I used to question the theory that every moment in a person’s life has led them to the moment they are experiencing right now. I mean, how many throwaway moments have there been? Certainly a lot. We’re not living a fictitious life within the pages of a best-selling novel. Not everything that happens moves the plot forward or develops our character. Sometimes the tip of your pencil breaking is inconsequential, and then sometimes a sequence of events gets strung together over twenty-five years to culminate in an experience never to be forgotten.
Like this one.
Back in my first year of university, I met a few people that, even at that early stage, I knew were special. My buddy Riaz, my friend-girlfriend-not friend-friend-girlfriend-fiancee-wife, Jodi, and my friend-lab partner-roommate-colleague-boss-friend, Jason.
Riaz introduced me to Jodi. I met her properly in his room across the hall from mine. She was playing Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis and he and I were listening to music, playing Ultima Underworld on his computer, and burning incense. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Jodi and Riaz introduced me to this band called The Watchmen. Jodi pushing their first album, Maclaren Furnace Room, and Riaz in love with their second one, In The Trees. Ri and I would take in as many of their shows as we could over the years and have more than a few stories to tell about those times.
Jay was a friend of some friends and lived on a rival floor in residence, and later became my lab partner and my go-to friend for a game or ten of pool, often played at the on-campus bar where this one album with the strange name, Shakespeare My Butt, by this obscure band called Lowest of the Low seemed to play on an endless loop.
Life was grand. Responsibilities were minimal. Parental supervision was non-existent. Our relationships were rooted in amazing Canadian music; the less mainstream stuff like Watchmen and Lowest of the Low, as well as the national heroes The Tragically Hip. Then, things started to change. Not overnight, though looking back it does feel like it was, but in slow motion over the span of years and decades.
Jodi and I married and a year later Jay married this wonderful woman, Tamara. Riaz moved back out West. Jay and Jodi stopped going to Watchmen concerts with me, but Tam was a big fan and stepped up and started being my “date” for shows. There was this one concert that all four of us went to one day. I think it was before kids were in the picture and we could all be out on a Friday night in Toronto (about an hour away from where we lived) without feeling guilty or tired. We saw Lowest of the Low open for Billy Bragg. Jodi’s a huge Billy Bragg fan and we were all in love with Lowest of the Low from our days hanging out in the on-campus bar.
For me, though, it was The Watchmen that held my attention. In the early days of me falling in love with Jodi, they were there. We’d argue over which of their first two albums was better. I could pull a lyric from any song and relate it to something about us. Strangely enough, on a couple occasions Danny, the lead singer from the band, would sing a Billy Bragg song as his signature a cappella song during their concerts.
In 2011 I decided I would do something special for my anniversary. I took some singing lessons and got a band together, with Jay on guitar, and I surprised her with an a cappella Billy Bragg song (sadly, not a romantic one but the one Danny sang at his shows) and a rendition of The Watchmen song, All Uncovered, the chords and lyrics for which were really hard to come by. Enter in Facebook and the super talented and one hell of a nice guy bassist for The Watchmen and solo artist, Ken Tizzard. I sent Ken a message asking for help with the song and he sent me back, within a couple hours I might add, some photos of their songbook that was no longer in print. It was an awesome gesture and was the reason the performance went off without a hitch (or well enough, all things considered).
While this was going on I was working on my writing and meeting a lot of really cool creative types on the internet. One of them was this fellow by the name of Alex Kimmell. He writes creepy, mind-bending horror now but he used to be a musician until MS decided to send him a swift kick to the nards and take that away. Back in the day, he was a drummer for this grunge outfit Out Vile Jelly. Korn opened for them at one point. It was then, through a connection at a record label that he was introduced and got into the music of The Watchmen. Alas, when I met him the MS prohibited extended travel and they weren’t touring anymore, only playing gigs in Toronto and occasional other Canadian cities. That’s when I got the idea that whenever I would go to a show, I would record his favourite Watchmen song for him so he’d get to experience the experience a little bit.
In the middle of all of that, like a gut punch from out of nowhere, we lost Riaz. It was sudden, it hurt like a sonofabitch, and it left a big hole. In the intro to my video tribute to him, there was Watchmen playing in the background. Hearing their music would never be the same. Every song would be bittersweet and carry a deeper meaning than I ever thought possible (more on Riaz in this blog post).
You might be thinking that this is all fine and dandy but what does it have to do with my opening paragraph? Well, that’s where Friday night comes in. All of what I just described (though it happened in much greater detail in real life) came together to give me the greatest concert experience I will likely ever have.
It actually started Thursday night when I got the last-minute idea to message Ken once again asking for a favour. I thought it would be cool if, before they played Alex’s favourite song, they tossed out a dedication to him. So, I asked. Ken got back to me in rapid fashion again and had some bad news. They were swapping out that song for something else for this show. He did say he’d discuss it with the guys though. I thanked him for even considering it and wished them a good show.
Friday comes and Tam agrees to drive into the city and we arrive at the venue ten minutes before the opener hits the stage. Because we’re old we got seats up in the balcony this time and were able to sit down for the show. It felt weird at first, having never seen the band from a chair before, but my aching bones would thank me later. The opening act? A fella by the name of Ron Hawkins. No, not the one from Arkansas currently in the Canadian Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Someone better. The Ron Hawkins who happens to play guitar and sing for the Lowest of the Low.
Ron opened the night with a close-to-45-minute set that included some solo stuff, some Lowest of the Low, some Rusty Nails, and a few snippets of some cover tunes just for shits and giggles. He even brought the LotL guitarist, Steve, on stage to do a couple of their classic tunes. It was a lot of fun, and the place was already close to capacity. The mood was set for more good times, and oh boy, were they delivered – in spades.
Due to curfew rules for the venue, The Watchmen came on at 9:02. Early by concert standards but to come on stage so soon after such a good opener turned out to be a great idea. Everyone was excited and feeling good, including the band, and from the very first chord, it showed.
Now, because I wasn’t sure if they’d play Alex’s song or not, at the end of each song I’d get my phone ready to record. It wasn’t a big deal because I was sitting down. I just put my phone in my lap with my camera app open and clapped and cheered like everyone else while we waited for the next tune. Then, the band did something different. The bassist grabbed an acoustic guitar and the drummer grabbed some bongos. Sensing something special coming I started recording, and Danny gave a little intro and they kicked into a cover of a Tragically Hip song. It was emotional as hell.
For those who don’t know, The Hip (as they are affectionately known) lost their lead singer, Gord Downie, a couple years ago (about a year after I lost Riaz). The nation mourned (I wrote about that, too), but Friday night when The Watchmen played one of their tunes, it was a celebration. I, along with every other person in the joint, was close to tears, but it was a celebration and a damn fine tribute.
Then, the band played my favourite Watchmen tune acoustic-style. It’s the one I learned to play for my anniversary.
That was followed up by Danny’s a cappella. It wasn’t Billy Bragg this time, but it sounded like gold. His voice was like butter and while no live performance will ever be executed perfectly, it was perfect.
The whole show was fantastic. Every song was tight, the sound was clean, the audience was into it, and the band looked like they were having a blast. Toward the end of the show, they called out Ron to do a song: Billy Bragg’s A New England. It was off the charts fantastic and because I was at-the-ready with my phone I captured it.
I didn’t record every emotional moment I had, though. I started recording one of my favourite songs toward the end of the show but it was too much. It was one of Riaz’s favourite songs as well and he would often quote the opening lyric to me randomly on facebook or via email. As soon as they played it I put the phone down and just sat and watched, and listened, and immersed myself in the moment. Even now, the emotions are overwhelming.
With the show coming to a close and one encore set already done it was clear that I had just experienced something truly special. Then, the guys go and outdo themselves yet again. There was a bit of a discussion on stage amongst the band and then Danny informs us that they’re “calling an audible” and instead of only getting one more song to end the night that we’re going to get two. Camera at the ready, I started recording and then I heard the telltale opening drums of Alex’s favourite song, Say Something.
They played the last song after that, just Danny and the guitarist Joey, and the lights came up. Tam and I looked at each other and agreed that it was probably the best show of theirs we’d ever seen. We bypassed the main stairwell and headed down the side steps that led directly outside. Two paces to the right outside on the sidewalk I see a friend from high school that I interact with regularly on Facebook. I haven’t seen him face-to-face in probably twenty-five years. He hadn’t been at the show. He had been out with friends and was waiting for an Uber. He’s a hell of a guy and a wonderful blogger, and it was the perfect random encounter to cap off the perfect evening, all made possible by a quarter of a century of seemingly random and inconsequential events. Bob Ross would have called them happy little accidents, and after Friday night I’d be inclined to agree.