If you don’t know where you came from … who cares where you’re going.
In a recent interview with Pitchfork, speaking about the inclusion of a group of elementary school kids on his and band-mate Zach Sheilds’ new music project (Dead Man’s Bones) beefcake and apple-of-the-Canadian-eye, Ryan Gosling, said the following:
You know when you’re a kid and you get crayons and papers and just draw whatever you want and it’s just a bunch of messy lines, but to you it makes sense, and then they put it on the fridge? From that point on, you’re always trying to get back on the fridge, you start drawing things that look like something, like, the more it looks like a horse, the more chance you have of getting it on the fridge. We wanted to get back to that place before we were trying to make the fridge. We wanted to work with people who hadn’t been affected in that way yet.
The interview goes on to talk about Gosling’s new project, which is shaping up to be amazing – but that part stuck out in my head, made an impression, and re-surfaced when I got a chance to speak with the manager of Kingston, Ontario’s Grad Club earlier this week.
The Grad Club is an old Victorian home on the outskirts of Queen’s University and for 38 years it’s been a home, bar, restaurant and (at times) place for music, for students and local community members. Recently, it was one of a hundred venues to be included in CBC Radio 3’s list of top live music venues in Canada, and over the past few weeks, thanks to votes from patrons, Canadian live-music fans, pretentious Queen’s University students and indie kids alike, has made the top 10 list, currently in contention for the coveted “numba one spot” of Canada’s Best Venue.
For a venue around the size of a student home, with “a stage the size of a post-it-note” located in a city of 120,000, this is really an impressive feat. So much so, that it got me thinking about what has driven people in droves to vote for this charming venue, and what the Grad Club’s success in this poll represents for the live music scene/business in Canada and even around the world.
In a recent interview with Coldplay frontman Chris Paltrow, the urbane Britt talked about one of the bizarre realities of playing medium to large stadium shows. “You can’t actually see the audience,” Martin shared, “so our only cue for how our songs are doing is looking to the exits where we can see shadows leaving for a hot dog if we’re playing like shit. That’s how we decided not to ever play “A Whisper”.” Good call Christopher. This lack of intimacy speaks to the transformation of the live-music industry over the past few years. As pyrotechnics and backdrops that rival those on my iTunes visualizer become essential to live shows, artists literally no longer see their fans, increasing the disconnect between performer and spectator, celebrity and peon. Larger-scale artists and bands, no longer play for an audience, they perform in a stadium, and fans come to enjoy the often-theatrical spectacles as they would a Broadway show. These shows contain little to no interaction with the actual performers. In fact, more often these days, we’re seeing “blockbuster” performing artists like Kanye West and Beyonce Knowles take on other personas all together on stage (see: Kanye the Alien x Jane the Robot or Sasha Fierce). On these tours, the show seen in Toronto is the same product created across the world from Bangkok to New York, with mediocre-to-lame attempts to ‘localize’ the product with stock scripted greetings:
– ‘What’s up (insert location here)?
– We were walking around today and just saying how much we looove this city. And we could totally get used to this (choose one of: cold, hot, luke-warm, damp, snowy) scene.
– We love you (insert aforementioned city, followed by biggest single and crowd roar).’
And of course, even our beloved Canadians are taking to these routines. On CBC’s “The Hour” with my second favorite George (sorry Strombo – you’re after Clooney) Michael Buble uncharacteristically shed light on one of the ‘secrets’ of the touring business. He claimed that prior to performing in a given city, he’d ‘Wikipedia’ them to come up with a few local pop-culture reference points and quips which would be familiar and humorous for the audience. He also confessed that this has been helpful in allowing him to invite female spectators to enjoy a few cocktails at an after-show party from time-to-time. What. A. Badass.
While it was once a novelty to create a character/persona in a live-music show, embraced by Bowie, Kiss and the Glam-Rock scene of the 70s & 80s, the meta-theatrical live shows of today’s artists seem to have become the bankable norm, while tip-toeing the once defined line between musical and concert.
Standing 3 feet tall in the face of this Yao Ming-sized movement are the Top 10 live music venues of Canada and particularly, The Grad Club – which collectively serve as a reminder and throw-back to a simpler time in live-music when a community built and supported a venue. A show at The Grad Club is an opportunity to see an artist in the most intimate of settings – just over a hundred people and you in an old living room, watching a live show stripped-down to it’s most basic inputs: performer, mic, speaker. Egos, which so often grow rampantly inside today’s performers thanks to night-after-night boosts from screaming fans, are checked at the door here. Physically, a band must walk through and side-by-side with the audience they’re about to perform to just to reach the stage. The stage is barely elevated, which has the band performing at virtually eye-level to the spectators. The experience has got to be humbling and transformative, because from the perspective of a concertgoer, it feels like it takes the artist on a trip back to that place before they were trying to get on the fridge, when they were just drawing to draw. The venue captures artists in their most raw and vulnerable positions, newcomers and veterans alike.
Picture taken from the stage looking to the back of the living room/performance space.
Unlike the majority of live music venues, the Grad Club has operated as a not-for-profit organization for 38 years, which has afforded it the ability to represent student tastes without pandering to them as well as stand-up for community-based music (often in times when it hasn’t been the most profitable business decision). As a club located at the center of the Toronto-Montreal tour route in Eastern-Canada, the Grad Club’s location has allowed for it have many great Canadian musicians grace its stage over the years, including the Tragically Hip (when they were less tragic, and more hip), Spencer Evans, Georgette Fry and more recently, Broken Social Scene, the Stars, Final Fantasy, Ok Go, Apostle of Hustle, Holy F*ck and The Handsome Furs.
In speaking with mother and “curator” of the venue, Virginia Clark, the unique perspective she has on pairing the club’s management, both as a business and community-focused arts hub has been vital to creating a space so full of character, warmth and talent and definitely proved why the venue has had its recent radio-poll success. At no other venue would you hear the manager casually share anecdotes about hanging out with Ok Go and making them sandwiches after a show, or having Kevin Drew turn up at the club after performing at another venue in town, just to play at the weekly open mic or of a band forgetting to book a place to stay and crashing at the venue manager’s instead. Bands love The Grad Club and many develop relationships with Virginia and the staff which would make all the 2009 Penny Lanes cringe with jealousy over – myself included.
Now, I should make clear that I love where the live music scene is going, theatrical or not, but at the same time, there’s something to be said for a venue where you’re not standing next to the guy who’s more concerned about whether you’re going to scuff his new Italian loafers or spill his lager, than watching the band play. I’ll never in my life forget standing next to Jason Collett while he tried to hide in The Grad Club’s kitchen and decide what to play in his encore, or spilling an entire pint on myself while jumping to the Born Ruffians playing “Hummingbird”. Every show at this place is an experience with a community and in music like no other and if you ever get a chance to see a show there – do it.
Two days left to vote! Please do so here.
Here are some live recordings from the club courtesy of the Bootlog: