ROBERT OWENS with BLUEPRINT and MORENO at Roxy Blu (12 Brant), Friday (August 9). $15 advance, more at the door. www.garage416.com
Robert Owens, the best-known male vocalist in house music, hasn't been in T.O. for 15 years, but he still has good memories of his last time here.
"That show was actually really good. It was a chance for me to set up scenes and use props -- incorporate theatrics almost," Owens reminisces during a visit to Chicago. "I brought Larry Heard with me, so for some of the songs we did together we set up scenes around it: we had a girl come out of a sarcophagus and then she started dancing like a ballerina; and for Tears we had clowns on the stage performing actions related to the lyrics.
"You know, that was the only place I've ever done anything like that, so Toronto holds a special memory for me."
North America in general hasn't seen much of Owens since he moved to England, and his status as a pioneering figure keeps him busy across Europe. After all, his soulful crooning has graced some of the most enduring anthems in dance music.
He first gained notoriety as an eclectic young DJ in Chicago during the mid-80s, and soon won a new reputation as a powerful vocalist through his early collaborations with Larry Heard in Fingers Inc. Mysteries Of Love, Can You Feel It and Bring Down The Walls all went on to become underground classics that helped shape the early sound of house.
His next impact on the dance world would come from his collaboration with the New York-based Def Mix team of Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Satoshi Tomiie, which produced the aforementioned Tears, a deep, emotional anthem whose success helped propel all four to greater recognition worldwide. Tears also set the stage for what was to be a bigger single than anyone could have guessed, 91's crossover hit I'll Be Your Friend.
Moving to England in the mid-90s, Owens continued to produce and sing memorable songs and began touring Europe as a DJ. When experimental d 'n' b god Photek decided to break from his hardcore roots, Owens was the voice he enlisted to ground his excursions into Chicago-style house.
Nowadays, he keeps busy touring Europe as an in-demand DJ and live performer, often doing both simultaneously -- singing his own hits over the instrumental versions while spinning.
A few days before I talked to him, Owens played a rare gig in Chicago and was still buzzing from the experience.
"It's overwhelming, because I had kind of forgotten about the past. I do so much touring overseas -- almost every week I'm going someplace. I thought people here had forgotten about a lot of these songs, but to come back and have them singing the words back to me -- it's amazing, totally overwhelming.
"A lot of people are still around, and even the ones who aren't around, their spirit lives on. You take people into your heart, and you end up being a reflection of anyone who encouraged you or inspired you in the past."