Imagine, for a moment, this scenario. It’s a cold Canadian winter’s night in the middle of small town wherever. You’re at a bar drinking rye and gingers cozied up next to a fire, a warm dim humming over the room. Off in the corner, you spot a familiar face among the patrons. It’s Steven Page, co-founder of Canadian music legends the Barenaked Ladies, engrossed in conversation with some of his musician buddies. You get to chatting and find him to be truly down-to-earth, affable, and absolutely hilarious.
The snow has been gathering thick outside over the passing hours and you suddenly realize that you are snowed in. To make the best of a bad situation, Page and friends decide to pull out their instruments and put on an impromptu concert for the confined customers, to the delight of everyone.
This is almost exactly how it felt to be at the regal Empire Music Hall as Steven Page played to a sparse room of diehard fans. Backed up by Craig Northey and Kevin Fox, Page performed a stripped-back set that imbued the sensation of having been part of something completely unique. The show was off-the-cuff, personal, and warm enough to make you smile on the coldest of nights.
Setting the “snowed-in-barroom” effect from the start was something I had never seen before at a show, which was having an opening act consisting of the very musicians that were to make up Steven Page’s backup band. It was a kind gesture of acknowledgement to let these talented if less well-known, artists showcase their own original music.
Craig Northey of the band Odds came out first with his mellow singer-songwriter vibe, only to be joined on stage the following song by cellist Kevin Fox. The deep, rich bowing of the beautiful instrument added to Northey’s melancholy odes of sweet regret and days gone by. Northey bashfully busted out a very recognizable tune, “Someone Who’s Cool”, explaining that it was a big hit in some parts of the world and almost made it onto an ill-fated Friends soundtrack.
Fox, a recording artist now experimenting with ‘Songs for Cello and Voice’, took his turn in the spotlight next, demonstrating the incredible sound he can produce with a simple looping pedal. He let loose with strong soulful vocals as he meticulously layered pizzicato on the cello to create a beautiful, appropriately Irish-folk-inspired ballad. After a lively Paul Simon cover by Fox, the two reunited for a final song that married heartfelt cello solos over rhythm guitar, not to mention the addition of a third band member dubbed “Secret Mic”, a disembodied voice from offstage. I wonder who that could be…?
This playful little joke was the first taste of the goofy, good-humoured performance to come. Yet as the man himself stepped out onto stage after a short intermission looking humble, almost shy, it was nothing but goosebumps. Kicking things off with stimulating, theatrical three-part lyrical lines and we caught wind of that oh-so-familiar timbre that could only belong to the one-and-only Steven Page.
The room was instantaneously filled with warm fuzzies as the audience clapped and cheered upon hearing the first notes of well-loved tune “Jane”. In a fantastic unplugged arrangement, with acapella over the simple plucking of strings, the song was pared back to a naked beauty and allowed to breathe. I too already found myself awash in nostalgia, remembering a time when my parents would pop in a cassette entitled Maier Mix vol. II and the strains of Page’s vocals alongside his former band would fill my ears.
On stage, Page instantly developed a kinship with the audience—who sat scattered at cabaret-like tables, and whose Canadian presence seemed to be great—commenting that it’s not the smallest crowd they’ve played to (but maybe close!). As he chattered with his bandmates, told anecdotes, made dad-jokes, Steven Page drew everybody in and gave the impression that there was nothing else in the world he would rather be doing, all the while belting out from the depths of his soul.
Going into a string of original songs from his solo albums, Page inserted a little banter between each, which worked perfectly to set up the lyrical witticisms to come. Not only is Page a talented songwriter, but he was setting up the elaborate punchlines in his stories that could go toe-to-toe with any stand-up comedian.
To hear his new stuff, songs like “Manchild” and his latest single “White Noise”, it is apparent that Page has lost neither his knack for gripping lines nor ear for a catchy tune since his days writing for the Ladies. He is like the short storyist of songwriters, as each of his tracks perfectly encapsulates the cross-section of a moment of his subject’s existence—a rare ability in a writer.
With his foot-thumpers and tongue-in-cheek songs of protest and procrastination, Page paints a picture of the world by which we all find ourselves surrounded today. I particularly enjoyed “I Can See My House From Here,” from his second solo album, which was prefaced with an elaborate story set to background music about Jesus appearing in bathroom mirror and mistaking him for a Beatle.
As the evening went on everyone in the room, band and audience alike, lost any semblance of formality and all barriers of social norms just went out the window. Concert-goers were buying Steven beers, people were going up to request songs and shouting out inane snippets of conversation.
Likewise, on the other side of the stage, the band was just trying things out, taking their time between songs, chatting, and playing pieces essentially unrehearsed by the trio—some of which they pulled off while others unfortunately crashed and burned. But it was all part of the fun, and much fun was had, particularly when Page busted out a simple “feel good strum” and called upon his bandmates to sing any song they could think of overtop of it—a kind of carefree campfire game—leading into BNL tune “Enid”.
As Page and friends wrapped things up with the hits everyone was waiting for, the whole room was singing along and cheering adoringly. There was a special feel, like that of a living room concert, a once-in-a-lifetime performance, and for Belfast it very well could be, being the first time any of the Barenaked Ladies had reached their shores, but hopefully not the last. Regardless, Steven wasn’t going to say goodbye without coming back an encore of the powerful “Call & Answer”, but not before seizing one final opportunity for mirth, emphatically gurgling Genesis melodies set to piano extensively before getting to the actual song.
While the show felt more like a chance encounter in a bar than a polished recital, I wouldn’t have it any other way. In spite of the informality of it all—and in spite of Page’s failure to finish his new album before this tour—the night certainly inspired me to listen to more. “I’m not the lazy guy from the man child song,” Page explained regarding the unfinished state of his album. “I’m the obsessive guy from the song I haven’t written yet.” If witticisms like this are any indication, I’m sure it will be worth the wait.
Steven Page Setlist:
There’s a Melody II
Jane (Barenaked Ladies song)
A New Shore
I Live With It Everyday (Barenaked Ladies song)
War on Drugs
Linda Ronstadt in the 70’s
“Feel Good Strum” Medley / Enid (Barenaked Ladies song)
Break Your Heart (Barenaked Ladies song)
I Can See My House From Here
What a Good Boy(Barenaked Ladies song)
The Old Apartment (Barenaked Ladies song)
Brian Wilson (Barenaked Ladies song)
Call & Answer (Barenaked Ladies song)
Review by Krysten Maier
Photography by Mike Lockheart © 2018