During my prolonged writing hiatus of mid-2013, I had a few mind-blowing musical experiences that I didn’t write about at the time. As a wrap up to the past year, I’d like to briefly recap these events, as they were each great in their own unique way.
“An Evening of Words & Song w/ Patti Smith” @ Art Gallery of Ontario (March 7th, 2013)
Back in March 2013, I actually had a chance to meet one of my all-time heroes, albeit briefly. Patti Smith did a book signing and a few performances at the Art Gallery of Ontario, to help open the exhibition of her photographs and random ephemera (things like the Pope’s slippers and other relics that she has acquired over the years). The book signing was in the morning, and in the evening she gave two performances which were billed as “An Evening of Words and Song”. Through some intense dedication, I managed to snag the last two tickets to her late show. I wasn’t going to miss this chance to see her in such a small setting; I think they sold something like 200 tickets for these performances.
But first, I was going to get Patti to sign my copy of “Just Kids”, her gorgeously realized memoir of her life with Robert Mapplethorpe. As I said in my post about that book, it’s simply one of the most moving pieces of writing I’ve ever experienced. So I lined up in the morning outside the AGO, with all the rest of Patti’s children: old hippies, young artists, mature punks, beatniks, literature snobs, poetry geeks, rock aficionados, and a lot of skinny young girls with long dark hair. Creative people from almost every era, from the Seventies on, look to this woman as an inspiration, and it was great to see so many types of Smith fans in one spot. We all had one thing in common: we wanted to have our 30 second brush with the master.
As I approached the signing table in the AGO gift shop, I started to involuntarily shake. I was awed. Sitting two feet away, with an array of pens and a drugstore pair of reading glasses, was PATTI FUCKING SMITH! The AGO staff who were managing the line-up had laid out a strict protocol: no idle chat, no pictures, and Mrs. Smith will only sign one item per person. Don’t try to give her any gifts, slip her a note or a CD, or try to ingratiate yourself in anyway. Have your book ready at the page you’d like her to sign. This was all just to speed the process, as hundreds of people turned up for the signing.
I had my paperback ready. I meekly approached the table. This tiny woman looked up at me through her glasses, smiled, and said “Hi”. I slid my book over to her, unsure of what to say. I babbled something like “thanks for coming here and doing this for all of us- it’s so great that you’re willing to do this- thank you.”
“No problem”, she replied simply, “It’s fun for me too!”
She signed the book, right below where her name was printed, on the title page. As I nodded in appreciation, and began to step away she looked at me and said: “nice hat.” I left the building completely stunned and grinning like an idiot.
The show was that evening. My wife and I entered the court and took up a position on a ramp towards one side of the room, so that we would be able to see the stage better from an elevated position. The excitement in the room was palpable, as was the sense that this was going to be a unique show. On stage there was a grand piano and a couple of guitars.
Although it was billed as “An Evening of Words and Music”, the show was to be mostly the latter. Obviously in a more musical mood, Patti hit the stage and just cranked out song after song, backed by longtime band-mate Tony Shanahan on guitar and her daughter Jesse on piano. Patti is such a diverse and multidisciplinary artist that it’s easy to forget that she’s also just a top notch entertainer. Onstage, she isn’t just Patti the Poet or Patti the Artist: she’s Patti Smith, Big-Deal-Legendary-Hall-Of-Fame Rock Star. Her presence is commanding and powerful, and her energy is tangible. I was completely overwhelmed, particularly by her powerful versions of “Ghost Dance” (where she had the entire audience shaking their hands in the air with her) and “Pissing In A River”, which was delivered with all the vitriol and passion that can be mustered by a human being. I was enthralled. It was one of the most masterful, intimate, powerful concerts I’ve ever seen.
Smokey Robinson @ TD Jazz Fest (June 21st, 2013)
As part of TD Jazz Fest in 2013, Smokey Robinson did a free show at Nathan Philips Square here in Toronto. It was magical. After an energetic and fun performance by Martha and the Vandellas, Smokey appeared onstage in a sparkling white suit, looking like he had descended from heaven. The opportunities to see a living Motown master are few and far between these days, so it was amazing just to be in his presence. When those magical little intro licks of “Tracks Of My Tears” drifted through the air, my hair stood on end. By the end of the song, I felt like I was levitating out of my body. Smokey’s voice has held up so impossibly well over the years; there wasn’t a single bad or strained note. That pure falsetto rippled through the air like sonic butterscotch. It was mystical and moving and absolutely gorgeous. Motown is immortal.
An Evening with Howard Shore @ TIFF Bell Lightbox (May 9th, 2013)
I had the opportunity to attend a talk with the renowned film composer Howard Shore at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It was an “In Coversation With”-style event, where Richard Crouse sat and chatted with Shore about his remarkable career for about 90 minutes. They started discussing his early collaborations with Cronenberg, and his fortunate turn as the first musical director for Saturday Night Live (Shore was also a sax player in Lighthouse at one point, which is why the original SNL theme was so brass-heavy). But of course, he’s best known for his Oscar-winning scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy and now, The Hobbit. I was absorbed in the wisdom that came from this man. For example: he chose to record most of the LoTR soundtrack in an old townhall in the English countryside, rather than a traditional recording studio, because he wanted it to sound “organic”. And most of it was done live, with almost no overdubbing. In the modern recording world, this kind of approach is decidedly old school. It’s almost anachronistic. With nuggets of muso wisdom such as this, Howard Shore became my own personal Gandalf.
Queens of the Stone Age @ Air Canada Centre (September 10th, 2013)
Bruising and pummeling, sensitive and subtle, all at once. America’s greatest rock & roll band proved why they deserve everything that they have coming to them. The Ginger Elvis stood tall and looked over his kingdom, and it was good. Bands like this are holding the torch for all of the real rockers in the world, and their rule is benevolent and hard-fought. Long live the Queens!