July 25, 2010
Ed Robertson is probably the more talented of the two founding members of Barenaked Ladies. Creative input aside, Robertson is a master chameleon, both able to mimic the boisterous nerdiness of ex-frontman Steven Page and do all the little things Page could never do, like rap the verses to the band's smash "One Week."
In fact, if you were, say, the band's bassist, and you had to pick one or the other to save from a burning building, the smart pick would probably be Robertson. Career-wise, at least. Page may have written the bulk of the band's best songs (though Robertson has had his fair share of hits, including "One Week" and "Pinch Me") and his voice's unique quality (think: a spazzy teenage Roy Orbison) may be the band's signature sound, but, in the end, Page lacks the versatility of his less-artsy counterpart. That versatility has made the band what it is.
Anyway, readers outside Canada may have missed it, but Page left the band last year after cops in the small Upstate New York town where he lives found a pile of coke on his kitchen table. They're continuing on without him. And thus arguably the greatest non-Québecois Canadian band of all time came to Dodge Theatre with only four members last night.
So how are things without Page?
If anything, BNL is even more genuine and likable without their comparatively high-maintenance singer (note the "comparatively" -- Page isn't Axl Rose or anything, he just laid around in bed like Brian Wilson). Thanks to Ed's ability to mimic Steven's voice, well-honed after 20 years of harmonization, many of the songs sound pretty much the same. The stage banter, and the showmanship, are still top-notch.
Still, there's definitely something missing. The Ladies sounded good at Dodge, and the crowd, while not over-the-top-enthused seemed to dig it. But there was a palpable sense of Steven's absence. It wasn't just the product of the heckler who kept yelling out "Where's Steve?" either.
The loss was most obvious on songs like "The Old Apartment," which the band played second (full setlist below) and "Alcohol," which opened the encore. Robertson and the guys did an admirable job -- but it was hard to separate the stories from the storyteller while taking the songs more seriously than a typical cover.
For example, it's never occurred to me that Page didn't literally break into his girlfriend's old apartment; it was weird to hear to Robertson tell that story as though it was him who did it, which he did in the second song of the night.
Likewise, drummer Tyler Stewart deserves credit for pwning a loose, punky version of
"Alcohol," which he sang after the encore break while Robertson flailed on the drum kit like a kid playing Rock Band, but his version was more like good karaoke than seeing a band sing its own song.
Then there's the fact that keyboardist/guitarist Kevin Hearn can't consistently carry a tune. He tried, and his voice worked well in the call-and-response stuff, like "If I Had $1,000,000," but when he sang "Watching The Northern Lights," the closer off the band's first post-Page record, All In Good Time, things got dicey. Actually, it got Kermitesque. Hearn is a great instrumentalist and backup singer, but he should never, ever be the featured vocalist in a room that large. He's a great sideman, but it's unfair to ask him to be more because Page quit.
Headed out to this show I wanted to answer one question: Should Barenaked Ladies call it quits without Stephen Page?
In the end, I'm not sure. The band is not what it once was, and the remaining quartet have some polishing to do before they're the sort of finely tuned live act they were before his departure, but they've still got a lot going for them.
At least BNL is in better shape than they'd be without Robertson.
Personal Bias: In northeast Ohio, where I'm from, we used to get Canada's Much Music over the airwaves, so I've been aware of the band a lot longer than the average American. I've had a love-hate relationship with BNL since the runaway success of Stunt, and have an inconsistent track record on the band, having at terms heaped praise on their touch for beautiful and bittersweet songs like "Pinch Me," and ripped the way they cultivate the geek image to appeal to a slavish fanbase. If my past reviews were still easily findable I'd link them.
The Crowd: Mixed ages, less overtly geeky than you might fear.
Overheard in the crowd: "Where's Steveeeeeeee?"
Random Notebook Dump: Where's Brian Wilson? Maybe it's better they did not do it since it's a total Steve song. Nice to see at least a couple people brought Kraft dinner to throw -- but sorry someone has to clean that up.
Who Needs sleep
The Old Apartment
Falling For The First Time
It's Hot Out There Phoenix (But I guess you know that)
Every Subway Car
Told You So
When I Fall
Sound Of Your Voice
It's All Been Done
You Run Away
The Big Bang Theory
Too Little Too Late
If I Had $1,000,000
Magic/Empire State of Mind/I Gotta Feeling/California Girls
Watching The Northern Lights
Thanks That Was Fun