Be Nice Tanyas!
The Be Good Tanyas Live at the Vogue Theatre, Vancouver BC
February 11, 2012
Concert review by Douglas Heselgrave
We’ve all been stuck in the middle of someone else’s argument or witness to a nasty breakup, and no matter how many times it happens, or how hard you try to ignore it, it doesn’t get any less uncomfortable. Attending the Be Good Tanyas concert at the Vogue Theatre last Saturday night was – at times – like being stuck in the middle of a circular family dispute and not being able to find the exit.
At first, I thought I was imagining things, but part way through the second set, the audience was clearly uncomfortable with the dysfunction on stage and loud voices could be heard shouting ‘Kiss and Make Up’, ‘BE-Have Tanyas’, ‘Get Over Yourselves’ and ‘We Love You, stop fighting!’ When the concert had finished with the ninety or so minutes of often heavenly music still hovering in the air like sweet oleander, the crowd shuffled out, and the conversations I overheard were more of the ‘Do you think they really hate each other that much, or is it just an act?’ variety than any kind of discussion of the music. And, that’s really sad because like many things in life, we often don’t realize what we’ve got until it’s long gone, and the Tanyas have got something really magical and special going on that transcends whatever personal difficulties or ego abrasions they may be collectively suffering. So, what happened?
After a hiatus of five or so years, at the invitation of the City of Vancouver’s 125th anniversary committee and the Winnipeg Folk Festival, The Be Good Tanyas regrouped and committed to a limited series of performances last summer. As one of the best-loved outfits in Canada’s musical history, this came as good news to almost everyone. Their return to the stage couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time as it also marked the tenth anniversary of ‘Blue Horse’, their debut album that still sounds as good as it did a decade ago.
Perhaps things happened too quickly for Sam Parton, Frazey Ford and Trish Klein. At first, they were just friends who enjoyed playing music together and they admittedly didn’t have a plan of where they wanted to take things. This ‘light’ approach paid off and the combination of their appealing personas, gorgeous voices and impeccable taste in roots music made them an instantly endearing and enjoyable group of musicians to listen to and spend time with. But, as often happens when a hobby or diversion becomes a career, reality, pressure and expectation kick in, and to my ears the group never sounded as good again as they did when they recorded ‘Blue Horse’ almost ‘by accident’ as Sam Parton claims. Sure, ‘Chinatown’ and ‘Hello Love’ have beautiful musical moments on them, and they still receive regular rotation in our house, but the perfect transcendent beauty that flows through their debut can’t be created by hard work alone. It requires a certain amount of letting go, a certain amount of trust, and faith in each other to create the musical alchemy that ‘Blue Horse’ effortlessly communicates.
Creative people lay themselves on the line time and time again. The history of pop music is full of people who didn’t get along. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee didn’t talk for the last twenty years they toured together. The arguments between Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were legendary, and the other members of The Grateful Dead reportedly couldn’t stand to be in Jerry Garcia’s presence for much of the early eighties. Fair enough, but the difference is that the musicians mentioned above kept their disputes private and the concerts I heard each of them give during their periods of dissent weren’t affected by their personal shit. They never badmouthed each other on stage.
The Be Good Tanyas concert on Saturday was a missed opportunity. As individuals, each of them played beautifully and their musical ability has deepened over the years. Trish Klein’s guitar playing has never sounded so fluid, subtle and understated. She is a great musician who sounded better than ever for never overplaying or showing off. Sam and Frazey sang like angels, so in many ways the performance the trio gave at the Vogue Theatre reflected the best of their abilities. Songs like ‘Only in the Past’ were so beautiful that shivers literally ran up and down my spine. People around me had tears in their eyes as Sam lead the band through an extended jazzy version of ‘The Littlest Birds’. For, the Tanyas don’t simply present old timey music with traditional three part harmonies. They work within the country and folk genres and obviously love and honour that music, but what they offer their audience is far more complex and daring. The virtuoso stops and starts, shifts in tone and voicing they effortless command reflect a love of singing and melody that can’t be faked. Frazey’s deep, slurred vocal approximations lay down a wash that Trish and Sam delineate and darken in a way that often brings their music closer to cutting edge jazz than to the Stanley Brothers. To sing like that requires concentration, commitment and co-operation. Add to that, the melodies from Sam’s guitar and mandolin that interweave so beautifully with Trish’s electric guitar and Frazey’s battered acoustic and creations of rare and complex beauty are often the result.
The Be Good Tanyas are a band for the ages, and the hometown audience who gathered on a pre-Valentine’s Saturday night, obviously adored them and were with them through every twist and turn in their music. Beautiful versions of Neil Young’s ‘Birds’, a reworked ‘For the Turnstiles’ and a soaring, jam band style cover of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ were among the evening’s many highlights. One would have to dig very deep to come up with any musical complaints about the concert.
It was only when the music stopped, that the show went awry. Without belaboring the point, it seemed as if whenever a song ended, the trio stood uncomfortably, not quite sure of how to proceed. Sam would usually break the silence with an off colour joke or bizarre comment that Frazey appeared to have no patience for. A snarky banter would develop that for the first half of the concert Trish appeared to watch with bemused patience, but as the show progressed and things devolved, she began to intervene as things threatened to fall apart around her. Every time they started singing again, the music seemed to wash over them, and it was amazing to see each of their bodies relax and transform as they immersed themselves in the beauty and perfection of the sounds they conjured.
The show ended and as I listened to dozens of people try to come to terms with what they had just spent the evening exposing themselves to, I wondered how I would capture the essence of the evening in words. Sam Parton is an old friend, and the temptation to write nothing and see what happens next before committing to any words is as strong as the obligation to report. Some things in life are best forgotten, but then, what about the music? It was often exquisitely beautiful, and occasionally transcendent as with each song, each note, there were hints of great, truly groundbreaking things to come. No one can do quite what the Be Good Tanyas do musically. They have something truly special that’s hard to put into words, and in their more reflective moments when the nervousness of performing has passed, I hope they can hear and appreciate it for themselves.
Maybe it’s because I’m turning fifty in a few months and I realize that life just goes so darned fast. So, when I hear music as sublime as I heard on Saturday threaten to derail over issues that maybe simply aren’t that important, it makes me sad. The Be Good Tanyas sounded great, and I have a sneaking suspicion they love each other as much or more than we love them. I hope they realize what they have, find a way to work things out and know that I and thousands of other fans have got their back and are cheering for them.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates