The Rheostatics’ Last Waltz

Rheostatics, circa 2006

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been a witness last night to my beloved Rheostatics‘ last concert. After more than twenty years together, they’ve decided to call it quits as a band, although all of the members will continue to make music.

The event was held at the fittingly historic Massey Hall, a large and yet intimate space that has been the venue for some of my most memorable evenings of music. Last night was no different. Unfortunately, my favourite Rheo Martin Tielli had voice problems that prevented him from unleashing his trademark falsetto as well as some technical issues with his guitar, but it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment. One of the band’s trademarks has been their shambolic and sometimes uneven live shows, and last night seemed to be a summary of their career. They played over three hours, and seemed reluctant to call it a night, coming back for a second encore where they sat huddled on the edge of the stage around Dave Bidini’s acoustic guitar and singing without mikes.

The set covered the range of their long career, but was understandably weighted toward their two greatest albums, Melville (1991) and Whale Music (1992). After hearing these songs for maybe the hundredth time (and maybe 20 times live), I’m still convinced that two finer albums have not emerged from this country.

Their music was impossible to categorize, with three and sometimes four songwriters in the band, but somehow these guys from Etobicoke, Ontario seemed to resonate with Canadians all across the country, especially in smaller places where “cooler” bands didn’t play live. The crowd at their shows always seemed incredibly diverse, with young and old fans side by side, and there was something incredibly sincere about them, whether they were performing stinging political songs, spacey art-rock, or irony-free covers of Canadian standards by Gordon Lightfoot or Stompin’ Tom Connors. No band that I’m aware of has had such an ambitious reach, from making a children’s record, scoring a film, and accepting a commission from the National Gallery of Canada to create a piece of music celebrating Canadian painters The Group of Seven. The Rheostatics did all of this and more, and despite a lack of commercial success, cultivated a small but devoted following right across the country.

I found myself choking up a few times during the show, especially between songs when, amid shouted song requests, people could be heard yelling “Thank you” and “We’re going to miss you.” I’ve never been part of anything like that before, and it made me feel happy, sad, and old all at the same time. I was at the show with my wife Brooke, and in the row in front of us were my friend Brent and his girlfriend Kim. Brent introduced me to the band way back in 1992 while we were sharing an apartment, and it’s sobering to think of how long we’ve been friends, and fans. But even though it was a bittersweet feeling, there was nowhere else on God’s green earth that I wanted to be last night.

3 thoughts on “The Rheostatics’ Last Waltz”

  1. I shot a couple of songs at the Thursday March 29 2007 show at the Horseshoe Tavern near the end of the night and posted it on YouTube(with Bidini’s permission). These boys always shine on that stage! Here’s the link to my channel

  2. I believe the double encore said it all at Fridays show. It was definitely hard to say goodbye to old friends. Maybe Bidini had it right when he said “maybe Massey Hall should have been our venue all along, not the Horseshoe” (I’m sure they weren’t his exact words). I took my 17 year old to the show (he has already seen classic rock shows like the Who). He couldn’t believe how good it was compared to commercial shows. He further stated that “Martin is just as good on the axe as anyone he has ever heard! (17 year old wisdom!)
    It’s hard to explain to non Rheo fans the allure of the band. We all know they are the greatest, but so do others in the music scene. Go to “legends of classic rock section” March archives and read Andrew Burns’ “ode to the greatest Canadian Rock Band”.

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