Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds, Toronto May 3rd

At the time we launched this magazine with gusto in January, we also went on a ticket buying spree. Small and indie publications operate in a unique, creative space that is entirely wild and random, and more fun than the world of the majors with the spoils of constant freebies (which permit one to become jaded, and also contains the burden of having to see many undesirable bands as part of the exchange, and worse, to write about them and shoot them as if they were worthy of press). We often buy tickets for those bands we want to see and can’t bear to miss, and with luck may also later get media access to shoot the show. With the run of big announcements this year, as well as spring / summer music events such as Canadian Music Week and NXNE  (and with summer festivals approaching) it’s a labour of love and a big commitment that forms most of our experience and our content. We’ve had a lot to look forward to with The Jesus and Mary Chain and Manic Street Preachers this week alone (two stunning shows which we expect will be unsurpassed no matter what else comes our way) and still to come, the much-hyped Ride reunion tour and some festival highpoints. We’ve also had a great experience seeing, meeting, shooting and writing about current-wave Alternative greats Nothing in the middle of this great 80’s and 90’s tour resurgence; all these shows raise the bar and makes us remember what great really is, and was. And could still be. Something is alive again in music and in our city. We meet new friends who become old friends in a few instants as we speak late into the pub hours in shorthand about Suede, The Mondays, and even Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. We want these nights to never end.

Sandwiched in among all this majesty, garnering little buzz or hype, and strangely symbolized by just one press picture like an Andy Warhol silkscreen that reduces a luminescent icon to flat black and any old over saturated colour (1), comes Noel Gallagher and his wotsits (2). Toronto’s Sony Centre (formerly The Hummingbird Centre and even more formerly, The O’Keefe Centre) is a prestigous, expensively tricked-out and plush venue that was designed and built for highbrow music and dance. Wikipedia even calls it Canada’s largest “soft-seat” theatre. I didn’t know that was a thing, but it’s an apt description. It’s a place I always want to dress a little up for, it demands it, (as do my conservative roots).  Security are gentle if not downright nurturing. What the plush seated venue isn’t, though, is one that enables any form of Rocking Out. One can’t blame Noel Gallagher for booking into a spot like this for two nights among the many varieties we have in Toronto at various sizes. He’s been here a few times in the past with Oasis, the last of which (2008) ending up in an unforgivable arsehole act of some fan storming the stage and connecting with Noel, causing injury. Liam was spared. Gallagher, a consummate pro, did not end the show but continued through a few more songs, though Oasis ended the show earlier than planned and no doubt left with a bit of a sour taste in about Toronto and our civic behaviour.

So what’s left of one of the world’s biggest stadium rocking bands is now onstage in air conditioned, perfectly lit comfort, and our last row of orchestra seats are wonderfully uncrowded, but far enough back that we default to the screen view half the time. All that one may do in the spot allotted is to sway. In a moment of pique, just to keep things interesting, I make an unannouced break for the aisle and go down to about 10th row just to grab a few quick pictures. I also begin  my usual, annoying and oft-repeated tales about the glorious, brief days of being 15 and jumping over chairs (loose, folding chairs, even) from section to floor seats at the CNE Grandstand (for The Cure) climbing over people with the superhero aura of pure nerve, a smile, some retro-Canadian politeness, and the fact that 15 year old girls can get away with a lot. I sigh, and look down to make sure my toe is not over the respectable line between seat and aisle. Woe be the plush dwellers.

Gallagher’s legacy and our relationship to this music also occupies a strange place, like the venue and the season we’re in. The early and mid 90’s was an embarrassment of musical riches which-I hate to sound 40 but- the likes of which we may never see again. For us, Oasis was sort of the run-off of the beautiful Baggy, Madchester, Brit Rock and “Brit Pop” scenes that we held as the natural successor to the 80’s Manchester scene. We know our Manchester, and strangely enough, we know it well from this place across the ocean. We can admit now that we’ve always liked our British musical heroes best when they do not crack the top 10 in the U.S. just because the vast majority of the best and most authentic bands never do. In hindsight, Oasis might have bent the definition of commercial success and mainstream for a while, but they are mixed like a bad ice cream flavour in the memory: coming along as they did at a strange time in U.S. and Canadian music scenes -a confused mix of leftover Grunge in the form of Alanis Morissette; pop music such as Ace of Base, and one hit wonder Coolio. They also carried a bit of the Nirvana fan problem (and still do) they attract what we now call “the Bro crowd”. The kind that will chuck bottles and step on girls feet and push in front of short people, and can even make the news with violence. People who don’t understand or like music, like Oasis. Liking and knowing Oasis doesn’t count for anything or say anything about you in these parts. It’s not the bands, it’s the fans we hate (3).

Over the years, Noel Gallagher has distinguished himself as a media figure, a rabble rouser, a fearless grump and someone who had no F’s to give long before we had the words to call it that. We openly call him our favourite comedian of late. It could well be that the reason we bought two expensive tickets to an undesirable plush seated venue was to hear Noel’s stage banter, and we get our money’s worth on this front alone. To a kid in the front row, Noel asks if he’s alone or has his parents with him. He eventually establishes an older man is with him. He then berates the man to get the kid a t-shirt, as “the experience is not complete without the T-shirt”, using his signature salty language to both child and man, but not before going off-side by asking “it’s not sexual, is it?”. We are now, at last, where we’ve wanted to be for awhile: as close as we’ll ever get to one of the strangest and funniest brains out of Britain, holding forth with the same ease on stage as he might at the pub.

So what of the music? The music is great. The performance, both vocally and musically, is solid. Noel sings well. The new material is every ounce as good as Oasis, and brought down to earth, nicely grounded in a way that Oasis rarely was. The music is energetic and very enjoyable outside of the flat, overproduced version we are used to from CD’s and digital formats. His High Flying Birds seem to be what we expected: paid employees who will never act out like that terrible “Our Kid” Liam, good boys. Some of them get introduced eventually, while others are victims of the comedy “and on the keyboard…the keyboard player!” It’s the Noel show, firmly and completely. We can’t help but wonder what pleasure exists in this setting for Gallagher, having played to the biggest crowds in the biggest and best festivals of the world, to now have 3000 people sing back to him when once it was 20 or 40 times that number. Is it still a thrill? Is it better now, in some sense, without the family drama and the wildness of the younger man’s rock and roll lifestyle? Or is it a ghostly experience? A copy of something greater? (4)

Judging by T-shirts and Bro-ness (5) in the nearby pub beforehand (and after), 90% of the people seem to be here for Oasis songs. The 20 song set contains 5 Oasis songs, but only 2 of the big ones “Champagne Supernova” and show closer “Don’t Look Back in Anger”. There is a bit of a Spinal Tap moment when audience members shout out requests that are inaudible from our perfectly sealed spot at the back, but that Gallagher responds to with “the chance of me playing that one is zero percent” and “I can play that one, that’s one I wrote”. Fortunately, we do not descend into Jazz Odyssey, as Noel has written just about everything, but rather seems to refuse to sing the most Liam-identified songs, in a modern twist on Tap. There are also requests shouted out for “Freelove” (from The BBC Office, sung by Ricky Gervais as David Brent, a pal of Gallagher’s) the song that’s become a camp classic being sung by various bands live and occasionally by Gallagher and/ or Gervais. Hearing this makes us pine for just this kind of (faux) spontaneous and fun moment for the rest of the show, to the point that it actually interferes with our enjoyment (6). You see, in the plush, perfectly managed darkness, without mobility and the realness of the standing crowd we prefer, and in a place that sees fit to shutter alcohol sales at 10:00 pm! (A SIN), one begins to feel like a petulant, spoiled child. One begins to feel a bit like the missing Gallagher brother, who once had a tantrum on stage while being filmed, and sat down with a can, refusing to sing, while Noel saved the day by taking over vocals, revealing he always could have done it himself (7).

By Step On Magazine Editors

(1) Even the T-Shirts!

(2) I’m convinced Gallagher named the band “High Flying Birds” just to irritate his brother and former bandmate. It just sounds like something that would piss him off. I also suspect it’s an important local reference/”burn”, having learned from another strange Mancunian mind, Karl Pilkington, that his own teachers used to tell him he “was never going to be a high flyer”.

(3) I don’t even like the band who said this (Sloan) but I do love that line and find it apt, so often.

(4) Recent interviews indicate that Gallagher prefers the drama-free present with his new band and the ability to interact closely with front-row fans that was missing in the past with Oasis.

(5) Noel even berates several fans for wearing flip-flops. He’s right! It was a night when Canadians LOSE THEIR MINDS as the weather finally turned balmy (as it’s often only for a day at a time).

(6) Worst of all, a scan of twitter shows that Gervais is currently in Toronto and mentions he wish he could have seen the show. WE COULD HAVE HAD OUR OWN FREELOVE FREEWAY!!!

(7) It’s probably blasphemy to some, but to us, Noel has always been the better singer. We discovered his talents with the surprise threat he brought to the great Chemical Brothers tracks “Setting Sun” and Let Forever Be” which got much more rotation from us than Oasis ever did. Nothing overplayed on radio ever needed to be played at parties or after parties. But Chemical Brothers=ALWAYS.

(The brief video clip of Don’t Look Back in Anger is ours, from the show. It shows that in spite of it all, everyone did resist the plush seats and stood, and it was a great performance. A nice ending.)