Top Shows of 2013

It was a slow year for the WP—only three shows all year, what with me being caught up with my book and the Lion Farm EP—but as a spectator, it was a pretty good year for live music in my life. Here are a few highlights…

Baked Goods
L’Escogriffe, January 4

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I organized a benefit for WFMU at the beginning of the year, and this band was recommended by a friend. Through pure luck of the draw they had to play last on the bill, but they totally owned the “headlining” slot. Their recorded music is fun, lo-fi rock n’ roll, but their live show brings it up several notches with the almost Shaggs-like self-taught feel of the all-girl band and frontman Luke Ellington’s latent swagger. Definitely one of my favourite Montreal bands of the moment.

 

Michael Feuerstack
Le Cagibi, March 14

I spent the year writing a book about Mike’s old band the Wooden Stars, which filled me with bittersweet nostalgia, so it was inspiring to see him making music that’s better than ever. At this show he played a bunch of new songs from Tambourine Death Bed, an album that’s been in heavy rotation chez nous this year. I don’t have much to say about the show except that Mike is an amazing songwriter, singer and guitarist, and he had the Cagibi audience spellbound.


Isaiah Ceccarelli

Église St-John the Redeemer, April 13

I knew Isaiah through some friends, and he had played drums for Gordon Thomas at one of the shows we set up in Montreal. So I knew he was a great jazz drummer, I but wasn’t as familiar with his work as a composer. Upon showing up at the Red Roof Church to see him and an ensemble play his piece Toute clarté m’est obscure, I read the composer’s statement in the program and immediately braced myself for an evening of difficult, alienating music. Isaiah’s love of obscure words and flowery French phrases made the text overwhelming, and his rant about how contemporary audiences want superficial entertainment instead of complex art was a bit much (it’s not that I even disagree necessarily, I just find the debate a bit tired). I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.

Then when the music began, I was totally swept up. It was a beautifully minimal and subtle piece using drones, drawn-out notes and silence (the church was so quiet that even shifting in my seat caused an uncomfortably loud interruption). I was blown away, and the rest of the audience was too. It’s very rare for “contemporary” music to hit me on a gut level in this way, so it was even more of a pleasant surprise.


Drumheller

Resonance Café, June 25

IMG_1612Yes, it’s true that this band features my brother Nick Fraser. But that’s not why I’m including them on this list. My brother is one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, if not the best, but he mostly plays free jazz. And a lot of free jazz, for me, is like your parents having sex—it’s great that it happens, but you don’t want to see or hear it.

Anyway, Drumheller is my favourite project of his, and this show, their first in Montreal for a good while, was killer. The venue, sweet new space Résonance Café, has a piano, and the songs where Doug Tielli played it were just beautifuli. Eric Chenaux’s guitar solo on the very last tune had my jaw grazing the floor.

(I would also include my brother’s CD release show at Casa on September 7 with his quartet featuring Tony Malaby… it was amazing too, but there’s only so many fraternal shout-outs I can make on one list.)


Pere Ubu

Cabaret Mile End, September 17

Before this show, I’d seen Pere Ubu three times. In 1992, I saw them in Ottawa opening for the Pixies (and absolutely blowing the headliners off the stage). In ’94, I saw them in Toronto, where David Thomas threw a huge diva fit onstage about not having a straight mic stand (a position I can now identify with)—he responded, counterintuitively, by duct-taping a chair to his mic stand all while singing a song. And a few years back, I caught them at Pop Montreal, where Thomas somewhat alarmingly got wasted onstage with Robert Pollard-like abandon, swigging from a bottle of cognac he kept in the pocket of his Bogart-esque trenchcoat.

This time, I walked into Cabaret Mile End to an audience of less than 100 people. I couldn’t believe such a legendary band would get such a poor turnout. And I was distressed to see that the no-name opener I’d arrived in time to skip was Thomas himself doing a solo electronic performance, which was just wrapping up as I arrived. He looked his age, and none too pleased about the miserable attendance.

When the band hit the stage a little later, with a few more audience members having trickled in, Thomas started the show with a several-minutes-long monologue about how the band is so huge that they play stadiums all over the world but, like the Stones, every once in a while have to return to their roots by playing small club shows. It cut right through the tension and let us all relax a bit.

Then the band tore into a great set spanning their whole career. Thomas sat in a chair the whole time, but was animated and sang passionately. Biting the hand that feeds him, he mocked the audience’s composition of mostly old guys. But a few young kids were in the front. I kept wondering what they thought of this spectacle. Did it just seem like a bunch of old weirdos onstage? Or did they worry, as I sometimes do, that their own best song might not be as good as Pere Ubu’s worst?


Sparks

Le National, November 1

IMG_1798This was another show that demonstrated the turning tide of audience taste. When I showed up at Le National, the room was barely half full for these underground legends, who hadn’t played Montreal since the early 80s. By the time the Mael brothers hit the stage, the room had filled up to a half-decent level. But the crowd quickly showed itself to be one of quality, if not quantity. The Maels’ genuine delight at the crowd’s enthusiasm was one of the best parts of the show.

The show itself was bold: though the light show was arena-worthy, the performance was just the two brothers, keyboard and vocals; no backing tracks, even on the electro-disco bangers from the Number One in Heaven era, which they performed in the encore. Russel Mael’s voice was still in top form, while Ron had the crowd pulling out their phones as if witnessing a miracle when he took the mic during one of their newer numbers, an excerpt from their opera about Ingmar Bergman. That rare sight was followed by a bit of intriguing news: that the Maels will be collaborating with Canadian film weirdo Guy Maddin on a film adaptation of a Bergman opera.

All that aside, it was inspiring to see a band still staying totally original four decades on. How they pull it off financially, I have no idea (I can only imagine that they must be independently wealthy), but it was inspirational all the same.

Other great shows: The Lonesome Organist and Laura Barrett renewing my musical faith at the One Man Band Festival; Nicole Lizée’s Sask Power at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival; Ben Reimer and co., also playing the music of Nicky Lizée, at Sala Rossa; punk nerds Pissed Jeans tearing up Il Motore, Corpusse utterly destroying Brasserie Beaubien with Les momies de Palerme’s Xarah Dion in the Lorenz Peter role, and one of my guiltiest pop pleasures, Sloan, doing their Twice Removed show at the Phoenix in Toronto.

 

One Man Band

Caution: costume, facial hair not included in nostalgic package.
Photo by Gabe Kastner.

When Jon Cohen called me last year and asked me to play at his One Man Band Festival, I said no.

The WP was never really intended to be a solo act. It just happened that way. Back in 1999, I had the name The World Provider, I’d recorded a few songs (with other musicians) and I intended the project to be a full-on rock band.

Then I found out about a tribute to Devo being put on at the El Mocambo. I called the promoter and signed up as The World Provider. But then I couldn’t find any musicians who were free to play with me. (I have been known to put the cart before the horse.) I was complaining to Peaches and she said “Why don’t you just do it alone with your keyboard?”

That was the eureka moment that led to the WP being a solo project for the first five years. After that, I got tired of the limitations of performing alone and since then, it’s been a band with a rotating lineup, with the odd solo show happening from time to time.

The last time I played solo was opening for the Puppetmastaz on a tour of France in the spring of 2009. (Stacey joined me for the last two dates and our subsequent European shows). It was fun, but playing all the old songs by myself really didn’t feel like where I was at musically. Plus, when we got back my trusty old keyboard was in rough shape. It seemed like a sign that it was time to decisively put the past behind.

But when Jon invited me again this year, I decided to consider the offer.

The main reason is that I’ve been looking for an excuse to re-release the earliest WP album, The Elements of Style. I just realized that it hadn’t been available in any format for a while and that, even though it doesn’t really represent where the WP is now, it’s still part of my work and a fun document of that period.

So I’m going to be releasing the album on Bandcamp, possibly with some physical CDs (I’d like to know if there’s a demand for these—any feedback is welcome). And for this special show, I’m going to be performing old-school WP style, just me and my Yamaha PSR-12 through the ridiculously small, magnificently dirty GI-5 amp.

When I pulled out the keyboard to practice these tunes, it looked like a boxer’s teeth. I had to re-arrange some of the songs because certain keys just don’t work anymore. Aside from that challenge, it was fun to revisit these songs, some of which I haven’t played live for 10 years or more.

This isn’t going to be a strictly Elements of Style set—or, as my friend Mark Slutsky once called the phenomenon, the “play your one good album” set. I’ll be playing tunes from throughout the years, possibly even one or two new numbers if the spirit moves me.

I generally try to avoid nostalgia, but inevitably playing these old tunes has brought up some sentiment for the old days. That era of the WP was very innocent and carefree. Often I didn’t even use a set list—instead I’d have a list of all my songs, with the keyboard presets noted beside them, and I’d just play whatever I felt like. I think I’ll do something like that again. You know, for old times’ sake.

So if you want to hear a bunch of tunes that I perform very rarely, or if you like my old stuff better than my new stuff (no judgement—who doesn’t feel that way about certain artists?), this is the one WP show to attend this year.

The clincher for me when Jon made this offer was the rest of the lineup. The Lonesome Organist, who blew my mind when I saw him at the last one-man band fest I played in Chicago in 2001 (on my list of favourite WP shows ever); Laura Barrett, a fellow alumnus of Ta-Da Records and musical genius who I’ve always tremendously admired, and another artist I’m unfamiliar with named Delta Will. Should be a fun night. It all goes down at Casa del popolo (4873 St-Laurent), doors 8pm, $12. Hope to see you there!

Precious Memories

Going through some files a little while ago, I found this document (undated, or rather re-dated to when I transferred files from an old computer, but judging by its references, seemingly from around 2004) detailing the best and worst WP shows up until that point.

I’ve had a lot of good and bad shows since then, but there’s something unique about these early, ultra-DIY adventures.

And so, from the vaults, unedited and unexpurged: The Best and Worst WP Shows Ever, circa 2004…


 

BEST

 

1.     Living room show in Kitchener-Waterloo, November 2001

I was doing a weekend excursion with Chris Mills (Just Like The Movies). We had a night off and decided that we should show up in some town and spontaneously play a show. He found out that the Hidden Cameras had a gig in Kitchener-Waterloo, and Chris convinced them that we should play on the bill with them that night. When we got to KW, it became clear that the club was absolutely not into us playing. So we decided to go find ourselves a show.

We drove to the campus of Waterloo University. I got out of the car and walked into what looked like the main building. There were some chicks hanging out, so I went up to them and asked them if they knew someplace where a couple of crazy one-man bands could play that night. One of them says, “Yeah, how about my place!”

So we went to this girl Brenda’s apartment. She invited over a few friends and we did a show in her living room, in front of eight people. There was no PA, we just sang into the air, but we did the whole show with costume changes and everything. It was intimidating but exhilerating to play in front of such a tiny crowd who had no idea what they were getting into.

Afterwards, we headed down the street to the bar where the Hidden Cameras were playing. After their set, Chris and I, still in costume, bum rushed the stage and started singing. After a few songs I declared that we would keep going until we got shut down, at which point the sound guy came and turned off the PA. By popular demand, we headed back to Brenda’s house for an encore.

That night, I crashed at Joel from the Hidden Cameras’ place. I found out much later that he was hoping to get some action, and was all bummed out when he found out that I was not only straight but married. I feel a mixture of guilt and pleasure at having inadvertently cockteased a gay Canadian rock star…sorry Joel!

 

2.     New Orleans, August 2001

I was opening for Peaches on a tour of the Southern U.S. –  in August. The heat and humidity in New Orleans was unreal. The gig was a party at Quintron and Miss Pussycat’s house; they have a lounge set up in the basement. All the people were so friendly and the cliché is true, people in New Orleans have amazing rhythm. For this South tour I had practiced and reworked my set until the pacing was “perfect.” Miss Pussycat told me some time later that some friends of hers had been there, and based on their behaviour she’d assumed they were on acid. Then she saw them a few days later and they said they hadn’t been on acid, they’d just had their minds blown by The World Provider. To be compared to a powerful hallucinogen is one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever been paid…

 

3.     Basement show in Guelph, April 2002

I was playing at a house party with Chris. The Barmitzvah Brothers went on before us and they were amazing. I was drinking malt liquor and getting pretty wasted. So wasted, in fact, that I didn’t think about the fact that I was fiddling with my minidisc player in my pocket. When it was time for my set, I realized that I’d erased half my tracks. I was so annoyed, but somehow the negativity gave me good energy for the set. This show was mostly good because of the Barmitzvahs and the vibe at the house party.

 

4.     Uno-a-Go-Go – Chicago, October 2002

It was a one-man band festival in Chicago. Jake Austen, who puts out Roctober magazine, was putting on the fest. His wife was pregnant and went into premature labour so he had to miss the whole thing! I saw Shary Boyle’s Honkitonkioke the night before my set. She was great.

My show was in a bowling alley. I was playing on the “side stage” which meant in front of the aisles. There were about 15 other people on the bill; Bob Log was headlining. My wife came into town on a different flight which was delayed, and for some reason she had my costumes and my minidisc adaptor. She got in at the last minute and I did the set. It was my last show doing all the Elements of Style tunes, right before going into the studio to record new stuff, and the crowd was great. A chick came and stuck a dollar bill in my pants – I wish people did that more often. The next night we saw Lonesome Organist and he totally blew our minds.

 

5.     Sanchez Bros. Vernissage – Montreal, April 2003

The Sanchez Brothers invited me to play at their vernissage. They had made a film in their grandparents’ living room. One room of the gallery showed the film on a loop and in the other one, they recreated the living room down to the smallest detail. I had been playing a bunch of gigs, so I decided to do a set of tunes I don’t do very often: covers, older stuff, and still-in-progress new songs.

The Brothers invited me to come down early because their living-room set had an organ. I came down and figured out some stuff on it. At the show, their whole family including grandparents showed up and hung out in the living room. When I came and did the tunes on the organ, their grandmother was sitting in a wheelchair right beside me, rocking out. It was so awesome.

 

6.     El Mocambo show with Peaches and Mignon – Toronto, September 2001

This was a month or so after the South tour with Peach. It was her first Toronto show in a while. There were about 600 people packed into the Elmo upstairs, and they were really hyped up. I did the “perfect” set from the South tour and people were just going crazy. The Elmo shut down shortly after that. A few days after the show, I was at the Cinematheque and a guy came up to me and told me that my show changed his life.

 

WORST

 

1.     Berlin, July 2001

This was a huge bill, put on by the headlining band. They’re a great band and cool people, but as promoters they didn’t have all the bases covered, shall we say. Among those on the bill were Taylor Savvy, Mocky and myself. The gig was in this huge, cavernous club that seemed to have some bad kind of chemical in the air, asbestos or something. I had really bad allergies so whenever I’d step outside, I’d want to go back in, and then I’d come back in and breathe chemical dust until I had to go back out.

The door was at 9 but the show didn’t start until midnight. Because of the delay, the promoters asked us to cut our set short. We explained to her that Mocky, Taylor Savvy and The World Provider weren’t one band. Her response: “Yes you are!” What can you say to that, so we agreed to shorten each of our sets.

The sound guy had cancelled at the last minute, so they got some other guy to come and do it, who seemed none too pleased. During Savvy’s set, the above-mentioned promoter came up to me and said “When is he going to be done?”

“He just started,” I said.

“Well, someone told me he was going to be done in ten minutes.”

“Who told you that?”

“I don’t know – I’m too pissed,” she said.

Shortly after this exchange, the sound guy got on the mic, ran to the front of the stage, and started angrily berating Savvy in German. During his set. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Despite all this, my set actually went over fairly well with the crowd. And I was excited to be playing in Berlin. But there’s no denying that it was a Murphy’s Law kinda night.

 

2.     Hamilton, April 2002

This was on one of the weekend jaunts with Chris. The show was on a Monday night and it was pouring rain. As we were pulling into town, we realized while listening to the radio that the promoter of our gig was doing a show on the campus radio station. We drove over to the station hoping to do some extra promo. Not only did he not seem particularly happy to see us, and wasn’t into having us appear on the air, but he didn’t even have our CDs to play on his show. That was the first bad sign.

When we got to the club, there was a situation: the sound guy had come and kidnapped the PA because the club hadn’t been paying him. There was some talk of the show being cancelled, but then finally someone came through with another PA.

During the gig, the band we were opening for didn’t even watch our set. They were playing pool in the other room and all their friends stayed with them there. There were five people in the audience during my set: Chris, two guys who’d showed up to DJ (but didn’t because of the PA fiasco), and this couple who’d come from KW after seeing us the night before. I was so tired and out of it that I played a half-assed show. In retrospect, the fact that people came from a whole other town just to see us – and were effectively the only actual audience – should have motivated me to at least put some effort into the show. Giving such a lame performance for those people is one of the biggest regrets of my World Providing career.

 

3.     Atlanta, August 2001

This was the only bad show on the Peaches Dirty South tour. There’s not too much to say about my set; the people of Atlanta just weren’t feeling it. I went on after Har Mar Superstar, who totally slew the audience, and I guess they just weren’t in the mood for my thing. He’s a hard act to follow, I don’t know why I didn’t go on first.

The vibe of the club was really fucked. Everyone seemed to be on coke. They had set aside a VIP room because it was rumoured that Madonna was going to show up, but she never did, so it was just full of all these sketched-out people.

After the gig we went to a crazy strip club. People had recommended that we stay at the adjacent hotel, but our tour manager went to look at a room (for which he had to be accompanied by an armed guard), and he said that the bed was covered in ants, so he took a pass. At 4:00 in the morning at the strip club, a woman went around shining a flashlight in people’s eyes and shouting, “If you ain’t WORKIN’ here, or you ain’t FUCKIN’ someone who’s workin’ here, GET THE FUCK OUT!”

Afterwards we went to this crazy diner with a bunch of hardcore dykes. The waiter had a necklace made of human teeth, and while he was showing us the specials, he pulled out his dick and slapped it against the menu – a sight which both Peach and I later admitted we thought we’d hallucinated. A really creepy guy came and sat beside me, and was telling me stories about how he sold bulk acid and was part of the Aryan Nation.

In retrospect, it may have been a bad show, but so many crazy things happened that night that it kind of balances out.