Monday, 24 September 2018

HUMAN WRECKAGE

A Night on the Town

Last Friday night was a much-anticipated night out. The event was a double bill featuring Mack MacKenzie from Montreal’s Three O’Clock Train and Mike McDonald from Edmonton’s Jr. Gone Wild. Their respective bands have shared a stage before, as recently as this year for shows in Montreal and Ottawa. Ann and I were keen to shake our cabin fever in the wake of a week’s worth of late September summer snow.

Both acts are hangovers from a rawer time, when “jam” was not a synonym for a three-minute Auto-Tuned stream with beats programmed by eight writers, when a “deep cut” was a wound and not a track off an album’s second side. Three O’Clock Train and Jr. Gone Wild were never corporate mainstream. Eerily concurrent though separated by the geography of a big, empty country, they thrived on university pub audiences and that sweaty, young vibe. Back then their amplified noises were dubbed cowpunk and today an amateur expert might allow alt-country or roots designations. The main songwriter in each band was word-struck, articulate with imagery and rhyme, a voice of substance backed by volume and distortion, wow and flutter.

The venue was a neighbourhood local, the Hilltop Pub. It’s tucked away in one of those grey and forlorn commercial plazas that dot the provincial capital. Given the size of the room and the modest $15 cover, I had assumed the MacKenzie and McDonald show would be a hot ticket for a certain segment of Edmonton’s musical fraternity, ageing baby boomers like Ann and me who still insist on listening to music played through dedicated equipment instead of crappy little Chinese telephones - proper sound moves air - I was wrong: Ann and I arrived early to secure a good vantage point and table; we scored the best seats in the house.

Ann’s niece Sherry and her husband Steve joined us in our booth. Edmontonians, they’d dated to sounds of Jr. Gone Wild and had been impressed by the Three O’Clock Train vinyl we’d lent them recently.  They are the type of folk who ensure music festivals thrive: “Three days? Tarps? Portable toilets? Inclement weather and mud? Expensive bottled water and long lines for the beer tent? We’re all in and we’re bringing our kids.”

The Hilltop is by no means a first date destination, but Sherry and Steve could’ve picked a worse place than an anonymous local dive to celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. Beer signs not chandeliers. Our waitress was attentive and friendly. The four meals she served up from the Hilltop’s kitchen were standard pub fare though superior to the food indifferently flung at patrons of chain sports bars.

Once the live music started I swiveled and did a quick head count, I did not exhaust my fingers. In addition to our group of four, two guys were examining the pool table, three more guys loitered at the end of the bar and one annoyingly loud know-it-all sporting that already-tired look of fifties hair and glasses atop a Grizzly Adams beard regaled two bored girls about nothing within my hearing. Vacant tables and a miserable gate: a disheartening pairing to each musician, I suspect. The night played out as a private concert, fabulous for us but some things are best experienced immersed in a crowd. My sole quibble is that the M.M. and M.M. did not bash out a couple of songs together. My hunch is that both performers were relieved to make their escape. No encore at the Hilltop.

A potential home-wrecker lurked in the parking lot between sets. I was smoking, distracted by the pathetic sight of an underage girl scavenging for cigarette butts while a fellow about my age rambled on to me about turntables, peering intently over his granny glasses. Little did I know Ann was being chatted up by a genuine wizard. How could I, how can I ever compete with a wizard? His poorly cropped business card would be a perfect rectangle in a German silent movie:

Wizard
Tarot, Runes, Occult Advice
(No Love Spells, Curses or Other Dark Art

His seduction of Ann was brief. “I’ll read your Tarot in exchange for a beer.” It was my apparent good fortune that the wizard adhered to his own strict standards and did not cast a love spell on Ann. Sherry and Steve capped their special night by driving Ann and me home. I unlocked the front door and Ann exhibited no obvious reluctance to enter the Crooked 9 despite the sorry lack of love potions in the medicine chest and liquor cabinet. As of this writing we’re still together.   

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