2012, Music

The Big Ups at the Horseshoe, June 9, 2012

Or: Nothing like seeing a bad bar band to put you off music and onto psychology.

I went to The Big Ups’ show last night. I knew nothing about them. That’s not why I went. But went I did.

I have nothing to say about them really, they were fine. Not my type of music. Sort of a 4th generation ska, almost, if you know what I mean. But they were certainly capable. They went on after 12:30 and so we didn’t stay for the full set, as it was well past my bedtime.

The band before them was an indie rock band that, though sounding like every other post-punk-inspired indie rock band ever, still managed to at least somewhat impress with their tightness, if not their musicianship. (Really only the drummer was clearly good, though the band as a whole were very together.) I found out their name and I have already forgotten it, simply because I have heard stuff like that many, many times before. If I hadn’t tons of bands like them, I might have certainly looked into them some more. They were the best of the night in my opinion, though I missed the opening act.

The second act, who I did manage to catch as I arrived, was, on the other hand, a fascinating thing to behold for entirely different reasons. A 20-something rhythm section and guitarist (more on him in a minute) flanked a man who looked to be in his 40s and a woman who appeared to be either Jeff Healey’s widow or sister. He was the lead singer, songwriter and rhythm guitarist – and, I might add, occasionally a haphazard soloist – and she was the backing vocalist. It was an odd combination.

Odder than you might think: the hipster looking twenty somethings rocked out to these songs which were pretty run of the mill power pop with frequently embarrassing lyrics. The band was not tight and a few of their attempts at the kind of jamming the indie rock band later excelled at were obviously off the mark. They did a Byrds cover but the rest of the songs were originals and it was apparent to my significant other and I that there was a reason that this older gentleman had not made it beyond the Toronto bar scene, despite the hyperbole of his website [which appears to be no longer maintained]. His enthusiastic audience was, for the most part, noticeably old for your typical rock club, not that that’s a bad thing.

And all of this – the songs, the style of music, the audience, the presence of someone related to Jeff Healey – all of this made me wonder, why are these 20-somethings enjoying themselves so much? Especially that guitarist. The guitarist played some pretty mean solos – and some other solos that wanted to be mean, but weren’t really original enough – and even at one point broke out some Nels Cline-style pedal effects (though a little less exciting) during the penultimate number, the obligatory hand-waving, lighter-holding, epic ballad. But he was thoroughly into the music. Whereas the drummer and bass player could well have just been doing it for the money – something totally understandable, when you are trying to survive as a musician and have gear to pay for, and so forth – the guitarist appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself. I was left wondering, how it was possible that such a clearly talented guitar player had ended up in this terrible band.

And terrible they were. Don’t let CBC tell you different. [Article was removed.] They existed in a world of rock and roll cliches which they weren’t tight enough – and the songs weren’t strong enough – to pull off. The jamming was only remotely interesting when the guitarist started to do something outside of the box – but only a little outside of the box, which left me wondering whether it was the confines of the style or the confines of his imagination at work. As I said above, the attempts to add rhythmic variation weren’t tight enough. The songs were embarrassing, when I was still listening to the lyrics anyway. And every bit of it reeked of 1000s of other bands in other places throughout the last, say, 50 years. Even the guitarist’s solos, which were at least relatively fresh in that environment, had been copped from more interesting music than power pop, mostly the ubiquitous post-punk that nearly all musicians under 30 seem to adore. And I haven’t even mentioned the bizarre 5+ minute introduction to one of his songs. (Note to the singer: you are the second band in a four-band night headlined by The Big Ups, and such positions in gig lineups should warn you about excessive banter.)

And yet this band had the biggest audience of the three I saw, and the most positive audience feedback, and certainly more people out of their seats than the subsequent band (if not The Big Ups themselves). And I can’t figure out why. My significant other somewhat cynically believes it was due to the songwriter’s age and his therefore larger number of friends. But I would like to really understand. So I am left with many unanswered questions.

  • What draws people to pay cover to see bad bar bands?
  • What is it about live music that convinces most people – myself included – that the band they are seeing in front of them is better than it actually is? (As an aside, I noticed the same thing with standup comedy: it is always funnier in person than through your TV set.)
  • What would cause people to label someone so thoroughly mediocre as “quite possibly, the future of pop.” [Site is down now.]
  • Did I just see him on a bad night?
  • Am I just way too big a music snob to appreciate anything any more?

And on and on and on.

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