Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Bowie Ball 5: a maximal, crowd-pleasing party at the Rickshaw

All photos by Bob Hanham, not to be reused without permission

NOW WITH ADDED CORRECTIONS! (Facebook friends weighed in)

In case you weren't there, apparently over $10,000 to fight cancer was raised at the Rickshaw at Saturday's 5th annual Bowie Ball. Seventeen bands performed, with emcee duties from Dennis Mills and Tony Lee. The show was huge - as sprawling as the first Bowie Ball, if perhaps a little smoother in transition between bands - with a very full house (which thinned out towards the end of the night, which was a shame, since one of the highlights came in the final set). There was too much to take in, too much to possibly review fairly, but the main observations that I came away with were:

People really opted for the "crowd pleaser" side of Bowie, with plenty of Serious Moonlight-type songs given flamboyant expression, usually by larger bands (more than one unit ran to nine members, inspiring a restaurant joke from Tony Lee, that with nine you got free eggrolls and miso soup). The artier, weirder, more demanding side of Bowie was mostly absent, with (I do believe) only the Blackstar Band touching on Bowie's final album (one member was wearing a Freak Dream shirt, so it's no surprise they had an ambitious, experimental edge). I admit to kinda preferring the hits of Bowie myself, but it was a bit odd that some crowd-pleasers appeared more than once ("Wild is the Wind" was sung by both Cass King and the Cassettes and Rong; Cass - who I wrote about at length here - was energetic but not the scene stealer she was for BB1). All the while, odder (but well-known) later songs like "Ashes to Ashes" or even "Andy Warhol" were skipped altogether; and pretty much no one did small-scale, acousticky things, which would have been welcome, especially between larger acts, in the name of variety. It was kind of an all-dance-party-all-the-time night, which I guess is understandable, and maybe even preferable, if you want to dance... if not entirely true to Bowie's own varied self-presentations...

Tony Lee and Dennis Mills by Bob Hanham

Cass King and the Cassettes by Bob Hanham

Another observation: Many of the bands that performed that I had seen doing their own material, elsewhere, seemed (oddly enough) less exciting when they were doing Bowie covers.This is not always the case with covers; it's my opinion that a really good cover should both deliver the energy and vitality of the original AND connect with the spirit of the band in question. When it comes, say, to the work of David M., whose past "small salutes" to David Bowie I have posted bits of here, here, and (outside the first Bowie Ball) here, it is often hard to tell, if you don't already know, whether the songs he plays are his own or covers, since he chooses covers that really fit his own style, and delivers both kinds of songs with equal verve and conviction, making the covers his own. I would just as soon see him do "The Laughing Gnome" as (his own) "I'm Not Taking Suzy to the Be-In;" in fact. It's a lesser Bowie tune, maybe, while the latter is one of NO FUN's (sorta) hits, but in his hands, they're kinda equal. 

David M. by Bob Hanham

By the way, M. performed six songs in front of the Rickshaw, guerilla-style, before the show again on Saturday. Eventually he was asked to shut'er down; he'd had Mo and Dave's blessing, but apparently the security guards couldn't hear each other over his set. He waited around no less to give me a Christmas gift of William Shatner Christmas tunes (Shatner Claus, and it's no Has Been, I tellya, unless you really want to hear Henry Rollins sing "Jingle Bells"). He also gave Erika the full length Muppet Christmas Carol. When Erika and I arrived, he told us he'd also been invited to play a pre-concert thing which no one, apparently, knew about or attended. Happy New Year, M.

The Campfire Shitkickers, by Bob Hanham

But to return to my point - to pick on one band, but only one, by way of example - while I actually really enjoy them, the Campfire Shitkickers are, in fact, much better, much more convincing at playing Campfire Shitkickers songs than Bowie ones. They were still plenty of fun - I mean, "Fame" scored for mandolin, guitar, drums and two basses? What's not to like? ...and their stand-up bassist deserves some sort of mention for having an Iron Maiden shirt on: playing a rockabilly instrument in a folk punk band while covering Bowie and wearing a metal shirt covers so many musical bases it ain't funny. But from the moment they started their set, with "Let's Dance" - which apparently segued at one point into "Magic Dance", one of which the singer quipped was the "fucking best worst David Bowie song" -  I was thinking back to seeing them at the Flamingo in Surrey, opening for China Syndrome and Circus in Flames. They were even MORE fun that night. I was looking forward to seeing them again, since both my wife and I really enjoyed their goofy, ribald take on folk - and I may even snag their CD! - but for me, seeing them cover Bowie was, I dunno, like seeing the Pogues cover Elvis. Wouldn't you just rather the Pogues be the Pogues?

In fact, I was much, much more amused by hearing the head Shitkicker in the men's room upstairs, as I peed in a stall, lead a rowsing chorus of "What do you do with a drunken sailor" with his urinal mates, then remarking on the no-longer socially acceptable variant on the lyric, "What do you do with a drunken girl?" That was much, much truer to the rude and rowdy spirit of the Campfire Shitkickers than "Let's Dance." As Dennis Mills quipped at one point, "if you're campfire shit, you better look out, because you're gonna get kicked."

Abel Collective by Bob Hanham

Of the people who opted for more obscure Bowie covers, the tendency seemed to be to go for early Bowie. No one touched "The Laughing Gnome," sadly, but the Abel Collective did, for instance, "Silly Boy Blue," a song I had not heard before. While I enjoyed their take on other, better known Bowie ("Absolute Beginners," say), "Silly Boy Blue" didn't really work for me: for a band you have not heard before to succeed at impressing you with a song you have not heard before, they either gotta pick a really great song - one notable for something other than its obscurity, which I'm thinkin' may not be this one - or they really, really have to own it, package it, and sell it. It must be a tough feat, when you're only playing two or three tunes in a night, to get there, which may explain why there were so few lesser-known tunes presented...

Danny Echo by Bob Hanham

And to get my criticisms off my chest early, Danny Echo had similar trouble with their take on "Ricochet," a lesser Bowie tune that just didn't really gel for me. The sum of its parts didn't add up to a coherent whole - though it's hard to tell if that's on Danny Echo or David Bowie; I don't always get where Bowie is coming from, to be honest. In fairness, tho', the band themselves admitted to more comfort covering the Who's "I Can't Explain" and Them's "Here Comes the Night," both of which Bowie had also, at some point, covered. I enjoyed their goofy, bubbly, but enthusiastic reading of the latter tune best. (I am humbled to see they shared this post despite my being critical of 1/3 of their set).

On the other hand, to return to the theme of covering lesser-known early Bowie - the prize for selling a lesser-known Bowie song goes unequivocally to the Vanrays, whom I interviewed awhile back, for digging up and completely inhabiting a song called "I Pity the Fool" - no Mr. T reference intended. The song has a long history that pre-dates Bowie doing it. Prior to this writing, I had no idea what the Bowie version sounded like, but the Vanrays made the song sound just like a Vanrays original, with vocalist Spencer McKinnon delivering an amped up soulfulness that was one of the night's high points. The Vanrays also totally claimed "It Ain't Easy" - a fantastic combo in fine form.

The Vanrays by Bob Hanham

If the Vanrays won the prize for making Bowie sound the most like the Vanrays, the Pack AD managed to completely confuse me with how little the songs they chose or the performance they delivered reminded me of anything about the Pack AD as I thought I knew them. Nowhere to be seen was the fearsome female duo that struck me, when I saw them maybe ten years ago at a Mint Records event, as a black-clad all-female Gun Club, playing compelling, energetic, stripped-down garage punk blues. If that is still in any way their identity, their brand, their sound, I could not see or hear a lick of it in their take on "The Man Who Sold The World" and "Heroes." They've even added a member, at least temporarily; Mo Tarmohamed - who thought they did a killer job - imported the bassist from Landline for the "The Man Who Sold the World." If you're not sure what I'm talking about here, the difference in sound, check out this very typical, very entertaining earlier single. I had been expecting something in this vein!

 All of that's fair game, but was very distracting to someone who was unprepared for it. It made me wonder if they decided their former identity was too constricting and ditched it?

The Pack AD by Bob Hanham

Friends of mine were of different minds about the Pack AD's performance, and one even picked it as one of the night's best, but none of them had seen the previous incarnation of the band, nor had anyone else I asked about them, later on, as I was trying to make sense of their apparent sea change. I don't know that I *could* evaluate the quality of their covers, because I just couldn't get over how different they seemed from the band I remembered....

China Syndrome by Bob Hanham

China Syndrome - who are in the act of switching out guitarist Vern Beamish, absent last night, but not yet blessed with a permanent replacement - also sounded remarkably different from the band I knew previously, with a temporary guitarist filling in for Beamish (Mark Richardson of what Tim Chan described as a "local symphonic metal band," Ophelia Falling). Richardson (below) was much, much more inclined to rock the fuck OUT, but the change really worked in the context of the ball, as did the addition of CLONE/ Coach StrobCam vocalist Rachel Strobl and percussionist Tony Lee. Check out this clip of "Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)." Don't misunderstand me - Beamish is a hell of a player, a smart collaborator for Chan, and probably a really interesting composer in his own right - you can see him with China Syndrome covering "Ashes to Ashes" at a past Bowie ball, here; and when the two of them really lock into each other, they have amazing chemistry; but he is seems much more serious, mathy and introverted, live, than Tim Chan or bassist Mike Chang, who approach the stage with a lovable, totally sincere, competely-engaged glee; based on the other night, it will be interesting to see where they go with whoever ends up their full-time replacement, because with Richardson, they were a different beast altogether.

Tim Chan points out that one of China Syndrome's songs was "a relatively recent deep cut, 'You Will Set the World on Fire' from his 2013 album The Next Day. I can think of only Joseph Blood who has covered something from that album at the Bowie Ball." I also don't know that album, don't know that song, but like I say, the first time I hear a song I don't know, played live, it's really hard for me to form a secure impression of it! Overall it seemed like China Syndrome were stepping up their game, trying for the next level: it worked.

Mark Richardson by Bob Hanham

Another band that did a great job of (apparently) expressing their own identity through Bowie was the aforementioned Rong. I don't know what they sound like, on their own terms, actually - had not heard them at all before last night - but I know "Life on Mars" well, and loved what they did with it, rephrasing the song's 70's quasi-folkiness as early 80's New Wave/ power pop with maybe a hint of hair metal.  I balked at first but grew to love it, and was completely on board for their reading of "Starman," which kinda conveyed that Bowie really had meant something to them, even though they appeared to be one of the younger bands on the bill. The female vocalist - Aaron Chapman tells me she's one Kristy-Lee Audette - did indeed show up on trumpet with Rawk Lobster (who were weirdly lacking Betty Bathory). Rawk Lobster were maybe the silliest band the evening boasted, featuring one player decked up in a Christmas-light festooned GWAR-type costume. For a lot of people, that seemed to be where the evening peaked, because the Rickshaw was notably thinner for the final few bands after them.

Rong by Bob Hanham

Rawk Lobster by Bob Hanham

Rawk Lobster got points for the wittiest stage banter, courtesy of Aaron Chapman - whom I'd write about more often, except these days, I read slowly and seldom, and he tends to write books, rather than do things that I can take in in one brief sitting. (His new one is called Vancouver After Dark). Chapman wore a military style costume that channeled Bowie's in Oshima's Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, which reference I didn't twig to at all - I wondered if it had to do with the Australian fires! - until he actually said on mike, "Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence, wherever you are," riffing on Jimmy Durante's signature line, "Good night, Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are." Not many people can combine references to Japanese cinema, David Bowie, and Jimmy Durante in one turn of phrase.

Rawk Lobster by Bob Hanham

Rawk Lobster pushed the whole big-band-crowd-pleaser aspect of the night to the furthest, with "Dancin' in the Street" and "Young Americans" in their set, with Bowie Ball vet Orchard Pinkish (above) taking the vocal for the latter. Maximal, unsubtle, and as I say, a very frequently represented side of Bowie, last night, but shamelessly entertaining, and a helluva dance party if that's what you had come for. "Under Pressure," their final tune, seemed a bit more serious, and they invited Betty to the stage for it, dedicating it to her, but she didn't materialize.

Costume contest, by Bob Hanham

The band most present while being totally absent, meanwhile, was EddyD and the Sex Bombs, whom I'd interviewed in the run up to Bowie Ball 1, and whose big-band soulful take on, I think "Sound and Vision," was one of the highlights of that night. A few members of that band appeared in other combos on Saturday, and the spirit of their delivery very much informed acts like Rebel Valentine (who boasted the best dancing trumpet player) and Preston & Fletcher, with Shelley Preston and Scott Fletcher, I believe, in all three of those bands. Bob Petterson was at least in Rebel Valentine, but might have appeared in other bands, too...

Bob Petterson by Bob Hanham

Preston & Fletcher by Bob Hanham

Shelley Preston had wowed me the other week doing fun covers of 80's pop (Blondie, Pretenders, that sorta thing) when opening for the Frank Frink Five; she wowed me again last night. Preston &  Fletcher gave a spectacular reading of "Space Oddity," which, alas, is not the song of theirs I caught on video ("Changes," also good, but not scaling the peak of "Space Oddity"). Anyhow, both these bands and their tendency for big-band crowd-pleasers put Eddy D. in mind, even though he didn't perform and may not have even been there.

Preston & Fletcher by Bob Hanham

What else? I enjoyed seeing Mellow Friesen fronting a band made up (I gather) largely of vets from Roots Roundup, called Mel's Rock Pile, which I had to remind myself was not a Nick Lowe/ Dave Edmunds reference but an SCTV one. They did "Look Back in Anger" and "Station to Station" (with lyrics about "the return of the thin white duke") and a song I think David M. told me was called "Stay," which, he elaborated from his seat beside me, is exactly the same song as the dance mix of "John I'm Only Dancing," but with different lyrics. (I'll have to take his word for it; he's made similar observations about "Boys" and "Fantastic Voyage," I think it was). Mellow - whom I'd last seen fronting the Little Guitar Army in Maple Ridge - dressed in an elaborate red costume and mask; she was also doing Aladdin Sane-type face painting in the lobby, as she's apparently done for all of the Bowie Balls. She was one of the more visually striking performers of the evening (I briefly wondered if it was Shelley Preston again, but eventually figured it out).

 Mel's Rock Pile by Bob Hanham

The Eleven Twelves offered a funny bit of stage patter themselves, about how they'd randomly ended up choosing three songs off the same album - tracks five, six, and seven off Ziggy Stardust, if I've got this right - for a previous Bowie Ball, so followed up the other night with "eight nine and ten" ("Hang On to Yourself," "Ziggy Stardust," and "Suffragette City"), meaning we were hearing "eight nine and ten by the Eleven Twelves." Punky and energetic covers, though I didn't get much of a sense of what their own identity might be. Great set, though.

Dave Bowes by Bob Hanham

There were lots of other little between-set entertainments, from Dennis Mills and Tony Lee riffing off each other to a silent auction, introduced by event organizer Dave Bowes, for a set of David Bowie picture-disc 7 inch singles, which ended up going for a mere $130. I am assuming this is the 1982 collection known as "David Bowie Fashions;" the complete set starts on Discogs for about 65 pounds, it looks like, which, with shipping, is probably pretty much exactly that price. There was also a funny moment late in the night where Brian Minato of the SLIP~ons asked the audience if he looked, to them, like Tony Lee, chiding them a little...

Brian and Tony by Bob Hanham

I can assure Brian, lest he fear this is down to some racist laziness of the "they-all-look-the-same" variety, that I have been mistaken for a several overweight dark haired white guys in my time, including Ty Stranglehold, Geoff Barton, Alex Varty, and Chris Hansen from Aging Youth Gang, back when I had long hair (and my ESL students were taken to calling me "Hagrid," though none of them thought I was Robbie Coltrane). By the way, I assume from their names that Brian is of Japanese descent while Tony is Chinese. If you're confident in your ability to determine what Asian country someone's family hails from, you should try this test. (You should also know that if you're on the verge of giving up, I tried this with a class of Japanese students when I taught there, and one of my very worst students, in terms of English language skills - a soccer-playing teen named Kikuchi, who is probably nearing 40 by now - got every single one right, prompting oohs and ahhs from his peers. So it can be done!).

By the way, Tony: my wife was really taken with your (no doubt unintentional) belly-button peekaboo thing for your final costume, exclaiming "It's the cutest bellybutton I've seen other than a baby's!"

Daddy Issues by Bob Hanham

Other high points: I really loved how Betty Bathory and Daddy Issues (sadly lacking Murray Acton this time out) got political and pissed off with "I'm Afraid of Americans" which made their subsequent reading of "Five Years" into something apocalyptic and grim. (As you might expect, for the fifth annual Bowie Ball, "Five Years" got covered by more than one band, too - Preston and Fletcher had done it, earlier). No one else had attempted to use Bowie to reach out to something larger than the evening's entertainments, so that was interesting and relevant and resonant (I'm afraid of Americans too, especially now). Betty was compelling and fearsome and very much herself up there. She got me scratching my head by doing the Pixies' "Cactus," because I'd never realized Bowie had covered it, but it was "I'm Afraid of Americans" and "Five Years" that really packed the punch.

Daddy Issues by Bob Hanham

I'm under the impression Betty has (past?) associations with horror-themed burlesque, tho' I've only ever seen her as a singer; but the burlesque contingent was well-represented last night by Rebel Valentine, whose singer slipped out of her sequined green dress for "Oh! You Pretty Things" to something golden and shimmery for "Golden Years" to a slight black skirt and shirt over minimal Alladin Sane pasties for "Modern Love." Good thing Pill Squad wasn't around to see it! Again, I am unsure if Rebel is the band or the person but it was impressive and seemed appropriately chameleon-like - given that that is the reptile most frequently named in regard to Mr. Bowie - for her to have three different costumes for three different songs.

Rebel Valentine by Bob Hanham

There were other costumes, and best costume prizes, during the night, but I can't do them justice. By far the most fun point of the evening - at the very end, to a markedly thinned out crowd - was seeing the SLIP~ons do "Diamond Dogs." There was some weird energy in the run-up to their set that I didn't fully understand - there was a lot of fussing with cables and an incongruously tense-seeming Brock apologizing for needing lyrics on a stand for that song (and glasses to read'em!) but jeez, Brock, those are some very non-intuitive lyrics: we get it! Bowie, I gather, was using the Burroughs/ Gysin cut-up method when he wrote the words to that tune. Between the mysterious lyrics and the crotch-pumping thrust of the music, it's a fascinating, mysterious, and crazily compelling song - way up there in terms of Bowie's accomplishments, by me. I'd had a clue that they were going to be doing it, and by damn, it was every bit as magical as I'd hoped. They had done one of the best songs I saw at a past Keithmas, too, delivering a superb "Tumblin' Dice," which made the most of their ebullient, ramshackle rock swagger. I missed catching video of that tune, that night, so made sure to get all three of the songs they played yesterday, in case one stood out (they also did "The Jean Genie" and a final-song-of-the-night, the perfectly-chosen "All The Young Dudes," tho' I haven't posted them). They've got a new 7" out there, and a set of fearsome originals that makes perfect sense in the light of the songs they pick to cover. One of Vancouver's very best rock bands right now.

SLIP~ons by Bob Hanham

I mean, it's all more than one man can write about and hope to do justice to, but it was a fun night - a huge sonic meal for a good cause. Near the end of the evening, Dennis Mills got the crowd chanting "Mo! Mo! Mo!," referring to the Rickshaw as "the house that Mo built." He made a fun co-MC. Not sure why Tony kept identifying him as Les Goodman. I think it's Aaron Chapman who has pointed me this way for clarification but now I'm just confused if Dennis Mills and Les Goodman are the same person, or if Dennis Mills was putting on Les' persona.

I'm skimming my notes - which I spent the evening text-messaging to myself, in lieu of dancing, and see only one other observation worth mentioning, that late in the proceedings, there were women chuckling as they passed the lineup for the men's room, which for once was longer than the lineup they were encountering down the hall: "This never happens!" It must be down to greater alcohol consumption on the part of the males?

While waiting to pee, I bullshitted a bit in line with a guy in a SLIP~ons t-shirt. I had never seen a SLIP~ons t-shirt before.

I want one.

SLIP~ons by Bob Hanham
Thanks to Tim Chan, the SLIP~ons, Mo Tarmohamed, Dave Bowes, Norah Holtby and anyone else workin' behind the scenes to make this night what it was. And thanks to Bob Hanham for turning me loose on his photos (wayyyy bettern' mine!). Thanks to Aaron, Mo, Mutti von Freida and anyone else who provided points of clarification. And note the comment below: David M. is doing his Small Salute to David Bowie, AKA, "David's Bowie," at the Princeton on January 20th, maybe with some other Paul Leahy-themed additions. I've caught variants on this show multiple times and recommend it. Generally there's no cover, and often David gives away frameable posters of the shows he does to people who come to them. They're really fun, and like I say, "The Laughing Gnome" is wayyy better than the Bowie version!


David M. said...

I'll be doing the complete 48-minute "small David Bowie salute", now with one more song, on Monday January 20th at 8:30 PM at the Princeton Pub. I might play a few other related numbers from "Leahy Stardust", "Leahy Stardust" for instance. There might be guests, I don't know. Bring pocket change for the Bowie Ball cause, one that is dear to my heart, and it will go there.

monsterdog said...

you was wondering about Les Goodman...https://youtu.be/bsx1Y4EaTEQ