Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Emptying Buckets - Robert Gordon at The Cadillac Lounge

Originally Posted: 01/25/07

This past Saturday night my parents and I decided to attend the defacto Toronto Rockabilly Subculture Convention, otherwise known as Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding at The Cadillac Lounge.

For those of you who don’t know Robert Gordon; and I suspect there are a few; as well as for those who have never seen him perform; and I suspect there are more than a few; it is difficult to put into words how surreal an experience it can be to be stuck in about four different time warps at once, with the modern day punks and aging post-punks intermingling with Rockabilly-revivalist-50’s-greasers in pompadours and poodle-skirts, tattoos in every conceivable locale, Springsteen fans, Sex Pistols fans, guitar aficionados, artists, photographers and bootleggers galore, and of course, my mom and dad. As you might well imagine, it makes for an interesting crowd dynamic.

We arrived at the Caddy just before nine, and immediately began taking full advantage of the $18 buckets of Amsterdam Blonde (5 bottles per bucket). After talking to Sam, the bar’s owner, my dad admitted that the thing he liked best about this place was that, if he were to ever open a bar, it would look exactly like the Cadillac Lounge: Elvis statues, Cadillac hubcaps, leopard-print couches, Springsteen posters on the wall, Wanda Jackson blasting from the speakers, the most underrated patio in Toronto, best deal on beer in the city, all of it. It truly is one of the best bars I’ve ever been to, and it might be the only place I know of where, no matter what kind of bars you customarily patronize and no matter what kind of music you groove to, you feel like this is your kind of place. And what might be even more impressive is that despite its propensity to appeal to a vast array of people; from Queen West hipster to in-the-know white-picket-fencers; the Cadillac Lounge never loses that vibe of being a totally cool place; the kind of bar you can impress friends and strangers with by simply bringing them there, knowing full well that there probably isn’t any other place like it on the planet.

The Royal Crowns took the stage around 10 o’clock and immediately got the rockabillies to rockin. I’ve always been a sucker for the rockabilly beat, loving just about anything that came out of the Sun Records studio. The pre-rock rockers: Carl Perkins, Elvis, Johnny, Jerry Lee, a veritable who’s who of early genius, not to mention the likes of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Gene Vincent. It’s the kind of music that pissed off the conservatives because it got people singing and dancing, which was exactly what the Royal Crowns had the packed house doing.

And how can you go wrong with someone playing an upright bass on stage? Hands down the coolest instrument in the world. If you’ve ever seen the guy in The Screamin’ Black Cadillacs riding his like a buckin’ bronco and pounding it like the backside of a $20 hooker, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I’ve always said that if I could ever learn to play an instrument, it would definitely be the upright, a la Jim Hughart of Nighthawks at the Diner fame. How great would it be just to lug that thing around town? Make you feel like some kind of throwback to a time Edward Hopper would have painted.

So the Crowns totally lit it up, Danny Bartley making that 50-year old guitar of his sing, and Teddy Fury, Toronto’s most famous bartender/drummer, cracking one-liner after one-liner from beyond the skins… just a virtuoso performance of Rockabilly originals. My favourite line of the night came from their track, Wine Drinking Woman, when Teddy belted out: “I got a good woman, she built me a whiskey still / We empty those buckets just like Jack and Jill”. How beautifully appropriate, I thought, and then headed up to the bar for our fourth bucket of the night.

By the time Robert Gordon and Chris Spedding hit the stage, you literally could not move inside the bar. I’m not sure what the Cadillac Lounge’s fire capacity is, but suffice it to say, Sammy was turning a few blind eyes to accommodate everyone on this night. By the third or fourth song in, we had found a place to stash our buckets of Blondes within easy reach and had moved to the side of the stage, no more than ten feet from one of the greatest vocal performers of our time. I’m telling you, it is absolutely magical to be in the presence of greatness, and that is precisely what we were treated to. I’m not entirely sure how the set list went down because the truth is, I was pretty well smashed by that point, but I do remember him opening with “The Way I Walk” to get it going, throwing in “Suspicion” at some point, rattling off a fantastic cover of Iggy Pop’s “Beside You”, and bringing the house down with “Fire”, the tune Springsteen wrote specifically for him.

For a better (read: more sober, learned) review of the show, check out this killer blog:

Marcel was kind enough to send me off an audio copy of the show, so maybe I’ll be able to give you a better idea of exactly what went down after a listen or two. The only thing I can definitively tell you about the Gordon set is that by the time the encore rolled around, I was having a difficult time standing up, and my Dad was doing his impression of Cal Ripken after surpassing Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak, except my dad had apparently mistaken Robert Gordon for the entire first row of the Camden Yards crowd, in effect breaking the all-time record for awkwardly attempted high-fives by two white guys in a Rockabilly performance. Fantastic comedy.

All in all, it was a spectacular night; one of those rare shows where you feel like you’re experiencing something all on your own and that only you can understand, except that all of those people around you are experiencing it at the same time.

The vibes were so good in fact, that I can remember wondering to myself halfway through the gig whether or not this particular show would fit into my all-time Top-5. Which got me thinking further that I should probably establish my all-time Top-5 first, and maybe use that as a reference point from here on in.

Which of invariably brings us to the Top-5 live shows I’ve ever had the privilege of attending:

1 – Tom Waits, Mule Variations tour, The Hummingbird Centre, Toronto, August 24, 1999.

To be honest, it isn’t even close. This was hands down the most powerful, moving, jaw-dropping, eye-opening musical experience I’ve ever had in my life. Going back and forth from upright piano to various pieces comprising his junkyard orchestra, at times using a megaphone and then that smoky-dimly-candlelit-club-raconteur’s knack for boozy anecdote, it was an absolute tour de force of all things Waitsian. He opened with “Jockey Full of Bourbon”, and things just got better from there. I had a lump in my throat when he sang “Hold On” (is there a more heartbreaking line in music than: “God bless your crooked little heart / St. Louis got the best of me / I miss your broken-china voice / How I wish you were still here with me”?), and finished with “Take It With Me”. I can honestly say that it is the only show I’ve ever been to that I never wanted to end. I could have literally sat there for days. I know Tom Waits never tours, and that he hasn’t been back to Toronto since, but if you ever get the opportunity, even if you don’t know his music, do everything you can to see this man live. And then go out and buy everything he ever recorded.

Bonus points for the fact that most of the people in the audience were dressed, to varying extents, in their best impressions of Waitsian accoutrements.

2 – Bruce Springsteen, Devil’s & Dust tour, The Air Canada Centre, Toronto, July 14, 2005.

Yes, I know that this might have been the worst possible venue for this type of show and that he should have been playing Massy Hall for a select, wealthy few, but I’ve seen Springsteen nine times (including acoustically at Massey Hall on the Ghost of Tom Joad tour in ’96, and twelve miles from the fallen World Trade Center on the Rising tour) and this was far and away the most magical Springsteen performance I’ve ever seen or heard. About ten songs in he did a haunting version of “State Trooper” on the steel guitar that was easily worth the price of admission, “For You” on the piano, complete with the story about his dad informing him how love songs were little more than propaganda intended to get people to marry and settle down and have kids and pay taxes, a version of “Matamoros Banks” that instantly made it my favourite song on the album, and the most gut wrenching version of “The Promised Land” that I sometimes can’t fall asleep at night because of having heard it. It will never be the same song for me, and it can never mean what it used to (I can’t even remember what it used to mean to me, other than it was my favourite song in the world when I was twelve). To this day, that was the single most moving performance of any song that I have ever heard, and if anyone knows how to obtain a recording of this show, I would be willing to pay just about anything for it. An absolutely unforgettable evening.

3 – Green Day, Dookie tour, CNE Coliseum, Toronto, November 29, 1994.

This concert meant so much to me because it was the first concert I ever went to without my parents. I was in the tenth grade and a group of nine of us caused a ruckus at Trafalgar Village and got our picture taken with Santa in the mall before boarding the GO train for our first taste of what Orange County Punk Rock was all about. We had brutal seats in that hockey arena that doubled as a livestock barn during the Royal Winter Fair, and it became blatantly apparent during the opener’s set (a band called Die Toten Hosen, I think) that there was no way in hell we could ever stay in our seats for this kind of show. Just before Pansy Division took the stage, someone got what turned out for me to be a life-altering idea, deciding that we should rush security, and before I knew what was happening, all nine of us had crashed over the boards and were in the process of blending inconspicuously into the crowd ON THE FLOOR at the FUCKING GREEN DAY SHOW! It was like something out of Detroit Rock City. It was the craziest concert experience of my life to this day, ridiculous moshing and crowd surfing and sweaty dirt-bag punk chicks all over the place, Welcome to Paradise nearly took the roof off that shit-hole rink and I was unequivocally blown away by the fact that only three guys could make that much noise. I was mesmerized by Tre Cool and how it could be humanly possible to smash the drums as furiously and as frenetically as he did for the hour and a half that they played, non-stop energy, more and more fucking ecstatic never-ending energy.

By the end of the show not one of us had a shirt on, having stashed them with the sound mixer dude, and we were all drenched in sweat and reeked of adolescent B.O. but it didn’t matter because the world would never be the same, and even after we got off the train and got back to my parents’ house, we sat around in the kitchen all night, the adrenaline still pumping frantically through our veins in the wee hours of the morning, and we knew that sleep would be impossible and that school could never matter as much as what we’d just done. Up until that Green Day show, I never knew what music was capable of. I never knew that music could be… that. Things would never be the same.

4 – Treble Charger, Maybe It’s Me tour, A.J.’s Hanger, Kingston ON, sometime in late 1997.

Treble Charger is easily one of the most underrated rock bands on the planet, and this was one of those shows where everything just fell into place. I was in my first year of University, and had somehow managed to rally most of the people on my residence floor to grab the $6 tickets for this show. Let’s just say that we drank a lot of booze before venturing off into the Kingston night. A.J.’s is your basic small college town bar that was once a theatre, but they have a totally unsafe two-seater airplane hanging from the ceiling that looks like it could crash down onto the floor in front of the stage at any time (Hawksley Workman, in a chemically-induced rant back in 2001, revealed that he felt as though he was performing from beneath the belly of a whale… yeah).

Anyway, we were all smashed beyond belief, and it was another one of those shows where they just keep letting more and more people in. We were up at the front of the stage just before the show began (I’m not certain who opened, but a Tragically Hip cover band would be a pretty good guess), knowing full well that it would have been impossible to make it to the bathroom and back without missing the entire show, so my future roommate Gins decided that he would solve this problem by polishing off his pitcher, and pissing in it there and then, before passing the steaming pitcher back to the guy behind him and politely asking him to see to it that the pitcher find its way back to the bar. Of course, the guy conceded to his duty without asking any questions, and that basically became the standard procedure for the rest of the evening. It was that kind of night.

Treble Charger was on fire, bringing the house down with “Friend of Mine”, “Ever She Flows”, and “Even Grable”, but the absolute highlight was their version of The Foo Fighters “Everlong” before anyone had ever heard it. Blew us away. I also remember one of the hot girls from my first year English class being dragged up on stage by one of the guys in the band so she could watch the show from the safety of sitting up against the amp because she was getting crushed by the crowd… But aside from that, I mostly remember Gins pissing in that beer pitcher.

5 – The White Stripes, White Stripes/De Stijl/White Blood Cells tour, The Kool Haus, Toronto, June 22, 2002.

Before the entire world knew who The White Stripes were. It is one thing to listen to “Death Letter” on vinyl. It is quite another to see Jack White absolutely defile and ravish it with his mastery on the guitar. Jimmy Page meets Jimi Hendrix meets Son House meets Detroit City. I had no idea how good he was. Three thousand people engaged in a spontaneous Hoedown during “Hotel Yorba”, and Dolly Parton will never sound so good. I was there with my Unkle Mike and Aunt Vicki, and the ice-cold bevies were flowing waaaaaay too easy on that hot night in early summer. I vaguely remember my Unkle rolling his way out of the car and onto the curb in front of his house at some un-Godly hour, vowing then and there to end any debaucherous night of approximate legendary status with a similar rolie-polie closing act.

Honourable Mention:

Los Locos/Safewayhome, Big Bop, Opening for Rusty, Toronto, Summer, 1996.

Jason Shain, Graffiti’s, Toronto, September 24, 2004

Robert Gordon with The Royal Crowns, Cadillac Lounge, November 8, 2002

Hawkesly Workman, A.J.’s Hanger, Kingston, October 10, 2001

Larry McCray, The Boom Boom Room, San Francisco, CA, August, 2001

Lisa McCallum, Graffiti’s, Toronto, October, 2004

Ron Sexsmith, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, November 24, 2006

John Primer and the Real Deal Blues Band, B.L.U.E.S., Chicago, IL, September 27, 2003.


Sean McCallum said...

If your blog erases my comments one more time, I'll go weir on your ass...

Diggin it. Thanks for the Los Locos throwback... GD was pretty amazing, glad to know it did for you what it did for me.

let's get awesome over a couple of pints soon!


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