Headstones reviews are hard to write. They’re really fun shows, but more or less the same every time out. You know it’ll be loud, lots of swearing, probably some spitting (though this has been dialed this back over time and I can’t say I mind), Hugh Dillon will run around in the crowd a lot. I even know which covers they’re going to play. All of this is fine – it doesn’t stop me from going to see them every time they come through town. But I could rerun old reviews for the most part. Hopefully I’ll have enough sense to make this short.
Got to the casino with plenty of time to pick up my ticket. No incidents this time out. Saw the same guy from work that I always see at Headstones shows. Killed time playing phone games until the show started. Christ, this is riveting.
Our openers were the Matchstick Skeletons, who got off to an inauspicious start through no fault of their own when the local radio idiot introduced them as the Matchbox Skeletons before correcting himself. They were fine. Decidedly better than Snake and the Chain from the last show, but far less memorable as a result. “You didn’t suck so bad that I’ll remember you forever” is probably not as much of a compliment as I intend it to be.
They felt restrained at points; the harder songs with more energy were fun, but too many just didn’t quite get there. They also covered Fame and (part of) When Doves Cry and it’s an interesting choice to cover well-known songs by legends. They can be crowd-pleasing numbers but you’re probably not going to compare favourably to David Bowie or Prince – few will. At least When Doves Cry was redone as a rock song, as opposed to the note-for-note soundalike version of Fame.
Speaking of covers, I am the last person on Earth to realize that the Headstones song Tweeter and the Monkey Man is a Traveling Wilburys cover. This is doubly egregious because Mika has played the Wilburys song for me before, years ago, but I forget things. Apparently the Wilburys version has more verses and makes more sense. Talking to Jeff about this, he said that it sounds more like the Wilburys slowed down a Headstones song than the Headstones sped up a Wilburys song. Personally, listening to the Wilburys’ version now, it sounds like when Mika and I are on a road trip and she makes us listen to podcasts at 1X speed instead of my normal 1.5X.
The Headstones were touring to promote the 25th anniversary re-issue of Picture of Health, their first album. This would probably make me feel super old if I was listening to them then. The entire set, before the encore, was the album in full. So a little less variation than their normal shows, but whatever, it’s a good album, lots of songs I like on it. As before, Dillon ran into the crowd a bunch and I felt for the poor techs and security staff who had to chase after him. And as before, they played a bit of Low Rider and New Orleans is Sinking.
After Tweeter, which is four songs in, Dillon asked the crowd to put their phones away so he could tell stories and we could watch the show, adding that he’d let us bring them back out later. Most folks cheered and happily did so. One guy tried taking a video of the next song, which seemed like an unwise choice given that he was close enough to the front for Dillon to see him, and Dillon had already shown a propensity for running out into the crowd. Phone went away. “I’m not going to kick you out or anything, I’m just asking you to be a man of your fucking word.”
The stage setup was pretty simple, but the lights, fog machines, and projector were all employed to good effect and gave the show a really cool look. I got a few pictures at the start and a few more during the encore once the ban was lifted, but I won’t lie – there were still a few times when I would have liked to snap a quick picture. Which is dumb; they never look good and I never go back and look through old ones. Regardless, I wasn’t about to risk incurring the wrath (or disappointment, which would be worse) of Dillon.
I won’t go into detail on the stories – if he didn’t want them recorded, he probably didn’t want them transcribed either – but it was a lot of stuff about growing up in Kingston. Some of it funny, some of it touching. Dillon went to high school with the guys from the Tragically Hip, Finny McConnell from the Mahones, and David Usher. What a ridiculous amount of talent in just a few years.
For the encore, they started with the cover of The Gambler that they now seem to do at every show. Dillon then polled the audience to see what they wanted to hear, and the calls for Cubically Contained lost out to Unsound. Or maybe that was just the plan all along. They also played Fuck You and Smile and Wave and, somewhere in there, a bit of The House of the Rising Sun. Nothing I hadn’t seen before. And Dillon said they’re coming back in 2020 and I’ll see it all again then.
We’ve seen a lot of 90s Can-rock shows of late. Of them all – Watchmen, I Mother Earth, Big Wreck, Our Lady Peace, Limblifter, Age of Electric, Big Sugar, The Tea Party – I enjoyed the Headstones the best. They weren’t my favourite of that list back in the day – that would be Our Lady Peace – but the Headstones stuff holds up the best for me. I really enjoyed their show last year and was looking forward to their return.
This time out, they were paired with SNAKEandtheCHAIN. I didn’t pick the spacing and capitalization. When we arrived at the casino, there was a Headstones banner on stage, partially covered by a SNAKEandtheCHAIN banner. It looked like we were there to see HEASNAKEandtheCHAINNES.
You may recall that I saw Bif Naked on the night of the US election – how it is possible that was only a year ago? – and that night, her guitarist was her husband, Snake. If I didn’t call him Snake Naked then, I apologize. I should have. Anyway, he’s the Snake (or SNAKE) of SNAKEandtheCHAIN. At one point, they got referred to as “SNAKEandtheCHAIN featuring Bif Naked,” so I assume the third guy, Kuryakin, is the chain. Or CHAIN. And Bif’s just Bif.
I mentioned this last year but here’s a quick refresher regarding my feelings about Bif Naked: I used to like some of her stuff before losing interest. It was nice to see her last year, but I didn’t leave that show feeling like I’d rekindled my fandom or anything. Still, I was interested to see what her new band was all about.
The show started with Snake and Kuryakin. Snake hooked up an iPhone and lip-synched I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You. I guess he did sing some of it, since he tried to sing “take my hand” over the “shall I stay” part. Let’s assume they were just going for something silly here.
Bif Naked joined them and they launched into their first proper song, Heavy. Over the kind of music a wrestler would have entered the ring to in 1999, Bif told us, over and over, that her baby, she likes it heavy.
Then she asked who there had a safeword. “MORE is my safeword,” said Snake. Did you think that was a clever joke? Would you still think that was a clever joke after a song that repeated it over and over?
Somewhere in the crowd was JP, a guy I know from work. I’d say “a friend from work” but we never actually talk, apart from when I email him to tell him that the Headstones are coming to town, and he emails me back to let me know that he already knew (but thanks). I sent him a note on Facebook. I NEEDED to know his opinion of what we were watching.
Before the next song, Snake Naked said “you can’t even look at a woman these days without getting arrested.” Now, I’m a reasonable person. I’m willing to accept that this was said in jest. But it sure didn’t sound like it, and apart from one fellow who was in vocal agreement, the crowd didn’t really seem to know how to take it. This led into a song “about a bad boy named Frankie” who “forgot to thank me” and is “gonna get a spanking.” You may note that Frankie, thank me, and spanking all kind of rhyme. We eventually found out that Frankie forgot to thank Bif Naked for, among two other things, “swallowing your cum.” This went on for… I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been a half-hour, but it didn’t feel any less.
Next, Bif started telling a story about how Snake broke free from a Siberian prison to be here today. Mika asked if I’d like to go get drinks in the lobby instead. So we did. The bar in the casino lobby is famously slow. It took over 20 minutes to get our drinks with only maybe 10 people in front of us. I didn’t mind. We could have been back in the show lounge listening to SNAKEandtheCHAIN. Things could have been worse.
I will say that some people seemed into the show. These people were wrong, but they definitely existed. Meanwhile, we were throwing around “what the fuck was that,” “I feel embarrassed for them,” “worst band I’ve seen in years and maybe ever,” “I’m starting to reconsider my feelings about Cage the Elephant,” “do you think he’s holding Bif Naked hostage,” and “but seriously, what the fuck was that?”
On Facebook, JP replied that he’d found a good spot to stand, otherwise he’d have left too. I guess the standing spot wasn’t THAT good as we eventually saw him and his brother in the lobby. We traded theories about what we had just seen. Mika suggested that the Headstones owed Bif Naked money and so they had to let her band come on tour.
As we nursed our drinks in the lobby, we could faintly hear that they were playing Bif Naked hits Spaceman and I Love Myself Today. I choose to assume they were done well. I considered going back to listen to them but thought better of it.
I try to be positive when I write these things and I accept that some things just aren’t going to be my jam. So I will say that the sound system was good and we could hear all of the insipid repetitive lyrics really clearly. And Bif Naked seems like a really nice lady and I feel kind of bad about this whole thing. But this was terrible.
Drinks done, SNAKEandtheCHAIN (and their banner) gone, we went back into the show lounge. What can I even say about the Headstones after all that? They were exactly what you’d expect and exactly what I wanted from them. Loud, all their hits, all the fan favourites, some new stuff. And a few covers – they did The Gambler which they said they’ve been playing live ever since doing it in Regina last time and the crowd went nuts for it. And in various songs, they did part of Low Rider and two Hip classics, Blow at High Dough and New Orleans is Sinking. The show sold out a while back and people were really into it.
For a bunch of the early songs, there was one guy whose whole job seemed to be microphone cord wrangler so that Hugh Dillon could run out into the crowd. Eventually they got him a wireless mic. Dillon ran right past us, brushing past me, then came back and was singing Low Rider about four feet from us. This was all very cool.
Fun time, would go again. And yet, I couldn’t help but feel they were overshadowed by SNAKEandtheCHAIN. I mean, I enjoyed the Headstones but I’ll remember SNAKEandtheCHAIN for years.
On the way out, we walked by someone who said that Hugh Dillon was a badass and that the Headstones would chew up SNAKEandtheCHAIN and spit them out. Which, really, is all you need to know. There’s a lesson there about being concise; one I will surely ignore.
Formed in Kingston in 1987, Headstones were built to kick ass and take names. Mission accomplished. As Wiki rightly points out: “They frequently sold out at small and mid-sized venues and were known for their high energy live shows, particularly the antics of (Hugh) Dillon, who interacted with his audience in a variety of ways including spitting on them and hurling lit cigarettes into mosh pits. The songwriting tackled many serious and taboo topics, including suicide and even necrophilia.”
This, the trio’s first record (in 1993), is a blast and a total nostalgia trip all wrapped up in one!
It’s All Over is a great title for a first song on your first record, eh? Haha go boys! It’s a corker of a rocker, totally refreshing amongst all the grunge angst on the airwaves. Heart Of Darkness is hit if I ever heard one, mid-tempo and hitting hard right outta the corner. Goddamn.
Then it’s my fave from back in the day, first single When Something Stands For Nothing. With acoustic guitar breaks in between the rocking, it’s catchy as hell a great mix of literate and goofy lyrics, and just punk enough to be sure to rock the bar (complete “oo-hoo-hoo-hoos” thrown in!). Just a great track. Tweeter And The Monkey Man is a rockin’ cover of the Traveling Wilburys track (which was a loose homage to Bruce Springsteen) and, guess what, I think it’s brilliant.
Absolutely keeps the pace up, another rocker with that (by now) signature Headstones sound. Three Angels finally slows things a bit, breaking out the acoustic guitars for a strummy bluesy hit. Love the lyrics here. Eventually the band comes in but it keeps that feel, just louder (and with keys)!
Oh My God! crashes with feedback into life, and it’s a huge stomper of a rock tune. Distortion, rumbling bass, crashing drums. Yes! But hold onto your teeth because Losing Control is a punk puncher at 100 mph hell yes! What a joyous noise! If they ever played this live, it must’ve just pummelled the crowd.
Cut pulls things back into a bluesy slinky tune that still sounds like only the Headstones can muster. This should have been a radio track, if you ask me. It’s glorious! Another album highlight, for me. Judy is another template Headstones rocker, building from gentler into heavier, but those keys are in the forefront and so it’s never boring!
Won’t Wait Again is another strummer, first electric the acoustic, and when the band joins in it’s a beautiful waltz that pulls you in and swinging you around and around and around, you won’t want it to stop… plus a harmonica solo! Up next it’s Where Does It Go? lulls you into thinking it’s a continuation of the previous track, but whammo! Full on rocker with a huge bottom end and tons of menace. It eases off, you think you’re in the clear, then whammo! Not a chance brother! Go go go!
And finally it’s Cemetery, which appeared on the Hard Core Logo DVD (for those sharp to notice it). It’s another album highlight track for me, blasting away at 100 mph with a punk metal rockabilly feel to it all. And listen to those lyrics (“Went down to the cemetery, looking for love… got there, and my baby was buried, had to dig her up!”) Er, well, there’s the necrophilia. The heavy breathing was creepy, Hugh, goddamn!
This record rocks you silly with its bar band punker energy, and it’s a ton of fun, but they had a lot to say and you’d do damn well to listen. They quickly establish their sound, here, and it’s a keeper. Pure greatness from our home and native land!