It wasn’t raining when I left my apartment, but I brought my hat anyway. I’ve been in Vancouver just under a month, but that’s long enough to figure that you’re going to get rain on the way there or on the way home. Probably both.
Only one bus from Kitsilano east and north to downtown, so I didn’t bother to bring my headphones. Sometimes I find when I leave a live show and plug in some of my own music on the ride home it somehow cheapens the experience. Instead of letting the memories soak in, I just go on to the next track on my playlist. Skip. Listen. Skip. Skip.
So when a mated pair of crack heads got on at 5thand almost immediately started arguing with each other, I couldn’t help but overhear. I stared at my phone’s black screen pretending to text, but let’s face it. Everyone on the bus without an mp3 player was listening.
Incidentally, I didn’t confirm at any point that crack was their drug of choice. I just like the sound of ‘crack head’ over ‘unfortunate individual possibly suffering from any number of disorders and addictions beyond their own control.’ It’s a little snappier.
It was hard to follow. Mostly this is because the participants of the dispute disagreed so fundamentally with the other’s position that they seemed to be having different arguments completely. A large chunk of the banter was just rounds of “No!” and “Yes!” thrown back and forth without any regard for the principles of debate or context. The problem revolved around a second woman – as these things often do – but that was where it fell apart for me. The most I was able to glean was that Miss Head was upset that her handsome companion had decided to briefly adjourn upstairs with another young woman before/after their latest deal. The pair was returning home to do the drugs together, but the argument apparently wasn’t waiting until the high had come and gone. It was steadily crescendoing up Granville. By the time I got off at Dunsmuir, the only detail I could really comprehend was that her competitor for his love may have been wearing a shower curtain at some point during their encounter. Then the doors shut behind me and I headed over to the Railway Club.
There was a grizzled man in a dark blue windbreaker and jeans standing at the door. He had a red baseball cap in his hand. As I walked along the sidewalk, I watched him and immediately started to feel guilty about the coins jingling in my pocket. If he opened the door for me, I’d be obligated to give him something, and this was the change I would use for the bus home. I resolved to just thank him for getting the door, and feel like a dick all the way up the stairs.
When I reached him, he opened up the door as expected. I flashed him a smile.
“Thank you, but I have nothing for you.”
At least I was right about feeling like a dick all the way up the stairs.
No debit at the cover window and no ATM except in the back meant that I had to go right back downstairs. I opened the door myself and surprised the guy; both of us said sorry in the Canadian fashion. I took out some money from the 7-11 a couple of doors down. On the way back, he opened the door for me again. This time I just said thank you.
When I saw the band setting up inside, my first thought was that I’d made a terrible mistake.
I was here to see my friend Brock. He manages Luke Austin, who was playing a show at the Railway Club in the back room. I had managed to neatly ignore or overlook any indication that this was the case, and here I was looking at the main stage. A horrible sinking feeling went through me. I wasn’t sure if I was seeing a group of juggalos about to throw down, or a rave party waiting for the M to kick in. A guy walked by me dressed in nothing but a sheepskin vest, cargo shorts and combat boots. Two spiked crests of bright red hair rose from either side of his bald head like the fins on the ECTO-1. I grabbed my phone a little faster than was necessary and texted Brock while I went to the bar to order a beer.
A few sips of Red Racer ESB later, I was checking my messages and saw the one I’d missed about the back room. At the same time, Brock texted me back and told me himself. I grabbed my beer, turned around, and made eye contact with a familiar fellow in a red baseball cap. He nodded, lowered himself on to a stool, and put down his Bluetooth headset.
I still felt like a dick walking to the back room.
It was a neat room, but it was empty. The décor was mostly dark wood, which I liked. The walls were plain but covered in old photos along with pictures of steam locomotives. The whole thing was cast in warm orange from antique light fixtures with little coloured bits of paper or something tinting them. The whole thing made me think of a gin joint during the Depression, or whatever mishmash of the early 20th century that pop culture has fixed in my head along those lines. Looking around at the state of the world today, I guess it isn’t really that much of stretch.
I said hello to Brock and the band. The eponymous Luke and his guitarist Kennedy Pollard were setting up, so Brock and I had a few minutes of the ‘Differences Between Toronto and Vancouver’ game I’ve been playing with pretty much everyone since I got here. I like Brock, and he’s actually from Vancouver initially even though he’s in Toronto now, so maybe we can be forgiven for that particular round.
When Luke and Kennedy were done setting up, Corey Abell came over and started doing the same. Brock had booked him as the opening act via email, so he didn’t really know what to expect when he had arrived a little while before. He’d almost turned around and left quietly when he saw the band at the front room stage. He’d been worried that their styles wouldn’t mesh. I sympathized.
Luke and I went downstairs for a cigarette. It was raining, so we stood together under the awning and chatted for a few minutes before Corey started. We’d gotten around to the familiar “Toronto/Vancouver” game. We were talking about the difference in ‘bad neighbourhoods’ or streets in Toronto, and their counterparts in Vancouver.
“In Toronto, you walk through a couple blocks and you’re thinking ‘man, this is a bad area.’ You don’t feel safe at all,” said Luke, exhaling smoke into the rain. “But here, you just find neighbourhoods that are more…”
“Just kind of sketchy,” I offered. Luke’s eyes lit up.
“Yeah. Sketchy, that’s it.”
The music I could hear while we were climbing the stairs was interesting. It reminded me of fast-paced trip-hop, or something like that. The pale, thin girl behind the ticket window smiled when I asked her the name of the band on the main stage. She looked at me archly.
“Oh, that’s… well, that’s Toby.”
I thanked her, thoroughly confused. I would later find out that they were called Hero, Sauce, Canzino, and Fukushimo U. I’m not saying that if I had known that, I would have slapped my forehead and suddenly everything would have made sense. But for the moment, I just stared in awe at what was happening in front of me.
The fellow with the Ghostbusters hair – I was taking a wild guess that he was the aforementioned Toby – was apparently the lead singer/rapper/trumpet player for the group. He looked like what I imagined Flea and Tyler Durden would if they stepped into a telepod together and became the cult icon for freaks in farm animal themed onesies waving sparklers.
While FleaDurden gyrated onstage, singing lyrics from seemingly random pieces of paper and tossing them aside, his bandmates were busy. A tall, lanky guy in a hoodie with a t-shirt underneath displaying an LED equalizer was the DJ. The source of the trip-hop kind of feel that I’d been hearing was coming from him, along with a burly bass guitarist wearing a surgical mask that had a smile scrawled on it.
I desperately wanted to stick around, but Corey was about to start. I got to the back room a few seconds into his first song. Sliding into a booth in the corner, I sat back and watched him play.
Corey Abell has a mellow, thoughtful sound. His set that night ranged from songs full of soulful wailing over gently strummed guitar to some that had more experimental (almost dischordant) progressions. It made for interesting listening. For a one-man act, he pulls off some complex rhythms with just a guitar and a voice. That’s where the ‘thoughtful’ comes into play for me.
Near the end of his set he did a cover of “What the World Needs Now is Love.” The song that I immediately associate with elevator music and one scene from the first Austin Powers movie gets a loving treatment (unsurprisingly, given the spirit of the tune). It’s a beautiful version that rises and falls passionately without getting melodramatic. I was pretty sure I’m not the only one in the crowd most familiar with the track via Mike Myers trying to bang Elizabeth Hurley in 1997, but for the moment I kept my suspicions to myself.
After a brief interlude during which it was ascertained that more than half the crowd in the room uses Tinder (and an even briefer interlude during which I downloaded Tinder to find out what it was), Corey finished up and Luke took the stage.
A driving blues riff started everything off on a different note (ugh, even I feel bad about thatone). Luke stomped in time with the rhythm – after all, it was just him and Kennedy with a couple of guitars. Nevertheless, the new energy was exciting and I could feel everyone around me revving up just like me.
Luke isn’t precisely soft spoken, but my conversation with him earlier had left me completely unprepared for his vocals. He growled his way through songs like he was born with gravel in his throat. It doesn’t hurt that this is one of my favourite sounds for the blues.
Playing through some material from his first record, Kennedy established great background that walked Luke through a compilation of tracks showing different sides of his sound. They lightened up the set with some stuff that’s more folksy; even some country flavour was mixed in. There was a great cover of The Band’s “The Weight” that I liked quite a bit, and I’m not the only one. Another cover, this time “Instant Crush” off the new Daft Punk album, got a great reaction from everyone present. If you’d like to hear an interesting combination of influences, a blues-folk-rock cover of a disco-classic rock-pop influenced Daft Punk track isn’t a bad place to start.
The room might’ve been dead when I arrived earlier, but during Corey’s act it filled up nicely. By the time Luke was halfway done his set, every seat there had an ass in it. During “The Weight,” some of the more colourful characters from the other show filtered in a few at a time. I figured that Hero, Sauce, Canzino and Fukushimo U must have ended their show (probably in some spectacular fashion that I can only imagine). Briefly, the crested frontman appeared long enough to give a vigorous backrub to one of his fans and applaud one of Luke’s songs.
By this time, I was feeling a few different sensations. One was embarrassment at my initial reaction to the main stage. Judging by appearances, I had been taken completely by surprise at the incredible atmosphere of those great people just there to have some fun. When Luke was finished and I’d said my goodbyes to him, Kennedy, and Brock, I stalled for a minute by the main stage before I left. SauceMaybeToby and his crew were rocking out hard up front while a third band played something with keyboards and great vocals. Everyone seemed to be having the best time, and I wish now that I’d stuck around and checked it out.
But it was a good night, all told. To dip my toe into the world of live music in Vancouver, but with some familiar Torontonian reminders here and there. I maybe brought some judgement with me, and I should’ve left it at home along with my headphones. If I’d been more preoccupied with my music or with my prejudices, I might’ve missed out on a prime example of drug-fuelled transit-based shouting matches and some of the weirdest heartwarming shit I’ve ever seen.
I thought about that on the mostly-silent ride back west to Kitsilano. The bus I would’ve normally taken wasn’t running this late, but with a sense of adventure and blind faith in Google I hopped onto another one heading my way. This ride was far less eventful, other than a brief stop on a deserted street where the bus driver idled for a few minutes until he was back on schedule. The lights even dimmed for some reason. As I watched my reflection in the glass fade somewhat and the outside world more clearly, the foggy intersection made me feel like I was in a Romero film. After a moment, we started moving again towards home.
In Toronto, the last neighbourhood I lived in was Cabbagetown. When I went home at night, I was usually heading east. Maybe because a lot of the interesting stuff downtown these days happens on the west side, but some downtowners will have you believe that there’s nothing east of Church Street but a barren wasteland. Don’t buy it for a second – I can guarantee that the Edge of the World is at least Pape (but only because I have friends in Greektown). The point is that now that I’m here, being in Kits means I usually find myself in a westbound vehicle when I’m lurching back to my abode. Now every to and fro reminds me that the west is beginning to feel like home.
And as Luke Austin might tell you (along with a few more of those Toronto downtowners, come to think of it), home is where the sketch is.
If you’d like to check out Luke Austin, you can see his website here along with his Facebook page. You can also follow him on Twitter @LukeAustinmusic.
Corey Abell’s Facebook page can be found here. Follow him on Twitter @coreyabellmusic.
Check the Railway Club’s Facebook page for future events or follow them on Twitter @RailwayClub
You can begin to unravel the mystery that is Sauce, Canzino, and Fukushimo U here.