Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Battle of the Venues, with Steven Wilson!

Or: Colonial Edwardian Armpit vs. Internationally Revered, Pristine Victorian Hallwho will win?
Dear P___ -

You'll recall last Thursday night was brutally cold. Consequently I spent more time considering my concert-going wardrobe than is my norm.

It was Steven Wilson at the Phoenix. I'd be standing with 998 of my least favourite people — plus my buddy, the welcome exception. The queue was going to be cold, the interior stifling. I finally settled on the custom Devin Townsend shirt my daughter made me, with open denim long-sleeved shirt and the brown calfskin jacket that certifies my fogeydom.

I retrieved my phone, quickly checked email one last time, and . . . 

Water-main break. Concert postponed til Monday, venue changed to the Toronto Opera House on Queen.

My heart sank.

I called my friend and gave him the news. He confirmed my fears — he had commitments Monday, and could not attend.

I turned on the home computer and stared at the email, trying to decide what to do. Buried near the bottom of the missive was a short sentence offering refunds if tickets were delivered to point of purchase. This was just as inconvenient as attending the concert, so . . .

. . . on the other hand, if the Phoenix fell short of my ideal venue, the Opera House falls woefully short of the Phoenix. I used to give concerts there a wide pass back when I was still full of piss and vinegar — how much worse would it be now in my dotage?

On the other hand, it has been 20 years since we left Toronto — maybe improvements have been made? Building codes are continuously updated, etc . . .

My wife was international, the walls of the house were getting colder . . . I chose to keep the tickets. I recalled the last such concert as a pleasant diversion — how could this one fail to deliver similar uplift? We're talking Steven Wilson, after all.

Monday's weather was very different. Constant pelting rain melted the snow and raised an omnipresent fog. I white-knuckled it into the city. Fortune favoured me with a parking spot, but as I maneuvered in I realized the muffler-free beater I'd thought was following me for the past two blocks was actually my own car.

Matters of concern for tomorrow — on to the venue.

P___, I doubt so much as a coat of paint has been applied in the past 20 years. 

Some 1000 of us were packed in like sardines, crammed cheek to jowl on the predictably sticky floor. There was a time when five-foot-ten was the average height for the North American male. In this day of suspect nutrition, that era has been superseded — the young fellas ahead of me were all above six feet. Every time I maneuvered to get a better view, I looked behind to see I'd gained vantage at the expense of someone's shorter girlfriend. After three songs, I retreated to the back of the venue.

The sound was shit. The digital backdrop Wilson and band were interacting with trumpeted from disparate corners of the venue. This probably sounded passable to the basketball guards flanking the soundboard. But even on the floor there was a high-end clarity to the digital stuff that did not interact well with the band mix — which, in the presence of too many bodies, was reduced to a substandard muffled-concert thump.

I tried the balcony. No better.

I fumed. Meanwhile the young woman next to me was bopping happily to the beat. The sound was just as bad for her as for me, her view worse. What the hell was wrong with her?

Right question, wrong subject.

I returned to ground floor, politely interrupted the merch-gal's internet chat-session and purchased a shirt. Then I exited, started my newly-noisy vehicle and white-knuckled it back through the elements to house and hearth.

While driving home I mused over all the venues in the city of my birth that offered aesthetic and acoustic values vastly superior to this dump and its like. These prairie venues, and others like them elsewhere, that offer ease of access to local talent and their eager audiences constitute just one more reason why the bulk of this country's cultural content is being produced in the hinterlands.

Here at the Centre of the Universe all we've got is Drake.
"And I am all about the acoustics!"
Yesterday I realized my experience of the venue — amplified, obviously, by circumstantial emotional baggage — was slowly poisoning my opinion of the performer I'd come to see as well. 

This had to stop.

The Blu-ray of Steven Wilson Home Invasion In Concert At The Royal Albert Hall arrived here a week before he was slated to appear at the Phoenix — I hadn't watched it for fear it would taint my experience of the Toronto performance.

Now the weather had changed again — a gentle snow was falling. I did have a drive ahead of me, but it was to the roadhouse in the neighbouring village, to pick up my daughter after her kitchen shift. I had the house to myself. I had time.

I tore off the cellophane and slipped Wilson into the player.


Really, the only thing that needs to be said is my respect for Wilson and his craft isn't just restored, it's been elevated. The sound and the spectacle are superlative, of course. More than that, however, I could detect no signs of it having been doctored. Cats like Wilson and his crew (“I want to be the worst musician in my own band. I want these guys to do things I could never do”) clearly operate at the high end of the spectrum of musical ability. Even so, most concert videos these days sound perfect — this one keeps the occasional pinched voice, unexpected improvisation, etc. It sounds real, in other words — real good.

Nuffadat. Toronto venue-owners and their easily-satisfied patrons can rest serene — I am back in retirement.

Let us meet soon, and discuss other, better matters.


P.S.: I changed my shirt!
Hey, did you somehow enjoy my koncert kvetching? I've got more of 'em: here, here, here and here (plus some others, prob'ly).

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