Sunday, October 27, 2013

Welcoming a legend – Reba hits London

 Last night London welcomed a true legend as country superstar Reba McEntire (or just Reba as she’s known now) graced the Budweiser Gardens stage. With a career spanning over 30 years, and the nickname of the ‘Queen of Country’, one might have expected Reba’s concert to be an over the top spectacle befitting such an icon. But concert-goers attending the singer’s “All the Women I Am” tour were treated to something even more special – just Reba. No elaborate catwalk down the arena; no explosive pyrotechnics display; no jumbo screens projecting schmaltzy images during hit ballads – heck, there wasn’t even a sign that said “Reba” anywhere in the place. This concert was only about the music and there was plenty of that to be enjoyed.
From her opening hit “Can’t Even Get the Blues” to her encore performance of “Fancy”, Reba fans were treated to a walk down memory lane as she shared the hits, and the stories that went along with them. Those who only know Reba as a singer might have been surprised to learn of all the acting roles she has done, including Broadway (Annie Get Your Gun), feature films (Tremors, Buffalo Girls) and television, of which she’s starred in two series – “Reba” and “Malibu Country”. 

A poignant moment in the evening came just before the band launched into “My Broken Heart” as Reba remembered eight band members who were lost in a plane crash following a 1991 concert. And the crowd received a glimpse into Reba’s personal life as she discussed her friendship with Kelly Clarkson which began when Clarkson, then an American Idol finalist, asked Reba to perform a duet on the show with her. A friendship blossomed from that experience, and culminated this week in Clarkson becoming Reba’s daughter-in-law after marrying step-son Brandon Blackstock. If Reba plans on being a monster-in-law, it certainly wasn’t evident this night as she launched into a tribute to Clarkson singing a hit she wrote when she was only 16-years-old, “Because of You”.

The show-stopping number of the evening, however, was “Does He Love You”, performed in duet with band member Jennifer Wrinkle. Not many singers can match the power in Reba’s voice, but Wrinkle did that and then some. She’s a heck of a fiddle player too!

Reba’s opening act on this evening was Alberta’s own Gord Bamford. No slouch in the music department himself, Bamford holds 16 Canadian Country Music Awards, and reminded the crowd that Canadian country music fans don’t need to look across the border to find amazing talent. Singing hit after hit, Bamford kept toes tapping for a full hour...and even kept one woman in the fifth row on her feet through his entire performance. She obviously hasn’t heard that London crowds are more laid back than that, because her swaying did nothing to encourage those around her to stand. Kudos for the fan spirit though!
Earlier in the day, Bamford had visited LHSC’s Children’s Hospital to meet and perform for the kids, and to donate $10,000 from the Gord Bamford Foundation to the hospital’s Art Therapy program. Being a cause near and dear to this reviewer’s heart, I may be biased, but I truly believe Gord Bamford is a Canadian gem. 
Three hours after it had started, as fans streamed from Bud Gardens, the same sentiments could be heard time and again about the event – ‘wasn’t that a fantastic show?’, ‘classic Reba’, ‘didn’t she look great?’  This night was about talent - pure, simple, stripped down talent – and for 7000 or so fans, that was more than enough to make this evening magical.

Some observations from the show:
1.       When you’re good at what you do, you don’t need to hide behind fancy productions
2.       It IS possible for a crowd of 7-70 year olds to enjoy the same show in their own way
3.       There aren’t nearly enough Stetsons being worn in London
4.       No matter how loud the performer is, your seat neighbours apparently CAN hear you if you’re singing out loud .... oops
5.       It’s intimidating to have a professional newspaper music reviewer sitting behind you as you review a show. Every time I saw him writing something, I felt bad for not bringing a notepad
6.       Budweiser Gardens remains one of the best places to see a concert – great sight lines, good acoustics, and an intimate feeling, even when surrounded by thousands of fellow fans
7.       London is quickly become Nashville of the North...except with snow...and fewer Stetsons

Friday, April 12, 2013

Great Big Kitchen Party comes to London!

On Thursday evening, Londoners were treated to a very special birthday party at Budweiser Gardens – it’s been 20 years since the ‘birth’ of Newfoundland’s own Great Big Sea, and this high energy folk group was in the mood to celebrate their special milestone with the thousands of fans who filled the RBC theatre. 

Opening the show with the up tempo “Ordinary Day”, it didn’t take long for the entire audience to rise to their feet, singing, clapping and bouncing along to the music. Those who are regular concert goers in Londontown know that we tend to be a mellow group who often sit through entire concerts perfectly content to listen in relative calm. Oh we clap, and we sing, but that’s a lot to ask. Alan Doyle might have remembered that from previous visits, because he encouraged everyone to get up and dance often as the band played hit after hit, and this crowd was happy to oblige.

The evening was a walk down memory lane with old favourites mixed in with a few not so well known numbers. The band’s first big break – a commercial for Newfoundland Telecom – was shown on the big screen behind the band, leading into “What Are You At?” which sold ‘dozens’ of copies in those early days according to Doyle.

One of the most personal moments of the night was also one of the funniest as Doyle mocked bandmate Sean McCann for popping a couple of ribs out of place while sleeping the night before. While the mocking seemed to be a joke at first, the crowd quickly realized it was indeed true as McCann gave a shout out to the Core Medical Group for taking good care of him and his broken ribs earlier in the day. Sharing that he was on so many meds, he couldn’t really feel anything at that moment, the jokes began flying that the band was perhaps starting to show their age. The best joke of the night – “maybe we could land a Cialis commercial!  ‘When Bob’s up, he can’t get down’. If you don’t get that joke...why are you reading a GBS concert review?!

If McCann was struggling, it certainly didn’t show as he performed powerful solos which captivated the audience so well, you could hear a pin drop in between verses.  As much as GBS is known for their high energy tunes, their ballads highlight the group’s incredible harmonies. At times, it was hard to remember if we were on King St. in London, or George St. in Saint John’s, NL.

Original band member Bob Hallett wowed the crowd not only by playing seven different instruments throughout the evening, but also by flawlessly performing ‘Come and I Will Sing You’ which is perhaps one of the most lyrically difficult songs ever written. Think ‘12 Days of Christmas’ on steroids. 

For all the ribbing about the band getting older, the fact that they put on a 3 hour show with one intermission and no opening acts suggests that the group still has plenty of energy left for their fans. I was exhausted by the night’s end, and I didn’t do half as much work as they did! 

This night had something for everyone – a chance to belt out drinking songs as loud as you wanted, some traditional folk songs that made you stop and imagine the vivid scenes being painted for you, funny banter with one of the most down to earth bands out there – but most of all, it allowed the audience, ranging in age from single digit youngsters to octogenarians, to feel like they were part of their very own Newfoundland Kitchen Party. 

Thank you, Budweiser Gardens, not only for allowing me to attend and share my personal reflections on the night, but for continuing to bring quality shows to town. I look forward to celebrating many more milestones with Great Big Sea and Bud Gardens as we all age gracefully together. 

“Long may your big jib draw Great Big Sea”

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Canada's London shines!

Before I start this review of the World Figure Skating Championships – Ladies’ Free Program, let me point out something important. I am not, nor will I ever be, a figure skater. In fact, the last time I wore skates at the age of 8, I ended up with a broken wrist after completing the highly difficult move of STEPPING ONTO THE ICE

I am, however, a figure skating fan, although more for the artistry of it, than for the technical aspects. I have to be honest – I don’t know a lutz from a sow cow from an axel when I see them, but I do know when a performance moves me vs. when it just seems like a series jumps strung together into something robotic. I also know that if I fell as hard as some of the women I watched last night at Budweiser Gardens, I would still be on the ice moaning and possibly crying, waiting for some sort of sympathy ice cream cone or something. 

I was excited to be chosen as the #BGreviewer for this final competition of the World’s, not only because of my love of figure skating, but because curiosity was starting to get the best of me as to what was happening in our downtown. Was it really alive with excitement? Were thousands of tourists really checking out the shops and restaurants that I take for granted daily? What did they think of Canada’s London? And what was this light show all about? 

I need to thank Bud Gardens for allowing me to explore the answers to these questions, because in doing so, I came away with a new appreciation for my city and what we can accomplish when given the opportunity. 

First though, let’s talk about the ladies’ final. There were 24 skaters vying for top spot, representing 17 different countries and it was clear from the looks on their faces that each one was in it to win it. The top two tiers (each tier had six skaters) took to the ice and performed lovely routines that drew cheers from the supportive crowd. But when tier three got underway, it was clear the level of difficulty was beginning to ramp up. Jumps were more difficult, falls were harder, spins were faster and that gracefulness that only comes through experience was obvious.

At the close of this tier, it was clear that something big was about to happen. Chatter among audience members got noticeably louder. Flags began appearing around the arena for USA, Japan, Italy, Canada and Korea. And in a move that delighted my tech loving husband, iPads began popping up out of nowhere. Apparently if you're a figure skating enthusiast, you come prepared to follow every aspect of a skate, right down to watching the judges scoring breakdowns in real time as they’re posted online. Who knew? I didn’t. The row of 12 women in front of me clearly did! 

Our seat mates to the left from Rochester, NY – who up to this point we hadn’t really chatted with – began filling us in on some tidbits of information on the upcoming skaters. Mao Asada from Japan was apparently going to attempt a quad, Yuna Kim of Korea who was currently in first place after the short program was looking hard to beat. I tucked those tips into my back pocket and resolved to watch Asada closely in case the quad materialized – hoping I would recognize it if it did. We didn’t chat with our seat mates to the right due to language difficulties, but the rapid pace of their chatter during the fourth tier warm up led me to believe they were getting excited for this final group. 

I could tell you about each skater in this tier...who got the loudest cheers...who fell multiple times...who had the coolest outfits. But instead, the one thing that stands out for me that I want to share is the determination and spirit of one woman – Carolina Kostner of Italy. It was obvious during warm up that something was wrong. Carolina was skating around with her head tilted back, skating over to her coaches from time to time before heading out to warm up a little more. As it came time for her performance, the audience has started to figure it out – Carolina’s nose was bleeding...a lot. But it was her slot to perform, and I imagine when it’s your time, you have to just get out there and do your best. It seemed there were no time outs allowed in this competition. Well, to the amazement of the packed crowd, not only did this brave young woman skate, but she skated almost flawlessly. Blood drops appeared on the ice as she flipped and spun through the air as if nothing was wrong. Moans of sympathy and amazement filled the arena when Carolina performed a complex set of spins flawlessly, all while pinching her nose, head tipped back to try to slow the flow. A well deserved standing ovation followed this brave performance, as the young flower girls were sent out on the ice to clean the spots before the next performance. 

That brave performance earned Carolina Kostner a silver medal. As our new pals from NY predicted, Yuna Kim did, indeed, win the gold, and Mao Asada (who incidentally did not attempt the quad) earned the bronze. Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond, who went into the free program in fourth place, fell to eighth spot after a few unfortunate falls. 

The medal presentations quickly followed the event, and I was pleased to see that most people remained in their seats for the ceremony, regardless of what skater they were cheering for. I had read stories during the week of the wonderful Amabile choir learning over 30 national anthems for the week, but still gasped a little as the spotlight was turned onto the group all dressed in flowing white, and they began singing the Korean national anthem as if they had known it for their entire lives. Kudos Amabile singers – you did London proud this week! 

We wrapped up our night outside Bud Gardens watching the final “Tree of Light” show which really was a sight to see. We stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of Londoners and tourists from around the world watching images of figure skaters then and now, mixed with highlights of Canada’s London. If you missed your chance to see it in person, you can watch it here although I guarantee it won’t be as exciting as standing under a light snowfall, listening to the oohs and aahs of the crowd. 

As my husband and I returned home, we chatted about how glad we were that we had the opportunity to be part of this once in a lifetime event in our city. We had started the week with a resolve to stay away from the ‘craziness’ that we expected downtown, but now realize that had we done that, we would have missed being a part of London’s shining moment. 

Well deserved kudos need to go to:

Budweiser Gardens – not only for allowing us this opportunity, but for consistently making London a better place. I remember a time not that long ago where I would lament all the ‘cool’ shows going to Toronto, and wishing that London had that kind of excitement. Well, we do now, and this was just one more shining example! 

To Londoners for showing the world that we are a classy, hospitable city which was worthy of this event. I know that local businesses and restaurants didn’t see the huge bump in business that they were hoping for this week – and after being ‘on the inside’, I can understand why with very short breaks in between competitions – however, I have no doubt that some of those heading home today will leave with an intention to return to London one day. There will be a return on this investment  - I’m sure of it. 

To the London Police Service – last night I watched thousands of fans pour out of Bud Gardens, as hundreds more gathered for the Tree of Lights and still hundreds more gathered outside downtown bars to starts their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations early. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but instead it was a calm, orderly evening and that’s because of you. Our visitors thank you and so do I. I have never crossed a downtown street easier than I did last night! 

To our visitors from far and wide – I hope you enjoyed your time in London and are taking back good memories of your time here. We can sometimes forget how big this world really is as we go about our day to day lives, but this week, you reminded us that there’s a whole world out there to explore, as you explored our little city. We look forward to hosting you again as visitors and as new friends. Don’t be strangers.

To all the naysayers – if you were speaking this week, no one could hear you over the music, and for that I am thankful. Our city isn’t perfect – no city is – but when we have a chance to shine for the world, we owe it to ourselves to put our best foot forward. There are more great things about London than there are negative. If there weren’t, none of you would be here. Continue to stand up for what is right – we owe ourselves that too – but don’t forget that it’s ok to celebrate when London does something right. And boy, did we do something right this week. 

PS – covering this event didn’t come without regrets. Not being brave enough to speak to Toller Cranston and Joanie Rochette as I walked past each of them, not seeking out Kurt Browning to tell him he’s the reason I love figure skating the way I do, not getting a soft pretzel even though they looked so yummy, not asking my seat mates to teach me how to say “hello” in Japanese so I could confuse friends and family...the list goes on. I guess these will have to wait until London hosts another international skating event – except the pretzel – that’s going to happen sooner – I guarantee it. 

さようなSayōnara – goodbye world!