A last northern wish

Eight years ago I missed the Rheostatics last run because I had shingles (don’t ask). I’d seen them live half a dozen times before, but I always regretted not being able to see them that one last time before they broke up.

Last night I got a second chance, in maybe the most Canadian way possible. The Rheos had re-formed, along with Kevin Hearne (and Hugh Marsh on violin) for a run of three shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario, on the 20th anniversary of Music Inspired By The Group Of Seven. That album had been commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada to accompany their retrospective on the Group Of Seven. So yes, I was watching a hyper-Canadian band play an album commissioned by the national Canadian art gallery about a century-old Canadian art collective. Peak. Canadian. We bumped into M2 and H2 and their friend, and drank (of course) a Collective Arts beer.

After we all filed inside the band walked out and played the first six songs, silently. Well, almost — just as the band was about to begin playing “Blue Hysteria” Martin quietly said, “OK fellas…”, and I can’t be sure if he was preparing them or himself. I know that by the end of the song I was pretty emotional.

Dave finally broke the silence as he introduced “Northern Wish”, which played — like the entire album — over Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier’s silent video and archival footage, projected onto the walls of the art gallery’s central court where we stood. They played the rest of the album, adding so much more texture and intensity to songs like “Biplanes and Bombs” and “Lightning” than comes through on the studio album, and keeping the banter to an austere minimum, matching the quiet beauty of the northern Canadian videos playing all around us. Finally, with “Yellow Days Under a Lemon Sun” they closed out the set, beautifully, wonderfully. They tried to say goodbye, like Winchell Price’s parting comments on the album itself, but we were having none of it.

They walked back onstage and played four songs: “Claire” (their biggest hit, which I’ve never particularly cared for, but was certainly happy to hear live one more time), one from their kids album The Story Of Harmelodia (“It’s Easy To Be With You”, I think?), the best version of “Christopher” I’ve ever heard, and then an absolutely riotous take on “Horses” that ended with Martin and Dave collapsed in a mutual heap, and Dave’s signature pork pie hat flung to Don Kerr on the drum kit. I hoped it was the end. Don’t get me wrong: I’d have dearly loved to watch them play all night, but I can’t imagine a better way to go out than yelling “Holy Mackinaw Joe!” back at them over and over, before that song’s Ragnarok ending.

OK fellas. I’m good now. Thanks.

Bye bye.


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