I stand squished against all the other bodies shoehorned into the El Mocambo last Monday for a coveted club gig by reactivated Winnipeg maulers the Guess Who, and I'm feeling mildly smug. That's because, while he doesn't know it, Burton Cummings and I share a secret memory that may be the key to the group's reformation after many acrimonious years apart.
Hauling on a beer and safeguarding a tiny but very choice space near the stage, I flash back to Juno weekend in March of this year. I've just come off a dead-boring industry dinner where awards too low-profile for the following day's TV broadcast are handed out. My pal and I split for the Royal York Hotel to attend a reception hosted by a Canadian record label.
On our way, we crash a private, monster bash raging inside the Imperial Room.
Settling on stools to survey the manic scene unfolding all around us -- there's a free bar, obviously -- we notice onstage a lone man positioned behind a keyboard. We can't make out his face, but he sounds very familiar.
Wait, could that be...? Nah, why would a guy like that be here, performing for a gaggle of folks who aren't even paying attention to him? But wasn't that song...? We move closer. Yup, it's Burton Cummings, caught like a deer in the headlights at a soul-crushing corporate gig.
Now it's December and the cusp of the band's live set, a show that's part fundraiser for the Daily Bread Food Bank and part publicity stunt for the new live album. The CD is entitled Running Back Thru Canada -- something that none of the now-portly members of the Guess Who could possibly do even if they had M16s pointed at their fleshy butts.
Still, Cummings is back in his natural habitat -- energized, suited up in punk-rock black and literally nose-to-nose with guys who can speak with authority on the relative quality of Guess Who bootlegs from 69 versus 72 -- pre- and post-Randy Bachman, of course.
Though undoubtedly the wealthiest member of the original band, Cummings's reasons for wanting to recapture the glory days are clear, which makes this event even more gratifying for me. I witnessed the alternative back at the Imperial Room, and this must be better.
It sure rocks better. Tight, meaty and with unbelievably silky vocal harmonies, the Guess Who powerfully reinforce the rock-and-roll truism that practice really does work. The band effortlessly recapture their sound from three decades ago, as if years of shouting and smoking and the like had never happened.
No ranting smart-ass huckster pitching beer on TV can create a Great Canadian Moment to rival 400-odd sweaty men and women packed in a club on a freezing Monday night in December, whooping it up to the strains of Runnin' Back To Saskatoon.
The hits fly faster than Jack Daniels shooters -- Laughing, Undun, No Sugar Tonight/New Mother Nature, Rain Dance and a high-camp, Tom Jones-ified version of American Woman that Cummings performs with all the glee of a man who's lived to see songwriting royalties on a mega-hit cover version 30 years on.
There are certainly some unpleasantries -- some men just should not take their shirts off under any circumstances -- but the vibe is disarmingly jovial.
And yes, there's a touch of Tap. Throughout the set, one fan -- continually on the brink of sonic orgasm -- greets every song introduction with a squeal of "All right!! Yeah!! Whoo-hoo!!" Then Cummings, dislodging himself from behind his keyboard to take a position in front of a stand-up mike, intones that he's going to play a song that he's a bit vague on, lyrically, and that he'd appreciate help from the audience.
Cummings reveals the song is Talisman, a maudlin, Tolkien-damaged castaway from the American Woman album, and as he says this, former Mr. Ecstatic Guy wails, "Nooooo!" in agony, reminding us that even diehards have standards. By any measure, though, the night is a massive success. Over 1,800 kilos of food is collected for the food bank. Greying longhairs clutching dog-eared concert programs and cocksure young glam/goths alike are digging the show.
Club promoter Dan Burke, who has restored the El Mo's faded glory, now has bragging rights to an event that rivals the infamous Stones throw-down of 77.
And you can bet Cummings will tell you a wild night playing for charity at the El Mo beats the fat corporate paycheque every time.