For a large period of my life - pretty much from the moment I first saw them live in Auckland in '991 - Barenaked Ladies were my favourite band. I can't put my finger on when or why they fell from that position – possibly in the quiet period between the release of their somewhat lacklustre Everything to Everyone and the double-CD-in-two-parts that was Barenaked Ladies are Me/Men in 2006/2007 – or even who replaced them; they just wandered out of my playlist, in the way that bands sometimes do. However, they are still undisputedly the best live band I've ever seen (only Green Day have ever come close), and I will jump at the chance to see them play.
The elephant in the room2 is the lack of singer/songwriter Steven Page, who departed the band 18 months ago. Last time we saw the band was in their home town of Toronto in December 2008, two months before the split; I'm glad I got to that show, even if it was a bit Christmas-carol heavy. Since then, after a long break, BNL have returned with All In Good Time, a record firmly at the grown-up end of the spectrum (as you might expect from a band whose last studio output was a children's album called Snacktime).
Last night they bought their All In Good Time tour to the Hammersmith Apollo in London, officially making Barenaked Ladies the third band I have now seen in three different countries.3
While as expected there were a number of cuts from both their new album and their hit album Stunt (you know, the one with the "Chikkity China" song on it), the set had a number of tracks from its follow up Maroon. Older songs were fewer - Old Apartment was the first song where Ed Robertson took Steve's lead vocal, and it's worth noting that drummer Tyler Stewart makes a surprisingly good Ed to Ed's Steve.
Strangely the song where I missed Steve the most was one he didn't even sing - the first single of the new album, You Run Away, which is ostensibly about the circumstances surrounding Steve leaving the band he'd been in for 20 years. The end chorus on the record relies on Ed's double-tracked vocals, and the live version was just crying out for a proper duet.
However, the new arrangement worked brilliantly in other places. I'm the first to admit that the voice of Kevin Hearn (a taller, thinner Turtle from Entourage) isn't generally to my taste. Sound Of Your Voice from Barenaked Ladies Are Me is my favourite BNL song since the Maroon days; Kevin wrote this song, but Steve sings it on the album. Since Steve left, Kevin has taken lead vocal again, and even if Kevin was a more powerful vocalist, Page's are very big shoes to fill, especially on a belter such as this. The current arrangement features Kevin playing acoustic guitar, and the other three clustered around a microphone singing the backing vocals in a "doo-wop" style, complete with clicking fingers and synchronized swaying. It was suitably different and it bought new life back to a great song.
Many of the rest of the new songs were treated as bathroom breakers; by comparison, It's All Been Done almost got some of audience jumping up and down where the seats should be. The loudest cheers of the evening were reserved for mentions of all things Canadian, no doubt by the gentleman (and ladies!) all in hockey garb.
A trademark of the BNL experience was the live improvised song/rap, which tonight was about English accents and a kid telling Ed not to steal his bike. (Trust me, they're better in person.) The improvised story in the middle of If I Had A Million Dollars told us that in lieu of him being able to find a park to run around, he was doing laps of the Shepherd's Bush Green, and the descriptive story of his hotel (with "snow room" - more Canadian cheering!) no doubt led some of the more intent fans to camp out in front of it the next morning!
More BNL trademarks include the throwing of underwear (placed on guitars) and Kraft Dinner (thrown from the balcony, and hitting everyone in our vicinity!). Did the "those in the know don't throw" message not get through to those who were super-fan enough to still go through with this?
One of my favourite parts of the old BNL show was the post-Million Dollars medley, a carefully crafted pastiche of current pop songs. I fondly remember the Auckland show, seeing Tyler run up and down the stage singing "Near" and "Far" in the style of Sesame Street, then Steve breaking into "Near, far, wherever you are" from My Heart Will Go On (this was 1999!). From bootlegs I've heard, this was dropped from the set around 2000, but seems to have come back with a vengeance; Kevin's slow start on Oh It's Magic soon joined by a beatboxing Ed and turning into I Got A Feeling by the Black Eyed, Peas, Baby by Justin Bieber and California Gurls by Katy Perry, ending in a triumphant Tyler-carrying-Jim moment.
The encore started great, with Tyler-the-drummer down the front and Ed on drums; it not being Christmas, so his regular Feliz Navidad seemed a bit unlikely: instead, we were treated to a madcap version of Alcohol.4 It all got a little muted from that point on; the new Kevin-lead ballad Watching the Northern Lights was treated as another bathroom break, and the finisher Tonight Is The Night I Fell Asleep At The Wheel is a great song, but one I figured Steve would get in the divorce. The new lineup seems freed from the obligation to finish with Brian Wilson every night, although examinations of other setlists suggests they do still play it. (This is not a game I should play, because examinations of other setlists simply make me jealous that they played songs I like on other nights!)
While it's not the same band any more, it's still fun, and I disagree with comments that suggest it's butchering the memory. No more so than having BNL featuring Thin Steve with stylish glasses.
Update: Check out some professional photos of the evening at IES Photography.
- I think it was '99; strangely enough I can't find confirmation on the Internet at all! ↩
- On the subject of elephants in rooms, I gained another chin eating a diet of hot dogs and poutine in my two years in Canada; I don't mean to generalise, but the room at BNL, on average, appeared to weigh a lot more than other, primarily-English audiences I've been in there. Just sayin'. Eat healthy. ↩
- Behind R.E.M. and Crowded House; technically I could include Neil and Tim Finn solo, but I won't. ↩
- Bass player Jim Creegan sings lead vocals on one or two songs an album nowadays, and takes live lead on some Steve songs, but didn't get one tonight. ↩