Archive for September, 2011


Letter to a friend re: Bon Iver

September 29, 2011

Dear E:

June 27, 2008. That’s the date when you emailed me with a recommendation to listen to a band I had never heard of: Bon Iver, who had put out an album called For Emma, Forever Ago. In the email you nailed it when you said, “Let the song “Flume” make you weep like a baby.”

Sometimes when you get deeply into an artist, you lose sight of how the enchantment began. To be honest, I had forgotten how I got turned on to Bon Iver (Justin Vernon and his bandmates). I vaguely recalled learning about Vernon from a friend in email, but I didn’t remember who and when. Gmail search gave me the answer in a millisecond.

So now, more than three years later, I’m writing to say thank you. Thank you so much for knowing me well enough and taking the time to suggest that I check out Bon Iver’s music. I had no idea at the time where the music would take me. And it’s taken me to unexpected places.

Specifically, it took me to Raleigh, North Carolina. Months ago we were lucky enough to get tickets to this week’s Bon Iver show at the Orpheum Theatre. Awhile later we booked a trip to North Carolina to visit family, and M found out that Bon Iver was performing in Raleigh, an hour and a half drive from where we were staying. The brilliant idea came up of going to the concert, even though we already had tickets to the Vancouver show.

After mulling it over we decided to go for it, because we thought it would be special given that Vernon lived in Raleigh during a critical period in his musical development (read this very good feature on Vernon’s Raleigh years in the Independent Weekly), and simply because when you have a chance to see Bon Iver, you take it. Plus I’ve never seen an artist twice on the same tour, so this gave a unique opportunity to compare performances two months apart. Finally, I love going to shows in foreign places; some of my best concert memories are from other cities – being somewhere else adds to the uniqueness of a performance.

So the three of us, including Miles (who has become a huge Bon Iver fan – those screamo/death metal days are a distant memory) made our way to the concert at the Raleigh Amphitheater, an outdoor venue. The heat in Raleigh that day was insane – the high was about 104°F. By showtime in the evening, it was still pretty hot, so that might have affected our ability to enjoy the show. That said, it was a wonderful concert. Aside from Vernon’s magnetic falsetto singing and all-round musicality, I was struck by how much was going on with the eight-piece band. The musicians adeptly switched between multiple instruments – from electric guitar to violin to keyboards to french horn and beyond – which made for a sumptuous aural palette. Despite the heat, and the somewhat soulless venue, we were glad we went to the show.

Art shot (ie photo that didn’t turn out) of Bon Iver at the Raleigh Amphitheater:

Bon Iver in Raleigh, North Carolina

Vids I took of Bon Iver in Raleigh:

We went to the Orpheum with the kind of anticipation you have before seeing an extraordinary artist for the first time, even though it wasn’t. The anticipation paid off – it was as perfect a show as I could imagine. The Raleigh concert was early in the tour, so the band was still developing chemistry. At the Orpheum, the musicians sounded completely in sync. The songs – from Bon Iver’s two albums and one ep – sounded like they were fully realized versions of Vernon’s vision (that alliteration wasn’t intentional).

There were some differences between the shows. In Raleigh, Bon Iver did a terrific obscure cover of Björk’s “Who Is It (Carry My Joy on the Left, Carry My Pain on the Right)”, featuring multi-instrumentalist Reggie Pace as a human beat box; they didn’t do that tune in Vancouver. But here, there seemed to be more opportunities for the musicians – like saxophonist/circular breathing whiz Colin Stetson and drummer/keyboardist Sean Carey – to stretch out. The sound was also better at the Orpheum, not to mention the non-sweltering temperature.

In my world, getting a tip on a new band is the best possible gift. Through a casual email, you gave me that gift. So thank you.


Jian Ghomeshi did an insightful interview with Justin Vernon on Q – check out the interview.

Compare and contrast – “For Emma” and “The Wolves (Act I and II)” in Vancouver:


Camper Van Sly, and Memories of Sly in Paris

September 25, 2011

The New York Post broke the news today that Sly Stone is homeless and living in a van. According to the story in the Post, the 68-year-old is living in a camper van parked on a residential street in the rough Crenshaw neighbourhood of LA. The story says a retired couple makes sure Sly eats once a day, and he showers at their house. Sly, who once lived in a Beverly Hills mansion, makes music inside the van with a laptop. He posed for a photo with his Taser.

Very sad. It’s hard to believe that it’s come to this for one of the greatest ever soul and funk artists.

The news today is reminding me about the time I saw Sly perform (and I use that word loosely) in Paris. In July 2007 we lived in Paris for two weeks. Before arriving in the City of Light, I did what I always do before travelling somewhere: I researched what concerts would take place during our stay. Part of my research was seeing what was on at the Olympia, a legendary music hall in Paris (everyone from Edith Piaf to Led Zeppelin has performed there). Fifteen years earlier, while living in Paris for two months, we went to a bunch of memorable concerts at the Olympia (David Byrne with his Rei Momo Latin band, Khaled, Les Negresse Vertes).

So I thought I hit the jackpot when I saw that Sly & The Family Stone were scheduled to perform there on July 23, 2007. But I knew all about Sly’s long history of erratic behaviour, so I hesitated. I decided in the end to go for it, because when would I get another chance to see Sly?

Sly Stone at the Olympia in Paris

All of the seats in the Olympia can either be in place or removed, and it was the latter that night. The sold-out hall was completely packed with people, including many who had probably gone through the same inner dialogue that I had before spending 55 euros on a ticket.

The show started well with the opener Martha High, who sang for years with James Brown. Martha’s soulful voice was in fine form, and her band the Shaolin Temple Defenders (great name) brought it. Then Sly’s band came on. It didn’t include the great bassist Larry Graham, but it did include original Family Stone member Cynthia Robinson on trumpet and vocals. Plus family members Vet and Lisa Stone were in the group. This version of the Family Stone sounded great as they performed a number of tunes. But where was Sly? I was starting to get nervous, and thinking that I should have listened to my intuition and saved my euros.

He eventually came on stage. His voice reflected the hard life he’s led since his glory days, but still had enough of that character I love from the classic Sly & The Family Stone tracks. He played a keyboard and also came out to the front of the stage and generally showed a lot of energy for a reclusive/aging/fading rock star. The problem was Sly only performed for about 15 minutes (his band was up there considerably longer). Sly left the stage at least twice, and the video below of “I Want To Take You Higher” captures his immortal words before one of those exits: “I’m going to go take a piss. I’m old.”

While I didn’t get my money’s worth, somehow I didn’t regret going to the show. I got my 15 minutes of Sly, in Paris no less, and that was enough to qualify as a memorable concert experience. In light of Sly’s situation now, it probably was my one and only chance to see the soul/funk master.

Videos I took of Sly & The Family Stone at the Olympia in Paris:


September 27, 2011

After Sly was outed as a homeless person, I had a feeling that it was just a matter of time before goofy things started happening, given America’s obsession with alternately worshipping and bringing down celebrities. It’s starting. Today, TMZ posted a video interview with Sly, who did the interview while lying down in his van. As one of the commenters on the video put it, you can smell a reality show coming. Meanwhile, whatever shred of dignity Sly has left is being further eroded.

Sly & The Family Stone, more than 40 years ago when they were at the height of their powers, on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour:


I’m back!

September 23, 2011

It’s been more than a year since I’ve written something for this blog. The last piece I wrote, dated September 2, 2010, was a review of a Michael Bublé concert. Why the silence? I’ve been busy at work and with life in general. Whenever I thought about blogging, something told me it wasn’t an essential use of my time, so I wrote nothing.

But saying I was busy is just a lame excuse. I could have blogged if I really wanted to. It’s not like there was any shortage of topics. As always, I went to many concerts in the last year, and I could have reviewed any number of them. In case you’re wondering, since that Bublé show, I’ve seen the following artists:

The National, The Walkmen, Arcade Fire, Calexico, Broken Social Scene, Big Boi (the last time I had to accompany Miles to a concert – no more hip hop and metal for me), Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, N.E.R.D. (Pharrell Williams), Lila Downs, Concha Buika, Junip, Galaxie 500, Rufus Wainwright, Teddy Thompson, Grinderman (Rufus/Teddy and Grinderman, featuring Nick Cave, on the same night!), Leonard Cohen, Black Dub (Daniel Lanois), the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (doing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21 and Symphony No. 9 in D Minor, Op. 125, including the Vancouver Bach Choir singing “Ode to Joy”), Ryan Bingham & the Dead Horses, Owen Pallett, Donny McCaslin, Orrin Evans (McCaslin and Evans in NYC), Ernie Watts and the Capilano University “A” Band, Salif Keita, Robert Plant, Fleet Foxes,  the Pixies, Imaginary Cities, Tonbruket (Dan Berglund), Robert Glasper, Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Trombone Shorty, Lucinda Williams, Ana Moura, The Bad Plus, Colin Stetson, Christian McBride & Inside Straight, Richard Galliano & Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Atomic, L. Subramaniam, Spirit of the West, Dan Mangan, Gillian Welch, Rosanne Cash, The Jayhawks, Solas, Kathryn Calder, Jenny Whiteley, James Cotton and numerous other artists at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival, Bon Iver (along with the Rosebuds in Raleigh, North Carolina), Beirut, the Decemberists, Okkervil River, Charles Bradley, Iron & Wine, Marketa Irglova (of the Swell Season), Devo, the Pointed Sticks, the Lewis Nash Quintet, Karkwa, and Aidan Knight.

Some photos I took:

L. Subramaniam at Summer Live:

L. Subramaniam

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings at the Folk Fest:

Gillian Welch & David Rawlings

Kathryn Calder at the Folk Fest:

Kathryn Calder

Okkervil River at Malkin Bowl:

Okkervil River

Devo at the Vogue:


And that doesn’t include the band I play in, OEQ, performing at Kits Neighbourhood House and the Kitsilano Showboat, and Miles performing with the TD High School Jazz Intensive band at David Lam Park and the UBC Senior Jazz Band at the Chan Centre.

But no, I didn’t write a word. Until now. Although simply posting a list of concerts doesn’t really count. That’s more bragging than blogging. (I thought it would be an interesting exercise to go through Google Calendar and make a list of all the concerts I went to in the last year. My conclusions: I go to a lot of “alternative” shows where most of the audience is half my age – will I still be doing this when I’m 64?; I have no idea whether my concert-going is slowing down or keeping pace with past years; I’m a lucky guy to be able to see so many shows; and no wonder my hearing is going.)

I’m still not going to write anything of substance about those concerts, most of which were wonderful. But this is my way of easing back into blogging. I was wrong to think that blogging isn’t a must-do for me; writing has been a big part of who I am since Grade 9 (when I had an epiphany, in English class, that I could write), so I NEED to do it. Stay tuned for some actual writing.