Best tunes of 1992: #7 Leonard Cohen “Closing time”

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Believe it or not, “Closing time” was the song that first turned me on to Mr. Cohen: the poet, novelist, singer, songwriter, and Canadian Icon. I loved his voice right from the start and his easy sing-speak delivery and his cool demeanour. Shortly afterwards, I connected Cohen to that awesome song that Christian Slater’s character used to open his pirate radio show in the film, “Pump up the volume” and well, a lifelong love affair was born. I didn’t know this then but “Closing time” was one of two singles released off what would be the last album he recorded before entering a Buddhist monastery, touching off a prolonged break. “The future” is now considered a classic album in his catalogue but it was a struggle to create for the man from beginning to end.

“Ah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
and the band is really happening
and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high”

Around the time that “Closing time” was making the rounds on MuchMusic, I was taking a driver’s training class with Young Drivers of Canada. I was getting my license later than many of my friends, mostly to beat the implementation of graduated licensing (yes, I’m that old), and yeah, so many of those in the class were a few years younger than I was. I remember there being a teen girl in the class who wore a Leonard Cohen concert T-shirt to class one day and we all ribbed her to no end. Leonard wasn’t a “cool” choice amongst all the alt-rock kids but a few of us in the know, came to her defence after things got carried away. No one should have to pay for being a fan of Cohen. I’m sure all those kids know that now as adults.

“All the women tear their blouses off
and the men they dance on the polka-dots
and it’s partner found, it’s partner lost
and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops”

It was also around that time that my older brother Andrew came back to live at home for a while. After years of living in the States, he had been indoctrinated into listening to Country music, yes, he wore cowboy boots and the whole bit. Interestingly, “Closing time” got its hooks into him, perhaps it was the fiddle, which was part of what got its hooks into me. Unfortunately, though, that meant that the cassette tape I had this on was always in the player and he would replay it to the point where I was almost sick of it. Then, he would drag me out with him to country bars to pick up women, none of whose companions I was ever remotely interested in, and then, drunkenly sing the few lines he knew of “Closing time” over and over again as we were staggering home in the early hours of the morning.

“Yeah we’re drinking and we’re dancing
but there’s nothing really happening
and the place is dead as Heaven on a Saturday night
And my very close companion
gets me fumbling gets me laughing
she’s a hundred but she’s wearing
something tight”

I only recently learned that “Closing time” is Leonard Cohen’s love poem to Toronto’s famous dive/after hours bar, The Matador, sadly now defunct (though I hear plans to resurrect it are in the works). I have only ever been to the Matador once in my life and that was on my friend Tim’s birthday, probably more than a decade ago now. We were all rather drunk already, which made a surreal experience all the more surreal. Nobody seem to know its precise address but the mere mention of the name to the cab driver got us all there without incident. Once there, we stood in line for an unknown amount of time but I distinctly remember our friend Mark saying to me, “If they ask you if you’re a cop, just say ‘no’.” There are plenty more stories that I could tell of that evening inside The Matador but I’ll leave those for another evening over beers. Let’s just say that when closing time actually rolled around, we stumbled out blinking in the morning sun and into waiting cabs bound for our beds.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 1992 list, click here.

Best tunes of 2012: #24 John K. Samson “Heart of the continent”

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With apologies to my youngest brother Mike*, I didn’t really get into and start appreciating the songwriting of John K. Samson until somewhere between the time of The Weakerthans’ last record and when they went on the extended hiatus that continues to this day.

It’s not like I didn’t have my chances. I actually saw them live twice. The first time was in 2001, when I hadn’t yet heard of them at all. They were the opening act on a card supporting Billy Bragg and The Lowest of the Low in Toronto, the latter of whom I recall Samson claiming were a huge influence on his own songwriting. The second time I saw them was in 2008 and they played in the afternoon on the second day of Toronto Island’s Virgin Fest. I was much better prepared this time, having brushed up on pretty much all of their records, and even finding a few favourite tunes on these. Yet still, though I enjoyed their set quite a bit, I wasn’t quite as into it as was my friend Mark, though truth be told, his enjoyment might have been enhanced by the bit of cannabis he had partaken in just beforehand.

What really did it for me was a couple years after that second show when I happened to be in Winnipeg around the time of their renowned Folk Festival. One of the sets that I managed to catch there was an afternoon songwriting workshop that included members of Jon And Roy, Works Progress Administration, and Swell Season and which was led by a genial fellow that I thought looked familiar right from the beginning. It turned out that it was local legend and the unofficial poet laureate of Winnipeg, John K. Samson, and of course, the theme that afternoon was on writing about home.

This is something Samson does often. His hometown of Winnipeg and other bits of Canadiana often entered the conversational tone of the lyrics of The Weakerthans’ songs. And there is no good reason why he would change his thinking when he released his debut solo album, “Provincial”, in 2012, which is the host of today’s song, “Heart of the continent”. Indeed, the title of today’s song is Winnipeg’s slogan, which is why many consider it like a sequel of sorts to The Weakerthans’ “One great city”, which was, of course, Winnipeg’s old slogan.

“There’s a billboard by the highway
That says welcome to
(Bienvenue à)
But no sign to show you when you go away“

It’s a lovely tune. Samson’s lyrics take the front seat, his now recognizable voice all soft and wistful, while his fingers brush and pluck away at the strings of an acoustic guitar. It’s like he’s busking on his favourite street corner (perhaps on Memorial), complete with his foot stomping on the kick pedal drum. Little by little, the people passing to and fro join him in the chorus, perhaps there’s another guitar and snare that make their way out from the abandoned building in front of which Samson sings, his hat still empty in front of him.

Yep. With this tune and this album, I became a full fledged Samson fan.

*My youngest brother Mike is a pretty big Weakerthans fan and was behind “One great tribute”, a tribute album to the band that was released last year.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2012 list, click here.

Ten great Ottawa Bluesfest sets: #4 Rich Aucoin – Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

(This year’s edition of Ottawa Bluesfest has been cancelled, for obvious reasons. In previous years, especially on my old blog, I would share photos and thoughts on some of the live music I was enjoying at the festival throughout the duration. So for the next week and a half, I thought I’d share ten great sets, out of the many I’ve witnessed over the years, one for each day on which music would have be performed. Enjoy.)

Rich Aucoin live at Bluesfest 2012

Artist: Rich Aucoin
When: Wednesday, July 11th, 2012
Where: Electro Stage at 9:00pm
Context: If you’re ever in the mood for a party, I would definitely recommend seeing Rich Aucoin.

I wasn’t sure what to think while watching him set up the stage beforehand because I had never heard anything about his live shows. His debut album, “We’re all dying to live”, was released the previous year and was so big and bombastic but it looked, based on the set up, like there would only be two people performing. I really didn’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t the all out party that unfolded once things got going.

First, Rich Aucoin came out on stage by himself to thank everyone for coming and then, explained how all of his songs were all meant to be performed against images from “old” movies (some weren’t that old). Hence, the large screen behind him and then, the other two performers, a drummer and a bass player, came out to join him. He started off with a vocal warm up to the 20th Century Fox jingle and encouraged the crowd to join in. In fact, audience participation was practically mandatory throughout. He put up the lyrics of the chorus to each song before performing and ran through them a couple of times to ensure everyone knew the words. He jumped into the crowd to dance with his fans at every opportunity, leaving his band and his keyboards to do the work. At one point, he brought out a parachute and asked the audience to make room so that they could play a game reminiscent of elementary school playgrounds.

Rich Aucoin had the crowd in a dancing frenzy all the way through. The crowd was just as much a part of the performance as those on stage. He finished his uplifting set with “It”, as I figured he would, and then put his personal cell phone number up on the screen for audience members to text him so that he could send them his music. What a wild ride.

‘Congrats on being alive’
‘We’re all dying to live’
‘Ottawa is awesome’s capital’
Rich’s brother, Paul Aucoin on bass
Joel Waddell on the drums
Rich Aucoin dancing the crowd

Setlist: (unfortunately, not available)