You may recall that last summer, I saw the Crash Test Dummies at the Canada Games in Winnipeg.
You may also recall that I became a fan long ago, somehow wound up running their website, and still keep in touch with them a little bit, by which I mean mostly Ellen, and mostly through cat pictures and Letterkenny quotes. I’ve told that story enough.
Anyway, as a long-time fan, I’ve seen them go from being big stars to… let’s just say the opposite of that. The band never officially split up, but album sales dropped off and everyone eventually moved on to do their own thing. That show last year would have made a perfect final chapter to their story. After years apart, the band (mostly) reunites to headline a festival in front of a huge adoring hometown crowd who’s singing along with every word. The concert even ended with fireworks. Freeze frame, roll credits, bonus scene where they’re all enjoying shawarmas.
However, things took a different turn. The band enjoyed their Winnipeg show so much that there was talk of a reunion tour – just a few gigs. That turned into a half-dozen dates in western Canada, eleven in the US, and others to be announced soon. And what’s more, they’re doing well. The press release announcing the US shows got picked up by some large outlets, and Calgary, Saskatoon, and Regina sold out. When they were here last time in 2010, they only half-sold the Exchange. This is a little unexpected (at least by me), but I’m happy and excited for them.
And then we almost didn’t get into the show.
Mika and I got to the casino a little after 7:30 and went to pick up our tickets from the will call. And… nothing. No tickets printed out and waiting in their little ticket box. No record of the purchase on my file. They checked my ID, ran my info repeatedly, found other tickets I’ve bought for upcoming shows. But for the Dummies? Nothing. Jeff showed up and joined Mika off to the side while the boring drama unfolded. The guy at the ticket booth next to me appeared to be having the same issue. The people behind us in line were loving us. I had my phone with the email receipt, which probably saved the day. Eventually, the clerk took some blank tickets, handwrote our seat info, and sent us inside. I was quite certain that this would fail, but it didn’t. And I was even more certain that someone would be waiting at our table, but again, no. Unlikely success!
In retrospect, I do remember the pre-order being particularly glitchy and having to fight to get my order through. And this might also mean the show wasn’t technically sold out, since there was an empty seat at our table. I bought three tickets at a table that seats four; later, I looked into buying the fourth ticket to prevent some random weirdo from sitting with us (I only want weirdos of my choosing), but it said it had been sold. Thanks, God or random ticketing system glitch! You saved me some money. And since the seat wasn’t available to be sold, I declare that the sellout stands.
With no opener, the show was underway at 8:00 on the nose. Business was meant and bedtimes were to be adhered to. As mentioned, the band was (mostly) reunited, with Brad Roberts, Ellen Reid, Dan Roberts, and Mitch Dorge joined by touring guitarists Murray Pulver and Stuart Cameron, and a keyboardist I don’t think I’ve seen before who I’m about 60% sure was named Marc. No sign of original member Benjamin Darvill, who’s still finding success as blues harmonica beatbox oddball Son of Dave. I’m mostly out of the loop these days, but the one piece of insider gossip I’d love to know is whether or not anyone asked Ben if he wanted to do the tour. I suppose it doesn’t matter since I can’t imagine he had any interest.
The setlist for the show wound up pretty similar to last summer’s, which was mostly a greatest hits collection with a few new songs thrown in. They opened with God Shuffled His Feet (during which Ellen spotted me and gave me a subtle wave) and Replacements cover Androgynous. I’ve seen the Dummies six times now and these are two of the five songs that they’ve played at each show; the others being the only two songs most of you would know, Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm and Superman’s Song, and Ellen’s big showcase (and XTC cover) The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead.
After all these shows, I still heard a few songs that I hadn’t seen them play live before. In preparation for their US dates, where they’re playing the God Shuffled His Feet album all the way through, they did When I Go Out With Artists. During a block of songs from their most recent album Ooh-La-La (now eight years old), they played Not Today Baby. And then Ellen stepped up to sing one of Brad’s songs, her favourite Dummies song. I was pretty excited for this – I’d never heard her do one of his songs before.
“And not only is it my favourite Crash Test Dummies song, but my favourite Crash Test Dummies fan is here tonight.”
I may have quietly said one tiny swear word.
Ellen called me out by name, pointed at our table, and dedicated the song My Own Sunrise to me.
“Well, it’s an overtly sexual song, so it’s not FOR YOU. But it’s for you.”
That she’d say or do anything at all was really sweet, especially coming at least a full decade since I’ve had any sort of official involvement with the band. But moreover, it was a song I hadn’t heard live before in a way I’d never heard. Over the years, I’ve tracked down all the rarities that are out there – I’m pretty sure that McSweeny’s article was about me – but this was brand new and super exciting and honestly really special.
Mika, as soon as the song was over: “Did Ellen just sing you a song about boners?”
I mean, technically, yes. A radio-friendly song about boners. My own sunrise! Metaphors!
So. Ellen’s take on the song was great, but I might be biased now and you’ll have to go see them live to hear it anyway. She followed it up with Make You Mine, introducing it with “This song is about being angry, which I’m not, because I’m 52 and I’m over it.” This is my favourite song off her 2001 solo album, something else I’d never heard done live before and something I definitely wasn’t expecting. At this point, I was all in – hearing these two songs back-to-back made me feel like I was back at that first concert at the peak of my fandom. I had been looking forward to the show but really wasn’t expecting to get this invested in it.
The main set was done in about an hour, though they did four more songs when they came back out. I may have gotten chastised for not standing to applaud. And then told to remain standing once I did get up. A highlight of the encore was my favourite Dummies’ song, Afternoons and Coffeespoons, with just Brad and Ellen singing and Stuart on guitar – a real showcase for him. Of the Dummies shows I’ve seen, this was probably the best one musically, but hiring Stuart and Murray to play in your band is like hiring Daryl Strawberry and Ken Griffey Jr. to play on your company softball team. Just keep those boys away from the brain and nerve tonic.
The band killed it, Ellen stole the show, and Brad sounded like he ever did, except more relaxed. Really, what stood out to me was that everyone seemed to be having so much fun. Especially Brad – there were moments where he was genuinely smiling and laughing and I know that sounds super weird, but he always comes across as very performative when he’s on stage, so it was good to see him let his guard down.
Here’s the whole setlist:
God Shuffled His Feet
The Ghosts That Haunt Me
Swimming in Your Ocean
The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
Heart of Stone
Not Today Baby
In the Days of the Caveman
When I Go Out With Artists
My Own Sunrise
Make You Mine
Two Knights and Maidens
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm
Afternoons & Coffeespoons
He Liked to Feel It
Put A Face
Jeff headed out when it was over (after facilitating a vital Pokémon trade between me and his wife which I did my best to thwart), and Mika and I stuck around to quickly say hi to the band and get handshakes and hugs and a brief serenade. Possibly this all didn’t happen quickly enough, according to the people in line behind us, but that’s why we waited until almost everyone else had gone through the line. Apparently it was a day of being bad at casino lines.
I feel like I’ve told my history with the Crash Test Dummies a million times. But it’s been seven years since I’ve seen them – really, seven years since they’ve played together – so the super short version is I was a big fan back in the day and somehow wound up running their website for a few years. They’re good people. We’re still friends to this day, if you’re really generous with how you define “friends.” I mean, most of them would remember who I am. Maybe.
The last time I saw them in concert was two shows in 2010. In Regina, the vocalists – Brad Roberts and Ellen Reid – were joined by guitarist Murray Pulver. The next night in Winnipeg, they were joined by bassist Dan Roberts (Brad’s brother) and drummer Mitch Dorge, playing together for the first time in years. Since then, I know Brad and Ellen have each done a few solo shows – and maybe a few gigs together? I’m not sure. Point being, they don’t play together a lot anymore. So I was pretty surprised when Ellen let me know about the reunion gig – with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, no less.
This show was part of the Jeux de Canada Games – I need to use the full bilingual title if I want to keep getting my federal grant for writing these things. There were 11 nights of free concerts, one for each province (the territories had to share a night), each with the kind of lineup you might see at our local Folk Festival. The Canada Games were in Saskatoon when I was 14 or so, and while I wasn’t a concert-goer back then, I certainly don’t remember anything like this. For a brief moment, I was sad I didn’t live in Winnipeg. That feeling soon passed – Winnipeg might be my least-favourite city – but I enjoyed it for its novelty.
For those wondering, the Saskatchewan night was hosted by speed skater Catriona LeMay Doan and headlined by Buffy Sainte-Marie and – of course – The Sheepdogs. Always the Sheepdogs.
On the morning of the show, I got up like I was going to work – 5:20 am because I hate myself – and was on the road by 7:00. It’s a six-hour drive to Winnipeg and it flew buy surprisingly quickly. I credit the podcast Reply All. Once in town, I found my way to Kristin’s apartment and we spent an hour trying to convince her cat Beatrix to pay attention to me. This was pleasant if largely unsuccessful. Eventually, we gave up on this futile endeavour and went to check into my hotel. The hotel was close to the concert, had ample parking, was clean enough, and the people were nice. A success by my low standards.
At this point, it was around 4:30 and we were a short walk to the festival grounds. And as fate would have it, there was a Zapdos raid on the way. Now, if you aren’t a Pokémon GO player, then you don’t need to know about the phenomena of raid battles and legendary Pokémon. This puts you in the same boat as Kristin. I, meanwhile, was thrilled to get in on a Zapdos raid so quickly after its launch and even more thrilled to catch the thing on my first try, all while trying to explain to Kristin what was going on and why dozens of Pokémon players had suddenly converged on one spot.
Once in the park, we took a walk to orient ourselves, by which I mean I quickly lead us out of the park on the (successful) hunt for a second Zapdos. Finally, we found a patch of grass in the shade near the Indigenous arts market and settled in to listen to William Prince and Sierra Noble. I’ve seen Prince before and I really enjoy his songs. This was no exception, though I did wonder why it was billed as William Prince and Sierra Noble when it was really William Prince with a fiddle player and occasional back-up singer. At any rate, this was nice. Then the Royal Winnipeg Ballet came out and did some Irish step dancing. The men were wearing these velour bodysuits that made them look naked and also probably cooked them alive. Does velour retain odours?
When the Ballet was done, we wandered off in search of food. There were a wide range of food trucks by one end of the park, and we settled on the grilled cheese truck. As we waited for our food, we ran into some of Kristin’s friends, one of whom gave me one of the better high-fives I’ve had in some time. My grilled cheese had ham and pineapple; Kristin’s had spinach and red peppers. Most of you would prefer hers and most of you are wrong.
We found a spot on the hill to sit – this was trickier than you might think because it was really starting to get crowded – where we could eat our dinner and listen to the New Meanies. I’d never heard them before but certainly knew of the name – it seemed like they were playing in Saskatoon all the time when I was in university. “The New Meanies are still a thing?!” Mika said, when I told her who was playing. To be honest, I don’t know if they are or aren’t, and probably lots of people said “Crash Test Dummies are still a thing?!” too. Anyway, as far as the New Meanies went, I dug the music. The vocals, though… the lead singer was fine but whenever there was an attempt at harmonies, they were pretty bad. I thought they got better a few songs in but Kristin pointed out that they just weren’t trying harmonies for those songs.
As the hill filled up, it got to a point where it was hard for me to shift to a new position without nearly kicking someone, so we got up and wandered around. The park was full of people, so we threw some elbows to get through the crowd and I bought myself a bottled water and a Diet Coke from the food truck with the shortest line. At the very back of the park, we found some picnic tables and sat at one – and after lots of time on the ground, the picnic table made for some good sitting. We enjoyed it until a wasp showed up, trying to eat some crumbs on the table. I brushed the crumbs onto the ground but the wasp came back looking for it, and then brought reinforcements. It was actually pretty funny – it was like you could hear the first one saying “Seriously, it was right here, help me look for it.” But they’re also stinging angry shitheads, so we wandered back to the stage.
Royal Canoe was playing and I really only have two things to say about Royal Canoe: we mostly didn’t listen to Royal Canoe, and from what I did hear, Royal Canoe might not be my thing. So it goes.
We were getting close to the Crash Test Dummies and it was time to find ourselves a good spot. The standing area in front of the stage was packed for Royal Canoe, and we had high hopes that people would leave in between sets and we could move up. And… this worked? Royal Canoe finished up, and people headed out for drinks and whatnot before the Dummies started. We inched our way to the front, swimming upstream, and wound up only two or three rows of people back, stage left. A great spot.
And then the emcee told us that lightning had been spotted on the radar, and that if it came closer, we should evacuate calmly.
This was pretty much my worst-case scenario. Everything gets called off, but late enough that I’m out all the expenses. And in Winnipeg. But until that happened, they were going to push forward. There’s nothing to worry about until there’s something to worry about, I guess. The stagehands worked at setting up the stage for the Dummies and the orchestra, while we were entertained by a DJ with a wonderful prairie name, DJ Co-op. He kind of looked like Mark Cuban, if Cuban made every decision in his life differently. At one point, he played a Weakerthans song that he mixed with pow wow music and a dubstep beat. It was a thing.
Finally, the Dummies and the orchestra took the stage. No lightning. Never even a hint of it. They launched into God Shuffled His Feet and began what was mostly a greatest hits set (with three songs from their newest album, which is itself now seven years old).
The last time I saw them, about half the show was Brad, Ellen, and Murray, and half also included Dan and Mitch. This time, the whole band played on everything, and the symphony played on about half the songs. The arrangements were nice but not drastic changes – it felt very much the band playing with the orchestra as accompaniment, as opposed to when I’ve seen Ben Folds with the Edmonton Symphony, where everything is reworked with the orchestra in mind.
I took note of the setlist. If you’re not Canadian, you’ll only know one of these. If you are Canadian, and of a certain age, you might recognize around half:
God Shuffled His Feet
The Ghosts That Haunt Me
Swimming in Your Ocean
Put a Face
The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
In the Days of the Caveman
Keep a Lid on Things
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm
Heart of Stone
Encore: Afternoons & Coffeespoons
Not the longest set, but I knew that going in – it was a festival show with start and end times pre-defined. But it was fantastic – the band looked and sounded as good as ever, and they all seemed to be having a great time. Brad, in particular, seemed more genuinely appreciative for the warm reception than I’d seen before.
And they should have been having fun. I mean, I get that this is a weird band for someone to be into, especially in 2017. They’re a one-hit wonder in the US. Even in Canada, they haven’t had a hit song since 1999. But for one more night, they were hometown heroes, playing to a packed crowd of thousands who were excited to be there and sang along with all the hits. I’ve seen the band four times before, but never with an atmosphere like this. I thought this would be a fun concert but it wound up challenging July Talk for my fake-yet-coveted Show Of The Year award.
The band wrapped up, and we hung around the front of the stage for a bit while the crowd thinned out. This process was helped along by fireworks starting the second the concert ended – and they were strategically placed so that you couldn’t really see them with the stage in the way. A unique and clever way to get people to clear out in a hurry. As we waited, Murray Pulver came out to talk to some folks and gave me a big hug when he saw me. We chatted for a little bit and he said I should stick around to talk to everyone else, but I didn’t figure they’d be coming out. And they didn’t, at least not before the security guards started clearing the area of us weirdos who weren’t immediately drawn to the fireworks.
With that, we walked back to the car, past groups of people having the most fascinating conversations. There were inside jokes, dating stories, lyric analysis, all kinds of things. I dropped Kristin off at her place, and became very thankful for the GPS on the drive back to the hotel. I don’t have a good internal compass at the best of times, but without that GPS, I think I’d still be lost in Winnipeg. Or maybe somewhere in Ontario by now. Everything the GPS told me to do was against my instincts and it took me right back to the hotel.
You never know what the future will bring. There’s always a market for nostalgia, but everyone in the band has moved on to post-Dummies activities and I imagine it would be difficult to coordinate future gigs. This show only happened as part of a special event in their hometown. They may never do another show, or they might go on a 25th (ugh, christ) anniversary tour of God Shuffled His Feet next year. Who knows? But if they never play together again, this was an almost perfect way to go out.
I say “almost perfect” because during Afternoons & Coffeespoons, my favourite Dummies song, they got to the part where the harmonica solo should be, and it just wasn’t there. I knew it wouldn’t be a full reunion without Benjamin Darvill, but in that moment, he was especially missed. I don’t know if he chose not to come to this, or if he was ever even asked. Either way, I can’t see him ever playing with them again. I know he’s off doing his own thing, and it’s very different and I really dig it, but still. You know?
• Beck w/McRorie (August 20)
• kd lang w/Kacy & Clayton (August 26)
• Guns N’ Roses w/Our Lady Peace (August 27)
• The Sadies (September 14)
• BA Johnston (September 15)
• Steve Earle & The Dukes (September 27)
• The New Pornographers w/Born Ruffians (October 6)
• Whitehorse w/Terra Lightfoot (October 13)
• Sarah Slean (October 14)
• Martha Wainwright (October 22)
• David Myles (October 24)
• Headstones w/SNAKEandtheCHAIN (November 17)
• Tanya Tagaq & the Regina Symphony Orchestra (November 25)
2fer: Crash Test Dummies – I Don’t Care That You Don’t Mind… and A Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Dummy
I bought this for $0.99 at Sonic Boom. I didn’t realize there were two CDs in here! So, um, bonus!
The 5th Annual Toronto Expedition Series, Part 23 (and 23.5) (CD)
I have a strange relationship with CTD, which I will not go into here (please don’t ask). Suffice it to say, I like them well enough, and I recognize their absolute talent, but they always remind me (personally) of a bad time.
That said, I generally like their records. And I generally like this one, for the very mellow, gentle, plodding exercise that it is. There are a couple of country tunes, which work; later tracks are jazzy.
My relationship with them aside, this is OK!
Obviously a tip-in for the the album (see above), this collects full album tracks of Comin’ Back Soon (The Bereft Man’s Song), Superman’s Song, The Ghosts That Haunt Me, and Androgynous, all earlier songs.
Then we roll into a Susan Demery interview with Brad Roberts (intercut with full tunes we’ve already heard on this CD), and some ‘interview bites,’ which is the interview over again without the full songs from the interview section. A lot of repetition, but there are some insights in here, for what it’s worth.
I told my wife that a bunch of us were doing where-are-they-now posts, and she said “so you’re doing Crash Test Dummies?” and I said “yeah, I don’t want to do any research.”
Anyone who reads this will likely know that I was a fan and I ran their website for a time. You can read more of the backstory in my review from the last times I saw them.
Looking back, that post really also serves as a minor where-are-they-now story and I don’t think much has changed since then. Oh well, not stopping now.
In most of the world, the Dummies were pretty much a one-hit wonder, coming out of nowhere to score huge with Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm from their 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet and disappearing just as quickly. In Canada, however, the Dummies had a near 10-year run starting with Superman’s Song from 1991’s The Ghost That Haunt Me, finding themselves dropped from their label after the release of 1999’s Give Yourself A Hand. During that stretch, they released four albums and over a dozen videos, toured the world, got nominated for Grammys, won Junos, played Saturday Night Live, covered XTC (twice) and The Replacements, were parodied by Weird Al, played with Weird Al, and taught us all the true meaning of Christmas.
But despite all that, yeah, I get it. It’s an unusual band to like. Especially now, years after the fact. Though truth be told, I lost interest in their newer stuff as time went on, band members “left,” and I found myself disappointed by later albums. I never quit following them, though, and I’m still on friendly terms with all of them, which is still a really weird thing to consider.
I said “left” in quotation marks up there because even now, nobody has ever really left the band. Sure, they’re never all getting back together to tour or put out an album, and one member is approaching the 17th year of his hiatus, but hey, if I don’t get an official statement, I’ll take whatever technicality I can get.
So, to return to the title question – because I need to get this posted by midnight(-ish) and don’t have time to compose a more-clever segue – where are they now?
As far as I can tell, the last time the band played together as the the fivesome that made it big was in Toronto in 1999. I was there, not knowing the significance of the show. After that, the remaining four only played together a few times, but Benjamin Darvill never rejoined the band. In early 2000, he released his first two solo albums under the Son of Dave moniker, available exclusively online. A groundbreaking move for its time, but the market wasn’t ready for it. When I saw him that summer, he told me he’d sold fewer than 20 CDs online. This was at a concert where the attendance was in the single digits. It would have been easy for him to retreat back to the Crash Test Dummies name as his best hope for success, but he soldiered on, moving to London and making music there. Since then, he’s gone from busking in the street to releasing several albums, getting songs used in commercials and TV (notably on Breaking Bad), and picking up a devoted following. It’s actually a pretty inspiring story of hard work and determination, if you’re into that sort of thing. His harmonica-driven blues is nothing like the Dummies’ sound and he himself once said “it makes no sense that Son of Dave was part of that band.”
The most recognized Dummy is, of course, lead singer Brad Roberts. He continued putting out albums under the Crash Test Dummies name, sometimes working with past Dummies and sometimes with other musicians. 2010’s Oooh La La was the last album to make it to store shelves, and while it’s still not my favourite, I liked it better than the previous few. More recently, he’s been living in New York, making music and teaching yoga – combining his passions with an album of chanted mantras. After relative silence for the past while, he just recently performed a small series of solo shows.
The other star of the Dummies was Ellen Reid, who sang lead vocals on the XTC cover The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead on the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack. After putting out one solo album, she seemed to withdraw from the music business, returning to tour with Brad in 2010. Now she’s a vegan with cats and a dog and a blog and I think she’d enjoy that description. She recently did her first few solo shows in years as a benefit for an animal rights charity.
Right now, Dummy drummer Mitch Dorge could be anywhere. Who can tell? He posts “right now” pictures on Facebook but they are often from airports. Still based out of Winnipeg, he travels all over to speak and perform at schools. I heard a first-hand report that he does fine work. And if you tell him you know me, he’ll give you a hug to give me. So if you want two free hugs, there’s a tip.
And finally, Dan Roberts, the bass player (and Brad’s brother) lives in Winnipeg. That is super detailed! He is largely out of the public eye, as far as I can tell, so I’ll respect that, but I will volunteer this – he has bad taste in CFL teams. He would say the same about me, and he’d be right.
How’s your month been? Me, I’ve been keeping busy. My girlfriend and I bought a house and we both moved into it (albeit several weeks apart). I’ve also had three out-of-province trips, and I’ve put in a ton of overtime at work. Point being, for once I have a valid excuse for not finishing (or starting) these within a few weeks of the shows. I’d really rather be asleep right now, but we’re going to Luke Doucet in a few weeks, and I can put this off for a loooong time if I put my mind to it. I really don’t like having a review backlog.
It’s been eleven years since I’ve been to a Crash Test Dummies show. Anyone I email these reviews to will know the backstory here, but I’ll try to condense it so the web readers can get caught up quickly. Years ago, a friend started a web site about the Dummies. He got too busy with his real job, so I took the site over. Soon after, the band contacted me and I became their official webmaster from… let’s say 1999 until about 2005. Those numbers might not be exactly right but you get the gist of it. Through that time, I got to know the band a little bit, and today, I consider us friends. Not “let’s hang out all the time” friends, more “occasional Facebook Scrabble game” friends, but that’s still pretty good.
I actually missed that whole period in 1993 or thereabouts when Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm was their big hit. I first heard the Dummies a few years earlier, along with the rest of Canada, when Superman’s Song was completely inescapable. However, I didn’t really become a fan until Afternoons & Coffeespoons, one of the followup singles to Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, hit radio. That’s still my favourite CTD song, and God Shuffled His Feet remains my favourite CTD album. I have no idea what I’d think of the album – or the Dummies as a whole – if I heard them for the first time today, but I still enjoy the earlier albums.
They were big for a few years, but the Dummies’ followup albums didn’t sell as well as their first two, and eventually they got dropped by their label. It seemed like they all went their separate ways. Drummer Mitch Dorge plays with (and produces) local bands in Winnipeg, does a lot of work with local schools, and was featured on the Canadian news show W5 as one of the happiest people in Canada. Multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Darvill started a solo career under the name Son Of Dave, and went from busking on the streets of London to having his music used in Nike commercials. Ellen Reid put out one overlooked solo album, but after that, well, I’m not really sure what she or bassist Dan Roberts got up to. I believe Ellen went back to school and someone told me that Dan had largely quit the music busines and became a chef. And lead singer Brad Roberts continued to release albums under the Crash Test Dummies name, but they never really did it for me. The quirky, clever songwriting seemed to have fallen away in favour of simple moon/June/spoon rhymes in lazy songs about nothing. My decreasing interest in the band, combined with my increasing responsibilities at work, led to me walking away from the webmastering gig.
After several years of relative silence – even by his own recent standards – Roberts re-emerged earlier this year with Oooh La La, the first new Crash Test Dummies album since 2004. He’d previously spoken of abandoning physical media and releasing music solely over the internet, so I was surprised when this came out, more surprised when I actually saw the CD in local stores, and even more surprised when I found that I enjoyed it. There’s no danger of it dislodging God Shuffled His Feet from its position as my favourite CTD album, but the time off and working with new co-writers seemed to do him a world of good. He’d also seriously taken up yoga and had dropped a lot of weight, which couldn’t have hurt.
When the tour dates were announced, I was (again) surprised to see them touring Canada in earnest. I know that Brad was never a fan of being on the road, so I’d expected a handful of shows in and around Toronto, and figured that would be that. Instead, they were going from one end of the country to the other. The Winnipeg show promised to be extra special as it would be a full-band show, with four of the five original members – the Roberts brothers, Reid, and Dorge (as well as former CTD touring guitarist Murray Pulver, who country fans may know of as a member of Doc Walker). Darvill was in town a week earlier with his solo show and I had been hopeful that the whole band would get back together for one night, but I didn’t expect it would actually happen. I’m not so sure he gets along with the rest of them these days. I could be very wrong on that – nobody’s said anything to me. Just kinda reading between the lines there.
The rest of the tour stops were to feature the Dummies as an acoustic trio; west of Winnipeg would see Roberts, Reid, and Pulver, with another former CTD touring guitarist, Stuart Cameron, taking over for Pulver on shows east of Winnipeg. Interested in seeing both shows, I got a ticket for Regina and two for Winnipeg. I let Ellen know that I’d be there and she promised to wave at me from the stage. I knew she would – the last time I saw the Dummies, she sang Happy Birthday to a friend of mine that I was there with. That whole night was one of the best concert experiences I’d ever had.
The Regina show was in The Exchange, a nice little venue that has decent sound and questionable lighting. Not questionable for the fans, but for the band – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a band there that didn’t say “we can’t see any of you” by the third song in. At this show, I did find their seating arrangements a little bit suspect. There weren’t many seats set out by the time I got there, and all of them were filled. That’s fine, I had a post to lean on. But as more people showed up, the venue kindly set out more chairs for them – in front of the people who were already sitting down. Seemed like a dubious decision. Lesson: show up late.
I don’t know how many people were there. I know they were still selling tickets at the door when I got there, but I also know that the Exchange website says it holds 238 people and I had guessed there were around 300 in attendance, so what we’ve really learned is that I can’t estimate for anything. Regardless, if the show didn’t sell out, I think it might have at least come close. Maybe?
The opening act was Colleen Brown, a singer-songwriter from Edmonton. I liked her set well enough, but wouldn’t rush out to buy her album. And really, only a few weeks later, I’m struggling to find much else to say about it than that.
The people behind me really didn’t care for Brown at all. During one song, one of the guys sang along with his own new lyrics: “I waaaaant to be Sarah McLaaaachlan, but I dooooon’t know howwwww.” Mean, not entirely accurate, still kinda funny. Later on, when she said “this will be my last song,” they loudly cheered. That seemed a bit dickish. It was fine. Not instant-love AMAZING, but fine. Judge for yourself at http://radio3.cbc.ca/#/bands/Colleen-Brown – I think she said that Love You Baby was the single. The number of plays on that site would seem to bear that out.
The Dummies took the stage shortly thereafter, and sure enough, two songs in, they mentioned that they couldn’t see us.
The band sounded really good. Brad’s trademark bass baritone sounded less strained than it has in the past, and Murray had a few chances to really show off why he won the 2010 CCMA Guitarist of the Year award. But really, it was Ellen that stood out far beyond the other two. I remember seeing her years ago, and… you know how if someone’s nervous, it always comes through even if they’re trying to hide it? That’s how Ellen came across on stage years ago. Not anymore. For someone who hasn’t done much performing in the past decade (that I know of, anyway), I was amazed at how much more comfortable and confident she’s become on stage. She was chatting with the audience, playfully bickering back and forth with Brad (about things that I’m not going to repeat here because I’ve gotten into enough trouble on the internet with these concert reviews for one lifetime, thank you), and was just basically in complete control of the stage. For someone who always seemed fine with staying out of the limelight, it was a marked change.
I should mention the part where Ellen, just prior to singing lead on the song Put A Face, called to me from the stage – I yelled back and waved with my BlackBerry glowing in hopes that she could actually see it – and she said something like “James is a long-time Crash Test Dummies fan, he’s our favourite, we love him.” I could tell that I was blushing horribly, but hey, she couldn’t see that anyway.
They opened with God Shuffled His Feet, and if you think I’m typing out a full setlist, you’re nuts. For one, I didn’t write it down. For two, you don’t care. I found the Winnipeg setlist online and will copy and paste that in later on. They were almost completely the same, which didn’t surprise me. We got almost of their big singles, though they skipped Keep A Lid On Things, He Liked To Feel It, and My Own Sunrise. (At this point, the Americans are saying “They had more than one single?”) Of course, we also got a lot of songs from the newest album. There was only one song each from the third and fourth albums (A Worm’s Life and Give Yourself A Hand, respectively), and nothing at all from the last few records.
Prior to The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead, Brad told the story of being asked to record the song for the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack. “Sure, Jeff Daniels sitting on the toilet farting away is funny, but when all you have is the script in front of you… it’s like, this could be really funny or about the worst thing ever.” He considering passing on the project, but stopped being concerned about artistic integrity when his manager told him how much they’d pay the band to do it.
He said that Swimming In Your Ocean was a song about sex, clouded in (heavy-handed and not very metaphorical) metaphors because he knew his mom would hear it at some point. This got a great reaction from the crowd, and Brad pointed out the popularity of sexual metaphors in Regina. “That’s all we’ve got!” yelled one fan, which cracked up everyone on stage. Ellen pointed out that we also have potash.
Brad also demonstrated his well-practiced rock star moves, introduced Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm as “the money song,” feigned delight in being asked to play an encore before pointing out that “ENCORE” was clearly written on his setlist, and denied yells of “Superman!” by saying “This isn’t the friggin’ Holiday Inn and I don’t take requests. I’ll get to it in my own good time, and if you don’t like it, get your own band.” He said it with a laugh but I’m guessing he pretty much meant it. They did close the encore with Superman’s Song, though the best audience reaction was for their cover of The Replacements’ song Androgynous. True, that reaction was just from one really excited audience member, who Ellen later referred to as “that girl who yells a lot? Really likes Androgynous?”
After the show, I had the chance to chat briefly with everybody. That was one of the reasons I’d wanted to see the band in Regina – the Dummies are from Winnipeg, so I figured that show would be packed with family and friends that they hadn’t seen in a while. Briefly, Murray is doing well (and still always, always smiling), Ellen nearly leapt over the autograph table to give me a big hug when she saw me, and Brad was chatting with someone else and was pretty much completely disinterested in me. I got a picture with Brad and Ellen – the first one I ever got, which is weird since I’ve known them (to some degree) for over 12 years – and the contrast is pretty hilarious.
I considered dividing this review into two separate chunks. This is where #153 would end and #154 would begin. Not much point in that, though, since I think I got most of my words out already.
The drive to Winnipeg was long and uneventful. Uneventful is a good thing.
I picked up Kristin at her house a few hours before the show and we got Ethiopian food. To get new people up to speed, Kristin and I dated from 1999 to 2004. We’re still friends, which is probably weird. She’s married now, but I’ve never met her husband so I claim that he doesn’t actually exist.
The show in Winnipeg was at the Burton Cummings Theatre, formerly the Walker Theatre. We parked nearby, and a very helpful attendant walked me through the use of the stupidly complex machine where you pay for your parking. She was quite friendly and tried to get me to sing Crash Test Dummies songs. Then she asked us for change because she had no place to sleep that night. I gave her some because she was far more pleasant and helpful than any actual Impark employee I’ve ever had to deal with.
The Walker Theatre – apparently Winnipeg people still call it that – is a gorgeous old building that’s maybe a bit run down. I was concerned that I’d broken my armrest, but I think they were all like that. Kristin said that the bathroom had holes in the walls. It’s a much larger venue than the Exchange, but given that this was the big hometown return, that was to be expected. Also, and I didn’t know this until we got there, the show was being recorded for the CBC. Maybe I’ll update this someday with a link to the concert once it finds its way online.
Colleen Brown was the opener again, and played pretty much the same set as the night before. The people behind me seemed to like her just fine this time out.
The Dummies played mostly the same set as they played the night before. I can’t say I was too surprised. They hadn’t been touring all that long, and the four original band members were together for the first time in years. They opened with The Ghosts That Haunt Me, which they didn’t play in Regina, but I think that was the only “new” song, and one or two of the songs from Oooh La La had been left off the setlist. The full band played on all the older songs, and the songs from the new album were played by the trio from the night before. Much of the bantering with the audience was the same too, though instead of talking to me from the stage this time, Ellen asked her mom if they could have Shake & Bake while she was in town. A tiny voice from the audience said “okay.”
The setlist, stolen from a Winnipeg newspaper that kindly put it online:
- The Ghosts That Haunt Me
- God Shuffled His Feet
- The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead
- Two Knights and Maidens
- And It’s Beautiful
- Just Shoot Me, Baby
- Put a Face
- Playing Dead
- You Said You’d Meet Me (In California)
- Swimming in Your Ocean
- Afternoons & Coffeespoons
- Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm
- What I’m Famous For
- You’re Early
- Superman’s Song
After the show, I got to chat with (and get pictures with) the other Dummies that I hadn’t seen the night before. Mitch, still happy, said that if Kristin has a fake husband, I must have one too, so I decided that Mitch WAS my fake husband. I slow-danced with him once, years ago, so it wasn’t that surprising. Also, my 12-year quest to get a good picture with Mitch must continue – I kinda sorta look like I’m strangling him. Oh well, I’ll have to get one next time, if there is one. I didn’t ever really think that this show would happen, so who knows.
Really, the two days felt like falling into a timewarp. I hadn’t seen the Dummies in over a decade, and I’ve only seen Kristin a few times in the past five years. I kinda wished that I could put on 100 pounds, get a crappy little car, and enjoy pro wrestling again for that true 1999 feeling.
Here are some videos I shot in Winnipeg:
I can’t go so far as to call Oooh La La a return to form for the Crash Test Dummies. I loved their 1993 album God Shuffled His Feet about as much as I’ve loved any album ever. It turned me into a fan of the band immediately; to give you the short version, I became friends with lots of other CTD fans online, I took over a CTD fan site that one of my friends had started, and eventually turned it (with lots of help) into the Crash Test Dummies’ official website. So it’s a bit of an unfair comparison, but regardless, Oooh La-La is not going to set me back on the webmastering path.
The primary appeal of GSHF (we had lots of acronyms back in the website days) was the witty, quirky, intelligent lyrics that were unlike anything else I’d ever heard. I have no idea what I’d think of that album if I heard it for the first time today, but when I was 17, it was fantastic.
Given my personal involvement with the band, I’m a bit leery about publicly admitting that the more recent CTD releases (which were really Brad Roberts’ solo albums) just didn’t do it for me. The witty lyrics were gone, replaced with short little rhyming couplets about nothing at all.
I’ve often thought that Roberts’ songwriting was the victim of its own success. The simplest song on GSHF, lyrically, was Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm, their biggest hit (or, if you’re American, their only hit). Their follow-up album, A Worm’s Life, was full of structurally and lyrically similar songs. Give Yourself A Hand was their next album, and it was the first to feature the lazy, cut-and-paste songs about nothing that would dominate their following records. The lead-off track, Keep A Lid On Things, was their last major Canadian hit.
I remember reading somewhere that Brad found songwriting to be very challenging, so it’s hard to blame the guy for taking shortcuts when there’s almost an inverse relationship between effort and reward.
Point being, I went into Oooh La La with low expectations. But that’s okay, because they were delightfully exceeded. And I can’t take all the credit; I went into the last few albums with low expectations too, but that didn’t help.
Oooh La-La sounds like Brad actually had a good time making it. Working with different songwriters and composing the whole album on toy instruments has resulted in songs that don’t feel as constrained as those on the past few records. There’s no forced genre or theme, and the album as a whole benefits for it. It’s lyrically stronger than its recent predecessors, and the musical variety helps to keep things interesting.
After spewing out way too many words to set the scene, I really don’t want to torture you further by going song-by-song through the whole record. It shouldn’t take as long to read an album review as it would take to listen to the album. So quickly, the highlights include Songbird (though I don’t agree with Brad’s statement that it’s the best song he’s ever written), And It’s Beautiful (complete with chanting – presumably related to Brad’s Satang Circus side project), and Ellen Reid’s closing track Put A Face. My least-favourite tracks are Not Today Baby (if there’s one word that should be banned from any future CTD songs due to overuse, it’s "baby") and What I’m Famous For ("you can go to hell while I comb my hair" – I get distracted by lines that are obviously written just because they rhyme).
In a ranking of all of their records, Oooh La La lands in the top half. If you’ve never been a Crash Test Dummies fan, this won’t do anything to change your mind. And if you’ve never heard them at all, just start with God Shuffled His Feet and go from there. But if you’re familiar with their music and liked it, you would do well to pick this up.
Here’s the third batch of your favourites! Sorry it’s taken so long to get this round posted. I’ve been out of town for the holiday, and working 6 days a week. I will get to all of your choices shortly, trust me!
11 DESEREE: Beck – Mutations
Deseree offered up this Beck collection of songs as her entry into this project. While she said it might not be her favourite album of all time, it’s the one that she finds herself playing most often. Fair enough! I remember my lovely wife buying a copy of Mutations on the day of our first date (and what that says about our relationship, I shudder to think!), and she was very happy with the record from the first spin (and the date didn’t go too badly either!).
Beck has always been weird, going out onto limbs that other people didn’t even necessarily know were there, in order to bring us his sound of mish-mashed influences and new creations. Each new album is a new facet, and it’s a wonder there’s any cohesion to his work at all (and yet there usually is). Mutations is, to me, largely a record for later at night, for quieter and thoughtful moments. A lot of the songs (except Tropicalia, of course), are slower, more introspective, but still sound fantastic. It’d been a long time since I’d heard this, and I thank Deseree for reminding me of its existence!
12 BRENT: Genesis – A Trick Of The Tail
Brent said this album, more than Selling England By The Pound, is the one he considers his favourite. Though he loves the whole record, he said it is due in large part to his love of the way the last track (Los Endos) lets his mind just space out and go wherever it wants. Well then, right on, man!
When I played it back, having never actually heard any of these songs (though I am surely acquainted with Genesis, especially their later years, in general), I was quite surprised. It was a fun romp through a mixture of jazzy and spacey lyrics and instrumental experimentation, and more typical Genesis-sounding tracks. Somehow it all holds together as a pop album, and that’s cool. It definitely sounds like the mid-70’s to me, though I’m not really sure that that holds water as a description…
Wikipedia tells me that this was their first effort post-Peter Gabriel, and that Phil Collins was initially reluctant to sing. Interesting.
13 LORI, MARIE AND BROOKE: Not Knowing Their Faves, But Still Playing The Game!
Some people, when asked the question for this project, didn’t have an exact answer…
Lori said she likes Air Supply, but didn’t know the album she liked or the colour of the cover. She just knew she liked it. I got the impression she didn’t really want to play this game for too long, though, so I am satisfied with this much information.
Marie said she really liked that song by Laura Brannigan, “you know the one, right?” She hummed a bit of it for me, but I didn’t recognize it, and she didn’t know the name of the record or the song either. Oh well, at least she knows what she likes in her own head!
Brooke said that her friends just burn CDs of stuff they are listening to for her, and she plays those. She doesn’t seem to care who the artists are or what the albums are called, and she didn’t offer up one as a favourite – she seemed to treat them all equally.
Interesting times, indeed. A band but no album, an unknown song but no title or album, and indifference towards anything specific. This question has brought out a lot of interesting responses. I’m having an inordinate amount of fun, doing this…
14 LORRAINE: U2 – Rattle And Hum
Lorraine said this record, above all others, was her favourite. And from what I know of Lorraine, her choice of U2 does not surprise me at all. Maybe choosing this particular record, instead of Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby surprised me a bit, but then again, not really.
I have a real love/hate thing with U2. I loved their earlier stuff, thought it was strong and passionate. I was with them right up to and including Achtung Baby, but even by then I was starting to have to admit that their new stuff wasn’t grabbing me in that same, visceral way. Hate is a strong word, but I never cared at all for their pop/dance experimentations, Bono’s extracurricular circus activities are an obnoxious distraction, and the new stuff is just re-tread parodies of themselves. It all sounds the same. Maybe they’ve just gotten so full of themselves and so popular that they don’t have to try anymore? People are slobbering all over themselves in anticipation of the new U2 record coming out soon, but I can tell you how it’ll sound – just like the last one (and that wasn’t particularly good at all). Big deal.
Not being a particularly religious person (so it’s a wonder I liked this group’s earlier stuff at all), I always considered Rattle And Hum my Sunday morning church music. I played it on tape every week (and plenty besides that) until I finally wore it out. The songs here soar and glide with that energy they were just starting to lose by then. Call this their last gasp. It’s a nice mix of live and studio tracks, and any record with B.B. King on it is good for me. I know every note of this record by heart, and it still lifts me now, to hear it again after all these years. Too bad they had to go and start sucking so hard. Thanks, Lorraine, for bringing me back my Sunday morning music!
15 JAMES: Crash Test Dummies – God Shuffled His Feet
James loved the Crash Test Dummies. I’m not exactly sure where he stands on them these days, but I get the sense it’s still love, just not as strong. Whatever the current status, he chose this as his favourite record, and none of us are too surprised!
It’s hard for me to listen to this band. Their first record was playing in the tape deck when I had my first serious car accident. Such associations tend to make me not want to listen. Imagine that. But in the interests of this project, I have sucked up my own mental bullshit and ventured into the tracks on this record.
It’s been years since I heard more than one track by this group in a row, and I was pleasantly surprised by how the tidy and fun production has captured the Dummies in their prime. The songs sound great, like they were made by actual humans. And yes, their lyrics are quirky and different, and yes, Brad Roberts’ voice still sounds a bit like a put-on (even though we know it’s not), but this collection of songs is intelligent and highly, truly entertaining. I know this group was big in this country, at one point, but they should probably have been bigger. This record is a perfect example of why.