SLCR #130: Hawksley Workman (March 28, 2008)

My ninth time seeing Hawksley Workman, this was easily my most-anticipated concert since the White Stripes came to Saskatoon last summer. Two years ago, Mika and I saw Hawksley twice in two days. The show in Saskatoon was great – Hawksley is a wonderful performer with an unbelievable stage presence. But the impact of that show was lessened by seeing Hawksley in Darke Hall in Regina on the previous night. If the Saskatoon show was great, the Regina show was unforgettable. The perfect venue, the perfect crowd, and my favourite singer – and for the first time that I’d seen, he just happened to pull out Claire Fontaine, my favourite song of his. It’s a love song to paper!

After the last Regina show, friends converged upon my apartment. Made sense, since I only live a few blocks from the venue. But since I wasn’t expecting them to come over, I didn’t really have anything to offer them. Smartass comments have since been made about “one bag of chips and one jug of Kool-Aid.” This time, I decided to overcompensate and I planned a party with foodstuffs and Rock Band. Could I fit 12 people into my one-bedroom apartment’s living room? I was determined to find out.

So to sum up, this show was the spiritual successor to one of the best concerts I’d ever seen in my life, and it was to be immediately followed by the first real party I’d thrown since moving out four years ago. Plus, Deserée had even started a Facebook group called “Hawksley Workman – please sing ‘Baby This Night’!” because she has never seen him play her favourite song, and when she yelled out for it last time, he said he couldn’t sing it because his mom wrote it and they were in a legal battle. It’s more likely that he forgets the words to songs that he doesn’t play often. But there had been reports that he’d played Baby This Night at other shows on this tour, and with Deserée’s Facebook group populated by a whopping 14 fans, she was quite hopeful. So clearly there was a lot riding on this evening.

Mika came down on Thursday night, and the two of us spent Friday buying groceries, cleaning my apartment (Mika did a ton of work and deserves all the credit for my apartment looking presentable), and preparing whatever food we could. The final menu was as follows:

  • slow-cooker BBQ meatballs
  • veggie tray (carrots, celery, cucumber, snap peas, peppers, broccoli, cauliflower) with homemade onion dip and store-bought spinach dip
  • a fruit tray (pineapple, cantaloupe, grapes, and papaya) with homemade brown sugar/cinnamon dip
  • baked Tostitos with peach salsa
  • baked dill potato chips
  • many kinds of sodas

I saved some of the fruits and veggies to prepare as people arrived, since I didn’t know how well they’d keep. I told Mika that if the pineapple tasted even half as good as it smelled, it would be the hit of the evening. She nodded politely. She doesn’t like pineapple.

I had ordered tickets for Mika and I through I just wanted to make sure that we got tickets as soon as possible, but as a surprise bonus, people who preordered got preferred access to the rush seating. I felt kind of bad that we couldn’t save seats for our friends, but I didn’t think it would be allowed. And even if we could have, we would have been saving a lot of seats for a lot of people (Deserée, Reagan, Jen, Amie, Heather, Leah, Chris, Maureen, Mary, and another Chris – plus some of these people were bringing friends), and that would just make us jerks. Nobody wants to be THOSE guys. So as to offend nobody, we decided to treat everyone equally and save seats for nobody. Everyone seemed to understand.

This did not stop me from being a jerk and sending Deserée text messages when we were seated inside and she was still lined up outside. I didn’t save all the messages, but the exchange went something like this:

  • we are inside and you are not
  • You suck.
  • there is nothing left but balcony seating
  • You had better be lying or I am going to break your legs. In half.
  • the show has started already and he is singing baby this night and it is sooooo good
  • Yeah well I had lunch with Hawksley today and he sang Claire Fontaine and he said he was going to break your legs.
  • he already broke my legs and it ruled so hard

Eventually they got inside and were sitting a whopping three rows behind us. I called them from my cell and waved at them from my superior vantage point. Reagan got sweet revenge by blinding me with her camera flash.

There were a ton of instruments on the stage. Most of the time that I’ve seen Hawksley, it’s been just him and his pianist Mr. Lonely. This time, though, there was a toy piano, toy drums, a saxophone, a bass clarinet, a violin, a flute, a banjo, and two sets of keyboards.

Somewhere around 8:30, Hawksley took the stage and sat down at the toy drums. Mr. Lonely sat by his side at the toy piano. Three other musicians joined them. We Will Still Need A Song (complete with a segue in and out of Sloop John B) sounded neat on the toy instruments, but Don’t Be Crushed was amazing and stole the first half of the show. Safe and Sound was pretty cool too, but in the past, Hawksley has performed it with almost a honky-tonk piano sound and that remains my favourite version of the song.

After a long spiel about the CBC, Hawksley played You and the Candles, which he termed the only political song of the evening. It wasn’t so much political as it was inspired by the CBC radio news, which arrives every hour on the hour to tell you that humanity has yet to pull itself together.

Toy instruments, hilarious stories, snippets of other artists’ popular songs – you really never know what you’re going to get with a Hawksley show. He has a way of playing old favourites in new ways and freshening them up. During Smoke Baby, they were joined on stage by a local guitarist who played a great solo. The whole band went off-mic to do acoustic versions of When These Mountains Were The Seashore and Canadian Motorcycle Gangs (which I’d never heard live before). There were quite a few songs I’d never heard live, actually – I didn’t think we’d ever get a live performance of Addicted or Blindness, and there were two songs (Organic Coast and Polishing Shoes) that were entirely new to me. There were a few songs of his newest record as well, of course – Prettier Face, Piano Blink, and All The Trees Are Hers.

During the last Hawksley show, the crowd stomped along with a song instead of clapping. I don’t know who started it or why it happened, but it was great fun and Hawksley seemed really amused by it. We stomped to applaud after the song, and we stomped when he laughed at us in bemused delight. If I had to pick one magical moment from that show, that was it. Well, during When These Mountains Were The Seashore, we stomped. It wasn’t as loud as last time, but it was there. And Hawksley heard it, and he turned to his backup singer. He cracked up. She smiled. You could read his mind. It said “See? I told you, they stomp here.” This was the best moment of the show for me.

Before he played When These Mountains Were The Seashore, he apologized in advance in case he messed up the words. He said he didn’t play the song often because his mom wrote it, and they were in a legal battle. I flashed back to the last show, leaned over to Mika, and said “expect to hear Deserée shrieking in about five seconds.” But alas, it was not to be – not then, and not at any point in the evening. I didn’t get Claire Fontaine either. Deserée and I both like Hawksley a lot but that does mean that there will always be favourites that we don’t get to hear at any given show. No Anger as Beauty? I would have expected that one for sure.

After the two off-mic songs, the band left the stage while Hawksley changed into a green jumpsuit. His band came back in green jumpsuits as well. Mr. Lonely played the drums, which I’ve never seen before. Hawksley is a drummer, though he usually only drums for a few songs in a set. But he’s very good. Hawksley and Lonely, I noticed, both do the same thing when they’re drumming. Ever scratch a cat under its chin? And it sticks its head forward and squints and almost smiles? They each make that face when drumming. Mr. Lonely didn’t appear to have as much technical skill on the drums as Hawksley does, but he made up for it by drumming hard. I mean HARD. There was a four song set of Alone Here (my favourite song off his new album), The City is a Drag (my second-favourite off the new album), Striptease (a great song that was made better by the addition of – oh yes – cowbell), and Jealous of Your Cigarette. These songs were played loud and hard, louder and harder than anything I had ever heard from a Hawksley show. I loved every second of it and would pay lots of cash moneys to get an entire show like this.

Again, you never know what you’re going to get. Last time, Striptease was nice and slow (and we stomped to it). This time it was loud, hard, and segued in and out of Crazy in Love. I loved both versions, as well as the song on the CD which is different still. The City is a Drag became first Karma Chameleon, and then We Built This City, while Jealous of your Cigarette bridged into Bootylicious and back. And somewhere in here I heard The Rhythm Is Gonna Get You.

After those four songs, the main show was done. There was a standing ovation (complete with some stomping, but that’s hard to do when you’re standing) until the band came back out. Hawksley and Lonely took their spots at the toy instruments again. They launched into Every Creepy Pusher, which I had also never heard live before. This was another special moment, because Hawksley rocked so hard as to wreck his toy drum kit. He stopped, mid-song, to voice his displeasure with the $95 toy drums that only had to last two more shows. He kept going, eventually tipping over one of the remaining drums, leaving only one. And he drummed that toy drum harder than any toy drum would possibly deserve. He was bound and determined to break it, I’m sure of it.

Then came Addicted, which ran for a good ten minutes and somehow became all about licking toes. To be fair, it started off being about selling shoes (which in no way resembles the original song).

Only one encore. I was sad. Two and a half hours flew by in minutes. It is very, very rare – no matter how much I like a show – that I’m not ready to leave when it’s over. But for Hawksley, I would happily have stayed all night. But it was not to be. They were off to Winnipeg, and I had a party to get to.

On the walk home, I ran into Chris and Maureen. They had been planning on joining us, but Maureen found the second half of the show to be far too loud. Her ears were hurting, so they headed straight home. Interesting – the part of the show that I loved so much was the part that would probably ensure that she won’t come back. I certainly thought it was louder than anything I’d heard from Hawksley before, but I didn’t find it too loud – and I’ve taken to bringing earplugs to rock shows just in case. But I suppose “too loud” is a different standard for everyone. At any rate, it was a shame that she didn’t like the show and especially that it left her feeling unwell. Heather and her friends also skipped the party. I guess she had a sinus infection and had to drive to Medicine Hat the next day. So in both cases, the no-shows were for understandable reasons. They were still missed, though.

Having said that, we wound up with eight people in my apartment, which was probably about the maximum that it can comfortably hold. So I guess everything worked out okay. To my dismay, the pineapple had gone bad (and I was so looking forward to using my pineapple cutter) and I forgot to include the cucumber in the veggie tray, but we still had tons of food. The BBQ slow-cooker meatballs (dump frozen meatballs into slow-cooker; add bottle of BBQ sauce; let cook forever) were a genius idea, because the smell filled the room and made people hungry. And even without the pineapple, the fruit dip (take a pack of light sour cream; add cinnamon and brown sugar until it tastes good) was a big hit and I will make it again and again and again. The spread was helped out by Reagan, who brought two buckets of daiquiri mix and a microwave pot roast with buns. Because, really, what else would a person bring?

From there, we played Rock Band and told hilarious stories until the last folks left at 3:00 a.m. We talked of the Hawksley song Safe and Sound and its line “we fit together like the ignition and the key.” In concert, Hawk always adds an “if you know what I mean” just to ensure we get the point. This led to a long, long list of car-themed euphemisms involving stalling, flooding, tailpipes, grinding gears, needing an automatic because you aren’t skilled at driving stick, taking driving lessons from your dad, and drying things out with WD-40 even though it might cause a fire. And making car noises, of course. VROOOOM!

But back to more pressing matters. Was the show better than the last one in Regina? Well, I don’t really know. I’ve been asked that a lot, and I think I’d have to say that the show was a better show, but it wasn’t quite as good. Which makes no sense. There was a wider variety of songs and a wider variety of sounds, and it was more of a full rock show. But was it as… I hate to say “magical,” but I don’t know if I have a better word. And I don’t think it was. This might have been due to my own expectations being too high, but it’s hard not to set the bar high for your favourite singer ever. I did find the show a bit less spontaneous than previous shows. I guess that’s what happens when you’re playing with some new musicians. Hawksley and Lonely have played together forever, and they seem to know each other really well. The two of them can change things up as they go along. The new musicians were very talented, but being new to the group, I guess things had to be a bit more planned out. Having said that, they sounded great, I was glad they I got to see them, I loved the show, and I left wishing that I could head to Winnipeg to catch the last show of the tour the next night. Which says an awful lot, because that’s a long drive and Winnipeg is a hole.

The Saskatoon show from two years ago was a great show that didn’t quite measure up to the Regina show the night before. Maybe this is the same thing? Maybe that show was so good that it’s spoiled me. I don’t know. I feel like I’m filling out a report card, giving an A+, and trying to explain why that isn’t good enough. I mean, this easily ranks in my 10 favourite shows of all time. So maybe I should forget about the last Regina show and just love this one? Because I sure did love this one.

For several drafts of this review, that last paragraph included the line “Ultimately, this show lacked the certain I-don’t-know-what that separates the great shows from the mythical shows.” And you know, that’s not true. This show was fantastic. Better than the Saskatoon show from two years ago, better than the Regina Folk Festival show, better than most times I’ve seen Hawksley. This was a show that could convert a non-fan into a diehard. This show left me with the biggest smile during the whole time. That last show in Regina was something really special; a show I’ll never forget. And while I don’t think it’s unfair to compare the two, this show could stand on its own as one of my favourites. Sequels rarely recapture the magic (there’s that word again) of the original experience, but sometimes they’re pretty great in their own right.

Put yer words here:

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