In music and in life, I grew up with the Burt Neilson Band. When I was fifteen, I used to sneak into bars in downtown Toronto to see them, only to get picked up by my dad at the subway station at 1:00 am in order to make curfew. As the band grew, touring Ontario and eventually all of Canada and the States, I got my license, developed a sense of responsibility and toured around with them. Throughout my high school years, I skipped class to see the Burt Neilson Band, dodging assignments, curfews and other commitments along the way. As the band changed, trimming down from a seven piece to a quartet, refining their sound and growing as individuals, I continued to grow as a person as well, eventually graduating from high school and moving on to university. So when the band announced that they were tired and had to put the bus in park for an unidentified amount of time in April 2002, I was devastated. Even though the hiatus was not a surprise, the final shows in Peterborough and Toronto were solemn affairs, as the community that the band was formed around realized that a part of our collective lives was ending, and it was time to move on.
Luckily, the band's itch for the road needed to be scratched, and they began to play again ten months later, albeit sporadically. January 25th, 2003 culminated in their reunion show, and a short tour of Ontario and the Maritimes followed. After a relaxing summer filled with only a few festival shows, the band announced a fall tour, featuring a dozen shows in familiar venues and markets across the country, in an effort to recapture the fire that burned throughout the late 1990s and into the early 2000s. On October 24th, the tour rolled into Toronto as the band played their first hometown show since the reunion date in January. Like every other Burt Neilson Band show at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, the venue was packed, sweaty and humid. The Horseshoe is an old, oddly shaped venue, as the stage is fifty meters from the door and you have to walk through a crowded, smoky bar to get anywhere near it. Once you walk through the bar and pay the cover, there is a seating area that has to be scaled before the dance floor appears, directly in front of the rectangular stage. BNB has played the Horseshoe every hometown show since 2001, and their affinity for the venue has always been verbally acknowledged by the band members themselves. Unfortunately, I cannot agree with the band, as the venue is constantly overcrowded, rank and overly humid. The band has outgrown the Horseshoe, but the history surrounding the venue keeps them coming back.
Nevertheless, I could not have been any happier to be there. Seeing them for the first time since January, I had learned the band had written almost thirty new songs and have been busy at work on a new studio album, with the prospects of an extensive Canadian and American tour to promote the album, slated to be released this winter. I knew I was going to be introduced to some new stuff tonight, and as 11:30 pm rolled by, I could not have been more prepared.
After stepping outside for a veggie dog, I squeezed back though the crowded Horseshoe right into the sound of the band chugging through "Yellow Pants," an old original that showcases their historic funky groove that no band does better. After the fiery "Yellow Pants," the new material was introduced throughout the rest of the first set. Most of the new songs are short, comprised of tight rock grooves around a base of harmonic British style pop rock. Different from their tempo-altering, mind-numbing funk fusion of years' past, the new tunes are driven, tight and in your face. The band, led by guitarist Mike Filipowitch and keyboardist Jeff Heisholt, seemed extremely focused on introducing the crowd to a crisper, tighter Burt Neilson Band, bent on delivering shorter, bouncier pieces which caught your attention almost immediately. Also, bassist Jeremy Little and drummer Gavin McGuire were tighter than I have ever heard them before, focusing intently on keeping the groove concentrated and the changes pristine. As the eight-song first set rolled around, I only recognized one song after "Yellow Pants," and even that tune, the set ending "In The Belly," is newer than most.
Even though the song selection in the first set was less than impressive, I respect the band's risk-taking for testing their loyal fans with new material that is grounded in a different musical landscape, borrowing more from rock and roll and alternative than spacey funk. The songs did not appeal as much to my musical taste than the older tunes I fell in love with while growing up, but the band was driven, focused and attentive in their playing, listening to each other more than ever. Still, even though they were playing well, the need for the old tunes overpowered my acceptance of their new material and lucky for the sold out crowd at the Shoe, the second set fed that need.
Opening up with an incredibly surprising cover of Pink Floyd's classic "Have a Cigar," the band weaved through a barrage of old material, including a fantastic "Down With The Sound," complete with former band member Scott Farmer on trumpet. The reggae standard that has dotted setlists for half a decade was intense, laying down a groove that exploded into an all-out dance party in front of the stage. Trading tasteful solos with each other, Filipowitch, Heisholt and Farmer brought the jam up to a forceful climax that segued into a mellow, "Sugaree" teased jam. As puddles of sweat formed on the slippery dance floor after "Down With The Sound," the band continued with the maniacal second set by busting out "Colleen Cabbage Soup," a fan favorite that had not been played live in over two years. Starting out with a time signature changing intro complete with harmonic instrumental lines in sevens and elevens, the song explodes out of the trippy intro jam into an all out funk fest, complete with catchy and playful lyrics supplied by Heisholt. The song constantly flips between time signature changing jazz-fusion and old school funk, illuminating the talent of the quartet and their ability to blend styles of music into a smoothie of danceable groove. Following the rare appearance of "Colleen Cabbage Soup," the band continued to ignite the sold out crowd, leaving the dew soaked Horseshoe with "Waves" and "Permit Collector," two signature Burt Neilson Band classics. "Waves" revolves around a spacey intro, using oceanic soundscapes and free form funk to patiently create vivid musical imagery that eventually evolves into an intense, rockabilly style jam. The tune has always reminded me of a refreshing beach day, and that thought amidst the wintry suburbia of southern Ontario is always welcome. "Permit Collector," a Heisholt led funk marathon concluded the show, leaving the crowd exhausted while at the same time refreshed in the hope that the community was returning, and the band is back for good.
After a few minutes to collectively gather my emotions and take a deep breath, the band returned with Scott Farmer for "Speedbump," a short Latin-infused ditty that tells the tale of change and the acceptance that comes with it. As I left the venue after the show, I began to recall the feelings I had during the farewell show, and how accepting the inevitable proved difficult. This time around, accepting the inevitable, being the resurrection of one of the best bands in Canada, a new tour, a new album and the reformed sense of community, could not have been easier to digest.
For up-to-date information on the Burt Neilson Band, visit www.burtneilson.com.
Words by: Shain Shapiro
Images by: Adam Melnick & Mr. O'Connell
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