Playlist: Ode to the opening act

The lot of the opening act is a tough gig.

On the one hand, travelling with an established band, especially one of similar aesthetic, can bring a new or lesser known musician or band some much needed exposure. On the other, if it’s not thought through, the results can be disastrous and ego-battering. I’ve heard stories of great and talented artists booed, heckled, and worse, made the targets of beer bottle tossing. There have also been cases where bands of mutual respect have decided to team up for a tour, leaving their collective fan bases somewhat confused and terribly mixed, and yes, I’m thinking here of a certain Public Enemy/Sisters of Mercy tour back at the beginning of the 1990s.

Far too often, though, these hardworking and earnest opening acts are simply ignored. Audience members will show up late, often in the middle of the set, choosing instead to pre-drink at a nearby waterhole rather than pay the often exorbitant fees at the concert venue. Or these same folks will show up early with their general admission tickets to carve out a sweet spot right at the front of the stage for the headlining act and rudely spend the whole opening set talking loudly with their friends. I’m not sure which would be worse, though, an empty room or a simply disinterested one.

I always try to make it a point to head out to the show early to catch and show support for these opening acts. There have been times, of course, where the openers have not been my cup of tea and I just focused on drinking (and spending) more. However, I’ve more often than not enjoyed these sets. In fact, I’ve discovered many a new favourite amongst these support acts.

So yes, this month’s playlist goes out to all those opening acts out there. It is twenty songs by bands I’ve seen in the early slot in my many years of concert going. To be fair and to limit things some, I’ve not included any bands that I’ve seen in lower card time slots or on side stages at festivals, though there have been many of these as well. For each act in this list, I’ve provided the date of the show and the headliner, some sentences of context, and where possible, chose a song from that time period. As you’ll see, there are bands that made of me a bigger fan with their set, some that were brand new to me and won me over, and others that actually drew me to the show more than the headlining set. Some of these bands are huge now and some even became bigger names than the ones they were supporting. Check it out.

1. Chapterhouse “She’s a vision”
Opened for The Wonder Stuff, February 20, 1994: When I arrived at the tiny Toronto venue to see my favourite band at the time for a measly $10, I was surprised to learn that many of the people I was meeting at the show were more excited for the opening band that I was considering a bonus. Let’s just say that when Chapterhouse, with whose albums I was already familiar, hit the stage, I was mesmerized.

2. Primal Scream “Rocks”
Opened for Depeche Mode, June 20, 1994: This one’s a bit of a cheat because both the Primals and Mode were preceded by Stabbing Westward, who was to be honest, a yawn. However, Primal Scream and their 1991 album, “Screamadelica”, were what finally drew me to see Depeche Mode live and incidentally, it was the first concert I went to with my future wife, Victoria. Were the Primals great live? You betcha!

3. Weezer “Undone (The sweater song)”
Opened for Lush, August 21, 1994: The song chosen is the one song I had only barely heard before seeing Weezer, who would later become a household name, open for Lush, an iconic shoegaze band remembered now in just a few circles. They were really fun, yet I think I was the only one amongst my friends who was really paying them any attention.

4. Pulp “Do you remember the first time?”
Opened for Blur, September 28, 1994: None of us had really heard much from Pulp before that show but the very next day, it seemed, my friends and I all went out and bought “His ‘n’ hers”. Frontman Jarvis Cocker was engaging, charismatic, and exciting, while the rest of the band, well, they collectively blew our minds.

5. The Dandy Warhols “Not if you were the last junkie on earth”
Opened for The Charlatans, September 26, 1997: The Dandys were another band by whom I was only barely familiar with the one song (again, the one chosen) before seeing them live. Victoria was unimpressed but I loved them and purchased their next release, “Thirteen tales from urban bohemia“ a couple of years later. The rest is history.

6. Spiritualized “I think I’m in love”
Opened for Radiohead, April 12, 1998: These guys are the only reason I’ve ever seen Radiohead live. After seeing Spiritualized blow the doors off a much smaller venue, I just had to see them again when they swung back through town on the same tour, this time warming up a much larger venue for Thom Yorke and the boys. Jason Pierce’s set was great and I was super glad that I stuck around for Radiohead.

7. Billy Bragg “Accident waiting to happen”
Opened for The Lowest of the Low, August 2, 2001: Another cheat because this card was actually led off by Winnipeg’s own, The Weakerthans, but I’m giving Bragg the nod here for returning after his set to perform the song included on this playlist with headliners, The Lowest of the Low. It was fun watching the local heroes falling over themselves and going fanboy over the Bard of Barking.

8. The Sid Hillman Quartet “No perfect world”
Opened for Neil Halstead, April 20, 2002: It was weird seeing Slowdive and Mojave 3 frontman, Neil Halstead, do a show at a tiny, tiny club in Ottawa’s Byward Market but the bigger surprise came when I was even more impressed by the previously unknown to me, alt-country singer/songwriter, Sid Hillman.

9. The Polyphonic Spree “Light & day / Reach for the sun”
Opened for David Bowie, April 2, 2004: We walked into the Corel Centre a little late and found our seats a few songs into the opening set, but the twenty-odd-piece band dressed in flowing robes (that included a harpist, a theremin player, and a choir) certainly made an impression. The very next day at home, I went digging on the internet to track down their debut album.

10. Ambulance LTD “Heavy lifting”
Opened for The Killers, October 9, 2004: There were two bands opening for The Killers at that tiny club in downtown Ottawa but the dream pop/psych rock band from New York definitely made the bigger impression. Ambulance LTD’s self-titled debut has become a favourite of mine from that era. Sadly, they never made another record.

11. Arcade Fire “Rebellion (Lies)”
Opened for U2, November 25, 2005: I finally acquiesced to seeing U2 with my wife when they played a show at the Corel Centre at the behest of friend and then Canadian prime minister, Paul Martin. At that time, it was the most I’d ever paid for a concert ticket but when Montreal’s Arcade Fire were announced as headliner, I stopped complaining. Arcade Fire made a lot of new fans that night in the capital and shortly afterwards, got so big, they were assuming headliner spots at venues of that size.

12. Richard Ashcroft “A song for the lovers”
Opened for Coldplay, March 17, 2006: Much like my Radiohead and Spiritualized story above, I might have never seen Coldplay live if they hadn’t brought Richard Ashcroft along on their X & Y tour. Victoria and I were two of only a few pockets of those standing and singing and dancing along to his whole set amidst a sea ambivalent talkers. He peppered in a bunch of Verve tunes with his solo work but when he played “Bittersweet symphony” as his final song, the rest of the crowd joined us on their feet.

13. The Essex Green “Don’t know why (you stay)”
Opened for Camera Obscura, January 30, 2007: I had never heard this Brooklyn-based indie rock band before the show but based on their performance, bought the CD at the merch table and went back to find their earlier album later on. Unfortunately, they went on hiatus not long after this tour and finally returned last year with a new album that made an appearance on my best of the year list.

14. Young Galaxy “Outside the city”
Opened for The Besnard Lakes, October 13, 2007: This is actually the first of two times I saw Young Galaxy as an opening band (the second time was when they supported Austra in 2011) and I’ve actually seen them two other times live. Indeed, they are one of my favourite ever bands. However, their set supporting The Besnard Lakes seemed perfect, a dream pop/psych rock band doing support for another. Although Young Galaxy moved on to a more electronic sound, this era was my favourite of theirs.

15. Small Sins “We won’t last the winter”
Opened for Secret Machines, November 15, 2008: Small Sins were the short-lived synth pop project of Thomas D’Arcy that released three albums in the late 2000s. D’Arcy later released work under his real name and has found success in production work on some very successful Canadian rock albums. His opening set that night was incredible.

16. I Break Horses “Winter beats”
Opened for M83, May 6, 2012: I’ve already written on these pages about how I Break Horses (pictured above) was the bigger draw for me than M83, for whom they were opening. Well, M83 were eye-opening but the Swedish duo of Maria Lindén and Fredrik Balck didn’t disappoint in the least either.

17. John Grant “Pale green ghosts”
Opened for Elbow, May 17, 2014: I had never heard John Grant before seeing him open for Elbow at the famed Danforth Music Hall but his deep baritone vocals and dramatic presence was certainly a welcome warm up and both my wife and I took notice.

18. Gateway Drugs “Friday’s are for suckers”
Opened for Swervedriver, May 5, 2015: This band of newcomers impressed me enough to pick up their debut album at the merch table, their performance being my first exposure to their dirty and noisy glam rock. Their silence in the years since has been a surprise to me because I was sure they would make a name for themselves but it’s not too late: a sophomore album is forthcoming in October.

19. Tess Parks “Somedays”
Opened for Ride, June 2, 2015: I had to rush the whole lot of friends and friends of friends who had amassed to pre-drink before the first Ride show in Toronto in decades to finish their beers just so I could see her set. Tess Parks was tentative but the strength of her songs carried her. She has since collaborated with Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe and I expect there’s more good tunes coming from her soon.

20. Japanese Breakfast “Everybody wants to love you”
Opened for Slowdive, May 6, 2017: I was at first quite surprised to see all the young people that were at the Montreal stop on shoegaze legends Slowdive’s tour. But then, it occurred to me that they were probably there to catch buzz act and next gen dreampopper, Japanese Breakfast. I had only given Michelle Zauner’s debut a cursory pre-listen but really enjoyed her set.

Now that you’ve perused and perhaps listened to the embedded playlist below, I’d just like to sum up by saying: Next time you go to a show, remember this playlist and the fact that you might be missing out on your next favourite band. Come out early and join me near the front of the stage. I’ll be there with a beer in hand, trying not to be annoyed by the loud talkers standing in front of me. Cheers.

For those of you who are on Spotify, feel free to look me up. My user name is “jprobichaud911”.


Best tunes of 2002: #30 Richard Ashcroft “Check the meaning”

#29 >>

So it’s time to start in on a new list and today’s as good a day as any. And at number thirty to kick things off, we have Richard Ashcroft’s “Check the meaning”.

Some of you might be familiar with his name and those of you who are not, are surely familiar with the band he fronted through the 1990s: namely, The Verve. His solo work has already appeared in these pages when his first post-Verve solo single appeared at number five on my Best tunes of 2000 list. And in that post, I talked about how excited I was when I first brought home a copy of “Alone with everybody” because I was such a fan of “Urban hymns” and how there was a modicum of disappointment when the album didn’t immediately blow my socks off. I also waxed philosophical about how Ashcroft had moments that really worked and those that didn’t and that he was likely missing a sounding board to temper his flights of fancy.

All of that to suggest that when 2002 rolled around and news came of a second solo album, I wasn’t as quick to go out and purchase the CD. In fact, I think it wasn’t until a year or two later that I finally got around to listening to it. And even then, it was only because I had seen a copy of it at the library and taking it home for a spin was a no risk investment. Of course, with my expectations low, I was pleasantly surprised but not completely bowled over by “Human conditions”. I found it was at best great background music, save for a few moments that stood out.

The opening track, “Check the meaning”, is one of the grander moments. It is also a good example of how Ashcroft could use some editing. The album version is a bloated eight minutes in length, the video below has it cut to just over five minutes, but I think if it had even been trimmed by yet another minute, the song might be a good ten positions or so higher in this list. It’s huge in scope and multilayered, strings and horns and guitars that flit back and forth between the speakers. The drums are just so, not really moving the song along but allowing it to be and breathe. Ashcroft’s vocals are exactly those that we have come to know and love, looped and mixed in upon themselves, singing words that question what it is to exist. In the end, he tells us that everything is going to be alright and after all this beauty and majesty, I’m inclined to believe him.

For the rest of the Best tunes of 2002 list, click here.


Best albums of 1997: #2 The Verve “Urban hymns”

The Verve is one of the few bands that I truly regret not seeing live and I’m pretty sure my wife Victoria would join me in those sentiments. And this is how it played out.

If you’ve been following my list of my favourite tunes of 1991, you would know that one of my pastimes in the early nineties was recording alternative music videos to videocassette tapes off of MuchMusic’s “CityLimits”. I discovered a lot of music in this way, including The Verve’s early single, “Slide away”, except in the case of this song, I didn’t get around to exploring the rest of their material. I duly forgot about the band until the fall of 1997 when I first heard the single, “Bittersweet symphony” while dancing at York University’s largest pub and its infamous alternative pub night, “Timebomb Thursdays”. Suddenly, the song was being playing on Edge 102 and every week at the aforementioned pub night. I distinctly remember standing in line for a Charlatans UK concert near the end of September with Victoria and being handed a leaflet for the new album by The Verve and Victoria asking me about it. By the time we were hooked on the album, their Remembrance Day show at the Phoenix in Toronto was long sold out and then, when they returned the following year, it was in Hamilton! We were pretty jazzed when we heard they were reforming in 2007 but the tour swing through Toronto came mid-week, which made the trip from Ottawa a bit difficult to maneuver. So unless we see a fourth reformation of the band, Victoria and I will have to be happy with the Richard Ashcroft solo slot we caught, opening for Coldplay, a great set that was nothing at all to complain about.

But enough whining, I’m supposed to be praising “Urban hymns”, right? Ok, let me try.

The songs written for “Urban hymns” were meant to be for frontman, Richard Ashcroft’s debut solo album, after the band had dissolved following their second album. During the sessions, he began working with the various members of his old band and realized that he would need Nick McCabe’s guitars to truly realize his vision for the sound of the album. So The Verve was reformed and we are all truly thankful.

According to my wife Victoria, there are very few albums that she can listen to from beginning to end and not only not want to skip a track, but actually love pretty much the whole thing. “Urban hymns” is, for her, one of those albums and on that, we are agreed. I think we may even have the same favourite songs (but perhaps she might have subbed in “Sonnet” for “Lucky man” in the three songs below). It is a long album that doesn’t feel very long. One song leads quite logically and emotionally into the next. It is a big album with enormous sound, each song epic in scope and passion. It is real and honest but because McCabe was involved, holding Ashcroft back a bit, it doesn’t teeter into sappy and navel-gazing territory. It is a guitar rock album that lives in its own universe, nothing else can touch it, the sound is atmospheric and full and layered like a Russian doll.

Is it better than Radiohead’s “OK computer”? I am sure that is debatable either way. I personally think so but admittedly, it may be be nudged slightly ahead due to all the memories I have invested in it. But hey, have a listen to my three picks for you below and let me know your thoughts.

“The drugs don’t work”: “All this talk of getting old. It’s getting me down my love. Like a cat in a bag, waiting to drown, this time I’m comin’ down.” Such a beautiful song. Acoustic guitars and gentle string arrangements that build to a bombastic, full band accompaniment to Ashcroft’s ruminations on his life and his drug addiction. This track always reminds me of the earliest days of my relationship with my wife. But before you get any ideas, it’s not because either of us were heroin addicts. “Urban hymns” was released at the tail end of our first year ‘together’. Victoria and I both fell in love with the album and listened to it incessantly when we convened to my bedroom to get away from my roommates. The lyrics of the song spoke to us, especially those about being “better off dead” if “you leave my life” and singing “in your ear again”. So yeah, this song reminds me of being young and in love and singing softly to the lyrics in that tiny bedroom, lit only by a candle.

“Lucky man”: “Happiness, more or less. It’s just a change in me, something in my liberty.” This track is probably one of the most uplifting on the album but as evinced in the preceding quote, even that is tempered. The lyrics suggest contentment of a sort and with the benefit of hindsight, we know that there is a hint at Ashcroft’s battles with depression and also, that he was newly in the throes of early love. When Victoria and I saw him perform solo a number of years ago, Ashcroft performed this track and his preamble was a dedication to his wife Kate Radley, who he said, made him feel like the luckiest man every day. But even before I knew any of this or did any of my own deconstruction, this was one of my favourite tracks from the start. There’s plenty of whirling guitars and effects, layered over the simple guitar strum and drum beat, then the strings come in and the heavens open up for us to witness all the glory possible. It is utter brilliance and beauty.

“Bittersweet symphony”: “Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony this life. Trying to make ends meet, you’re a slave to the money then you die.” Yeah, this song. If you don’t know any other track on “Urban hymns”, you definitely know this one. Much has been made about how popular his track is and how it didn’t make the band any money due to the legal question of its use of the string sample. There have also been words written to the effect that this is the song that broke up the band but the band had always been in trouble. No, this song just adds a bit of tragedy to the story because of how brilliant it is. And yes, I can use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe this song too (for those counting, I’ve mentioned the word for each of these songs). It stomps and dances and flits and flirts. As Victoria is always telling me, you want to close your eyes and go to that place: the music is the place. You want to march straight down the road without stopping or changing course, like Ashcroft does in the video, ignoring all around you but the song. I don’t care how many times I’ve heard it, “Bittersweet symphony” is new every time, like true love, and it just has to be one of the best songs ever written and recorded.

Check back next Thursday for album #1. In the meantime, here are the previous albums in this list:

10. Cornershop “When I was born for the 7th time”
9. The Dandy Warhols “The Dandy Warhols come down”
8. Teenage Fanclub “Songs from Northern Britain”
7. The Mighty Mighty Bosstones “Let’s face it”
6. Ocean Colour Scene “Marchin’ already”
5. Blur “Blur”
4. James “Whiplash”
3. Radiohead “OK computer”

You can also check out my Best Albums page here if you’re interested in my other favourite albums lists.