Monday, July 16th, 2012
Having An Average Weekend
Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, catl., and Daniel Romano at Lee’s Palace in Toronto
Frank YangSaturday night was pretty flush with options for Toronto music fans – Edgefest for the kids up at Downsview, the Sarah Harmer-led free War Of 1812 celebrations at Fort York for the CBC Radio 3 crowd – but for those of a certain generation, there was nowhere else to be but Lee’s Palace. Because for one night only, Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet were back.
Thanks to being the house band for the Kids In The Hall comedy troupe in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Shadowy Men were arguably the most widely-heard independent Toronto band of that era; remember, this was a time when being an independent Canadian artist didn’t have the same cachet that it does today – it basically meant that you toiled away in obscurity or something close to it. The sort of reach that their distinctive surf-a-billy instrumentals got was rare and impressive, and their accomplishments over the course of three albums and many singles frequently overlooked (though a small panel I was on tried to mitigate that somewhat by electing them to the Zunior Independent Music Hall Of Fame in 2010).
The trio disbanded to pursue other projects in 1996 and when bassist Reid Diamond passed away in 2001, it looked as though that would be it for the Shadowy Men legacy; thankfully it wasn’t. Whether the start of a reissue series for their shamefully out of print catalog precipitated the decision to play some live shows with Dallas Good of The Sadies standing in for Diamond or vice-versa, what matters is that Shadowy Men were again an active concern in 2012, first with a show at Calgary’s Sled Island festival in late June and then this sold-out and sweaty hometown show on Saturday.
The last time I’d seen Daniel Romano was right here at Lee’s Palace, but that was five years ago and he was fronting Welland rock act Attack In Black and opening up for Built To Spill. I knew that he’d gone solo in a different direction since then, but it was still something to see him take the stage in full cowboy regalia – okay, no spurs or chaps – with the songs to match. Johnny Cash and Gram Parsons were obvious reference points and while formidable ones, Romano’s slow, hurting songs didn’t pale for the comparison. He wasn’t quite able to win the full attention of the audience at first, but as their performance went on, the floor steadily filled up and by the time a couple began slow dancing at the foot of the stage, their set could be marked in the ‘win’ column.
catl.’s Twitter bio doesn’t even need 140 characters to accurately describe them – “dirty. sweaty. fun.”. Though something of a Toronto fixture, I’d never actually gotten to see the trio live before and indeed their set was loud, dirty, sweaty, and fun. Their greasy blues-rock shuffles were a combination of John Lee Hooker and Tom Waits – thanks to the guitar and voice of Jamie Fleming – happy to grind along in their groove and then periodically detonating with gloriously grimy energy, often in the form of Sarah Kirkpatrick’s maraca shake (mostly not a metaphor). I generally don’t care for the blues or things directly derived from them, but this was more than alright; disinterest was not an option.
Though I counted myself a fan in their initial run – dubbed cassettes of all their albums and their songs were the perfect length for filling in the ends of sides on mix tapes – I never saw them live. I didn’t go to shows because, well, I was still underage and concert-going wasn’t part of my lifestyle – something I’ve spent the past 15 years making up for, I suppose. All of which is to say that it was pretty exciting to get a chance to see something that I’d never thought about having missed, and for it to be as great as I’d never imagined. Obviously Reid Diamond is irreplaceable, but if you had to get a stand-in, you couldn’t do much better than Dallas Good and equipping him with the man’s original Gibson Thunderbird bass – the perfect instrumental counterpoint to guitarist Brian Connelly’s Gretsch White Falcon if ever there was one.
I’m not even going to try and cite many specific songs performed over the course of their 90-minute, two-encore set, which they dove right into without much fanfare – no dimming of lights or chilling of ham. One of the perks of being an instrumental band is you get to come up with ridiculous names for your compositions – which Shadowy Men surely did – so being able to identify 1- to 2-minute songs after having not even heard any of their albums in many years was nigh on impossible. That said, I was surprised how many of their tunes were so immediately familiar – “You Spin Me Round”, “Theme From TV”, “Run Chicken Run”, “Shadowy Countdown”; in trying to describe their sound, any of surf, spaghetti western, spy themes, mariachi, and rockabilly would be appropriate but one musn’t forget pop – as complex as their stylistic melting pot got, memorable and immediate melodies were almost always the first ingredient, which is a large part of why they remain so beloved so many years on.
Though this should have been a record release show for the repressing of their first album Savvy Show Stoppers, drummer Don Pyle apologized for the lack of merch saying that the records were held up at the border… of Saskatchewan. Nonetheless, they’ll make it out eventually and when they do, hopefully a new generation of fans will be able to bask in the greatness that was Shadowy Men. Me, I’m just happy that I finally got to see Brian Connelly play, “Having An Average Weekend”, and be able to confirm after 20 years of wondering that I was indeed playing it right when my high school band covered it in high school – I just sucked at it.
BlogTO has an interview with Don Pyle about the makings of the Shadowy Men reunion and one fan in attendance managed to record their entire set on video in quite good quality and post it to YouTube, so if you weren’t there on Saturday and wished you were, make with the watching. And if you’re up for a road trip, they’ve announced another show on September 14 in Waterloo at the Starlight.
Photos: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet, catl., Daniel Romano @ Lee’s Palace – July 14, 2012
MP3: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “13”
Video: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “They Don’t Call Them Chihuahuas Anymore”
Video: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “Rover And Rusty”
Video: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “Memories Of Gay Paree”
Video: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “Musical Interlude”
Video: Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet – “Shadowy Countdown”
Video: catl. – “Gold Tooth Shine”
Video: catl. – “A Sun’s Grave”
Video: Daniel Romano – “Time Forgot (To Change My Heart)”
Toronto vibraphone ensemble The Hylozoists come out of hiding next week to play The Piston on July 18th.
I probably shouldn’t need a British newspaper to tip me off to new bands in my own backyard, but The Guardian deserves credit for alerting me to the existence of Diana, a new electro-pop band from the brain of Joseph Shabason – aka Destroyer’s go-to saxophonist – that features Carmen Elle of Army Girls on vocals. Seriously, is there any musician in Toronto without an electro-pop side-project/persona?