And the highlight of Week Two is ….
153. I Feel Possessed: Crowded House, Ottawa Bluesfest, Lebreton Flats, Ottawa, Ontario, Thursday July 15, 2010, $40.
Two nights on from the Arcade Fire gig that I thought was a mixed bag, and here I was again with Cublet in tow at the Lebreton Flats. The intervening evening saw headliner Santana draw the biggest audience of the festival, when 35,000 came out to groove with Mr. C, preceded by Steve Winwood.
Abraxas and a few songs aside, I can take or leave Santana (and don’t even get me started on that thing that came out a decade ago which seemed to tyrannize me everywhere I went). Winwood, however, is another story, in particular owing to his being part of the great Traffic, a band that will always be dear to my heart (and the Spencer Davis Group wasn’t half bad either). I like bits and pieces of his solo work too, but it’s the Traffic material I wanted to see and hear.
However, unlike Week One, I was back at work during this second week and just too pooped to head down and see Mr. Fantasy — and from what I understand, he was indeed on his game with lots of Traffic material. Sigh. I can’t do ‘em all.
Since I knew that both of us would be heading out tonight for Crowded House, I gave Stevie and Santana a pass, in lieu of Neil Finn and Nick Seymour. We both figured it would be a perfectly pleasant evening of smartly crafted pop. As it turns out, the word “pleasant” didn’t quite do justice to what I was lucky enough to witness on this night. If Hole were the big surprise of Week One of the festival, then Crowded House took that crown during Week Two, albeit with a radically different type of set and appeal. It took the Arcade Fire most of a set to reach the heights I’d hoped for; Crowded House hit their intended mark early and then steered the plane upwards toward heights I simply hadn’t expected.
Twenty years ago, I knew many Crowded House enthusiasts. I liked the band too and, working in record stores full-time and part-time during most of their initial run, heard each of those LPs a hundred or so times apiece. I certainly enjoyed them but ultimately found the records a tad too polite, with a dash too much of antiseptic 80s-itis in the production. I did see Crowded House on the tour for their second disc, Temple of Low Men (coming up as no.54), but the real reason I bought a ticket to that concert was to see opening act Richard Thompson. Regardless, it was an enjoyable experience but didn’t necessarily deepen nor distract from how I felt about them.
Crowded House perform “I Feel Possessed” during their superb July 15, 2010, Ottawa Bluesfest appearance. And, indeed, we all did.
Many years later, following their dissolution, original drummer Paul Hester’s suicide, and their 2006 re-grouping, here I am going to see them a second time after not having listened to them since Round 1 of their career.
Greeted by 20,000 folks, almost all of whom seemed to be original fans, Crowded House sauntered onstage amid glowing plastic lambs, geese, and moose, launching into a crisp “I Feel Possessed” from Low Men. As I stood listening, I was struck by just how fresh the song — and how good the band — sounded. Really good. Maintaining the high spirit, they followed up with a string of numbers including “Something So Strong” and “Fall At Your Feet,” with Neil Finn in strong voice throughout the evening.
As the set proceeded, the words and details of these songs that I largely hadn’t heard in decades came rushing back as if from yesterday, only better than I had remembered. However, about midway through the set, things seemed to take a jump into an even deeper, more satisfying realm with “Hole in the River.” This confection from their debut was delivered here as an extended piece, complete with an ambient intro, a closing jam, and trippy, shifting marble colours flashing behind them. These aren’t necessarily the aspects that come to mind when one thinks of Crowded House, one of a number of sometimes pronounced, sometimes subtle turns and accents that underscored the band’s set.
They surprisingly followed “River” with probably their best known number, “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” one that I thought they’d save for later on. These two songs seemed to flick a switch that cumulatively drove the rest of the show to an increasingly richer satisfaction. Ultimately, from a purely musician-centric point-of-view, this set gave Wilco’s March 1, 2010 performance at the NAC a run for its money in terms of inspired musicianship that was always tasteful and passionate without falling into being a techie-muso wank job.
Invoking Wilco is probably a good point of reference for what Crowded House are currently delivering live, as the latter now play and sound exactly how I always wanted them to. The aforementioned “politeness” of their sound has been shaded slightly left into some earthier, more elemental. Their rigid corners have now been gently bent and relaxed, revealing a live sound that is warmer and more ensemble-oriented. It’s not a wild departure in approach, but subtle enough to remove the “not withstanding” clauses from their work for me, maintaining all that was and is best about their chiming Lennon/McCartneyesque song craft, now melded to a more organic, fluid approach and feel. (The Band also went through my mind watching them on this night, in terms of the more aggregated feel of their current live sound, something that newer American members, Mark Hart and Matt Sherrod, must lay some claim to in what they’re bringing to the table).
Performing “Twice If You’re Lucky” from Intriguer in Ottawa.
If the first half of House’s set was terrific, then they hit it out of the ball park during the second. New songs “Archer’s Arrows” and “Twice If You’re Lucky” from Intriguer stood toe-to-toe with their best material from career Mk.1, set closer “Locked Out” came over more akin to The Clash, and in my notes for an outstanding “Chocolate Cake” I jotted down “swampier / looser/ FANTASTIC.”
Following a well-earned demand for an encore, Crowded House returned and delighted the audience by hauling out the greatest moment from Neil Finn’s previous band, Split Enz, “I Got You.” After getting the throngs cheering and dancing, they closed out the night with one of the best ballads in the House’s catalogue, a beautifully rendered “Better Be Home Soon.”
Crowded House encore with Split Enz’s “I Got You” at Bluesfest.
Nights like this encapsulate one of the joys of gig-going: the surprise and the re-assessment. I could say that I’d forgotten how good they were except that I don’t think I ever truly regarded or enjoyed Crowded House on the level that I did on this evening during these 90 minutes. Twenty-five years on, I had my epiphany. I felt possessed, and obviously they did too, delivering rich interpretations of this great skewed, superior pop.
Clearly this is a band I had under-appreciated and am damn glad I had the chance to re-appraise. If Crowded House are coming anywhere near a venue close to you, do yourself a favour and DO NOT MISS.
P.S. I picked up Recurring Dream: The Best of Crowded House on the way out and I must say, their recordings have aged beautifully, even the production sounds a lot less fussy to me than it did back in the day. I had been taking them for granted.
Also, if anyone may just happen to have a soundboard recording of this show …
Just sayin’. (Drop me a line)
© 2010/12 VariousArtists