with. Near the end of the game he comes to the edge of the stage and mimes chucking the gun into the audience. It’s no wonder he advises us to “eat that chicken slow;” he is abundantly conscious of how carelessly we gorge ourselves. I feel like I understand him better now – understand why his lyrics tend to be so densely coded; his position is a very, very tentative one, a difficult one to occupy for a sensitive and intelligent man – tho’ he holds his own quite well.

One day I’ll make some honest rock n roll
Full of handclaps and gang vocals
I’m gonna get all the children involved
We’re gonna get lost on all you locals
We’ll be a shade shy of true wickedness
We’ll be a shade shy of truly loving this, yea
There are other things we’ll rather be doing, sure
Even nothing
Even nothing
Even nothing... with you

(Doesn’t that “with you” seem kinda like a cop-out, like something that was added on later? Doesn't it remind you of Mick Jagger biting the bullet and singing, "Let's Spend Some Time Together?" Anyhow, I think I'd like the song better without it.)

Even tho' I can't deny that I have fun, I am forced to conclude that rock and roll, in this form, is not about the band or the music at all. It is an attempt on the part of the audience to reclaim some connection to their lost tribal/animal selves, some feeling of belonging, of being led, of being taught, of submitting to a charismatic authority that promises to deliver unto us desire, freedom, power, self-confidence. It is a vast compensatory mechanism, a neurotic adaptation: all the feelings we want that we cannot express or release in life, that are no longer attainable in our business-mad culture, we bring with us into the venue to artificially induce them.

Perhaps art – or any public spectacle – always has an element of that, of compensating for a lack. It’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just gets really complicated if you start to think about it. Imagine it: every single person in this venue turned down almost a hundred dollars profit per ticket to get into this show, choosing instead to pay to participate in this strange transaction, to be led and entertained and mock-shot-at by this little guy onstage. Why? They're just a rock band, for fucksake. It shouldn't BE this big a deal, good as they may be -- no?

But even while I observe it, I catch myself enjoying the show, too. As the band break into “At the 100th Meridian,” I find myself whooping along with the crowd, and briefly, everything goes Desmond Morris: I visualize the Commodore packed with chimps. Everyone of us, including me, watching a higher-status chimp posture onstage. I laugh aloud in delight at the thought, swaying to the music.

We’ve come so far as a species it’s amazing to realize that we’ve gone nowhere at all. We’ve just forgotten ourselves, distracted ourselves, put a whole lot of culture and consumer products between ourselves and our true natures. As long as we can consume the images, the rituals, the tokens of the tribe, we can forget that we live in a chaotic, orderless mess, spinning out of control into oblivion.

Rock and roll really is the devil’s music.

How about that.

Nov. 10, 2006: The No Neck Blues Band at the Granville Island Theatre.

Oh, hell, I don’t feel like writing anymore. But I could close my eyes and LISTEN to this show, and experience something like bliss, ambivalence-free. I haven’t had a perceptual adventure like this at a concert since Supersilent played here last. The band have managed to strip away every trace of the bullshit that clogs rock, to make something pure and primitive and unique (tho' in its own way, as self-protected as Gord Downie's lyrics; this is not music that the vast majority will understand or even attempt to). Their jams, at times, made me think of the Acid Mothers Temple, as did some of the music; but the Acid Mothers Temple are apparently fond of the bullshit poses and bizarre adulations of rock -- I see Kawabata Makoto onstage with a v-neck guitar, in the midst of dry ice, long hair swirling around him as he holds the guitar up over him as he plays, just like, well, Eddie van Halen. NNCK seem to have broken completely free and remind me on stage of pretty much no one but themselves.

I loved it when Dave played his cello upside down. The man has a bit of Dada in him (the walking mattress seemed to lean that way, too). The Japanese female member, by contrast, appeared to approach the music as if something sacred was transpiring; she was especially fascinating to watch, and clearly a formidable musician -- I'd love to know more about her. Their music seems to arise from equally strong impulses to create and to destroy. It makes for one hell of a trip.

Mostly I tried to keep my eyes closed, to quiet my thoughts so I could listen. It gets to be difficult to do, tho', particularly when there's a walking mattress coming down the aisle.

Anyhow, like I said, only 88 people came to the show. Those 88 people don’t need me to write about it. The rest of you are gonna have to figure out what you missed on your own.

There's only so much I can do.

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