Whimsical. Quirky. Sometimes outright wacky. If you know Barenaked Ladies only from their No. 1 hit "One Week" or an occasional television appearance, you should catch the Canadian quintet's much looser and wilder concert act. Valley fans will have the chance to see the Barenaked Summer Nights Tour when it comes to Desert Sky Pavilion on Tuesday, August 17.
"I think Stunt is a pretty good representation of who we are in some ways," says Steven Page, lead singer, during a recent telephone interview. "But in a lot of ways, what we do live is so much improvisation, messing around, talking and whatever else that you don't get on an album. . . . I think hopefully for people who haven't seen us before, it's a nice surprise."
Although Barenaked Ladies (known as BNL to fans) have enjoyed success in Canada for the past decade, they didn't find widespread fame in the United States until Stunt was released in 1998. With a patient label, Reprise Records, BNL has been allowed to build up a following through constant touring.
"The biggest difference is that the audience is larger and they know the songs now," Page says. "But you know it's always hard work. . . . It always turns into a situation where if the audience doesn't know who you are, you have to work extra hard to turn them on to the group, and when they are already fans, you are going to have to work extra hard to exceed their expectations."
What can one expect at a BNL concert? Ed Robertson, one of the lead singers, often breaks away from the song lineup to do improvisational rap music. The group hip-hop dances in chorus-line style. Page breaks into a medley featuring "Memory" from the Broadway hit Cats and cover songs from other popular groups. He ends the medley with "My Heart Will Go On" complete with Celine Dion chest pounding.
"The improvisation is spontaneous. I think one of the charms of this group is that Ed and I can finish each other's sentences. We do it in interviews; we do it onstage. It's just part of the nature of our relationship where we can pick up where the other guy left off, and it makes for great improv because of that," Page says.
Sometimes the improvisation can stick. For example, at the end of "One Week," Page sings a line that isn't listed on the CD's lyric sheet.
"Birchmount Stadium -- home of the Robbie," says Page. He explains that Birchmount Stadium is at a high school in Scarborough, Ontario, where Page and Robertson grew up. Once when Page took his two children swimming near the stadium, he saw a sign bearing that slogan. "One day at rehearsal when we were singing 'One Week' before we recorded the album, I just threw in that line and everyone just laughed, and I kept it there. I just forgot to put it in the lyric sheet."
Despite all the joviality, Page says the group has serious moments onstage, although they are often upstaged by the funnier moments.
"We're five guys who do get along really well. But it's not like an episode of The Monkees every day," Page explains. "We come out here on the road to work and do the best shows that we can. . . . I think our sense of humor comes through in the concert. It's important to us to make sure that the audience enjoys itself and that we enjoy ourselves. If we have a good time, more often than not the audience will as well."
For fans who saw BNL when they visited Phoenix last year promoting Stunt, this tour will be a little different. For one thing, keyboardist Kevin Hearn is back touring. Hearn, who was diagnosed with leukemia, spent the last six months of last year recovering from a stem-cell transplant.
"He's totally cancer-free, which is very exciting," Page says. "He's still in recovery mode, so he's not anywhere near 100 percent, but he's playing great."
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A tradition at BNL concerts is for fans to pelt the band with Kraft macaroni and cheese because of a line in the song "If I Had $1,000,000."
"The macaroni and cheese was fun for a while, but people just started getting hurt, ourselves included," Page says. "Our stuff was getting wrecked from cheese powder. If people want to bring the macaroni and cheese, that's fine. What we prefer is at the front gate, people can drop it off. We always have a basket or a bucket there that people can just drop it off and we'll donate it to a local food bank. The thought is nice, but it can be so painful."
For fans who want to show their undying devotion, Page offers another alternative. "Take off all their clothes and make wild, passionate love in the aisles. That would be great." -- Teresa Verbout
Barenaked Ladies are scheduled to perform on Tuesday, August 17, at Desert Sky Pavilion, with Semisonic. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.