What Josh Kolm rather brilliantly coined Mackenzie Hall 2: Hall Harder happened. It was an odd little two-headed beast of a show, but I think it went pretty well. Where to begin?
It was a different kind of show from the last one in a lot of ways. This time I had a band playing with me on some songs. This time there were cupcakes. This time the material was completely different. This time it was personal. But that’s always the goal, isn’t it?
The turnout wasn’t quite as insane as last time, and I think there were a few reasons for that. For one thing, if even half the people who said they were coming had bothered to show up, it would have been packed to the gills again. But there was a good crowd, and I don’t think I could have asked for a more attentive or receptive audience.
In a way, seeing some empty seats this time might have made it a more unique show. I’m not sure I would have been quite as loose or taken as many chances if the place was bulging at the seams. Maybe you feel a little more connected to an audience that’s a little smaller.
I went into it with a setlist I planned on sticking to. I ended up deviating from it at least as much as I did at last year’s show.
On paper it was supposed to play out like this.
What it turned into instead was this:
ONE BIG SET
I’m a Witness, Not Your Waitress
Like a Lover Does
Umbrella (Rihanna cover)
He Was Saved by Poultry from the Shadow of Beef
A Fine Line Between Friendship and Baked Goods
Will Work for Food
Excuse Me, Miss…Where Might I Find a Bandana like Yours?
Do the Mountain Hop
The Mind Is Blown When the Fight Is Thrown
Water to Town
Sweet Leaf (Black Sabbath cover; snippet)
An American Trilogy (Elvis Presley cover)
Tonight’s the Night (Neil Young cover; snippet)
To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free
Improv in E-flat
My sense of time got insanely skewed while I was playing. I knew what time it was when we got there to set up, and the start time was about 7:00, though I waited a good twenty minutes or so past that because I understand some people are going to be a little bit late. But somehow, somewhere in there, time melted away into an amorphous goo, and by the time we were playing the last song of the night I had it in my head it was the middle of the afternoon, as if we’d somehow gone backward in time. I even talked about the day as if there was a lot left of it in that final song. I was confident when everyone stepped outside after the music was over the sun would be shining, and a lot of us would probably want to grab dinner somewhere.
In the real world, it was past 9:00 at night. And though I felt like maybe I’d provided thirty minutes of music, it had really been more like ninety.
I still don’t know what happened there. I wasn’t overtired or anything. No one drugged my cupcake. Maybe it was the atmosphere in the room. Maybe it was just me.
This was the jazziest show I’ve ever played by some distance. Some of the solo pieces didn’t feel as strong as that side of things was the last time around, but the band stuff got pretty spicy, and we went some places I’ve never been able to even think about taking my music in a live setting before. At some point I think it stopped being my music and became our music, with the way we were improvising and playing off of one another.
I couldn’t want for a better rhythm section. If you told me even a year ago I would find a drummer and a bassist who be able to go anywhere musically and happy to twist things inside-out and never play a given song quite the same way twice, I would have rolled my eyes and told you those people didn’t exist, or if they did they wouldn’t be interested in playing with me. And yet here we are.
Both of these guys can play the hell out of their instruments. But they’re always tasteful, and they always serve the song. Some of the things they’re doing are so subtle, you might not realize at first how complicated they are.
To give you just one example: “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” needs a kind of deep, rattling snare sound in order for it to work the way it should. This was easy enough to achieve at my place because of the size and depth of my snare drum. The kit Liam brought to the show had a smaller, higher-pitched snare. Instead of swapping out the snare, he altered his playing and rolled into every snare hit to get that rattling sound.
That, my friends, is a musician.
When Jackie came up for one song, I had to remind myself it was a prophetic breakup song I was singing and stop myself from smiling through the whole thing. It’s surreal hearing a voice that beautiful harmonizing with you.
After almost a decade of going it alone, I finally found that feeling again of playing my own music with a band and having it pushed into places I would never be able to take it by myself (at least not live, because there’s only one of me). And I wasn’t even looking for it. It just happened because of who I ended up selling a cheap microphone to on Kijiji.
Funny how that works.
Big thanks go out to Liam, Dan, and Jackie for playing with me and letting their magic goodness pour out all over the place; Travis and Jay for taking care of the sound (and in Travis’s case lending some gear to the cause); Johnny Smith for being hostess/cameraman/CEO and the glue that glues the glue together; Tara for making so many amazing cupcakes (seriously, if you didn’t try one of those delicious things, you missed out); Sarah for recording some stuff with her magical little recording device and doing a post-show interview with me, which we’ll get to later; Josh, for putting in a herculean effort trying to find someone with professional equipment to film the show (in the end, the fates and Mel Gibson conspired against him); Crissi, who donated additional cupcakes to the cause even though she couldn’t make it to the show; and too many more friends to mention, like Pete, Angela, Dr. Sinclair, Beverley, Grace, Kaite, Samantha, Danny, Terry, Matt, Erik, Murad, Dalson (who took these pictures and got some great footage of a few songs he was kind enough to share with me), the extended CJAM family…I could go on. Everybody who was there played some part in making the show what it was.
I just need to remind myself when I play live and it isn’t a perfect, polished-to-death affair, that isn’t a bad thing. It’s what I do. And I guess I should expect that when I try to make it more of a well-oiled machine, I’m going to find myself instinctively tearing it down and making it more difficult for myself, because I think that makes it more interesting.
Angela told me it felt more like spending time in my living room listening to me play music than sitting in the audience at any kind of conventional show. I like that. I think it’s a lot more compelling than “performing” in the traditional sense. As with the last show, I got the feeling of hanging out with people as opposed to playing “for” them. The idea is to make it a more communal, intimate thing.
And it went there in a whole new way with the last song.
Instead of having an intermission like last time, we just kept going. After a while, between the band stuff and the solo pieces I’d been playing for about an hour and-a-half. One of the guitars I meant to bring with me got lost in the shuffle (turns out I forgot it at home, though at the time I was convinced I brought it with me and someone must have stolen or misplaced it), making it impossible for me to play a few covers by the likes of Nick Drake and the Blue Nile that might have been show highlights if I’d been able to throw them in there. I was thinking about tossing in “Heaven” by the Talking Heads at some point too, but again, without that guitar it wasn’t happening.
By now I’d exhausted everything I wanted to play from my setlist, played a few unrehearsed requests and a kind of ludicrous take on one of my favourite Elvis Presley songs, and had no idea what more to do. There needed to be a definitive ending or comedown. “To Be Frail Is to Begin to Be Free” didn’t feel like it was climactic enough to do the job, as much as I like the song.
I asked Liam and Dan if they felt like jamming something out and seeing what happened. They were game. I suggested the key of E-flat, because it’s fun to play jazzy stuff using that as a key center, and off we went. They got a nice groove going. I noodled on top.
About a minute in, I knew I didn’t have enough gas left in the tank to pull off an instrumental piece. I kind of played myself out with all the extended soloing that got jammed into a lot of the other songs. So I opened my mouth and started spinning a silly story, using my missing guitar as a jumping-off point.
Almost right away, the gravity of the situation hit me. I thought, What the hell am I doing? I haven’t improvised an extended spoken word piece off the top of my head in probably a decade now. I used to do this all the time back in the Papa Ghostface days, but I’m way out of practice. And I never did it in front of an audience. Ever. What was I thinking? I have no ideas. This is going to be embarrassing. I just set myself a trap I won’t be able to get out of. Why did I have to open my mouth? Why?
There was no turning back. I figured all I could do was follow it as far as it would go and hope it didn’t turn into too much of a train-wreck.
Then an interesting thing happened. I don’t know if it was a case of some long-dormant machinery dusting itself off and sputtering to life again, but what started out as a tongue-in-cheek tale of potential imaginary romance turned into something a lot more personal. I started talking about myself. I talked about how I’d just made a breakup album overflowing with bitterness. I talked about the push-pull between wanting to connect with people but not enjoying being let down by so many of them so many times.
After a while the whole thing got even more reflexive, with me critiquing my own performance in the middle of the piece itself, hammering myself for getting lazy and using the word “like” as empty syntax. It turned into something like a stream-of-consciousness-pseudo-jazz confession. The deeper I got, the more words came pouring out, and Liam and Dan just kept playing with the groove in wicked-cool ways.
At some point it struck me that I’d probably lost the audience. It was almost a given. This wasn’t even a song anymore. It was more like me getting naked in front of a roomful of people while playing a piano and amplifying a few of my hang-ups and insecurities for them to examine. How entertaining could that be?
I don’t look at the audience much when I’m performing. I’m too busy concentrating on what I’m doing. So it’s hard to gauge how they’re responding to something while it’s happening. I could just feel in my gut that I’d gone too far off the map, and I was sure I’d look up from the piano to find maybe only ten or fifteen people left.
I looked up. Everyone was still there. That revelation became a part of my rant too.
It ended without any clear resolution, with me asking Dan where I was supposed to go next from where we’d ended up.
Somehow this ended up being the highlight of the show for some people. At the time I couldn’t understand why. It was some pretty scary shit for me. Like I said, I set myself a trap without thinking, and I had to find a way to wriggle out of it. I didn’t for a second anticipate delving into some amount of silly/serious self-examination in the process. That just happened. But the audience stayed with me, and they got into it.
It was only when I sat down and listened to it later on that I was able to understand how that could happen. I guess it’s a pretty unique thing for a live show. It belonged to that moment and those people in that room. We conjured it out of nothing. That collision of music and psyche had never happened before, and it’ll never happen again.
Now that I think of it, if I went to see someone play live and they did something like that, I might find it pretty cool too. But for me it was more like the ultimate test of my ability to create something out of nothing. And I was able to pull it off, with some help from my friends. It just worked out that everyone who was there got to watch it happen in real-time.
Another fun moment was when Grace and Kaite got up and literally did the Mountain Hop during “Do the Mountain Hop”, dancing the whole song through — even during the long improvised jazzy outro. And when a guy and a girl started singing the little scratchy percussion part that comes in for one brief part of “Water to Town”, in just the right place…I don’t know who they were, but I wanted to get up and hug them. Talk about really listening to the albums.
Who gets to hear two strangers in an audience singing their own percussion part to them in the middle of a song? That’s special stuff.
I’m not sure I want to put up video of the entire show this time. It would eat up server space like mad. But here are some of the highlights — in the order they were performed, except for the first video here, which I took out of sequence to put at the beginning.
I’ve always had a special fondness for this song as it appears on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES, but I never thought it would be something I could pull off live, let alone something that would turn out to be a highlight of the show. If I had to pick one song to stand for the whole performance, it might be this one.
After the four-minute mark it’s all improvised. By this point I knew I wasn’t going to play my planned solo take on “I Put a Spell on You” (it was meant to be a delay-drenched electric guitar workout on Travis’s sexy Telecaster), so I dropped it in the middle of the jam instead. It fit in better than it had any right to. Dig Dan smiling when that happens. And check out how I go off on the piano and Liam and Dan respond immediately to every dynamic shift I throw out there.
As much as I loved having a band when I was full of rage and dreams of facial hair, this is at such a different level it’s kind of insane. One of the most exciting things about playing in a band, at least for me, is when the other musicians are so good they allow you to play to your full potential and then go beyond that, making you better than you thought you could be. That happened more than once back in the Guys with Dicks days. I feel like it happened here too.
I missed a line in the first verse. You probably won’t notice unless you really know the song.
This was maybe a bit of an odd song to start with, but it seemed like a good way to warm up. Something stopped me from really digging in and improvising at the end like I planned to. I made up for that later on.
This was probably the biggest surprise for me. When we started rehearsing, I gave Liam and Dan a CD with about ten different songs on it that I thought might be worth tackling. One was “Anthropomorphism Dance”, the closing track on CREATIVE NIGHTMARES. I only threw it in as a bit of a joke. It didn’t seem like a good candidate for a live three-piece band, what with all the clattering percussion and layered sonic touches in the recording (electric guitar, ukulele, warped synth/organ) and two frenetic electric bass parts driving the whole thing.
At one rehearsal Dan surprised me. He said he’d been listening to the song and he thought it was worth taking a crack at. I have no idea what I was playing on electric guitar in the recording anymore, and it was more atmospheric guitar than anything. I didn’t think it would fill up enough space on its own. So I thought I’d try figuring it out on the piano. Within ten or fifteen minutes we were running through it for the first time. It sounded like the tenth time we’d played it. It was that tight already.
Of course, the one time I finally trip up — and not in a small way, but losing the beat altogether at the beginning of the song — is when we’re playing it in front of an audience. Figures. Lucky for me it happened right in the opening seconds, and I recovered pretty fast.
Liam’s drumming is really the star of the show here. He’s playing some really tasty polyrhythmic stuff. We took what was a skittering borderline rock song (it’s always made me think of early 1990s experimental-period U2 for some reason) and turned it into some sort of Latin-tinged jazz-pop.
When I apologize for dropping the beat at the end of the song, Dan consoles me in the voice of John Travolta. You can’t ask for more than that.
The thing that’s wild to me is a song I thought would be impossible to translate live turns out to be one of the most fun to play. Even when I miss a line in the lyrics at the very beginning (again).
The album version of “Like a Lover Does” on GIFT FOR A SPIDER is much more languid and dreamy than this, with no percussion. Dan had the idea to twist it in a different direction and make it swing. I was supposed to play some slide guitar during my solo but forgot I stashed the slide in my left pants pocket — and I put it there so I wouldn’t forget where it was. D’oh.
I’ve yet to get comfortable enough with the weird new-ish tuning that twelve-string is in right now to solo with confidence. Every time we rehearsed I would hit some bum notes. The one time I played a really solid solo with no awkward moments was at the show when I just said to hell with it, improvised, and hoped my thumb landed on the right frets. And it did. Thanks, thumb.
It might have been a better idea to go for a less “electric” guitar sound here, but the distortion felt appropriate to me at the time. Jackie’s magic is all over this one, and that last harmonized repetition of the title was a fun moment for me. Normally I would sing those last two words in a soft falsetto. Here I just belted them full-voice. Jackie wailed along with me without even knowing what I was going to do, and it was dead-on.
This felt like one of the stronger solo performances. I cooked up a version of the song that was very different and more mournful-sounding, owing quite a bit to the cover of the clash song “Bankrobber” I worked up for CJAM’s Joe Strummer day. At the last minute I decided to stick with the original arrangement, but I played it on the Martin 00-17 instead of the Regal I wrote the song on and recorded it with, half a step down.
I could hear a few people singing along to this one. People singing Johnny West songs in the audience is nuts. It’s almost like I’ve got “hits” or something.
I think some of my singing could be a little better here, but check out how it swings. And check out the dancing. How often do you see anyone dancing at a show to a song that’s in swinging 6/8 time?
My playing isn’t as busy in the jam here. Part of that’s because I was enjoying what Liam and Dan were playing so much I just wanted to listen to them swing it low. Part of it is because I know when I’m improvising in a key with this many accidentals scattered around the keyboard I’m going to hit some bad notes sooner or later, so I try to be a little cagier about where my fingers go. And part of it was just not being sure what to play there, because I was winging it.
This one might seem like an odd choice for a live track, but I thought it would be a good excuse to get some audience participation going on via call-and-response singing. The video doesn’t do justice to how great it sounded with that big mass of voices coming at me while I was singing back at them. I thought about making this a band song. It could have worked. I think it works just as well solo.
I felt like my performance of this one was a little dodgy at the time. Now I’m not sure what I was hearing, because aside from one or two duff notes on the piano it sounds fine to me. While the improv at the end is more restrained and subdued than what happened in some other places, I think it suits the song. And dig how Liam plays with the rhythm, underlining how the song isn’t as simple as it seems to be at first blush.
Here’s the potential train-wreck that turned into a weird highlight of the show against all the odds. In some ways it feels like a glimpse into what Guys with Dicks could have done if that adventure hadn’t ended when it did. It also stands apart from all of that, and it’s driven by a different kind of energy. In case you can’t make out all the words in the absence of more robust sound, I’ve transcribed them.
He was a hairy guy…with a missing guitar, which prevented him from being able to perform a Nick Drake song requested by his friend Travis Reitsma. He wondered if someone perhaps had taken his guitar hostage and was holding it for ransom at some undisclosed location. He waited patiently for the ransom note to arrive, at beautiful Mackenzie Hall, on a Saturday afternoon. Eventually the crowd had left and he was alone at the piano, crying in his long, sweaty hair, wondering whatever became of that guitar. Of course, conventional wisdom would dictate that he would just return to his home and find it sitting in his bedroom, mocking him and saying, “Ha-ha…if you had thought to take me with you, you could have played that song that you rehearsed with such half-assed passion.” But no. He just sat there, weeping in a disgusting, miserable way.
Then the light changed. There was a slight chill in the air, and a woman wearing a low-cut purple dress sat down beside him on the piano bench and said, “You seem troubled. Can I help to ease your weary mind?”
He said, “Well, I…I don’t hook up with strangers, you see. I’m not one of those…one of those alpha male types. I’m one of those nice guys who finishes last — you know, who always gets the sharp end of the popsicle stick rammed into his left cornea. And I just made a breakup album, for God’s sake…giving it away for free at this show. It’s got dirty words and vindictive bile on it. You’d think I would have learned by now. You’d think I would have got the message. But no. I keep on putting myself out there, I keep falling for the wrong people every single time, and I end up crying in my smelly, sweaty hair on a piano bench, pouring out my heart to some woman in a purple dress trying to proposition me for some meaningless fun, when I should have been taking up the girls who were propositioning me for meaningless fun back in high school. I mean, maybe…maybe I’d be living in a trailer park with leprosy. Maybe I’d have a couple kids who look a lot like me. Maybe I’d have nothing much to do but grieve.”
She said, “Man…you’re just a baby. What are you so bitter and cynical about? You got your whole life ahead of you. Your hair may be sweaty and stinky, but it’s pretty when you wash it — I can tell. And you can play that piano in a kinda okay way. And you can kinda sing, and people understand what you say. And…why you gotta be so down all the time? I don’t even know you and I’m getting turned off. I think I’m gonna leave before you start to shake and maybe make me feel bad about myself.”
Man, I blew that.
But you know, she was right. I mean, I got a lot of good friends, some of ’em playing up here with me onstage, some of ’em in the audience listening to me improvise this ridiculous spoken word piece where I’m suddenly kind of being honest about myself. What the hell is that shit about? But maybe there’s something therapeutic in that. I mean, maybe…maybe there’s some value in that. Maybe there’s something someone else will get from that — some kind of catharsis, or they’ll feel like they’re relating to a friend.
It’s good to have friends on whom you can rely. I think it’s better to have a couple friends you know you can really trust, as opposed to a large group of people who call themselves your friends but wouldn’t help you out if you really needed it. But you only learn through experience — by getting burned and putting yourself out there. If you’re too afraid to try, maybe you miss out on something really great, and of course it’s probably gonna go bad somewhere down the line…what did I say in that song? “Marriage is something that sick people do when they want to destroy something beautiful.” What about that “something beautiful” before that marriage comes? Maybe it doesn’t even have to be a woman and a man. It can be pouring out your guts to your favourite garbage can. Why did that rhyme? I don’t know. I don’t like to rhyme. Sometimes it feels right. Just this one time.
Look at me pretending I’m a jazz musician. I don’t…I can’t play that shit. I mean, I can’t do some Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson stuff. I ain’t got those kinda chops. But I got my own kinda thing going on, you know — like, “Plink-plonk, plink-plonk, plink-plonk”. And some people find some value in that. Man, I gotta get me another cat. They listen to what you have to say. And they’re so cute and furry and fun and friendly…except for when they don’t like you, because unlike dogs, sometimes they just don’t want to have anything to do with you. “Get away from me. Had a hard day being a cat. I don’t wanna hear your bullshit.” You just got them their favourite catnip, too. I mean, why they gotta be so cold?
But I mean, Pete’s here…I’ve been friends with Peter since the second grade. That’s a friend. We’ve been friends almost our whole lives. We’ve got history, man. It’s great to have that history with somebody. Just to…to have that connection never die. If you have one friend like that, I think — I would wish that for anybody. Anybody that I actually like, anyway. And the original Johnny West. The big JW. Always, always there when I need a helping hand. Always there when I need a brother man.
I don’t even know where I’m going with this anymore. It turned into some, like, purging of my insides. Why am I doing this crazy “eyuh” going up with my voice? Sounds kinda stupid. I should just talk. Like, be conversational, and not say, “Like”, because I don’t like to say, “Like”. “Like” is a lazy word. It’s space, it’s noise, it’s pollution, it’s FILLER! I don’t like that stuff. I mean, learn to use the English language, Johnny West! That’s your currency! That’s what you use to get your point across. You don’t want to spit out some meaningless filler, dross…
Listen to Liam and Dan laying down that groove, man…that’s sweet.
I guess the point, if there is one, is that all the bad stuff that happens gives you some perspective — teaches you something about who you are or who you wanna be. Even if it hurts like hell. I mean…if you just lie down and let it slay you, then what the hell…what’s the use in that? To paraphrase a great man from a television show, “There’s a lot of pain and punishment in life. Stand it like a man — or a woman — and give some back.” So I’ll give some back.
How weird was that? I thought I would have cleared out half the place with that rap there. People are still here. That’s messed up! That’s what happens when you don’t look at the audience. You don’t…you don’t…you don’t see. But maybe you connect, by stripping away that stupid wall that usually stands between the performer and the audience. Talking to people. Taking off your shoes. Damnit, I forgot to take off my shoes! That’s the source of all my trouble. You gotta be in your bare feet or in your socks. You gotta get comfortable. What are shoes anyway? iI’s like a car for your feet, but the car don’t run. It needs an oil change. Wow, that was profound…
Where do I go with that?
Oh yeah — Sarah interviewed me after the show in a dressing room I didn’t even know was there. It was for the Windsor Scene program on CJAM, which is hosted by someone who isn’t Sarah, who never plays my music and seems to have some strange unexplained contempt for me and what I do (but that’s another story for another time). Because you’re special, you can listen to it right here.
While my brain was a little frazzled after all of that music, I sort of managed to make some sense. It cracks me up that she chose to end with my ridiculous Elvis bit. And just to be clear, all my little hip-hop artist parody is meant to insinuate is that I find it amusing how many people working within that genre seem to enjoy asking if we know what they are saying, with an almost alarming frequency.
It’s true what I said about feeling less confident at this show than the last one in some ways. And still, I took more chances, I sang harder and with more energy than I have in a long time, and I went off on a number of potentially precarious improvised runs on whatever instrument I happened to be playing at the time, before we even got to that epic evening-ending improvisation.
I wonder why that is. I think playing live is just a nerve-wracking thing for me even at the best of times. I had a lot of fun, and I’m told I didn’t seem nervous, but the nerves were there from time to time. Whenever I play guitar live, for instance, I feel like half my skills go out the window and the piano says, “Come home to me. Let that wooden harlot fall from your hands.”
Instruments can be evil, messing with you like that.
Anyway, I hope everyone who came had a good time. I know I did. Maybe we’ll do it again in 2014 if the world doesn’t end next year when Justin Bieber marries Barbra Streisand.
As for the availability of the new album — I wasn’t kidding when I said you should come to the show if you wanted a copy. I need to fix the typo in the booklets before I start circulating it at the usual places. But I’d say by the end of this week or the beginning of the next one it should be out there for whoever wants it. I’ll keep you posted.
(For more pictures from the show, take a peak over HERE.)