A couple of weeks ago I got to experience a little piece of Canadian music history. But man, it was one of the weirdest musical experiences of my life.
My family and I attended the Sonic Boom Music Festival in Edmonton the last weekend of August. To say that some of us were going just to see the reunion of legendary bizarro rockers The Smalls probably isn’t entirely true, but it is definitely almost entirely true.
The Albertan jazz-metal-punk rockers were definitely the odd group out at Sonic Boom, a festival put on by the “modern rock” station of the same name. The big draws of the weekend were young, terrible rock bands like Cage The Elephant (whose warmed-over Rolling Stones pastiches and ripped-off Mick Jagger stage moves were frequently cringe-inducing) and Foster The People (whose ode to shooting children somehow became a massive hit single), while the bulk of the other “major” acts that have been around long enough to be at or near double-digit album numbers (Jack White, Descendents, Death Cab For Cutie, Stars, Tegan & Sara, New Pornographers, Rise Against).
Playing the odd men out, as they did the entire time they were an active band, were Alberta’s own The Smalls (sorry fam, I don’t acknowledge stylistic capitalization choices; suck it, E.E. Cummings). Always a group that went their own way, they were shockingly popular in the mid- and late-90s, especially in western Canada. That’s why I know about them, I guess.
See, my sister Brandi was my musical beacon when I was a little baby in the 90s. Just as I was actually starting to listen to music — any music — she was getting into bands like Green Day, The Lemonheads, and SNFU well before anyone else in our town. I can remember being fascinated by the sounds coming from her room, which she never seemed to leave. Still, I managed to find time to record Green Day’s immortal pre-fame LP Kerplunk onto a cassette when she wasn’t around (sorry pal!) so I could listen to it while playing basketball with friends and video games in our basement. To this day, songs like “Christie Road” and “One For The Razorbacks” still conjure up images of that Zelda game that was on Super Nintendo or Stephen King’s collected Richard Bachman novels, both of which I devoured one summer with that album on repeat.
But I never got into The Smalls. Not like she did, anyway; even a teenage Brandi never missed a show when they came through whatever town we were living in. She had all the records, as she always would, right up through their fourth and final release in 1999. She knew them by name and had probably been spit on and elbowed and kneed in more mosh pits at their shows than I’ve ever been in. I just wasn’t there yet. I didn’t understand their bizarre, arty amalgam of jazz, punk, metal, country, and lord knows what else.
Except for one song. I think I probably heard it on a tape of Brandi’s in the car, possibly when she was giving me a ride somewhere or something? Who could say. But “Filling A Warehouse” was always a favourite of mine, even when I didn’t know what it was called or who did it. It was punk enough that it appealed to my nascent tastes, but the hushed and subtly menacing vocal produced a much more visceral reaction than did even the early Marilyn Manson record she also listened to around that time. I had no worldly idea what the lyrics were supposed to be about (still don’t) but it thrilled me every time I heard it.
So the idea of seeing it performed live some 13 years after The Smalls played their last show was at least a curious notion, if not a pretty exciting one. Granted, in the interim years I’ve gotten to know their catalogue a whole lot better, so I was looking forward to more than just the one song. But of course, I wasnowhere near as excited as Brandi, as you can see from her thoughts below.
What was it like to see the smalls play at Sonic Boom, 13 years after I thought I’d said goodbye, forever?
It’s difficult to compare the recent Edmonton set with any smalls show in my memory. I saw them at venues like the Exchange, where you had to watch out for teleposts as well as crowdsurfers; the Times, where the ceiling was so low, the sweat from the crowd literally condensed and dripped back down in the funkiest of rains; and Amigos, where you were as likely to get a table corner in the kidney as you were an elbow to the ribs.
Sonic Boom was another beast entirely – think Marty McFly’s first glimpse at life in the future: the technology is bizarre and pervasive (selfies-on-a-stick?!) the clothes are totally fucked up, there arefamiliar elements – but it’s all distorted by the hot glare of the 5:00 sun bouncing back off the hovercars, or in this case, the asphalt.
Until I heard the first few chords, and the last decade – along with everything else – ceased to matter.
Because none of it ever mattered.
At least, not to me. Even back in the day, I’d never have recognized these guys if I saw them on the street (sorry, guys! Did I mention I love you? Because I do). It was never about being entertained, getting drunk or finding someone to hook up with.
Because it was always about the music.
That fast, heavy, complicated, aggressive but oddly balanced chimera of a sound that has never been pigeon-holed, or duplicated (in my biased-as-fuck opinion). And when you’re at the foot of the stage, with your face mashed up against some random dude’s sweaty shoulder-blade, it is the ONLY thing that matters.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t exactly the same. In the old days, I’d have had to fight my way out of the pit every 4th song or so to take a breather, because it was balls-to-the-wall CRAZY from start to finish. This time around, it was relatively easy to just take a step or two back and find a space to rest on the fringe. That, and the palpable sense of pure, maniacal joy coming off the crowd in waves, accompanied by enormous grins and even a few tears, made it different than any other smalls show I’ve ever been to. And I am something of an expert on the subject.
I can certainly see how there may have been a disconnect for people like Pat, who didn’t get the full experience the first time these talented fellows were making their rounds, and maybe found the venue and other assorted weirdness a little too jarring. It was unsettling for me, too – until it wasn’t.
I am, as we used to say, super stoked for the show at the Owl next month. And I hope, with all of my aging skate-punk heart, that any of you who missed out on the smalls the first time around take this opportunity to jump into the Delorian and join us back in the ‘90s – where rock shows happen at night, in dingy clubs, and there’s not a hovercar or selfie-on-a-stick to be seen.
Because it WILL get weird. In the best possible way.
And she’s right. The ephemera shouldn’t have mattered at all, because the band played flawlessly, which was a remarkable surprise. Considering the complexity of some of their songs and the length of time they’ve been away from them, I was thoroughly impressed that they carried off every note perfectly. Corb Lund (who I didn’t even realize played bass, for god’s sake) kept the low-end locked down and provided his trademark vocals in a back-up context (sounding a little twangier than he did on the records, I think), Drummer Terry Johnson was a stalwart presence, and Dug Bevans’ guitar was perfect, the speed and dexterity of his playing never falling a step behind. They sounded amazing, and no foolin’. Hearing them tear through tracks like “Pity The Man With The Fast Right Hand” and the spaghetti-Western stomp of perennial favourite “My Saddle Horse Has Died” was sheer ecstasy.
But the gig may have left some feeling it wasn’t quite enough. Thanks to my wizened old-person brain, I wear earplugs at shows. So I got to hear a bro in his late-20s or early-30s trying to pick up some teenage girls by complaining about how boring the band was. A teenage fellow came to The Smalls’ defence, triggering a 5+ minute heated conversation about how the older fellow should respect a legendary local band and keep his mouth shut if he wasn’t enjoying it.
He was kind of right though. They mostly just stood there and played, locomotion sacrificed for intense focus on their instruments. Of course, at the time they took stage I don’t know if anyone realized that singer Mike Caldwell had recently broken his collarbone; I surely didn’t. As you can imagine, it put a damper on the show, although I wonder how much, since while I never saw them live when I was younger I have read that Caldwell used to essentially ignore the audience and refused to interact with the crowd. He certainly didn’t follow the lead of some of his young contemporaries at the festival by wading into the maddening crowd at the front of the barricade, but he did make some very gracious comments over the course of the hour-long set.
Still, I felt a bit unsettled when it was all over. The Smalls aren’t a band that ever fit that context in my head; I had a vague understanding of them as small club rats of yore, a road-weary band of musical mutts who played to hundreds, not 15,000 people (note: there was nowhere near that many people actually watching the band, that was the peak attendance during Jack White’s closing set on Sunday). They have earned a place of reverence in the CanCon history books, but it was a stage too big and too auspicious for the picture in my head. I was thrilled to see that their club dates are in much more appropriate venues. As Brandi mentioned, we have tickets to the Lazy Owl next month. It should get weird. I can’t wait.
The Smalls are directing people to iTunes to purchase their four classic albums. However, they were selling CDs at Sonic Boom and hinting at vinyl releases on Twitter. So get to these shows and get some goddamn Smalls songs. The current dates are below, but keep in mind that multiple shows have been added in numerous cities as dates sell out, so they’re probably going to keep booking gigs as long as tickets keep selling. Which is neat.
Oct. 18 – Toronto – The Horseshoe
Oct. 21 – Saskatoon – Louis’ Pub
Oct. 22 – Regina – The Lazy Owl
Oct. 23 – Winnipeg – West End Cultural Centre
Oct. 24 – Regina – University of Regina
Oct. 25 – Saskatoon – Louis’ Pub
Oct. 31 – Calgary – Flames Central
Nov. 4 – Nelson – The Hume Hotel
Nov. 5 – Kelowna – Flashbacks
Nov. 6 – Kamloops – Cactus Jack’s Saloon
Nov. 7 – Vancouver – Commodore Ballroom
Nov. 8 – Victoria – Sugar Nightclub
Nov. 9 – Vancouver – Commodore Ballroom
Nov. 14 – Edmonton – Starlite Room
Nov. 15 – Edmonton – Starlite Room
Nov. 16 – Edmonton – Starlite Room