Mike Bell’s best concerts of 2013
The flood. Every conversation about Calgary over the course of the past 12 months begins and ends with the F-word.
As minor a complaint when compared with much of what many went through — the loss of lives, livelihoods, homes, possessions, etc. — that even extends to the local concert calender which was obliterated for several months because of the devastation, with festival and concert cancellations, reschedulings and even, on the positive side, benefits springing up.
What happened, what didn’t and when it did was almost as notable as how they were. Here’s a list of some of the most memorable live music experiences to make their way to the city in 2013.
Diana Krall, Feb. 13 at the Jubilee
One of the more surprising and unexpected pleasures to roll through town was this early year, pre-’Tine love-in by the Canuck chanteuse that dispelled almost any notion you could have about her from past appearances or preconceptions. She was personable, charming, funny, wonderfully entertaining and came to play with her own jazz-pop talents and backup band and stage show that made it impossible not to fall in love with her. And should that amorousness be long lasting, she’ll make an early return to town as the special guest of the legendary Neil Young, during his Jan. 19 Jack Singer show to benefit the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation Legal Defense Fund.
Sparta, Feb. 22 at Broken City
The American post-rock act that splintered off from El Paso’s At the Drive-In have been all but silent for the past half decade with 2006’s Threes being its last recorded output. So it was a nice surprise when the band announced a Canadian swing that brought them to town for a pair of intimate (i.e. insanely packed and fantastic) shows at Broken City. Seeing the band, most notably frontman Jim Ward, barely contained in the sweaty, cosy confines of the 11th Avenue rock club was one of those miss-it, regret-it moments in local music lore.
Mumford and Sons, May 21 at the Saddledome
As unlikely a list dweller as Diana Krall is, the ol’ M & S’s appearance here is one that feels dirty even typing. The beardy, British nu-folk front-runners are exactly the kind of baffling and unconscionably dull and uninventive bands that make one scratch their heads at their popularity. Their albums are bland, handclappy odes to hippyster folk, and even their singles are ripe for entirely forgetting the moment they come to a close. Yet. There was something about their live show that infused life into what it is they do. They came alive. The were bigger, brighter and better than that band captured in their recordings. And, yes, save for some angry words directed at the crowd, telling them to shut up and listen during a quiet, acoustic set, they were even somewhat fun. Or. Well. To put it another way, dirty good.
Imagine Dragons, May 24 at the BMO Centre
What happens in Vegas, happens big. And when it leaves Vegas, it has to happen bigger. Such is the case with Nevada’s Imagine Dragons — whose songs are familiar to anyone who owns a TV, radio, pair of ears, etc. — who returned to town soon after a Mac Hall sellout with a grander BMO show that distracted with its lights, pulley devices and ghastly mullets, but still managed to deliver something that, at least, appeared to have some substance to it. Yes, like the Fuax-fel Tower, true love, or whatever else you might encounter in Sin City, it may just be a ruse for the rubes, but still sucks you into going all in.
Jr. Gone Wild, June 15 at Bowness Sportsplex
The most underrated, underappreciated act from this neck of the woods were finally encouraged back into existence for a pair of Alberta reunion shows. While the one in their hometown of Edmonton was packed to the prairies, their local hall show was a rather sparsely attended affair. Those who did show, though, were treated to that brilliant alt country sound that, in the ’80s and early 90s, was waaay too ahead of its time. The gents, led by frontman, forgotten genius Mike McDonald, were in fine form, reeling through an impressive set list that was dotted with gems including many from their ’86 lost classic Less Art, More Pop, which the shows also acted as CD release parties for, it having only been given vinyl and cassette treatment back in the day. Welcome back, boys.
Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, June 20 at the Royal Canadian Legion No. 1
A weird one. Not because of the band, who were making their first and fabulous appearance in Calgary. But rather because it was a akin to Nero fiddling as Rome burned. Or, more appropriately, the violins playing Nearer My God to Thee as the Titannic sank. It was the Sled Island festival show going on as the city began to be submerged, and one of the last before the entire thing was cancelled the following morning. Being in the core, as the waters rose, was eerie, but also oddly exhilarating, as all of the Sledgoers came together, shared news via Twitter and just generally revelled in a sense of camaraderie. Oh, and the show itself was a gritty, greasy gob of rock ’n’ roll, too.
The Revival Tour, July 8-9 at Commonwealth
One of the first shows to signal that things were getting, slowly, back to normal, was this excellent, acoustic collaborative package featuring some impressive punk rock talent. The two-night stand was the brainstorm of Chuck Ragan, frontman for American act Hot Water Music, who invited along fellow artists such as Craig Finn from the Hold Steady, Jay Malinowski from Bedouin Soundclash, Tim Barry from Avail, and Calgary rock royalty Danny Vacon and Miesha Louie. While the first night was apparently something of a feeling out process, show No. 2 found them hitting on all cylinders, joining one other onstage and on songs, and generally contributing to a sense of goodwill through the common cause of making great music together.
Calgary Folk Music Festival July 25-28 at Prince’s Island Park
While the massive flooding of the Island put the fate of the fest in question, it managed to come together through the exceptional work of organizers, volunteers and the City of Calgary who put its cleanup near the top of the priority list. And while it took a day for it to really get going — due to the visible damage done to the area as well as, perhaps, some sort of weird survivor’s guilt that came with celebrating among the carnage — it ultimately wound up being one of the best Calgary folk fests of the past decade or more. Again, part of that could have been due to the coming together of Calgarians, but it was mainly a result of the superb programming that produced a once-in-a-lifetime, eclectic lineup that managed to get the balance right, delivering such notable acts as: Alabama Shakes, World Party, Sharon Van Etten, Kurt Vile, Bahamas, Thievery Corporation and Steve Earle.
Flood Aid, Aug. 15 at McMahon Stadium
Artistically? No. Definitely not. The massive outdoor event, one of several concerts organized to raise money for recovery efforts, featured the old guard of CanCon artists, such as Nickelback, Colin James, Jann Arden, Randy Bachman, Tom Cochrane, Matthew Good and Loverboy. In fact, the freshest bands on display were probably retro Sasky hairfarmers The Sheepdogs, Alberta country son Corb Lund and psych country wonders The Sadies, the latter who were relegated to backing band for Bachman. Still, that sense of a city and region united, the one previously spoken of in regards to Sled and the folk fest, transcended any sense of deja yawn one might have at hearing the hoary old hits performed live for the millionth time. Everyone’s — the 30,000 fans, the many volunteers and, of course, the musicians’ — hearts were in the right place, and that trumped all.
Dixie Chicks, Oct. 31 at the Saddledome/Tim McGraw, Nov. 2 at the Saddledome
It was, quite frankly, one of the worst years ever for contemporary country music. One need only look at the singles lists from the past year or have gone to a big-ticket C & W show in the city to have it confirmed that the new, nondescript crop of major label, major radioplay artists — and those that provide them with their noxious, giggidy-giggidy hillbilly songs about moonshine, trucks and tight jeans — are entirely and utterly devoid of imagination. When they’re bickering among themselves about which crappy performer is the craptastickiest, that should only confirm that any arguments to the contrary are null and void. So, when presented with a pair of true country superstars — both shows, rescheduled from Stampede cancellations — it was somewhat refreshing. Of the two, the Chicks put on the better event, sounding great and seemingly in a great mood. But McGraw, albeit polished and perhaps too pro at times, still offered hit after hit in a manner that put the current crop to shame.
Pup, Nov. 9 at Republik
They rightfully claimed the No. 2 spot on this year’s Top 10 albums for their self-titled debut. But unlike No. 1 — Vampire Weekend, who’s local Jubilee show was forgettable at best — the quartet more than backed it up with their spot on a nifty triple bill, more an event, that also included Hollerado and Zolas. Their punk energy, their power-pop anthems, their unbridled passion for what it is they do all came through in the live setting, perhaps even more so. Again, it was a setting that was smaller than their music and their power, and undoubtedly the next time they return it will be in a venue befitting that big, big sound.
Art Bergmann, Nov. 30 at the Palomino
It was a pleasure not many thought they would see again. Canadian punk icon Bergmann, living in semi-retirement for the past decade just outside of Airdrie, back onstage and banging out those spit-polished songs from the late ’70s through the ’90s. But, with the clock ticking as a result of physical issues, he’s proclaimed a need to perform again before it’s too late. Which he did. Wonderfully. The singer-songwriter-poet-saints performance in the Palomino basement was everything it promised to be, with Bergmann feisty as hell, in fine voice, and backed by a band that walked the line between reverence and rock autonomy. It was one of the best nights if the year, with the only mention of the word “flood” being in relation to memories and the unwavering and unassailable power of rock ’n’ roll.