Randy Bachman is the Forrest Gump of rock and roll.
Seeing him onstage last Thursday really brought it home to me. His path as a musician has followed and intersected and criss-crossed the path of rock and roll, as he went through the Chad Allan years, the Guess Who years, the BTO years, his solo career…and he shares his stories generously, with a side of wry.
Randy Bachman’s “Every Song Tells a Story” 2013 Vinyl Tap Tour kicked off its first show here in Ottawa, and as I wrote last week, Mitchell had very thoughtfully given me the “Ultimate VIP Package,” which entitled me to a bunch of Randy Swag, plus a chance to meet Randy backstage before the show.
It felt a little surreal, about a dozen hard-core fans, all of us over 50, some sporting our Vinyl Tap Tour t-shirts (no, I never wear logo t-shirts; yes, I made an exception on this occasion; no, I don’t wish to discuss it any further), gathering next to the box office so our “handler” could escort us backstage.
We were led down a series of long, narrow corridors, into a room marked “Chorus Dressing Room.” There, we hung around making small talk for a couple of minutes, waiting for Randy.
He seemed quiet, a bit subdued as the handler dude brought him into the room. I suspect that right before a show, he probably had things on his mind other than making nice to a room full of people he didn’t know. He was not ungracious, but his attention seemed to be elsewhere—as yours or mine probably would have been in that situation.
We took turns posing with him for pictures, and he chatted briefly with a woman who’d brought him a bunch of gifts, including some original artwork. (Note to self: bring gifts next time.)
I shared Randy with Ron, a guy who’d come backstage without his wife; he and Mitchell and I later sat together, and he was a fine concert buddy.
After the photo session, we were guided back into the theatre, to our reserved second-row seats.
I should mention here that the last time Mitchell saw Randy Bachman perform live was about 40 years ago at the Montreal Forum. He and his high school date had seventh-row tickets to a BTO concert.
BTO was a hard-rockin’ band—they routinely kept the amps pumped up to 11. When Mitch and his poor date emerged, they were unable to hear the heavy Montreal traffic…at all. They’d gone stone deaf, and it took them a few days to regain their hearing. Moral: seventh-row seats might sound cool…in principle.
This time, though, our second-row tickets were not a passport to permanent hearing damage. This concert felt sedate—the musicians sat on stools rather than ranging and jamming across the stage; the audience stayed in our seats with a minimum of ruckus and clapped enthusiastically but politely. No lit lighters were waved aloft; no mosh pit formed.
Oh, and the show started promptly at 8:00 and ended at a very civilized 10:30 p.m., in time for the audience to head home for a nice cup of hot chocolate before bed. After all, this was a week night. Work in the morning. Responsibilities. You know.
Randy sat centre stage, strumming his guitar while he told stories.
And such stories! He took us back to Winnipeg in the mid-1950s, introducing us to neighbour and jazz legend Lenny Breau, who taught Randy to play some amazing jazz guitar licks—skills that would come to fruition later, in songs like “Undun” and “Taking Care of Number One.”
We heard about his first band, Chad Allan and the…well, they went through several names. The Silvertones, the Expressions, the Reflections…but all of them had been taken first by other bands. Eventually, they released their first Canadian hit single, “Shakin’ All Over,” under the band name Guess Who?, in hopes that their vaguely English sound would lead people to believe they were actually a bunch of incognito British Invasion stars, cutting a single under an assumed name.
We heard about the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive (shortened to BTO, which fit better on an album cover).
We heard about life on the road as a working band, trying to make ends meet by driving to $400-a-night gigs, putting albums together, looking for the singles that would break out and head up the charts.
And we heard about the genesis of songs like the iconic “American Woman”—an anti-war song by four Canadian guys that nonetheless made it to the top of the charts worldwide.
All the stories were interspersed with songs Randy had written or composed.
Randy’s stories were entertaining, fascinating, offering us glimpses into the world he’s inhabited for the past 50 years…and a tour through time and space. The effect was enhanced by a montage of images and old film clips, projected onto a screen behind the stage; and always, always the music.
Familiar guitar hooks like the opening notes of “American Woman,” “Taking Care of Business,” “These Eyes.” Randy was upfront about his mediocre singing voice, and let his band-mates take on the lead parts in most of the songs; he relegated himself to chorus parts, or the “p’chaaaah” noises that punctuate “Undun.”
“Yes,” he grinned at one point, “I used to be the guy who made the noises.”
For the most part, the music didn’t let us down; my only small beef was that I’d have liked to have heard the songs in their entirety, rather than the truncated versions they performed. But again, they had limited time, and precedence seemed to go to the stories.
Fair enough—Randy’s CBC Radio show, Vinyl Tap, is really a bunch of stories interspersed with music, and that’s what people came to hear. We baby boomers wanted our musical memories, and we received them in abundance.
Oh, my other beef? I really wish you’d been there. I think you’d have loved it too.