Art Bergmann did not vomit, fall off the stage, or physically assault anyone during his Canada Day concert at the WISE Hall, but—hey, here’s a surprise!—he was still seemingly pretty drunk, enough to lend a rather unique, not entirely welcome, but nonetheless strangely compelling form of drama to the evening.
Like a highwire act suffering from vertigo, or a cliffhanger written by the famed team of Willie Makeit and Betty Wont, there were various points during the evening where one felt doubt that the bandleader—who from the outset seemed less-sober than his last dramatic show in this town, at 2009’s Poisoned reunion gig at Richards on Richards—would make it through the night without everything crumbling into a shambolic, embarrassing disaster. Hints that it might indeed go that way began with, oh, the first song, “Beatles in Hollywood”, which collapsed into ugly anarchy—albeit right at the end, raising the question if it was done from design.
It is also not a confidence-inspiring thing to see a musician angrily rip his hearing aid out after the first couple of songs, to wipe his face with the same towel he’s been mopping up spilled beer with, or say to the audience at the end of one of the evening’s many interminable guitar tunings (which came complete with muttered curses at absent guitar techs) things like “I can’t hear; is that in tune?” Even Art Bergmann himself seemed ambivalent about the warm reception he was receiving in spite of it all, saying skeptically to those who cheered, “You don’t care—I could fuckin’ shit up here!” before insisting, with less than 100 percent credibility, that he knew exactly what he was doing. Riight.
No, lest I seem an enabler, let me be clear: there was an element of danger to the Art Bergmann gig that seemed an unnecessary component to the evening. I would personally rather see Bergmann find a way to do what he does onstage without alcohol (and to do it more often). It would be healthier for him, set bookers at ease, and allow the audience to focus more on the brilliance of his songcraft and performance—things which (at least hypothetically) are not dependent on such a high level of drama to go over. At least one friend of mine who skipped the WISE Hall gig did so because the last couple times he saw Art, he was “almost too drunk to perform.” And that’s a shame; it should not hafta be that way.
All that said, the show was astonishing. Following “Beatles in Hollywood”, we got “Sexual Roulette”—written in the era of major AIDS fear, Bergmann, during his between-song patter, connected that number to the follow-up, the spousal-abuse themed “Hospital Song”. He revealed that it was what happened next, when the couple reunited and decided to throw an “ambulance party” (what a phrase). Bergmann generally stuck to rhythm guitar during the night but gave a fine melodic solo for that tune.
One of the more painful aspects of the 2009 gig was that Bergmann's bandmates insisted that he not play guitar, given his arthritis; duties fell to Tony Walker instead. It was great to see Bergmann slinging an ax onstage again, even in a supporting role. In fact, he did sound surprisingly great through the night (and was in tune as far as I could tell, though, I mean, I wasn’t exactly sober myself).
Following “Hospital Song”, we were treated to most of Bergmann’s finest material, including “Bound for Vegas”, “Remember Her Name”, “Message From Paul”, “American Wife”, “My Empty House”, “Crawl With Me”, and a “Guns and Heroin” that segued briefly into Them’s “Gloria”. There was an encore that began with a solo song about cluster bombs and democracy (off no Art Bergmann record I know, so presumably it was new).
That song was, Bergmann explained, ripped off from a Neil Young song, with which he followed it up; that turned out to be “Cortez The Killer”—which, despite a second-verse lyrical flub, was amazing to hear. Art’s voice—painful, scorched, emotive-as-fuck, and powerful as ever—sent a transcendent chill up the spine of many in attendance during that number, including former Quintessence/ RPM/ Track Records/ Noize to Go man Dale Wiese, who picked “Cortez” as one of the evenings’ highlights during a quick post-gig debriefing at my table.
Wiese had never heard it done live before, by anyone—nor had I—and in a way it’s even better, rarer, more valuable to have heard it from Bergmann than Young. The song also resonated off an earlier on-mike aside from Bergmann to the effect of, “Fuckin’ British Columbians—why don’t you change the name of this place? Are you big fans of the British Empire, and Columbus? Are you into genocide?”
It’s too bad so many of Bergmann’s grumbles, curses and asides were difficult to hear; if recordings of the night ever surface, the wit and wry bite of his comments will surely put the document on the shelf with Lou Reed’s notorious speed-fuelled rant-a-thon, Take No Prisoners.
The next two songs in the encore were the real ones people will regret having missed: the Young Canadians’ classics “Automan” and, of course, “Hawaii.” That song was marred—and indeed stopped—by the only real disaster of the night, which did not, in fact, happen onstage.
Y’see: the most enthusiastic Bergmann fan in the audience was a young guy in a red T-shirt. He was the one who started a solo chant for “Dirge No. 1,” yelling that he wouldn’t leave until the band played that song; the one who screamed so loudly and enthusiastically that Bergmann at one point addressed him from the stage (“where were you fuckin’ 30 years ago,” with the answer most likely being “not born yet”) and later handed him a tall boy, briefly bumping fists with him before “Dirge No. 1” got underway.
That selfsame kid positively went spastic when the band launched into “Hawaii,” and briefly got the evening’s only moshpit going—until he moshed into the wrong guy. Then fists began to fly and the floor turned into a stalking ground for two testosterone-driven males, the moshed-into fellow (tattooed and tough looking) eventually being escorted away by security. By the time the band stopped mid-song to tell them to break it up, the two were already separated, and Bergmann led the band into the next verse from a standing start (“let’s go to fuckin’ Miami…”)
Considering how much else could have gone wrong with the night, one moshpit fight wasn’t really too bad (and the red-shirted kid seemed okay afterwards, if a bit shaken). A final song—“Contract,” off the last Art Bergmann studio recording, 1995’s What Fresh Hell Is This? —was followed by an abrupt lights-up from the venue, making it clear that the event was over, regardless of what audience or band might have to say about it.
Oddly enough, at that point, Bergmann seemed considerably more sober than he did at the beginning, and a little pleased with himself to have proven that he knew what he was doing all along.
Props go to opener Ford Pier for throwing in a cover of a Jim Bescott song in his set (telling the audience that the prize for knowing who wrote that song was getting to see the leader of that band play), and for doing a chilling rendition of the best song on Huzzah!, “Lions and Tigers and Bears.” No one can rock out and still seem introspective like Pier; Huzzah! is now available on vinyl, and you should all go by a copy.