"Terraforming Mars won't be easy..."
You know when you hear songs with opening lyrics like those, that you are not listening to a musician who follows a formula. And you know when you see Chad VanGaalen perform that you will experience a weird and wonderful blend of music and art and odd stories. But when you attend a Chad VanGaalen cd release party in the hometown you share, you are intimately drawn into the strange and quirky world that must exist inside this multi-faceted artist/musician's head.
Thursday's sold-out cd release party at the old Uptown Theatre was exactly that, an intimate evening of music and stories and an art amongst family and friends and fans. We were expecting a standing-only show, and were a little surprised to be ushered into the actual theatre itself. And did we ever score ourselves some sweet seats! Not quite central, but three rows back and in the first row of the elevated section, so we had lots of leg room and a place to drape our coats. (Hey these things are important in Calgary in the winter.)
The stage was festooned with 6 foot tall cutouts of an elephant, a husky, a couple of frogs (one huddled over a brain), and some kind of gopher or badger ("is that a marmot?" somebody called out later in the evening. "No, but I'm glad you're thinking in that direction," was the response, "I was afraid someone would think it was polar bear.") Turns out they were all created by the musician specifically for the concert, and if we are to believe him, he plans to turn them into a nativity scene along his fence. Unless he can quickly create about 40 more elephants, in which case he will attach those in a line along his fence to make an elephant parade.
We had no idea who was going to open and we tremendously pleased to find out that it was the Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir, a motley bearded and be-touqued quartet whom I had heard once before featured on CBC.. They played a mix of gospel-inspired blues and some of the noisiest, stomping, growling, howling Delta blues I have ever heard. They were glorious.
In a few weeks I will let you hear some of their music, but right now I can't even tell you why I can't share it with you at this time, that's how much mystery we still maintain in our relationship.
And then Chad took the stage, resplendent in a bright fucschia shirt draped on his lanky 6'7" frame. He folded himself into a chair, huddled himself over his guitar and started in on the first song, only to almost immediately interupt himself with a story about going to Devonian Gardens after supper and having the bass player spit at the security guard. And then that story was interupted when Chad remembered that he had 13 Big Mac certificates in his pocket (which he proceeded to fan out on his little beat box) which his girlfriend's brother had given him and which he was going to give away in a contest later. "But there's one condition, you have to buy them all at the same time. And that guy over there in the white shirt? He's got about 20 more, you can have those too".
It was like watching an over-grown 8-year-old boy who had way too many exciting things on his mind that he was dying to tell you about.
We heard about how the dog cutout was a representation of his dog: "well, not my dog, my girlfriend's and my dog, well no, she's not anybody's dog, she's just Lila".
We heard about a trip to an aquarium where he accidentally dropped his ring inside a sea anemone and had to fish it back out ("those things are about 50 times bigger on the inside than they are on the outside!"), which morphed into a fantastical tale about his finger being then fitted for a tuxedo and that finger visiting the lost-and-found booth inside the anemone. You can almost picture how his strange art, which is featured on all his videos, comes to life.
After a solo set, featuring some of his homemade instruments, some beats that he recorded "down in my basment - that's how pathetic my life is", and a lovely guitar piece played over a recording of a couple of 12-year-old girls viciously dissing their friend Natalie, his band joined him onstage and rocked the rest of the night away.
At that point, Chad remembered that he had some of his art videos on a loop that he had meant to project at the back of the stage. However the bass player became so totally immersed in these fantastical drawings that he faced the back of the stage the whole time, which of course reminded me of Allison's comment about the spaced out look that bass players always seem to sport. He was a perfect example and it made me giggle to think of what Allison would have to say if she was there. Of couse we all giggled when the tooth guy started humping the toothbrush, causing Chad to groan "I knew this was going to happen, I would be playing some really introspective piece and the tooth man would start having sex with the toothbrush".
But despite the multimedia aspect of the evening, the music of course was what really shone. We heard old stuff, stuff from the new cd, brand new stuff, even a Sonic Youth cover ("but I've forgotten how to do the Kim Gordon part").
Chad VanGaalen's unusual and tender voice, at times reminiscent of Neil Young, his beautiful and often disturbing songs, his unwavering determination to play his unique music in his own unique style, make him a treasure that I am proud to call a local gem.
Here are a few samples: