Review by Joseph Sherman
Canada Rocks! Is a joyful, entertaining mess that doesn’t know whether it is a catalogue of Canadian popular music or an excuse for a weak story line punctuated by songs, many of which qualify as rock to the extent that I qualify as a rock critic. Well, it does know. Fortunately—and I use the terms “joyful” and “entertain” with sincerity—the real star of any musical review or tribute is, natch, the music.
Not that the music always triumphs. A tribute to Stan Rogers a few seasons back, featuring some of the same players, failed to satisfy, though I still think the world of Rogers’ compositions.
But that’s memorable music for you. Put the best stuff in the mouths of performers who love it and can belt it out convincingly, and you have an evening. Sixty-eight (at least) songs, many of them barely qualifying as Canadian, and far too many of them sung partway through, constitute Canada Rocks! Judy Marshak’s stunning rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” (adapting an arrangement Mitchell herself recorded only a few years back), falls shy a verse. At least she sang enough of it to please; some of the tunes covered (hits by The Band, for example) came and went in driblets. How do you accommodate 68 songs? You don’t. You bite the bullet and offer maybe half that number. “Born to Be Wild” deserves the full treatment.
The trouble with creating a ‘show’ rather than a concert, is that someone demands a plot and comic relief. In this case, the comedy, courtesy Wade Lynch, works on its own terms, while the plot, such as it is, dries up and blows away quicker than you can lament the absence of Bobby Curtola, only to be referenced to paltry effect at odd intervals. It’s so inconsequential that I’m not even going to describe it. Rather, I will say that Lynch’s Dame Edna version of H.R.H. is very funny, and his takeoff on Don Cherry and the hockey blahs marginally choice. But neither routine belongs here.
I’d swear Terry Hatty and his cohorts did a tad of ad-libbing, because some casual remarks about the passionate appeal of good rock music have real resonance. Hatty and Matt Minglewood have earned their chops and know much of this music intimately; though Matt is almost too Minglewood to be second banana in a revue.
But why call this Canada Rocks! and include Rita MacNeil and Joni songs that don’t? Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” performed movingly by Julain Molnar (she has an amazing voice for lyrically sensitive ballads) isn’t rock, so what is it? Blues-gospel-klezmer? It’s a personal fave, but Cohen could have been rocked out. And if folk is to be included, where’s Stan? Big Gord’s here.
Some of the most heartfelt and therefore finest performances come unexpectedly. “Reel and Roll” does, in effect, rock. In fact, the Celtic rock element—now quintessentially Canadian—is served up lustily in both ‘acts’. The only instrumental treatment comes from Stephanie Cadman’s Celtic fiddle. (Could not guitar virtuoso Chris Corrigan have given us something by Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet?) I’ve long suspected that I really get off on the Stampeders’ “Sweet City Woman,” and it’s true. Missed the banjo, though.
The Centre’s sets are usually clever, if unspectacular, and this one’s no exception. The use of twin monitors is a salute to giant stadium projections, as well as to pub TV screens, and most interesting when showing some of the original performers; otherwise, it’s a lame device and even a distraction.
The one original number, written by our local heroes, makes it as a song but not as a companion piece to so many standouts. Someone thought it to be as necessary as comic relief and a plot line—they were wrong.
As said, something of a mess. But if a tribute to mostly rock music can’t be reverent towards the irreverence that is supposed to be the real thing (would card-carrying rock fans be caught dead in a soft-seater?), it may as well be a tuneful mess delivered by some great voices. Kudos to the versatile M. J. Ross. The missus and I had a great time.