REVIEW: Barenaked Ladies have lost their direction

A band could never get away with calling itself Barenaked Ladies today. There can be only one! Even as the original’s former magic was sadly lacking during a maddening show at the Jubilee Auditorium Thursday night.

It was maddening because the four remaining members – singer-guitarist Ed Robertson, keyboardist-guitarist Kevin Hearn, bassist Jim Creeggan, and drummer Tyler Stewart – are so goddamned talented. Their skills at freestyle rap, comedy, novelty songs, and audience rapport were generously displayed for a crowd of just 1,600. They drew 10 times that number in their heyday. OK, maybe five. No matter. A show’s a show. These guys are also stellar musicians, each showing their talents at given times, a fact easily forgotten given their easy, deceptively breezy material. They’ve been doing this so long they made it look simple. They all sing beautifully together.

So it was a fun concert. Entertaining most of the time – yet insufferable when they did some the scattered and super-corny new material from their latest album, Fake Nudes. Trump shot and self-reference in two words. Nice. The new music, not so much. Worst of all was the top-40 medley they always insist on doing, this one late in the show filled with Bruno Mars and his ilk. It was dreadful. Gets worse every year. Is this bit a reflection of the state of modern pop music? I wish they’d knock it off and try something new.

Overall, as the night wore on, the highlights and the hits equally more or less equally mixed with the duds, there was a creeping feeling that this great Canadian band that had once captured so many hearts was missing something, that they’re squandering their gifts on schtick and novelty when once there was so much more – and could be so much more if they could only find their direction again. Just a feeling.

Is the band name a factor? It seems their ridiculous name has shaped their music. People forget that “Barenaked Ladies” caused a minor stir when they started almost 30 years ago, in those more innocent, pre-internet days. Some news-papers called the name inappropriate. Puritans frothed at the mouth. But people soon got used to it. It’s just the name of the band, man!

But then they had to live up to it. What else could they do? Write political songs? No, Barenaked Ladies walked the fine line between silly and serious in distinctive bippity boppy songs that came off like kids’ music for grown-ups, or maybe the other way around. It veers dizzily from funny to sad, sometimes in the same tune. Take for instance the huge hit If I Had a Million Dollars, played late in the show Thursday night. For all its simple innocence the song hits home with the line, “If had a million dollars, I’d buy your love” – which is really sad when you think about it. Their writing is child-like, sometimes even childish. In the song Pinch Me, they make the “I just made you say underwear” joke, but then comes a deep thought, “On an evening such as this, it’s hard to tell if I exist.” We’ve all been there. Barenaked Ladies have helped a lot of young nerds through their awkward, lonely phase.

You can’t help but like these guys. Robertson was a warm, funny and avuncular host who at one point rapped about the virtues of beards, his own included: “You gotta grow a beard to alleviate the cold, the grey looks sexy or so I am told!” Bonus points for working in Edmonton and Gord Downie references in the songs. As with every other BNL show, there was lots of merry banter, the other guys frequently chiming in with their own wisecracks until the evening felt like a comedy revue. Keyboardist Kevin Hearn did a lovely, apparently impromptu number we’ll just call Don’t Shit Your Pants. They even “corpsed” in the second song – theatre talk for breaking character by laughing, also known as “Harvey Kormaning.” The song in question was Blame It On Me, and they had to start it again because they were laughing so hard. The crowd laughed with them, naturally. Fun is infectious. And this was even before the song in take 2 got to this part where Robertson sings, “You think you’re so smart, but I’ve seen you naked and I’ll probably see you naked again.” Yet it’s a heartbreak song. Sad.

See, this is what happens when giggling teenage nerds who don’t know how to talk to girls start to grow old.

It’s obvious to suggest that Steven Page is what’s missing. The joke has been made that Barenaked Ladies without him is like Van Halen without either David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar. Page left the band in 2009 after he was busted for cocaine. It couldn’t have come at a worse time – Barenaked Ladies had just released a children’s album. It was a big loss. Page was the tragic clown who created the perfect contrast to the giddy style of his bandmates. There was magic. He was dramatic, flambouyant, arguably the nerdiest-looking of them all (except for drummer Tyler Stewart and he can hide behind his kit) and the main face of the band. It’s sad he had to leave.

But BNL has heart beyond Page. They proved it in post-Page shows, and at certain moments in this one in Edmonton. Ever the tricksters, they played the first six or so songs in front of a cheesy backdrop of a giant draped sheet (with Stewart behind a teeny tiny drum set), the band arrayed like a folk group – before the sheet dropped to reveal the more elaborate “rock ‘n’ roll stage.” They sounded better as a folk band, frankly.

The highlights of the show included the masterpiece meld of maudlin and meaningful: Brian Wilson, about another “tragic clown” who turned out to be a legend of rock ‘n’ roll. Wilson also put out some total crap – as great artists sometimes do.

Maybe there’s a lesson here. Maybe there’s hope yet. Maybe Barenaked Ladies could get back with Steven Page after all this time, and see if they can recapture the magic again. Because it’s still there.

14 Responses to REVIEW: Barenaked Ladies have lost their direction

  1. Tyler Stewart Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 2:18 AM

    Mike, you’ve been bashing us for years. I remember when you used to get paid for for your cynicism (I bet you do too) in the Edmonton Sun. Back then, you said didn’t want to imagine Steve Page having sex… now he’s what’s missing? It’s been 9 years Mike. BTW how’s your music career going? You ever play the Jubilee in your hometown?Meanwhile my obsucured nerdy self is happy with the fact that every one else at the Jube had an amazing time tonight, and that after 27 years of doing what I love, your bitter drivel is completely irrelevant. GFY.

    • Brittany Ellenthorpe

      November 24, 2017 at 7:36 PM

      Well done Tyler. Good for you! Keep going at what you love and are obviously great at.

    • Shae Guerin

      November 25, 2017 at 2:10 PM

      Wow, that’s some serious butthurt for a fair and balanced review.

  2. Bill Geraghty Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 9:49 AM

    EPIC TAKEDOWN BY TYLER! I love BNL

  3. Wraith7 Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 10:05 AM

    Wow, did this reviewer ever miss the mark. Not sure he was even at the same concert.

    The Ladies were in excellent form last night. Their harmonies were top notch, with an enthusiasm and energy that was contagious. The set was a good mix of old favorites, and the new material–certain ones of which will become new favorites. Looking up anybody? :P

    I saw a full house, with hundreds of people dancing in their seats, and singing along. Clearly I wasn’t the only one who had a fantastic night.

    Awesome gig Ladies. Come back soon. This reviewer has his head up his ass.

  4. Alison Jacobs Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 10:29 AM

    What an utter knob.

  5. Chris Cox Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 10:47 AM

    I have seen BNL in concert 11 times…. and i’ve never ever seen a bad concert. They are an incredibly talented Canadian Band. Each and every one of their shows are unique. BNL please keep rockin on. You are a great group of musicians. I can’t wait to see you again.

  6. Butts Richardson Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 10:49 AM

    Seeing a member of a legendary band throw a tantrum like Tyler did is a huge bummer.

    • Kirstyn

      November 24, 2017 at 1:50 PM

      Oh stfu. You’re a huge bummer to everyone who knows you, I bet.

  7. Melissa Gregory Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 11:06 AM

    Damn it, I love Tyler Stewart and the rest of the Barenaked Ladies.

    “Fake Nudes” is fantastic. Period. Too bad that seems too much for the reviewer to understand.

    This reviewer needs a life, not to mention a good editor to take him aside and explain the finer points of writing. It’s too long and scattered, and contradicts itself from graph to graph.

    Or it could just be that, for whatever reason, dude is living in the past with a huge chip on his shoulder.

    Sucks to be him.

  8. Chad Crim Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 11:36 AM

    The trouble with tragic clowns is that they’re usually self-sabotaging egomaniacs who insist by word or deed that being forced to deal with their inability to function in a polite and professional manner is the price that they, and everyone else, must pay for the dubious privilege of experiencing their “genius”.

    The current BNL lineup has proven to me that you can do amazing work without endangering the survival of the band with self-destructive behaviour. The new album is possibly their best and I cannot wait to see them live this summer.

  9. Lane arndt Reply

    November 24, 2017 at 11:44 AM

    I’m not much for novelty/humour in music personally, so I’ve always preferred BNL’s more sombre side. “Maybe I Should Drive” is as fantastic an album as Gordon. But a lot of that means that for me Steven Page was the …Ladies. To that end, I would suggest that BNL without SP is more like Van Halen without EVH!!

  10. Shae Guerin Reply

    November 25, 2017 at 2:11 PM

    I saw the band at their first Edmonton gig. Walked out twenty minutes into it (yup, I was that guy). Way too twee and cute.

  11. Rosieboat Reply

    November 25, 2017 at 3:26 PM

    This review says so much more about the author than the band.
    If you stop liking lasagna do you blame the chef.
    If you stop enjoying cycling do you blame the bike?
    So why slate BNLs when your tired of enjoying them???
    Maybe the author needs to review comedy instead
    In the meantime BNLs keep rocking my world, I’m loving getting older with you and exploring new tunes

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