Sunday, June 27, 2010

Fighting Nostalgia - Two Views on the Jethro Tull/Procol Harum concert: Molson Ampitheatre, June 18/10

I've never been one for the nostalgia musical acts that hit the road every summer (The Monkees, Crosby Stills & Nash, REO Speedwagon, Styx, The Who, to name but a few) because there's too much new music 'capturing my ears' (such as The Killers, Drake, Broken Social Scene, Metric, Cale Sampson, Femi Kuti, Eminem, Jamie Cullum, etc.) for me to wallow too much in the musical acts of the past. That doesn't mean I don't still listen to the music of these performers on CD/MP3, but I just don't have the need to see these acts perform well past their 'best before dates.' The first exception to this rule was two years ago when I got tickets to see Chicago. Now, ironically, I wasn't even a fan, but the tickets were free and the seats were great, so... I came away impressed by the still expert musicianship of the performers, even if the music, with a few exceptions, was really not my style.

Recently, I broke my rule again when I, along with a group of friends (including my Critics At Large colleague Kevin Courrier - see his review of the same show below) got tickets to see Jethro Tull with Procol Harum as opening act. I've always enjoyed the early music of Tull (the last album I bought was 1978's Heavy Horses), so when the opportunity came to see them live I was willing enough to enjoy an evening of, as one of my friends said, "Klassic Rawk!"

It was a fascinating night that began when Kevin and I waited at the gate for half an hour for our other friends to show up. Watching the crowd pass by was a bit sad. Dozens of 'aged hippies,' some still sporting graying, scraggly long hair, shuffled along. Lots of Klassic Rawk T-shirts festooned their chests and, frequently, ample bellies. I remember thinking, 'there goes the generation that was going to change the world' (which, if I am being smug, does not really include me as I was only 10 when the 1960s ended). On this night, they were no different (nor, I guess, was I) than their own parents who 30-40 years ago went to see their nostalgia acts (Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Vic Damone, etc.) in an attempt to embrace, for one night, their long-gone youth. Just out of our sightline, there was a bottleneck of concert goers. They slowly moved forward and disappeared around a corner. For some reason, this line from a movie came into my head: "SOYLENT GREEN ARE PEOPLE!" Did they disappear into the all-devouring maw just out of our sightline? Was this where we were all being herded for our final 'trip?' Fortunately, for myself and my friends -- since we were about to join the shuffling line -- no.

To the music itself. I know all of two Procol Harum songs: "A Whiter Shade of Pale" and "Conquistador." What I can say about the evening (which was very well attended - the Ontario Place Molson Ampitheatre was mostly full) is that, just as with Chicago two years prior, PH's musicianship was professional and lead singer, Gary Brooker, still has an exceptional voice 40 years on (Kevin can address PH and JT past vs present musicians better than I).

Regarding JT, it was great to finally see them live (yea, I know, kinda hypocritical about what I said before), and again the playing by all, especially Martin Barre on lead guitar and the still-charismatic Ian Anderson on flute, was faultless (one instrumental, based on Henry VIII's madrigal, "Pastime With Good Company," was particularly beautifully played). These are professional musicians who still care deeply about what they do even if they don't really have a 'new' audience. The big problem on the evening is that Ian Anderson's upper range is LOOOOONGGGG gone. Though he tried, he really couldn't sing such songs as "Songs From the Woods," "Aqualung" or "Locomotive Breath" at all, which was a darn shame. The crowd was here to hear these songs, so with Anderson unable to sing them, it was a bit disappointing. Two new songs, the sweet but innocuous "The Hare In The Wine Cup" and the very good "A Change of Horses," were fine because they were clearly written to accommodate Anderson's singing voice as it now exists.

Ultimately, I guess the question becomes -- since I don't tend to like 'living in the past' (ha ha) -- was it worth my time and money to 'finally' see Jethro Tull and Procol Harum? Probably not, but as long as you live in the here (hear?) and now, and realize that there is great new music all around you every day, to go back and see musicians you didn't have the chance to witness years ago, I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

--David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

          ***    ***    ***   ***   ***

Nostalgia is a sweet poison. Unlike those moments in life that make you look ahead with an eager enthusiasm and curiousity for the mysteries to unfold, nostalgia seduces you down that predictable path of recreating moments that don’t exist anymore. As you get older, it’s tempting to rediscover the things that once kindled your excitement and nothing does that better than music. So there was David Churchill and I waiting for friends to arrive at the gate for a concert by two classic British rock bands from the late ‘60s and ‘70s – Procol Harum and Jethro Tull – a couple of aging groups who barely register in the present tense of contemporary pop.

As we waited, faded remnants of Woodstock Nation filed in. Many looked like those original hippies, except middle-aged, overweight and sporting T-shirts celebrating the bands we were about to see or featuring groups long since dead. Some brought their kids, too, while others tried to pass themselves off as kids. Sheepishly, I asked David, “Is this us?” (That night, to cut the sentimental reverence of the ‘60s to the quick, I wore an appropriate T-shirt, too, except mine, with the Woodstock guitar and dove on the neck, had the word Altamont written along the top and the dove had a knife in its back. While it drew some curious attention from some curious folk, once they could read it they scampered away.)

But the concert was something else again. You could sense in both bands a need to resist a casual stroll down memory lane and instead chart the pathway that once defined their sound, or what made them matter as groups. For Procol Harum, most people know only two songs – their huge 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and their 1971 orchestral revamp of another 1967 song called “Conquistador” – but the group possessed a varied history that wedded rock, classical and blues based arrangements. Being one of the few groups that had an in-house lyricist (Keith Reid) who wrote with keyboardist and singer Gary Brooker, Procol Harum shaped their music along the piano/Hammond organ tandem that Bob Dylan introduced into rock with both his Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966) albums. (The Band would also continue that trend beginning with Music From Big Pink in 1968.) But Procol Harum remained more of a cult band throughout the ‘70s and early ‘80s (until they reformed in the ‘90s).

At this show, they dove back into their roots opening with the shimmering “Shine on Brightly,” from their second album of the same name. Not a moment was lost when they followed with “Homburg,” their second single after “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” which was also an abstract, surreal telling of a love affair. What impressed me most was Gary Brooker’s unfailing voice still finding the core appeal of forlorn longing in their songs. Rather than play to the desire in the audience to embrace the past, Procol Harum laid claim to the present with a performance that fought nostalgia. After the calypso swing of “Pandora’s Box” and the stately “Grand Hotel,” the band immediately shot to the present with their 9/11 rendering “Blink of an Eye” and the prescient “Wall Street Blues” (both from their 2003 The Well’s on Fire CD). Of course, people got to hear “Conquistador” and “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” but Procol Harum didn’t fail to remind us of how majestic their sea shanty “A Salty Dog” still is (as real seagulls swooped above us) along with that great tormented spiritual sojourn “The Devil Came From Kansas” (which was inspired by Randy Newman’s “The Beehive State”). While serving essentially as the warm-up act for Jethro Tull, Procol Harum didn’t take refuge in their supporting role. They might have made history with one song, but they showed us that their own history was larger than one song could ever tell us.

As for Jethro Tull, they came on with a flury and like Procol Harum opened with early material, but only with the sole purpose of reminding the audience that their music hadn't grown inconsequential with time. Beginning with “Nothing is Easy,” from their second album Stand Up (1969), they cut into the night air like soaring razors aided by the biting lead of guitarist Martin Barre (who first joined the band on that album). After a couple of other chestnuts (“A New Day Yesterday,” “Beggar’s Farm”), the group got down to introducing their folk and Celtic roots (“Pastime With Good Company,” “The Hare in the Wine Cup”). Like Procol Harum, Tull’s roots are originally based in the blues. But over the years, singer/flautist Ian Anderson played the role of the mad madrigal. Anderson has always cut a fascinating portrait of a mischievous pied piper who stalks the stage as he introduces music once done with an earnest modesty. However, he performs it as if he were also happily peeing in the garden (the performance of Bach’s “Bouree” immediately comes to mind). However, as David attested, if Brooker’s voice could still shine with its R&B flavour of Ray Charles crossed with Percy Sledge (“When a Man Loves a Woman”), Anderson has lost the range that once gave his voice a passionate lunacy. Luckily, the band made up for Anderson’s torn vocal chords, by showing a stunning flexibility shifting musical genres as if effortlessly shuffling decks of cards.

It’s rare that veteran bands, whose appeal harkens back to better days, come forth with such a force and determination to entertain and still be reckoned with. But both Procol Harum and Jethro Tull, with no commercial future left to build on, showed how their artistic past hasn’t yet gone the way of the dinosaur.

--Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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