Thursday, September 14, 2006

Best Band Ever

I grew up listening to the Beatles, Billy Joel, Carol King, Jimmy Buffett and other singer/songwriter types. The emphasis was always on craftsmanship and skill, melody begat harmony which gave a warm comfy cozy feast for the ears. The abrasive guitars and mistake-filled jangle of metal acts of the time, Led Zepplin, AC/DC, etc. were lost on me. I didn't like the noise that pounded my head, clearly these were inferior musicians.

In hindsight, that last statement is probably not true. But what is true is my love for the melody and rhythm that only pop music can deliver endures. Thankfully there is a band today which speaks to the very best stuff of the aforementioned singer/songwriters, and yet still has a rocking edge that recalls groups like the Who, Rush and other "harder" acts. This band is my absolute favorite of all time, five Canadians guys who share my musical sensibilities and my askew sense of humor. Barenaked Ladies.

Their commercial career has been fairly successful, with top ten singles and albums, including a number one song "One Week" that was played endlessly in the summer of 1999. They were big in Canada for years before finally making it here in the US with that song and the accompanying album.

And yet, in the bigger picture, they are a band that has a tremendous core group of fans (ala' Grateful Dead or Dave Matthew's Band) that guarantees financial viability for them over the years, even when their music has faded from the radio airwaves. Their fans buy the albums, and they love the shows. Boy do they love the shows.

Barenaked Ladies live are something to behold. The show is a shared experience a fair cut above most rock acts. They improvise complete songs, they dance in synch, and the set list is never the same. I took my wife to see them, and she a moderate fan, just couldn't believe the energy level and connection with the audience that was sustained for over two hours.

I suppose my own connection with them is so fervent because we share the same age and backgrounds. The boys have mostly known each other since high school, meeting each other at "band camp" as teenagers. My friends and I always talked about getting a band together, but the pesky detail of us not being musicians always stood in the way of that. Barenaked Ladies are the band we would have been if any of us could play a note.

BNL's (Barenaked Ladies) classically trained backgrounds come to the fore both in concert and on the records. Their bass player Jim Creegan uses a mammoth upright bass that he's been lugging around since grade school. The bass plays fat and deep and is a signature of the groups sound. The drummer Tyler Stuart played in a marching band. The groups leaders Steve Page and Ed Robertson are the Lennon/McCartney of the bunch - and I make that comparison in all seriousness, though I am a perversely devoted fan. Kevin Hearn, the keyboard player, is perhaps the most technically talented of them all, he is a relatively latecomer to the group, though he has known them since they started.

As musician's, they would probably never say so, but they are about as skilled as popular artists get. Don Was, a world class producer who has worked with some of the biggest names around, oversaw the making of the multi-platinum record "Maroon" and said BNL was the most technically accomplished band he had ever worked with.

As for the fans, they are devoted, but they can be classified into two groups.
"Gordon's" and "One Weeker's."

Gordon, being their first album, was a monster hit in Canada that was the country's biggest seller for years.

One Week, was the aforementioned number one song in the US.

Basically "Gordon" fans are the people who knew the band from college when they were playing banjos and acoustic. The "One Week" people are the youngsters who discovered BNL on the radio and dig the rockin' sounds of the newer stuff. Most fans, like me, fall somewhere between these two groups, and enjoy both.

I love BNL's earlier records for the humor, earnestness and exuberance. They were often mistakenly categorized as a "joke" band, such as Weird Al Yankovich, because the first record has some pretty funny shtick. The truth was that "Gordon" has darker layers as well. A running joke now with the band is that with each new album, there's always critics who say "This is a more mature sound for the group...", when in fact they've been "mature" since the beginning.

I can't get enough of the recent records, including the one that just came out, for the rock and roll and the assuredness of professionals at the top of their game. These guys know exactly what they're doing and deliver knockout blow after knockout blow with their unmatched song-writing and fierce musical chops.

I'd say if you've never heard BNL before, start with their Greatest Hits CD. It has the perfect mixture of all the sounds of their career.

(Some would say get "Gordon" but to me that only gives half the picture of what BNL is about, especially these days.)

Then check in here next week for my excessively long review (glowing of course) of their brand new album that came out two days ago - "Barenaked Ladies Are Me". A 29 song opus that really defines BNL as perfectionists and prodigious recording artists.

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