LIVE AT THE FREQUENCY
NOVEMBER 9, 2016
JAY FERGUSON: Vocals, Lead and Rhythm Guitars, Bass Guitar
CHRIS MURPHY: Vocals, Bass Guitar, Drums
PATRICK PENTLAND: Vocals, Lead and Rhythm Guitars
ANDREW SCOTT: Vocals, Drums, Percussion, Guitar
GREGORY MacDONALD: Backing Vocals, Keyboards, Percussion
Music ALWAYS heals. ALWAYS!
November 9, 2016. The day after...
There really is no reason for me whatsoever to utilize this new posting to comment upon the disastrous United States Presidential election other than to fully describe to you a certain mood, one that undeniably needed some lifting but one that considered just returning home after work to curl up into a ball and dream this nightmare away. But, thankfully, a more rational state of mind prevailed from my depression, informing me that a ticket had been purchased long ago to see a band that I never, ever thought that I would have an opportunity to see--and in my city, no less--due to their relative obscurity on the American musical landscape. It was a night that could and should not be missed and so...I grabbed my ticket and drove down to a stone's throw from our state Capitol building to head onto The Frequency.
The band, whose presence in Madison firmly inspired my night out and furthermore pushed me directly towards their event despite my despondence is the Toronto based power-pop quartet known as Sloan. Beloved by critics and a devoted fan base in their native Canada, the foursome of Jay Ferguson, Chris Murphy, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott, all of whom are superlative singers, songwriters and multi-instrumentalists (who often trade instruments during performances), have graced the world of music with 11 studio albums over the past 25 years and somehow, someway, the band remains unforgivably obscure here in the United States.
Aside from one song included within Writer/Director Sofia Coppola's debut feature film "The Virgin Suicides" (1999), my musical radar was more than unaware of the band until a fateful trip into my personal music store of choice B-Side Records in the fall of 2014 as their most recent album "Commonwealth" (released September 9, 2014) was being played in store at full volume by my friend and store owner/proprietor Steve Manley. I was instantly struck by the ocean of melodies and harmonics punctuated and propelled by the sleek production and stunning vocals and musical performances which often recalled to my ears The Beatles, Cheap Trick, Todd Rundgren, Electric Light Orchestra, The Grays, The Monkees, The Replacements, Dwight Twilley, Badfinger, Big Star and yet, inexplicably Sloan possessed an idiosyncratic sound that was clearly and entirely their own.
I purchased the album, which not only became one of my top personal favorite albums of 2014, "Commonwealth" inspired me to delve into the entire Sloan discography, which I purchased over the following several months, being floored by each album, most especially the brilliant, mammoth 30 track "Never Hear The End Of It" (released January 9, 2007-U.S.). For me and my musical tastes and passions, Sloan's albums, especially their later ones, were of as high quality as anything released by XTC!!!! And of course, I kicked myself profusely for not having heard of them sooner than I had.
And then, Election day happened.
Even so, I told myself that a ticket had been purchased and since I had no idea if Sloan would ever return to Madison, it was now or never, I told myself that President Obama would remain in office for two more months, the holidays would arrive and everyone will be caught within that maelstrom of activity and family. So, why not go out and try to enjoy this night, which was designed to be celebratory for the band as they are currently in the midst of a tour commemorating the 20th anniversary of their third album, the punchy, gloriously infectious, almost vintage Merseybeat sounding "One Chord To Another" (released June 12, 1996).
Even so, I was not in a celebratory mood.
I arrived at The Frequency about 20-25 minutes before the scheduled 7 p.m. door opening on this quiet, chilly Madison night on Main Street, save for the sound of Sloan, clearly audible from the sidewalk, performing their sound check. Every once in a while, a concert patron would walk by, check the door to find it locked and move onwards towards a nearby bar, presumably to obtain some warmth before being allowed entrance to the night's event. As the band soundchecked the song "So Far So Good" from "Commonwealth," the melodies and lyrics immediately began to sweep me upwards from my dark mood, a sign that perhaps I did indeed make the right decision in heading out. Soon, more people arrived and began to brave the chill with me. As I was alone, I just kept to myself and quietly observed the folks around me, including a Father and his daughter, who happened to be celebrating her 14th birthday at this show. Clearly, this was something to smile to myself about. Someone so young who was about to witness a musical group so powerfully first rate.
One thing to note to those of you who are unfamiliar with The Frequency is to remark about the size of the facility. The Frequency is a bar, and a rather small neighborhood bar at that, and located upon a tiny side street just off of the Capitol Square. It is unassuming and very easy to walk right by without even knowing precisely what it is as it doesn't call attention to itself whatsoever. Regarding the members of Sloan, and despite their relative obscurity in the States, fans of the band would easily be able to recognize the band members on sight but they would also be able to easily blend into the surroundings without being bothered.
As I stood outside waiting to enter, I easily saw Sloan's Chris Murphy walk right past me, quite possibly armed with a quick take out meal to consume before showtime. Not long afterwards, Andrew Scott exited the bar and headed straight for the tour bus parked just across the street. Once everyone was able to enter The Frequency, both Patrick Pentland and Chris Murphy walked right past me. All of these quick sightings just added to my building excitement for the show, an excitement that was juxtaposed against images of anti-Trump protest marches occurring across the country as displayed upon a television sustained above and behind the bar itself. Such is life in 2016.
The tiny stage, bathed in deep blue, sat waiting for me to claim my sot right at the stage as is my wont these days. With ear plugs tucked in, I found a perch upon the stage to sit and zone out as I listened to the excellent pre-show song mix, waited quietly and watched more and more patrons file in to the small and seatless concert space. Again, dark thoughts, this time concerning the tragedy at Paris' Le Bataclan one year ago, began to creep into my brain as the room filled. Should something awful happen, could I find a way out as I was standing right at the stage? I really needed to wave those thoughts away, and thankfully I was able to do just that but as previously stated, welcome to life in the 21st century.
But, all of those worries and gloom exited my mind as the pre-show mix and house lights began to fade, and just two people away from me, the four members of Sloan, plus unofficial fifth member keyboardist/percussionist/backing vocalist Gregory MacDonald, walked up the short steps onto the stage and took their places.
Dear readers and listeners, the full performance of Sloan miraculously achieved what felt to be impossible to me throughout the day. It was a night that supremely lifted my spirits and made me forget about the events of the world for a while as I found myself lost in song as well as in constant amazement with the high bar of songwriting and musicianship so vibrantly on display right in front of my eyes and so close that I could have adjusted Jay Ferguson's guitar strings if I happened to be so bold.
As promoted, Sloan's epic night began with a complete run through of "One Chord To Another" from top to bottom. Yet, unlike the studio album's near Beatles era circa 1966 sonic qualities, the live setting allowed the songs to have a more propulsive force and bass driven depth not found on the excellent album. Tonight, Sloan played as if they were the best rock and roll band in the world (the probably are), just bashing out the tunes one right after another with speed and precision, as if daring the audience to keep pace and sing along in the process. And to that end, the songwriting just positively sparkled, as did the band's stunning vocals from all of the members.
"The Good In Everyone," "Nothing Left To Make Me Want To Stay," "Anyone Who's Anyone," "Everything You've Done Wrong," and more were all there and performed beautifully.
Chris Murphy, with his McCartney-esque bass work and his flawless Beau Brummels styled vocals was the consummate frontman as his dazzling voice, fully engaging energy and instant connection with the crowd (which he also waded directly into on a few occasions) ingratiated himself with us tremendously. If I read his facial expressions correctly, I think he was honestly surprised and perhaps even a bit touched that the nearly sold out crowd (there were only 10 available tickets left shortly before I arrived) was so intensely familiar with the band's music, as we sang along loudly.
Patrick Pentland, with his long shaggy grey hair and Gandalf beard, by contrast, was more stationary, yet his high clear voice and guitar heroics were equally magnetic to regard, effortlessly shifting from stinging lead solos to gorgeous rhythmic textures..
I stood directly in front of Jay Ferguson, whose singing voice and songwriting melodics often make me think of gorgeously written 1970's era AM radio gold, making for the very Sloan songs that function as the finest ear candy--the songs that stick like the most luxurious toffee. As with Pentland, Ferguson also made for a bonafide guitar hero as he also shifted from leads to rhythmic cascades with ease.
And then, there's Andrew Scott who cut an imposing, intimidating figure whether behind his drum kit or when he stepped up front, guitar in hand, muscles flexed and fully ready to take lead vocals on "A Side Wins" and "400 Metres."
After completing the entirety of "One Chord To Another," the band took a short break and then returned to the stage to perform a collection of tunes from their entire career, while leaning more heavily upon their earlier albums "Twice Removed" (released August 30, 1994), "Navy Blues" (released May 2, 1998) and "Between The Bridges" (released September 12, 1999).
As with the band's first set, Sloan performed with raucous enthusiasm and unabashed perfection, a combination the crowd delightfully consumed and begged for seconds and even thirds. For me, being a witness so very closely to this band that has captivated me so powerfully over these last couple of years was profoundly illuminating as Sloan powerfully showcased each member's individuality as well as their gifts as a combined musical force unlike so many others.
As musicians, they are superlative. I was especially astounded watching Andrew Scott's drumming as he blazed through song after song with a jazz inflected swing not unlike Neil Peart or better yet, Keith Moon. He often made his considerably small drum kit sound as if he was surrounded by a massive collection of tom-toms and cymbals. His speed and flair was breathtaking.
And then, on occasion, the band members would switch instruments, with Gregory MacDonald providing crucial instrumental glue to allow for the stage shifting of band members. Scott would take his place with his guitar while Jay Ferguson took over on bass guitar and Chris Murphy would find himself behind Scott's drum kit and the band would sound as if no one had switched instruments at all, for how seamless everything sounded. This level of virtuosity often left me in open mouthed amazement (and I have to mention how Jay Ferguson's guitar parts on the selection "Coax Me" are sublime and hypnotically mesmerizing).
To that end, everything always returns itself back to the songs themselves and the individuals who composed them. With Sloan, we have the rare opportunity to behold a band where every member is a first rate songwriter, whose individualized gifts congeal so beautifully with those of their bandmates. Where Jay Ferguson and Chris Murphy's selections weigh heavily upon the melodics, Patrick Pentland and Andrew Scott's tend to roam into heavier, more psychedelic territory but they always sound like the work of a full band rather than four solo artists who happen to perform together. I mean--this is SLOAN and decidedly not "Ferguson, Murphy, Pentland And Scott."
Pentland's siren drenched smasher "Money City Maniacs" and the stomping "Unkind," sit so perfectly next to the golden folk of Ferguson's "Midnight Mass" and the glam rock-ish sing-a-long "Who Taught You To Live Like That," Murphy's shattering power ballad "The Other Man" and the aforementioned anthemic "So Far So Good" and Scott's almost Dylan-esque and outstanding "People Of The Sky" solely because of the teamwork all four members bring to each other's art...and truth be told, those choirboy/Partridge Family harmony vocals also assist wondrously, always taking each song to an undeniably higher plane.
Another notable element of the night was in fact, the heat! Dear readers and listeners, as I have already described, the size of The Frequency is quite small with the concert room especially so. With all of those bodies pressed together plus all of the energy and electricity emanating from the stage, the room's temperature and humidity increased tremendously throughout the night. Sloan handled everything in stride and as professionally as possible as each member was sweat drenched to varying degrees.
Andrew Scott was certainly swimming in it due to his extreme physicality behind the drums but the bespectacled Chris Murphy in particular remained unflappable even as he routinely had to mop off his face with a towel while singing (and not missing even one note at that). Additionally, during one section during his turn at the drums, I wondered if the sweat slid his glasses from his face! Regardless, the spirits of all of the members of Sloan remained high and even jovial despite the sweltering state of the room as Murphy gently ribbed us over the election proclaiming that the band had not ventured into a "red state" before--which of course, elicited a mighty groan from the crowd, and not losing any sense of good-will whatsoever.
And that sense of good-will and tremendous power pop turned out to be the precise antidote that I needed for myself on this evening when the world changed and the future became more uncertain and tenuous than I had ever known it in my lifetime. Sloan provided the right music at the right time--music of unquestionable energy, skill, fun, power and beauty.
Precisely the kind of music that soothes and heals, just as it rocks you to and fro.
If you don't mind, I'd love to share some aftershow greatness I experienced that even lifted me higher. After the final chords reverberated around the boiling hot room, so sticky with moisture that even the walls were sweating, the members of Sloan left the stage. As people began to exit and others scrambled to the stage to swipe the set lists from the floor, I spotted Andrew Scott walking towards a side exit. Even at that moment, Scott remained so imposing, with muscles bulging and a humorless expression upon his face. And yet, I saw him posing for a picture with a fan amiably so I decided to take my chance. I ambled over, spoke his name, he turned to me and I extended my hand to his, which he shook vigorously, while displaying a warm smile as I thanked him for making the trip to my city.
Just as Scott turned to try and cool down outdoors, I turned to find Jay Ferguson standing right behind me, also taking a photo with a fan. I'd be a fool if I missed this chance so I spoke his name, we shook hands and began to have a full conversation where I thanked him for visiting Madison, he expressed his enjoyment of the city, I spoke about my love of the band despite my recent knowledge of them as well as my lack of knowledge concerning the Canadian music scene save for Rush (of course) and The Pursuit Of Happiness. That's when Jay surprised me by informing me that he happens to be friends with Moe Berg himself, the leader/singer/songwriter/guitarist of T.P.O.H. and further shared some very kind words about him. Not wanting to take up any more of his time, I thanked him again, expressed some good wishes for the band's travels plus hopes a new album would arrive one day and I then stepped out into the night feeling even higher than before.
To Andrew and Jay, thank you for taking a moments with me when you certainly did not have to whatsoever. And to Sloan as a whole, thank you for coming to Madison...a visiting so unexpected and so terrific.
All photos by Scott Collins