Art Gallery of Ontario
Sept 4 2015
On October 21 1995, Etobicoke rock band Rheostatics (Dave Bidini, Martin Tielli, Tim Vesely and Don Kerr) presented a specially commissioned work to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the legendary art collective The Group Of Seven at the National Gallery Of Canada in Ottawa. The performance was a suite of eleven movements with images, including Group Of Seven paintings, projected behind the musicians which included Barenaked Ladies keyboardist Kevin Hearn on piano. The entire piece was newly written for the project with the exception of the seventh movement, the song "Northern Wish" from the band's Melville album, given a gentle massage to fit seemlessly into the other parts
The music consisted of sweeping drones of cellos and crashing percussion reflecting the varied terrain of the country as captured on canvas by the Group. Additional texture was provided by samples of dialogue heard between and during the musical suites. Among these snatches of conversation were bits of recorded telephone chat between drummer Don Kerr and painter Winchell Price.
In early 1996, the sixth album by Rheostatics was released, Music Inspired by the Group of 7 which raised the level of their collective Canadiana interest and appeal. The studio recording replicates what was performed in Ottawa with a few minor additions (a bit of backwards guitar during "Two", a moaning didgeridoo on "Ten"...). The album ends with a new track "Twelve" which is simply Kerr and Price politely signing off from their conversation. Taken as a whole, Music Inspired by the Group of 7 is a benchmark release for a group already responsible for the classic albums Melville (1991), Whale Music(1992) and Introducing Happiness (1994). To promote the new disc, on March 28 the band hosted a record release party at The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto, a favourite meeting place for the Group Of Seven decades earlier. For this private record industry event, an brief acoustic set was played consisting of a few of the songs from the album.
The main event occured the following night on March 29 when Rheostatics essayed the work at The Art Gallery of Ontario with Bobby Wiseman filling in on keyboards for Kevin Hearn who was dealing with health issues at the time. The shimmering and plush images projected behind the musicians perfectly fit with the sprawling and cinematic tones being produced on stage. Since Hearn was unavailable, the vocals on his featured song "Eleven" were supplied by bassist Tim Vesely with drummer Don Kerr providing harmony.
CBC television program The National broadcast a thirty minute special in December about the band taking on the project and included interviews with Bidini and Tielli along with rehearsal and performance footage,
In the ensuing years, a fan produced website gave titles to the various movements, which are now generally used to denote the pieces, these titles (in order) are "Kevin's Waltz", "Earth", "Box Car Song (Wieners And Beans)", "Landscape And Sky", "Blue Hysteria", "Cello For A Winter's Day", "Northern Wish", "Snow", "Biplanes And Bombs", "Lightening", "Yellow Days Under A Lemon Sun (Kevin's Waltz Reprise)" and "Bye Bye".
In September of 2015 Rheostatics reunited to revisit the Group of 7 work for three special concerts at The Art Gallery of Ontario. For this series of shows, Hearn reclaimed his rightful place at the keyboards while violinist Hugh Marsh (a frequent Tielli collaborator) added additional shading.
The opening night, September 4 saw the band take to the stage to a cry from the crowd of "we missed you!". The work was for the most part the same piece they created twenty years previously although there were a few different dialogue samples ("Three" ends with new dialogue, "Nine" begins with some) and the music in the last half of "Ten" showed some changes as well. Marsh's ethereal violin work was a noticeably and welcomed addition on "Two, "Three", "Six" and others. "Five" as sung by Tielli still had shades of George Harrison's "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Six" wouldn't have sounded out of place as a segue on Pink Floyd's The Wall album at all. "Seven" (aka "Northern Wish") was given an almost stately feel by the heaving cello and stand-up bass foundation provided by Kerr and Vesely, respectfully. Tielli, in as fine voice as ever, caressed each line of lyric delicately balancing between a gentle whisper and his noted, and much missed, falsetto.
One notable difference was the lack of Group Of Seven paintings being projected like in the past. For this go around, images of Canadian landscapes and Depression era photographs were the only ones screened, an artistic decision made by Rheostatics. After the triumphant performance, the band returned for a mini-set of faves for the appreciative crowd. "Claire", "It's Easy To Be With You" (from 1999's
The Story Of Harmelodia), "Christopher" and "Horses" were all given strong readings. "Horses" in particular had deliriously intense Bidini vocals while Tielli's guitar brayed loudly.
An extra bonus for the fans was the chance to pick up Music Inspired by the Group of 7
on vinyl for the first time, freshly pressed by Six Shooter Records for the occasion.
Where Canada's heroes go from here is anyone's guess, but judging from the crowd reaction at this reunion show, the world and specifically the country is theirs if they choose to take it.
Here's hoping they do.
Robert Lawson 2015.