REVIEW: Big league fun at Edmonton rock fest

Tom Cochrane GigCity Edmonton Rock Music FestivalIf there is one thing classic rock fans know how to do – apart from drinking beer – it’s how to enjoy themselves.

It’s hard to imagine people at the folk fest having any more fun than the joyful fans down at Heritage Amphitheatre on Friday Night for the 2013 edition of the Edmonton Rock Music Festival. Or maybe you’d rather sit on a hill, hold a candle and sing Kumbaya along with some bouzouki player from Thessaloniki?

While the musical magicians at Hawrelak weren’t from some exotic part of the globe, didn’t sing about much of anything beyond broken romance and having a good time, and didn’t perform on a bizarre array of strange looking instruments, they were no less entertaining for their own group of fans. Friday’s two main acts – Tom Cochrane and Harlequin – might appear too long in the tooth to still be able to cut any musical flesh, but both acts proved age and longevity are money in the bank of rock ‘n’ roll success.

Headliner Tom Cochrane is a unique Canadian musical icon much like Rush or Neil Young in that fans had to wonder what he was going to leave out of his set as opposed to put in. The strength of his material rode through the entirety of his nearly 100 minute show, kicking off in high gear with the catchy and radio friendly high energy vibe of “Victory Day,” before careening into the more contemplative but still hook-laden “Sinking Like a Sunset.”

Tom took a quick break before launching into “Big League” to plug “Edmonton, Canada’s Greatest Sports City.”  While the ego stroke felt good, it was evidence he hasn’t seen the Oilers or Eskimos play anytime within the last several years. No matter. Cochrane and Red Rider rode the big wave they created straight into “The Untouchable One,” another massive radio hit from 1987.

Major Tom

Tom Cochrane GigCity Edmonton Rock Music FestivalTom’s 60th birthday is this year, and so perhaps after a solid half an hour of heartily rocking senior-dom it made sense he back it down for a few songs, not just for a change of pace, but because it ain’t 1983 anymore. He took an acoustic sojourn, giving a lighter “folky” treatment to Canadian FM staples such as “Avenue A”, “Wish You Well” and “Good Times.” A master showman, Cochrane picked up the pace again by delving a little deeper into the Red Rider catalogue with “Human Race” and “White Hot,” much to the appreciation of original Red Rider members Ken Greer on guitar and Jeff Jones on bass. While the quality of the material was no less, the style and sound difference from these songs to the other material was evident, with these songs taking on a distinctly early ‘80s new wave flavour.

The evening’s highlights were the set closer, the ubiquitous career defining twang of “Life Is A Highway,” and encores “Lunatic Fringe” and “Boy Inside The Man.” The crowd, comprised of a mix of young and old, but still skewed towards the other side of 40, showed no signs of their age in the enjoyment department right the very end.

Winnipeg, Manitoba’s Harlequin, a prairie hard rock act long forgotten by anyone outside of regular K-97 listenership, put on a surprising set of equally high energy riff-laden rock. The diminutive George Belanger, lead singer and one of two original members still in the act, dressed in a black button up shirt and grey ball cap, and showed he has more than a few miles of rocking left in him, with a strong sounding voice and the confident stage persona of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. It was really nice to see. Frankly I was shocked at how strong their performance was, having written them off before they even took the stage. The strength of their material came through nicely, despite the unintentional mid ‘80s farting keyboard sound in set opener “I Did It For Love” from their 1982 album “One False Move.” It was a big hit back in the day, and the class of 1983 headed up to the front for that one. The band’s next song, the driving rocker “Sweet Things In Life” ended up being a bit of visual shocker – the song, another Canadian FM rock staple, brought the rest of the crowd to the front of stage. Two songs in and this aged, seemingly irrelevant nostalgia act had as many fans in front as Edmonton’s Shout Out Out Out Out during their recent performance in this space at the Interstellar Rodeo. Given how the modern rock press maligns the classic rock genre, I was waiting for the universe to implode on itself. This form of music, while many will deny the visual proof, still has drawing power.

By the time Harlequin dusted off their biggest hit, 1980’s “Innocence,” fans shed their years and overabundantly displayed their youthful exuberance. As if it was, well, 1980. I’m sure all the beer helped.

Edmonton’s music scene and entertainment media puts a lot of focus on the Edmonton Folk Music Festival, and an event like the rock fest gave those either not interested or not able to buy folk fest tickets fast enough the chance to enjoy a stunning musical summer evening outdoors. In a city like Edmonton, there is plenty of mojo for both events on the same weekend.