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.

Great Albums: Whale Music

Rheostatics – Whale Music (1992)

Rheostatics – Whale Music (1992)

Last night, my best friend Brent and I revisited a pillar of our more than 15 year-long friendship. Let me begin at the beginning. I met Brent in 1989. At the time, I was a suave and sophisticated 24-year old who’d travelled in Europe and was beginning my second degree. Brent was a gawky and sometimes abrasive 19-year old know-it-all. Of course, we hit it off right away. When one of my roommates moved out, Brent decided to move in, and for the next three years, we struggled to make ends meet on our student loans and part-time jobs. Sometime in 1992, we caved in to the inevitable and both of us made the humiliating decision to move back in with our parents for a while. Luckily, by 1994 we were back on our feet financially, and we found another place closer to downtown. I moved out gradually as Brooke and I got more serious, but we still live only about fifteen minutes walk from each other.

I tease Brent about not being a “music person” but I am forever grateful to him for introducing me to my favourite Canadian band, the Rheostatics. I don’t even know how he’d heard of them, but one day he brought home a luridly-illustrated cassette called “Whale Music” sometime before we gave up our apartment, and we must have worn it out. Shortly after that, we began going to see the Rheos in concert, and last night marked probably the 15th time we’ve seen them, although I’ve long ago stopped counting. Each year, the band plays a series of shows at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern, and last night was “Whale Music Night”. They played the entire album in sequence, and with a generous encore, the show stretched to almost two and a half hours, but I was never less than transfixed by this transcendent music. As an added bonus, author Paul Quarrington was invited onstage at the beginning of the show to read from his hilarious and sad novel Whale Music which was the inspiration for the title of this record. (In a strange twist, the Rheostatics were invited to provide the score for a film made of the book, so there are actually two albums of theirs with the title “Whale Music”.)

It’s difficult to describe the music of the Rheostatics. For this album, there were four different songwriters, and four vocalists, but more than any other of their records, it feels like one piece. I’m a huge fan of guitarist Martin Tielli, and his compositions feel the most orchestral and moody to me, and I think that’s what ties the whole thing together. All the band members are insanely gifted musicians, but in addition, Tielli is a talented painter who’s created all the band’s album covers, and singer/guitarist Dave Bidini is a well-known writer who’s written books about hockey, baseball and rock music. I’ve had the privilege to meet the painfully-shy bassist/singer Tim Vesely on a few occasions, and I’ve always been impressed by the fact that no one in this band shows even a shred of rock-star ego.

Whale Music begins with a song called “Self Serve Gas Station” and it sounds vaguely like a country song. I’m surprised that I stuck with it, since my problem with most Canadian music (especially bands like The Tragically Hip) is that I think they sound too “twangy”. But I was immediately drawn in by the strange lyrics (“He wanted to bust the glass because I wouldn’t give him gas, I said ‘You shouldn’t even be driving'”). My favourite tracks are the ones by Martin Tielli, and “California Dreamline” might be my favourite song ever (“questionable things like dolphins helping people to swim”) and reinforces my feeling that Martin’s songs are always somehow related to water.

I could keep going but I think the best thing would be for you to let this album wash over you personally. There’s a line in the stunning end-of-album closer “Dope Fiends and Boozehounds” that references Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon”, another seminal album for druggy kids of my generation. This album is sort of like that. Listen to it in a darkened room from start to finish and tell me that you don’t agree that this is the Greatest Canadian Rock Album Ever.

One of the great things about living in the 21st-century is that it’s now possible for more people to hear this wonderful music. You can download the whole beautiful thing for $8.88 right here. Run, people!

Track Listing

  1. Self Serve Gas Station/
  2. California Dreamline
  3. Rain, Rain, Rain
  4. Queer
  5. King of the Past
  6. RDA (Rock Death America)
  7. The Headless One
  8. Legal Age Life at Variety Store
  9. What’s Going on Around Here?
  10. Shaved Head
  11. Palomar
  12. Guns
  13. Sickening Song
  14. Soul Glue
  15. Beerbash
  16. Who?
  17. Dope Fiends and Boozehounds

“King of the Past” video on YouTube
“Shaved Head” video from YouTube

Great Albums is an occasional feature on Consolation Champs where I relate some personal stories about life-changing music in lieu of any proper music criticism. You’ll probably learn more about me than about music, so consider that fair warning. For more, click the Great Albums category tag.