I feel like I've told my history with the Crash Test Dummies a million times. But it's been seven years since I've seen them - really, seven years since they've played together - so the super short version is I was a big fan back in the day and somehow wound up running their website for a few years. They're good people. We're still friends to this day, if you're really generous with how you define "friends." I mean, most of them would remember who I am. Maybe.
The last time I saw them in concert was two shows in 2010. In Regina, the vocalists - Brad Roberts and Ellen Reid - were joined by guitarist Murray Pulver. The next night in Winnipeg, they were joined by bassist Dan Roberts (Brad's brother) and drummer Mitch Dorge, playing together for the first time in years. Since then, I know Brad and Ellen have each done a few solo shows - and maybe a few gigs together? I'm not sure. Point being, they don't play together a lot anymore. So I was pretty surprised when Ellen let me know about the reunion gig - with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, no less.
This show was part of the Jeux de Canada Games - I need to use the full bilingual title if I want to keep getting my federal grant for writing these things. There were 11 nights of free concerts, one for each province (the territories had to share a night), each with the kind of lineup you might see at our local Folk Festival. The Canada Games were in Saskatoon when I was 14 or so, and while I wasn't a concert-goer back then, I certainly don't remember anything like this. For a brief moment, I was sad I didn't live in Winnipeg. That feeling soon passed - Winnipeg might be my least-favourite city - but I enjoyed it for its novelty.
For those wondering, the Saskatchewan night was hosted by speed skater Catriona LeMay Doan and headlined by Buffy Sainte-Marie and - of course - The Sheepdogs. Always the Sheepdogs.
On the morning of the show, I got up like I was going to work - 5:20 am because I hate myself - and was on the road by 7:00. It's a six-hour drive to Winnipeg and it flew buy surprisingly quickly. I credit the podcast Reply All. Once in town, I found my way to Kristin's apartment and we spent an hour trying to convince her cat Beatrix to pay attention to me. This was pleasant if largely unsuccessful. Eventually, we gave up on this futile endeavour and went to check into my hotel. The hotel was close to the concert, had ample parking, was clean enough, and the people were nice. A success by my low standards.
At this point, it was around 4:30 and we were a short walk to the festival grounds. And as fate would have it, there was a Zapdos raid on the way. Now, if you aren't a Pokémon GO player, then you don't need to know about the phenomena of raid battles and legendary Pokémon. This puts you in the same boat as Kristin. I, meanwhile, was thrilled to get in on a Zapdos raid so quickly after its launch and even more thrilled to catch the thing on my first try, all while trying to explain to Kristin what was going on and why dozens of Pokémon players had suddenly converged on one spot.
Once in the park, we took a walk to orient ourselves, by which I mean I quickly lead us out of the park on the (successful) hunt for a second Zapdos. Finally, we found a patch of grass in the shade near the Indigenous arts market and settled in to listen to William Prince and Sierra Noble. I've seen Prince before and I really enjoy his songs. This was no exception, though I did wonder why it was billed as William Prince and Sierra Noble when it was really William Prince with a fiddle player and occasional back-up singer. At any rate, this was nice. Then the Royal Winnipeg Ballet came out and did some Irish step dancing. The men were wearing these velour bodysuits that made them look naked and also probably cooked them alive. Does velour retain odours?
When the Ballet was done, we wandered off in search of food. There were a wide range of food trucks by one end of the park, and we settled on the grilled cheese truck. As we waited for our food, we ran into some of Kristin's friends, one of whom gave me one of the better high-fives I've had in some time. My grilled cheese had ham and pineapple; Kristin's had spinach and red peppers. Most of you would prefer hers and most of you are wrong.
We found a spot on the hill to sit - this was trickier than you might think because it was really starting to get crowded - where we could eat our dinner and listen to the New Meanies. I'd never heard them before but certainly knew of the name - it seemed like they were playing in Saskatoon all the time when I was in university. "The New Meanies are still a thing?!" Mika said, when I told her who was playing. To be honest, I don't know if they are or aren't, and probably lots of people said "Crash Test Dummies are still a thing?!" too. Anyway, as far as the New Meanies went, I dug the music. The vocals, though... the lead singer was fine but whenever there was an attempt at harmonies, they were pretty bad. I thought they got better a few songs in but Kristin pointed out that they just weren't trying harmonies for those songs.
As the hill filled up, it got to a point where it was hard for me to shift to a new position without nearly kicking someone, so we got up and wandered around. The park was full of people, so we threw some elbows to get through the crowd and I bought myself a bottled water and a Diet Coke from the food truck with the shortest line. At the very back of the park, we found some picnic tables and sat at one - and after lots of time on the ground, the picnic table made for some good sitting. We enjoyed it until a wasp showed up, trying to eat some crumbs on the table. I brushed the crumbs onto the ground but the wasp came back looking for it, and then brought reinforcements. It was actually pretty funny - it was like you could hear the first one saying "Seriously, it was right here, help me look for it." But they're also stinging angry shitheads, so we wandered back to the stage.
Royal Canoe was playing and I really only have two things to say about Royal Canoe: we mostly didn't listen to Royal Canoe, and from what I did hear, Royal Canoe might not be my thing. So it goes.
We were getting close to the Crash Test Dummies and it was time to find ourselves a good spot. The standing area in front of the stage was packed for Royal Canoe, and we had high hopes that people would leave in between sets and we could move up. And... this worked? Royal Canoe finished up, and people headed out for drinks and whatnot before the Dummies started. We inched our way to the front, swimming upstream, and wound up only two or three rows of people back, stage left. A great spot.
And then the emcee told us that lightning had been spotted on the radar, and that if it came closer, we should evacuate calmly.
This was pretty much my worst-case scenario. Everything gets called off, but late enough that I'm out all the expenses. And in Winnipeg. But until that happened, they were going to push forward. There's nothing to worry about until there's something to worry about, I guess. The stagehands worked at setting up the stage for the Dummies and the orchestra, while we were entertained by a DJ with a wonderful prairie name, DJ Co-op. He kind of looked like Mark Cuban, if Cuban made every decision in his life differently. At one point, he played a Weakerthans song that he mixed with pow wow music and a dubstep beat. It was a thing.
Finally, the Dummies and the orchestra took the stage. No lightning. Never even a hint of it. They launched into God Shuffled His Feet and began what was mostly a greatest hits set (with three songs from their newest album, which is itself now seven years old).
The last time I saw them, about half the show was Brad, Ellen, and Murray, and half also included Dan and Mitch. This time, the whole band played on everything, and the symphony played on about half the songs. The arrangements were nice but not drastic changes - it felt very much the band playing with the orchestra as accompaniment, as opposed to when I've seen Ben Folds with the Edmonton Symphony, where everything is reworked with the orchestra in mind.
I took note of the setlist. If you're not Canadian, you'll only know one of these. If you are Canadian, and of a certain age, you might recognize around half:
God Shuffled His Feet The Ghosts That Haunt Me Swimming in Your Ocean Androgynous Put a Face The Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead In the Days of the Caveman Songbird Keep a Lid on Things Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm Heart of Stone Superman's Song Encore: Afternoons & Coffeespoons
Not the longest set, but I knew that going in - it was a festival show with start and end times pre-defined. But it was fantastic - the band looked and sounded as good as ever, and they all seemed to be having a great time. Brad, in particular, seemed more genuinely appreciative for the warm reception than I'd seen before.
And they should have been having fun. I mean, I get that this is a weird band for someone to be into, especially in 2017. They're a one-hit wonder in the US. Even in Canada, they haven't had a hit song since 1999. But for one more night, they were hometown heroes, playing to a packed crowd of thousands who were excited to be there and sang along with all the hits. I've seen the band four times before, but never with an atmosphere like this. I thought this would be a fun concert but it wound up challenging July Talk for my fake-yet-coveted Show Of The Year award.
The band wrapped up, and we hung around the front of the stage for a bit while the crowd thinned out. This process was helped along by fireworks starting the second the concert ended - and they were strategically placed so that you couldn't really see them with the stage in the way. A unique and clever way to get people to clear out in a hurry. As we waited, Murray Pulver came out to talk to some folks and gave me a big hug when he saw me. We chatted for a little bit and he said I should stick around to talk to everyone else, but I didn't figure they'd be coming out. And they didn't, at least not before the security guards started clearing the area of us weirdos who weren't immediately drawn to the fireworks.
With that, we walked back to the car, past groups of people having the most fascinating conversations. There were inside jokes, dating stories, lyric analysis, all kinds of things. I dropped Kristin off at her place, and became very thankful for the GPS on the drive back to the hotel. I don't have a good internal compass at the best of times, but without that GPS, I think I'd still be lost in Winnipeg. Or maybe somewhere in Ontario by now. Everything the GPS told me to do was against my instincts and it took me right back to the hotel.
You never know what the future will bring. There's always a market for nostalgia, but everyone in the band has moved on to post-Dummies activities and I imagine it would be difficult to coordinate future gigs. This show only happened as part of a special event in their hometown. They may never do another show, or they might go on a 25th (ugh, christ) anniversary tour of God Shuffled His Feet next year. Who knows? But if they never play together again, this was an almost perfect way to go out.
I say "almost perfect" because during Afternoons & Coffeespoons, my favourite Dummies song, they got to the part where the harmonica solo should be, and it just wasn't there. I knew it wouldn't be a full reunion without Benjamin Darvill, but in that moment, he was especially missed. I don't know if he chose not to come to this, or if he was ever even asked. Either way, I can't see him ever playing with them again. I know he's off doing his own thing, and it's very different and I really dig it, but still. You know?
UPCOMING CONCERTS: • Beck w/McRorie (August 20) • kd lang w/Kacy & Clayton (August 26) • Guns N' Roses w/Our Lady Peace (August 27) • The Sadies (September 14) • BA Johnston (September 15) • Steve Earle & The Dukes (September 27) • The New Pornographers w/Born Ruffians (October 6) • Whitehorse w/Terra Lightfoot (October 13) • Sarah Slean (October 14) • Martha Wainwright (October 22) • David Myles (October 24) • Headstones w/SNAKEandtheCHAIN (November 17) • Tanya Tagaq & the Regina Symphony Orchestra (November 25)
I'm not Canadian, but besides the one obvious hit, "Superman's Song" was reasonably common on certain radio formats here, too. And I'm a big XTC fan so of course I know "Peter Pumpkinhead". I actually saw CTD open for Elvis Costello in the 90s....