Saturday January 30th
The Danforth Music Hall, Toronto
It sounds like bullshit but you ever notice
This whole town of ice and snow
Gets you running, yeah, to chasing something
What it is I’ll never know, just hope one day that it shows
Any day now it will come (“Any Day Now”)
Canada is a difficult, rugged, and vast place. Always has been, and always will be. See Leo DiCaprio with icicles in his beard in The Revenant. That’s us. Easy to forget this for those who’ve never traversed even part of it, whose only experience with it is to see our major cities masquerading as New York or Chicago in countless films. It’s even easy to forget for those of us in it, difficult really, to see past our own regional concerns or provincial borders. The cosmic difficulty of knowing and seeing this country is probably best understood by our musicians who spend years of their lives in bars and concert halls, from University towns to steel towns, and across impossibly long stretches of road that separate us. They’ve actually criss-crossed it over years and seen rocks give way to plains, to concrete, to small towns charmingly frozen in 1960, to the sea that arrives gently in the east, always too suddenly and without fanfare.
Geographically, the United Kingdom could fit comfortably inside Manitoba with room left over. Yet much of our musical vocabulary comes from England or the U.S. For awhile, it was different. In the 80’s and 90’s, Canada enjoyed a too-brief renaissance of our own, due to our original, well-supported and diverse music industry and local scenes that enabled many great bands to thrive and grow. Our heads were turned, for a while, from the envy/bemusement/annoyance of the noise coming, always coming, from the U.S. and the British Imports we treasured and rated above all other music we heard.
Aided by MuchMusic, thriving college radio stations, and a then-solid presence of rock/Alternative radio (in Toronto, CFNY 102.1), not to mention a rock club and pub scene that was strong more or less from coast to coast- 5000 kilometres across country- rock music and we kids came of age amid a rich musical heritage that matured from cover band rock and east coast fiddle music to incorporate all those foreign influences we’d always absorbed from the air and to form something new. In other words, Canada itself and Canadian alternative/rock music at last became cool while becoming dominant to an unprecedented degree. This wasn’t the tradition of one band breaking through to the U.S. and becoming claimed by them. It was a sea change that was too big and too strong to be poached or lured away, and it was ours. Books will be written about it.
The Watchmen were formed in 1988 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Gigging and radio station on-air visits led to their by now quite accomplished body of work with debut 1993 album McLaren Furnace Room, which was named for their early rehearsal space, the furnace room of The McLaren Hotel in Winnipeg. This title is funny, humble and full of heart=Canadian. Gaining prominence alongside other strong Canadian bands such as Blue Rodeo, Grapes of Wrath, The Tragically Hip, The Lowest of the Low and The Pursuit of Happiness, The Watchmen took their name from the highly original, literature redefining 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The band shared with their contemporaries a well-read intellect but an approachable attitude mixed with an outsider type of wry humour, an arched brow but always good humour.
In just five years, The Watchmen released an impressive four rock solid records: McLaren Furnace Room (1993) In The Trees (1994) Brand New Day (1996) and Silent Radar (1998) these were followed up with the compilation Slomotion in 2001. It’s no wonder we took them a little for granted, like so many good things of the 90’s, as The Watchmen became part of the fabric of our lives; believing we could always see them on the road; that our record stores would be our generation’s news stand forever; Edgefest would continue summer in and summer out; Eden Music Fest was just the first of many huge festivals to come and our College radio stations would continue to thrive and deny the encroachment of manufactured pop music that had retreated for awhile. We were there, we had the T-Shirt. The 90’s momentum, its genuine optimism and hope about the music industry and all the industries and culture itself that it fed, felt permanent and infallible for awhile. Fortunately though, we read our Watchmen back in 1988 too. We all braced for dark, even nihilistic times ahead, and as 70’s kids, were also well-fed on nostalgia. The great Alternative music era of the 90’s was about to be usurped by boy bands and Britney. The Watchmen would secure a strong legacy for their fans, but in this difficult, rugged and vast country, were and are yet underrated in the musical landscape.
At The Danforth Music Hall, the largest Toronto stage we’ve ever seen them on, the college girls of the 90’s still sing all the words, louder than the PA, for “All Uncovered”. The whole crowd treats themselves to singalongs. Singer Daniel Greaves shares this spotlight with the crowd, generously, saying “you got this.” We get more than 20 songs, a bit of bongos, a bit of a cappela (Billy Bragg’s Richard!) The crowd at the Music Hall is shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, polite, exuberantly happy.
What you need to know about The Watchmen in 2016 is they are still remarkable. They sound and look as strong and vital as if they stepped out of 1998. But as a band of that special, bygone time, they bring something back to this great stage that is increasingly hard to come by. The talent that grows through the authentic hustle. The working musician’s seamless, stoic energy and power. The sound that is brewed out of countless miles, years of guys-who are friends-in bunks trying to sleep in fits and starts, smokes shared outside hammered-in back doors of beloved and now endangered institutions like The Horseshoe with fans, and creating original, essential entries into the canon of rock music. It’s a sound that once was standard but can only be made by the noble few who’ve managed to travel this country and unite people far and wide for music and for love – all the intangible stuff of life that spreads so much further than money.
My life is a stereo
Kind of cheaply made though
How bad does it show
What ever did become of all my friends
What ever happened to the likes of all of them
My life is a stereo
Turn me on and let’s go
Turn me up louder
I’ll scream as loud and clear as I can scream
If you like what you’re hearing please hang on to me (“Stereo”)
Essential tracks: Silent Radar, Run & Hide, Stereo, All Uncovered, Crazy Days, Any Day Now.
The Watchmen play The Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, March 24th, Casino Regina March 25th, and Marquee, Calgary Alberta, March 26th.
By Jacqueline Howell