Review – Art Bergmann at the Commodore Ballroom, Sept 6 2014
– by Thalia Stopa
As Whitecaps spectators flowed over the Cambie bridge from downtown on Saturday night, I walked against the wave of soccer fans en route to see Vancouver punk icon Art Bergmann’s performance at the Commodore. Considering Bergmann’s penchant for going against the tide and tackling issues that few fellow Juno-award-winning musicians dare to touch, the journey was an apt start to the evening.
I have been made an honorary Vancouverite through having lived in various parts of the city for eight-plus years. So, every now and then when I get wind of a bona fide local icon playing a show, I feel a need to attend or admit my fraudulence. I am motivated by a combination of self-induced guilt and obligation as a transplanted Prairie girl, as well as an internal wiring for information and knowledge in order to validate my adopted citizenship. It was this combination of neuroses and curiosity that led me to a balcony seat overlooking variations of hairlines and colours this weekend.
The show began with another proud East Vancouverite, C.R. Avery, whom I caught a glimpse of as he exited the stage, outfitted in a red velour tracksuit. The line-up at the Granville venue overall was a diverse roster of homegrown musical acts of various punk incarnations. Like a less riotous Bikini Kill, pop-punkers The Courtneys brought the schoolyard to the elegant ballroom with their playground chants. Drummer/singer Jen Twynn Payne informed the audience that it was the band’s first time playing at the Commodore, which lent their set an extra air of novelty and an “aw shucks” attitude. Payne – along with guitarist Courtney Loove and bassist Sydney Koke – recently toured the States as one of the opening bands for Tegan and Sara. So in that respect – playing to thousands – their cherries had already been popped. Yet the twee band’s sound was still not at home in the 1000-capacity theatre. Their charming, bratty attitude amounted to feeble fist-blows, absorbed by the cavernous swanky space. Environment aside, the Courtneys gals – self-described as “classic”, “cute” and “crazy” – won me over with their bop-able melodies about boys and being broke and jobless. The girls ended with their homage to sudsy 90s MTV, “90210”.
Headliner Art Bergmann has always had noble intentions and grand ideas about what he wants to say with his music. Everything that I read in the press prior to his Commodore appearance led me to believe that the 61-year-old had retained his outspoken and spunky attitude despite his 19-year hiatus from recording. To prepare the stage for the outspoken headliner, a piano bench was placed at the microphone to accommodate the songwriter’s scoliosis-inflicted back. Bergmann wasn’t reliant on the crutch though, although he made creative use of it to remove his guitar so that he could take off his jacket and untuck his crisp, white shirt. The singer was loose and frivolous with his impassioned vocals, which cracked, strained and yelped, yet still remained in control. In addition to playing songs off of his new album, Songs for the Underclass, Bergmann and his band alternated jerkily between twangier songs like “Hospital Song” (Sexual Roulette, 1990) and punkier numbers.
As much as I wanted to be inspired to outrage, the epiphany and education that I was hoping to gain from the night’s musical experience never came. The singer delivered a performance that likely spoke to his fans, who probably already have shared opinions and awareness, but couldn’t connect with or stimulate me. The noisier songs were definitely the highlight of his set – such as “My Empty House” off 1988’s Crawl With Me – but they lacked any truly memorable elements.
Aside from the obvious disparity in size between the Commodore and the Biltmore, where Bergmann last performed, I fail to believe that the increase in seating translated to a bigger reach.