This was the show that nearly failed to happen. Twice. Back in February, I had a ticket to see Hawksley in Brandon, Manitoba. Brandon is about a four-hour drive (one way) from Regina and that’s a bit much to see a guy who I’ve seen in concert probably ten times already. Plus, February is not the time when you really want a long drive on the Prairies. And true to form, work got really busy right before the show. Work cleared up on the day that I was supposed to leave, but that also turned out to be the day of our biggest blizzard of the year and I wasn’t about to take a chance on the highways. No February Hawksley in Brandon for little James.
Oh well, four hours really is pretty far to drive for a concert, which is why it only made sense that I’d get tickets for a show in Winnipeg, which is an additional two hours beyond Brandon.
Really, I had no plans to go to this show, but when it was announced, I forwarded the information to Kristin, who lives in Winnipeg. Not sure why I bothered – I think she’s on the same mailing list that I am – but it seemed like the thing to do. The night of the presale, she complained to me that Ticketmaster had already sold out. Nothing turns me into a sucker more quickly than artificially limiting the supply of something, so I went through Hawksley’s website where some presale tickets were still available. Suddenly, I had a show to go to.
And again, it very nearly didn’t happen. Usually, I know about my biggest work projects well in advance, but this most recent one came out of nowhere and was scheduled to end just as quickly – right when I was supposed to be gone. I decided I’d go anyway, no I wouldn’t, yes I would, I wouldn’t. Mika says this debate happens pretty much every weekend when I have something planned and she is exaggerating only slightly. Eventually, I came up with a plan whereby I’d bring my work laptop on the trip, find a hotel with internet access, and work on the most pressing projects after the show. I thought this was a brilliant (if less than ideal) plan up until a coworker called me at home on Sunday afternoon to let me know that our customer had pushed their due date back a week. And that is how the plan came together.
I left for Winnipeg on Monday morning with nothing more than a bag full of technology and a change of clothes. I didn’t have a hotel booked and didn’t have much of a plan. I was to pick Kristin up at her house, we were going for Ethiopian food and watching the show, and that was all I knew. If I had no reason to spend the night in Winnipeg, I’d consider heading home right after the concert. This would be seriously stupid, but a kind of stupid I am familiar with. I’ve done the Saskatoon-to-Regina, Regina-to-Minot, and Saskatoon-to-Edmonton one-day round trips in the past. Of course, some of these nearly killed me, but still.
The drive was uneventful, which is how I like it. I saw some baby geese, and I played "guess the gender of the person behind the till" at a small-town Dairy Queen. No idea if I won or lost that game. I hadn’t made the drive to Winnipeg in over five years, and was waiting to be pleasantly surprised by the little things that I’d forgotten about. Still waiting. The whole thing felt very new to me. I don’t think I saw anything that looked familiar until I made it to Winnipeg itself.
Kristin’s new house was easy to find and the Ethiopian food was good – better, I dare say, than the Ethiopian place a block down from my apartment. It was good to spend some time with her, getting caught up. I will admit that I wasn’t in her house for 30 seconds before I thought "man, I did not miss getting repeatedly punched in the balls by her dog." I thought age might dull said dog’s hyperactivity but I thought wrong on that one. At least you can leave remote controls out in the open now, without fear of them getting eaten. Maybe.
The Hawksley show sold out quickly as it was the grand re-opening of Winnipeg’s West End Cultural Centre. I had never been there before, so I can’t judge the renovations. It looked a little bit unfinished in spots, and the evening’s host (who looked kind of like Norm MacDonald’s less successful younger brother) admitted as much on stage. Kristin seemed to like some of the design decisions and question some of the others. At least the bathrooms were no longer next to the stage. Hawksley later said "it’s pretty much the same as it was except the toilets are in a smarter place now."
We got a chance to check out the stuff table before the show, but there wasn’t much. CDs I already have, whatever t-shirts Hawksley had left from his previous tour, and the Treeful of Starling cards.
The opener was Greg MacPherson, a Winnipeg musician who I last saw in Regina at the 2004 Folk Festival. Hawksley doesn’t always have opening acts so I was thrilled to find out that there not only was one, but it was someone I liked. According to Kristin, MacPherson had moved away to Toronto and she hadn’t heard anything about him after that, but here he was and there was talk of a new album coming sometime this year. MacPherson’s first-ever show had been at the WECC, so he seemed pretty excited to be there for the re-opening, even debuting a few songs he’d never performed live before. There were also some old favourites, including Slow Stroke which you can download for free from Greg’s site.
A brief intermission and it was time for Hawksley Workman. I was curious about what Hawksley’s show was going to be like. This wasn’t part of a tour, just a one-night special performance – possibly because the WECC was the first building that Hawksley ever sold out in Canada. I assumed we wouldn’t get the costume changes and full band that his last Regina show had. Indeed, it was just Hawksley on guitar (and briefly on harmonica) and Mr. Lonely on piano. No toy instruments, no jumpsuits – and no real surprises on the setlist. I had been listening to a Calgary radio interview with Hawksley on the drive up, where he mentioned that his shows tend to go all over the place, but the music is very familiar – he made a joke about having recorded 120 songs, but always pulling from the same 25 when populating his set lists. In that same interview, Hawksley said that when he went to shows as a kid, he didn’t want to hear new stuff, and that seemed to be reflected in this evening’s song choices. Apart from The City Is A Drag, I don’t think there was anything from his two newest albums, and only two songs – Ice Age and You And The Candles – from Treeful of Starling. As for the rest, let’s see… one song from Almost A Full Moon (A House Or Maybe A Boat) and a fine selection from his first three albums, including Smoke Baby, Bullets, Papershoes, Clever Not Beautiful, Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off, Tarantulove (which he claimed was a children’s book), Jealous Of Your Cigarette, Anger As Beauty, and We Will Still Need A Song. No Striptease, I don’t think, which I’m pretty sure is still his biggest hit. Maybe someone out there took notes and can correct me if any of this is wrong.
This seems like a good place to awkwardly jam in a link – I recorded a video of Hawksley singing Bullets, which you can find here.
After his first song, Safe And Sound, Hawksley started talking and said that he would be fine with talking all night long. Really, that’s kind of what he did. Each song started with a story which may or may not have related to the song in any way. He claimed that he was inspired by comedians, which caused one audience member to laugh a lot; this, in turn, caused Hawksley to laugh a lot. Clever Not Beautiful was said to be inspired by Gary Larson. He thought We Will Still Need A Song was destined to be a huge hit, but the swearing held it back. You And The Candles was described as his one political song; he also said it was terrible. This got a good laugh, so he called it bad (in various ways) for several minutes – I think he just wanted to see how long he could drag the joke out for. He did the same thing later on when reflecting on the brand and contents of the bottled water he had, and again moments later when he used the word "Google" several thousand times in short, rapid-fire sentences.
The crowd seemed very much into everything and was contributing to the show. Smoke Baby went on forever because one dude in the crowd yelled "somewhere on the outside" louder than Hawksley was singing that part, so Hawksley made him do it over and over. At one point, Hawksley was trying to play his bottled water as an instrument by blowing on the bottle, but at the end of the song as he was about to do it again, someone in the crowd blew on their beer bottle, beating Hawksley to it, and he laaaaaaaaaaughed and laughed and laughed. "Well done," he said.
Between (and during) his songs, Hawksley switched in and out of a lot of old songs – not HIS old songs, just random old songs, including Riders On The Storm, Happy Together, Holding Out For A Hero, and Son Of A Preacher Man – whether or not he actually knew the words. I thought I knew the words to Holding Out For A Hero, but I didn’t know the part that says "he’s gotta play Scrabble real good." After struggling with the words to Happy Together, Hawksley walked off-mic to ask Lonely how the song went. As Lonely kept playing Happy Together, Hawksley returned to the mic, only to start singing The Logical Song.
Really, Mr. Lonely spent about two hours frantically trying to keep up with whatever Hawksley was doing. I have no idea how he does it. Great skill and ability, I guess. During Bullets, one of the few dancing fans complained that the venue had no dancefloor, so Mr. Lonely actually spoke – of course, all he said was "burn it down." Hawksley laughed and said that was "so Lonely" and played a bit of the Police song of the same name.
A one-song encore – which song it was completely escapes me – and we were on our way. The show was well worth the 12-hour round trip, even though we came up empty-handed in our post-show expedition to the 24-hour Shoppers Drug Mart in search of La Cocina tortilla chips (only available in Manitoba). I had to get Kristin to navigate because Winnipeg roads are designed solely to confuse. But even that nonsense worked out well – I turned my BlackBerry on as soon as the show ended, but found nothing apart from a text message reading – in its entirety – "ENOS!!!!!!!!" Don’t ask. If I’d taken Kristin straight home, I might have just skipped town, but the extra time spent in search of chips and complaining about road signs meant that I was still in Winnipeg when I received an email from my buddy Mitch saying that he was free for lunch the next day, which was all the encouragement I needed to stick around.
The Travelodge just off St. Anne’s was clean and comfortable, and more importantly, it was right next to a Safeway that was stacked to the gills with the good tortilla chips. Lunch was fun; I got caught up on gossip with Mitch and found out everything he’s been up to, and I got to live out a longstanding dream of having a Salisbury House Cheese Nip Plate. This actually WAS a longstanding dream of mine, for reasons far too nerdy for me to admit in public. The drive back was sunny and went by very quickly, though I did have to stop at the Grenfell Esso to buy car wipes since I had been eating peanuts and managed to coat my entire dashboard in fine peanut dust. But that happens on all good road trips.