Laura Crapo

Chad VanGaalen @ Il Motore, Montreal 23.06.11

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By Laura Crapo

I’ve been hearing about Chad VanGaalen forever, seems like, and the impression I get is that he’s universally beloved maybe for the holy trinity of good music/nice personality/exciting show. I did no preparation. I was unfamiliar with any songs, taking him at face value. 

I didn’t know for sure what he looked like, but I guessed right when a man went through the audience confidently smiling. I got some eye contact as did others. He radiates an unselfconscious warmth that’s high energy. He was not unlike a very cool school principal – I mean, I guess we were all here for him, so he had no cause to feel otherwise. He looks super healthy and clean cut. That’s not always the case with bands. Even teenage bands can look tired. This guy looked healthy – big time. Like the kind of healthy that might even mean he’s vegetarian. I don’t know if he is though.

Il Motore is a relatively new club in Montreal. Newness that I hope will evolve into some acoustic improvements over time to what resembles a very large garage with a metal ceiling. I guess my ideal listening room lies somewhere between Elvis’ Jungle Room and the Auditorium at the Berklee School of Music. My somewhat mounting rage at the acoustics and sight-lines at Il Motore while taking in the two opening acts (both with a largish bowed instrument) weren’t making the prelude to his show very sexy for me, so I had a very intense email exchange with my ex on my phone. He went AWOL a month earlier, and I was finally getting information on what took place during that month. We had a chance to make each other laugh – something I haven’t done much of in the last month. If nothing else – my ex-boyfriend is funny and appreciates my jokes.

I came there alone, but I tipped off the woman I play an aggressive game of catch with where I was, and like a moonlit swan, she arrived before the headliner, made me feel great, bought me a beer and was my date from thereon.

Even though I am single, and I ought to be meeting people, I kept noticing how I was taller than the average man at this show. Also, there were many pretty girls in attendance, causing one man to say to his friend as I passed him, “There’s a lot of fluff here tonight”. Not sure exactly what that means in man-speak, but I can guess. If he meant there’s lots of pretty girls, he was right, cause there were. And my theory on that is – pretty girls like more mellow-style concerts. And I guess by pretty, I mean healthy-looking Cindy Crawford types. Not the type of woman I ever see at music venues. Or the music venues I frequent, anyway.

His first few songs had me going ‘what?’ Since I wasn’t born yesterday and have seen many bands play over the years, I could see that there was some song-borrowing going on. One song that might be called ‘Kiss’ was a combination of ‘You Really Got Me’ by The Kinks mixed with ‘Message In A Bottle’ by The Police. There was another that was a combination of Sebadoh and Sonic Youth. A song called ‘Sara’ was like a Nirvana song or Snailhouse. Then one where it was like Michael Stipe joined Sonic Youth to play Joy Division.

I was struggling with my trust in the world for loving him, knowing they had to be right, but why was there bald-faced references to other famous songs? One reason he’s beloved might be that he used to play solo and the band aspect is new. And maybe it’s through the band members that Sonic Youth, The Police etc are creeping in. I couldn’t say for sure where to lay the blame having never seen him play alone.

I did like the original-sounding musical breakdown/soloing and yelling and improvisational moments – moments that might have made up an entire solo show, and would explain why he’s so loved. There was a song maybe called ‘Freedom’ when I thought if Daniel Johnston were more healthy, his band might sound like this.

He seemed like an awesome guy, just in general. I can see why people think he’s cool. But it was driving me a bit mental that I could hear definite Sebadoh-style chord sequences and sonic youth guitar washes and famous riffs by other bands.

Is it enough to have heard his original contributions interspersed in the set – I guess yes. I am giving this show the benefit of the doubt because he was able to make me forget a bit it was crazy hot and way too crowded in the room.

One band I would namecheck as possible influences on him would be Michael Feuerstack from Snailhouse and the Wooden Stars. When he played ‘Sara’, I wondered who was the chicken and who was the egg. I guess I know the answer from having seen Michael play shows now and again since the early 90s.

A while ago, I gave a listen to Chad VanGaalen on MySpace and I remember thinking it was recorded well.

It’s possible his audience isn’t made of hyper music snobs that get nervous tics when they hear familiar riffs. The healthy people at the show might not be the type to want to throwdown if they hear The Kinks referenced.

I wonder how he fares doing live shows in Chicago, where they care and will say something from the audience. In Chicago, they don’t dance. They listen.

There’s a thing that happens in Canada where a band will rise up above the others, sometimes for reasons unknown to me. I sometimes wonder if they are supporting a band or supporting the supporters of bands and jumping on a bandwagon because it’s been deemed safe. There’s music that music lovers like and there’s music people like whom think they like music but it’s all smoke and mirrors and a pale aftershock of the real thing – and the latter getting the most attention, seems like. I need to know where the substance lies.

I can see his appeal, I enjoyed his show, but he’s not freaking me out with his originality because of the cultural weight he’s carrying. BUT, there is something interesting and original going on in his show that I hope eclipses the style referencing, in time. His outbursts and de-construction are interesting.

I took a listen to his MySpace again before finishing this review. There is a charm that comes through in his recordings that make them stand-alone works of art, unaffected by my questioning. But if you’re going to tell me his songs came out of nowhere and were never influenced by other bands, we’ll have to do some kung fu.

Photography: Be Nice Art Friends

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