Saturday, February 15, 2014

Waiting In the Hall Of the Coliseum

As I write this, I'm sitting in the Theatre of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, affectionately known as the NAC.  For all my life I'd heard about the NAC, and maybe it was just the kid I was when I first saw specials on the CBC that were filmed here, or concerts that were recorded here, or whatever, but this place always seemed to have a significant place in the cultural life of Canada.

I've been here a number of times over the past couple of years, not for cultural events of great note but for the same sorts of concerts you'd find in thousands of venues across this great expanse of country.  That isn't so much that the NAC isn't the cultural hub I thought it was.  It still is, playing host to great composers, performers  and theatrical presentations.  But aside from that for the past couple of years they've also been presenting performances in their smaller stages, most notably the Studio and Fourth Stage, highlighting great Canadian artists both established and emerging.  

If there's one good thing that Canada does well and really brings us together is the production of excellent music.  People from other nations might not know them well, which can be a real pity.  Not to say other nations don't produce these as well, it's just that Canada seems to be good at it.

In the past couple of years in this building I've seen some really great performances.  Hanna Georgas. Linda Ortega. Mo Kenney. Amelia Curran. Rae Spoon. And more have played her that I haven't seen, by their dozens.  Folk supergroup Lee Harvey Osmond.  The legendary Gordon Lightfoot. Jazz musicians and genderqueer alt-folk and classical and 80's throwback a Francophone rock.  This is the kind of place that can bring all that together.  

As I look around, the crowd begins to fill the theatre, bodies appearing in burgundy flip-down seats.  Why are theatre seats always burgundy, I wonder? So few come to mind that don't fall into that monochromatic mold that they elude me.  Not that I'm some sort of great veteran of theaters, but it seems uncommon even to my eye to find something that's not either bare, blonde wood or burgundy upholstery.  At least the red carpet beneath goes well with them.

Tonight we wait for act I'd been hearing about for a long time but have never seen, Ashley MacIsaac.  Like myself, Ashley came from Nova Scotia, on the eastern edge of Canada.  He first appeared as a child, a prodigy with the fiddle touring the Maritimes every summer with his dad.  They hit the exhibitions and festivals, and popped up regularly enough on CBC and the lips of the local players (you can't grow up in rural NS and not know a half-dozen amateur fiddlers) for my younger self to know and remember the name.  A name that unexpectedly came back years later with the adult MacIsaac as he very publicly imploded.

I don't really know that much of the backstory, but I do know that as Ashley became an adult, his tastes strayed far from the...

[And here I am interrupted by the opening act, the Abrams Brothers, another family act from Kingston, Ontario.  Ashley's got a though act to follow, those boys are good!]

In any case, back in the 90's Ashley had strayed from the old time down home fiddle of his roots and embraced the new sounds of alt-rock and post-punk, and took on an attitude to match.  His talent was undimmed, but his increasingly erratic behaviour soon became more of his public persona than anything to do with the fiddle.  Failing to show up for shows, breaking halfway through into profanity-ridden rants, public urination at raves, drug and alcohol use, the whole run of bad boy behaviour.  It was a damn sight from Down Home Tonight, that's for certain.  

And then...he vanished.  I don't know the details (I could look them up if I had wi-fi here, but it's not that important really) but the assumption was his promoters and managers had enough and he was effectively placed under house arrest back east to give him a chance to dry out and take a look at what he'd done to his career and life as a whole.  To be honest, I thought that was the end of him as a performer.

That is, until last fall when the listings for the new NAC season came out, and there he was big as life.  Ashley MacIsaac and the Abrams Brothers, playing 7:30 pm on February 15, 2014. Well, ain't no WAY I was gonna miss that!

And so here I sit, waiting for the intermission to finish and the man himself to appear.  At this point I couldn't guess what he's going to sound like.  Only that a fiddle will be involved.

[After the show, typing on the bus]

Ashley didn't disappoint, although he put on a bit of an oddly disjointed show.  Not as tight as the Abrams, for sure, but a lot more steeped in history, both personal and literal.

He came out dressed like an aging white rapper, red shirt and pants, gold chains, shades and a baseball cap with a leather jacket over all that.  He claimed the hat, pants and jacket were borrowed from Justin Trudeau, but all I could tInk of was Vanilla Ice having a hole in his wardrobe.  He was accompanied by a dude from Cheticamp on acoustic guitar and for some reason a DJ with a portable percussion rig and laptop.  An odd mix for a guy who describes I self as a traditional fiddler.

And when it came to the actual show, that's exactly what Ashley was.  His show was full of hundred and two hundred year old songs with a few more recent pieces tossed in for flavour, and Ashley knew the history of those songs quite well.  And again, for some reason he felt the need for a DJ as accompaniment which worked to varying degrees as he went along.

Honestly, most of the time when the laptop got fired up either the beats or the fiddle simply got lost in the other's sound, and it didn't really work.  However, when the DJ dude turned to beatboxing or manual percussion. It was a completely different story.  Which to me was the lesson of the evening, traditional music and automation are things that require a deft hand to integrate, and you simply can't do it in an off the cuff fashion.  Both were good musicians, to be sure.  But sometimes the blend simply didn't work.

Ashley did tell a lot of stories drawn from his life though, and apparently he didn't have nearly the interruption in his career as I'd thought back in the 90s, it was simply a matter of falling out of my own perception for quite a long time.  Not that I expected him to be out of the business for 15 years or whatever, but I am a bit surprised that I'd utterly lost track of him for so long.

Hell, he even wrote Rukia's theme from the anime a Bleach, and I used to watch that show!

Still, a fun night and worth the price.  

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