Lowest of the Low – AGITPOP Release Party at The Danforth Music Hall

Lowest of the Low AGITPOP Record Release party, Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, May 31.

It’s a spring Friday night in Toronto and the Music Hall is packed full of Lowest of the Low fans. People who know this band’s 1991 debut record word for word. We’ve grown up with it. It holds a very special place in our Toronto memories (and beyond) and it has the power of great, singular music to transport its fans back to our younger selves. Not a few of us are here with the same ones we’ve been listening with since the 1990s, when bands had lots of time to bake, albums were played until they became our own anthems, and time moved slower.

Shakespeare My Butt, is, as the irreverent title suggests, an energetic twenty-something that’s equal parts bookworm and upstart. It was not common at the time for Toronto bands to take pride and ownership in this city, still then, deep in its insecurity complex and far too susceptible to American and British media, music, and notions of what cool was. But Lowest of the Low did that. They sang about making out late at night on Bathurst Street. The simple drunken joy of a tin of beer at the east end’s Only Café (a legend, already, back then and an institution by now). The Carlaw bridge appears. These are not references for the tourists, they do not pander to the American radio market, and they mean nothing to people unfamiliar with our neighbourhoods. They are community references, and references now belonging to fans of this band.

The album is Canada’s own George Best, the much-lauded classic Indie British record by The Wedding Present from the same period which documents, in sometimes excruciating detail, the cycle of first love through open-hearted, ripped from a diary verses. Both albums took hold of their respective cultures.  Shakespeare My Butt is an edgy album, featuring a then very bold use of profanity and frank talk of sex, both things that fuel young lives.

Bands with iconic albums slow-brewed over our formative years have an uphill climb when releasing new music today. There will always be the nostalgists, the “play the hits” louts. But the release of new music for our important 1990s (Canadian) bands is a big milestone today, and one well worth celebrating. The set weaves old and new rather seamlessly, with a lot of thought given to the set list and where to place the sure fire hits. But the Low needn’t worry. The new material is wholly their sound, still full of activism, boldness and the gritty love of those in need that their band name speaks to, with a well done accompanying video display that weaves historic civil rights march footage with the contemporary and the local, as seen as a backdrop on “The Barricade”.

Friends are brought out, filling the stage with a horn section and a bongo drum player. Guitars are swapped madly as the band runs through songs with the same energy as the records, and with Ron Hawkins in the rarest of voices, one ever-clear and unchanged across 25 years. A wonderful moment comes when Hawkins places his microphone in front of a woman in the crowd to ask her to tell us a story. She doesn’t hesitate. She’s ready. She mentions back in the day, CFNY 102.1 The Edge, hearing the song they are kicking into, having gone through a rough time and how it helped her through it. It’s a perfect soundbite of a story we all can relate to. Ron lays back on the stage, the microphone above his head, like he’s at home on his bed in that time travel world of last century on a long distance call over a cord stretched from one room to another. He looks utterly at home. He says speaking of CFNY…

Dave Bookman’s death of last week is still right under the surface of this city’s skin. Hawkins says some perfect words up to the rafters and beyond about Bookie, that he’s here, that “we’re just gonna keep on doing what he would do until he tells us to stop”.

The Low demonstrates that they still have their finger on the urgent pulse of what matters. Tonight the front row (in our end of the room) is solely comprised of petite, devoted women, who get to see and hear a rallying cry from one of our clearest voices for their rights, which are being challenged as we speak, even in 2019, half a century after the civil rights movement.

And it’s a fight that needs to be fought at every corner, even in rooms as friendly and warm as this one.

All standing room rock shows bring out the possible tension being shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, in an unregulated area which relies almost totally on non-dickish behavior. Here, as in past Lowest of the Low shows, the room is quite an even gender mix (more than in many rock shows). One complete star of a fan is at the barrier on crutches. You gotta love music fans with all your heart. But one man emerges, looking to “good-naturedly” push and bully his way to the front. He is large, and uses his size to get his way, along with an uncomfortable jocularity. For we are not all jocks. We all have the right to enjoy a show in our own way. Majority rules, I guess, and in this part of the room (which happens to be the front row, stage right) there are quiet couples and women giving each other reasonable space. Until one man elbows, high fives and points his way to the front during, predictably, one of the hits. He even pats a stranger on the head. He’s alright when people go along with his ploy to push in front of others, the oldest trick in the book to the seasoned gig goer, but when he meets any resistance (even being ignored) he turns ugly. He disappears halfway through the show, a relief.

Tonight’s show closer is the melodic, honest sing along, “Rosy and Grey”, which talks about the simple pleasures of life on the margins / for the young. The fleeting freedom of the EI check (Unemployment benefits / “the dole”) meaning one can pay for a round of drinks. Regrets and reminiscences. The cheeky line about oral sex which is part of a couplet that is actually one of the most romantic in Canadian music history. This is The Lowest of the Low. The album became a phenomenon because their punk sensibility and fearlessness about their content broke through and said what everyone was thinking, told the truth about what young people (and hell, older people too) were doing and how we were living. And it holds up today, is enshrined as a classic album, as much as contemporary music ever can be in this country, these days, by a bands’ own bootstraps and the goodwill of fans willing to buy a box set.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

Rusty Preview Their New Album Live at The Horseshoe

Checkerboard floors. A glittery red HORSESHOE sign that is shorthand for music itself, not to mention countless happy hours in Toronto for music lovers far and wide. A stage that has been stomped upon by the best across decades, from its deep, true tavern roots to the ascension of full-throttle Canadian rock and roll, woven together by Canadian folk and alt post rock cowpunk etcetera (and, nearest and dearest to us) waves of our own bright and shiny alternative scenes. By god, there’s now a discreet (believe it or not) A&W automatic ordering kiosk next to the mile-long main bar, not far from a cookbook of Elvis’ favourite dishes. This is how you do it, Toronto. Change nothing unless it’s to add some late-night food to a classic experience. Don’t gentrify. Don’t sell out, man. Thank you, Horseshoe for still existing. It’s Saturday night in Toronto. Summer has just landed in our laps this week and it’s a cooker of an evening. Our very own early 90s wall of noise-smart alternative heroes, Rusty, are here, leading the charge, as if to personally support our deep, years long dream for this music that saved the world once to do so again. As our beloved “90s bands” have reformed around the world, more people are recognizing the demand (and need) for authenticity, heart, rawness, and analog truth, A.K.A. real music. Superheroes everywhere have been coming out of retirement. Some heroes fly Porter airways from Sudbury.

And so, Rusty’s great return is happening, though what should not be unusual and special, is today: community effort. Community sensibilities. And stadium love. Rusty is at home at the ‘Shoe, and it eases everything tonight. It’s the first time they’re playing music from their upcoming new album in public, and it feels as intimate as what those Much “Intimate and Interactives” of another age strived for. We were too cool to line up with kids to see visiting rock stars, then. And we sure thought such things would continue to be. Now, there’s only Strombo’s living room keeping such flames alive (beautifully). Music devotees with long-running podcasts and indie magazines. The true blue. Those who know are here in this room and are always in the room when Rusty plays a gig. And this room feels, tonight, like someone’s living room. The band is working out their set list as they go, getting comfortable, hilariously carefree, or, maybe, laughing like champs through the creation-in-process that is new music. Canadians will laugh through any kind of stress and entertain you while we sweat it out.

The band starts with some beloved tunes from Fluke, all of them seemingly itchy to play the new stuff, and, happily, the crowd is the right kind, eager for both. This crowd and this band are not nostalgic, anymore. Some of the songs are not finished, we are told. For one, we get a terrific “excerpt”. Guitarist Scott McCullough declares, grinning “Let’s just play every damn song on the fuckin’ album!” Singer Ken MacNeil watches the faces, warming up. He says the new songs make them feel young. The old songs make them feel old. “We know we’re old, though…” Once the new songs are given air and the crowd is rolling with them, Ken relaxes into the early material again, in his element, the years falling away from all of our faces and hearts, forever young. This is the great power of music.

It’s the best Rusty show we’ve ever seen, including when we were young and life was simpler. And it’s half-full of tunes we’ve never heard before, along with the rest we know by heart. “California” still (and forever) will break your heart with its poignancy. Its prescience. It’s urgency and its grief for humanity’s brutality and chaos. “Wake Me” is forever a love song to us who choose to interpret the lyrics innocently “will you pull my cuff?” means just your 90s’ frayed long-sleeve t-shirt sleeve. It is a beautiful bit of poetry. If I fall asleep. If I fall awake. It’s still (forever) “so groovy to be dead” because goddamn it, we are still standing, thanks to pure grit and hard graft. On both sides of the stage. There’s no pretension with Rusty, just pure rock and roll. And that is as important of a message today as any other. Many of the boys in the room lose their shit to the show’s closer, the one we heard the most, maybe, on the radio and Much when those things were alive / glorious: “Misogyny”. This band always had something for both the boys and the girls. Something unifying, something powerful and, as it turns out, unkillable.

The onstage banter tonight is hilarious. Rusty are real, and they are the real deal. They rock. Jesus, why weren’t they Canada’s own Cult? As big as? They are that good. They are better. We whisper to one another, staying mostly quiet as we’re front row. None of that. No regrets tonight. Tonight is tonight and the past is gone. This music is timeless and beautiful and here, current, alive, and as good as ever – by contrast to what rules the charts, our music was and is and will always be Godzilla over a miniaturized, toy-like Tokyo. Whatever. We’re glad we know better, we were there in the 1990s and we are all still here now. And aren’t we lucky to still be alive / here? For so many reasons. And this is, even, the future. This is the first new record in 20 years from this always should have been world-beaters iconic immense band. They’ve gone and done it. They’ve done it the new old way and the new way, through technology. Their Pledge campaign has served to remind fans and the industry what’s important and what can be done with a little support for musicians. We hope the industry is listening. The Toronto scene, the other Canadian scenes. The title has changed, and will be revealed soon. Whatever they call it, it’s incredible, fast, punky, rocking, young again, fresh. It fits, hand in glove, with the songs we’ve all been singing word for word for years and years. It’s important, it’s actually intimate and interactive, and it’s news. Get on it.

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

RUSTY RETURNS with Dogs of Canada

By Jacqueline Howell, DISARM editor

The early 1990s renaissance continues as even our personal wish list is coming true here in Toronto.

Rusty, whose 1995 debut album, Fluke, was one of Toronto’s best entries into the burgeoning early 1990s innovative Alternative boom, recently announced their new album, Dogs of Canada, their first in 20 years, is nearing completion.

Fluke, an album still cherished by Rusty fans worldwide, is full of blistering rock music that bleeds originality and feels spontaneous, urgent and empowering. Sharp, young, musicians that came of age in 1990 were steeped in rock, punk, glam, eighties post-punk, and indie. These self-taught marvels brimmed with energy and were capable of creating new music forms. Most have been overlooked and overshadowed by the reductive corporate-strangled labels nobody wanted, (such as “grunge”). The 90s was full of good music of the last real youth movement that has sharply failed to flourish in the (corporate-strangled) new age. Rusty was among the best of this music made anywhere in the world.

Rusty’s debut has a song called “Misogyny”. This word is more common today but was not a common conversational or musical topic then. The band’s ideas were grand, theoretical and important – but if you didn’t feel like intellectualizing, they also rocked really hard. This casually-brainy, effective rock music is a mark of the greatest Canadian bands. Rusty were also fused with a then-new snowboarding culture, worked with cutting edge video director Bruce La Bruce, and were a bright part of a cool new Canadiana. But like other iconic (underrated) artists, Rusty’s ideas are translatable, global, universal:

“She moved down to L.A.
She met a dude, okay.
He sawed her head off with a knife,
Now she’s gone away.

California’s nice.
It snowed there once or twice.
Bullets fly across the sky.
The path is smooth and tight.
I caught one at the bus stop.
I said: “Hey man, I’ve been shot.”
I felt the warm blood rolling down,
Now it’s gone away.” – California

As the world cascaded open with social media’s borderlessness and lack of filters, brave people who risk their hearts for true engagement and connection face daily stories like the ones simply, bluntly, told in the song “California”. Every day. Are faced with what to do with this knowledge. How to live, how to cope. How to help? What to do? There’s a laugh but no catharsis from a meme. That’s what music is for.

And in 1995, a song like “California” (and “Wake Me”, and “Groovy Dead”) was more than what social media is today. It was a young person’s newspaper. It blew away 60 Minutes with decibels; it drowned out stale TV and radio debate with something clean and true. “California” was a beacon of a generation waking up to the world, to hard truths, to an unsanitized version of terrible events as they happen. Women were attacked, and killed, brutally, by men who they loved and trusted, or men they met through bad luck. Women still are. Regularly. Innocents catch bullets at bus stops, not just in L.A. anymore, amid a local gang war in a particular cross-street but anywhere, in the wrong-place-wrong-time reality of U.S. out of control gun violence. At school, attacked by fellow students, in a pandemic of violence now. Reportedly there are more guns than people in the U.S.A. today. Are we safe yet?

“California” is also a dichotomy: it is stunningly beautiful. Like all of Fluke, it emotes the rage of a generation who inherited this world and were not going to sit idly by listening to people reminisce about the 1960s. Corporatized nostalgia is a handy way to keep us from action and resistance to whatever we are told is “now”. Now is forever. Singer Ken MacNeil’s throat stripping delivery is relentless, sincere, empathetic; his vocals full of anger, fear and love. “California” speaks about disconnection, of indifference as true horror: “Hey man, I’ve been shot.” This line sounds like a gunshot victim is being ignored, in public, unseen, hit with a smooth tight path of darkness that is possible not just in public but in private. There are no safe spaces. We knew that, once. Were galvanized, organizing against the darkness. It is a Canadian perspective of negotiating our frail border and the world; of travel; of meeting interesting, beautiful people and seeing them leave and face awful fates beyond our reach. It is post-modernity that we are stuck in, lost in now.

Will you wake me up? Will you pull my cuff? – Wake Me

That’s what the era’s music captures, and one reason why it will not be cast aside, is still needed, and why our greatest bands are returning to us to fill a void in the very heart of culture and music in 2018. Despite label help or support. We were supposed to have jetpacks, not emojis. We’re backsliding, overwhelmed by the rapid changes of tech and communication and the disappearance in leadership in both things, so we make our own. New records. Raise funds. Mount tours. Rebuild community. The next era of Rusty is going to be a hell of a party.

In the 1990s, we all raged and rioted inside and in our music-loving way in the crowd, believing our intelligence and enthusiasm could change the world, who certainly must be led by the young people as it always is. The music changed everything then and had limitless potential to continue to. What happened in the back half of the 90s and post – “Y2K” was a deliberate and destructive assault from a dying, exploitative music industry against everything indie: from Kurt Cobain’s regularly misunderstood truly subversive and revolutionary (good) ideas: against homophobia, sexism and hatred;  to the many bands who promoted and created a world of gender equality in music on world stages that made everyone money and made everyone who believed in this progress happy. The music labels, that had contempt for their artists, customers, and tech innovation itself, pivoted whiplash – fast to belly buttons and boy bands, machine music & artists they could control totally. It’s been a cold war ever since. And not just an indifferent war on underexposed bands; Canadian bands who’ve always struggled to traverse and be heard and seen in a vast country, (never mind beyond it) and the Indie world that, at the moment, has no choice but to stay underground. It’s been a long cold war on real music itself. Innovation, new ideas, big ideas, pauses to question violence, misogyny, purpose, survival and new sounds made by instruments have lately been labeled as unimportant, even dying. But real, challenging ideas rarely, if ever, come from puppets owned by dominant music brands, the “music” which dominates public space and most entertainment now. This corporate backlash happened precisely because 80s & early 90s emerging bands were so important, so innovative, and so grown up. So independent and unreliant on the actually dying industry that ate itself. Alternative music by its very nature is wild and cannot be broken.

We link Rusty to this argument because they are a perfect example of this entire story and the “trends” around what has gone down in the last two decades. Because we’ve loved them for 20 years and have never stopped listening to them. Because they’ve stepped back to the fore since 2011 with occasional gigs and tours losing not an ounce of fire, life and passion. Because they’ve worked quietly for two years putting together demos while juggling regular lives and families. Rusty deserved more and better, even at their height. They were and are important whether you’ve heard of them or not, whether you are nostalgic about them (and then) or not, whether you may even be a real music fan who understands there is nothing nostalgic about art because art is timeless. Hey, we all pine for our youthful energy, but what has happened to music and the chances of independent artists to break through and to grow and to stay and earn their way is way more painful than nostalgia. The truth is very different. And darker. All this great music must be heard out loud and in full and sat with and listened to from track (song) one to ten to really get or know. Slow down. Think about what is missed. What was denied. What is owed to our generation. And what can still be.

Rusty during their 2011 reformation show in Toronto. Photos by Dave MacIntyre

The Watchmen: Life in Stereo (Live Review)

The Watchmen
Saturday January 30th
The Danforth Music Hall, Toronto

It sounds like bullshit but you ever notice
This whole town of ice and snow
Gets you running, yeah, to chasing something
What it is I’ll never know, just hope one day that it shows

Any day now it will come  (“Any Day Now”)

Canada is a difficult, rugged, and vast place. Always has been, and always will be. See Leo DiCaprio with icicles in his beard in The Revenant. That’s us. Easy to forget this for those who’ve never traversed even part of it, whose only experience with it is to see our major cities masquerading as New York or Chicago in countless films. It’s even easy to forget for those of us in it, difficult really, to see past our own regional concerns or provincial borders. The cosmic difficulty of knowing and seeing this country is probably best understood by our musicians who spend years of their lives in bars and concert halls, from University towns to steel towns, and across impossibly long stretches of road that separate us. They’ve actually criss-crossed it over years and seen rocks give way to plains, to concrete, to small towns charmingly frozen in 1960, to the sea that arrives gently in the east, always too suddenly and without fanfare.

Geographically, the United Kingdom could fit comfortably inside Manitoba with room left over. Yet much of our musical vocabulary comes from England or the U.S. For awhile, it was different. In the 80’s and 90’s, Canada enjoyed a too-brief renaissance of our own, due to our original, well-supported and diverse music industry and local scenes that enabled many great bands to thrive and grow. Our heads were turned, for a while, from the envy/bemusement/annoyance of the noise coming, always coming, from the U.S. and the British Imports we treasured and rated above all other music we heard.

Aided by MuchMusic, thriving college radio stations, and a then-solid presence of rock/Alternative radio (in Toronto, CFNY 102.1), not to mention a rock club and pub scene that was strong more or less from coast to coast- 5000 kilometres across country- rock music and we kids came of age amid a rich musical heritage that matured from cover band rock and east coast fiddle music to incorporate all those foreign influences we’d always absorbed from the air and to form something new. In other words, Canada itself and Canadian alternative/rock music at last became cool while becoming dominant to an unprecedented degree. This wasn’t the tradition of one band breaking through to the U.S. and becoming claimed by them. It was a sea change that was too big and too strong to be poached or lured away, and it was ours. Books will be written about it.


The Watchmen were formed in 1988 in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Gigging and radio station on-air visits led to their by now quite accomplished body of work with debut 1993 album McLaren Furnace Room, which was named for their early rehearsal space, the furnace room of The McLaren Hotel in Winnipeg. This title is funny, humble and full of heart=Canadian. Gaining prominence alongside other strong Canadian bands such as Blue Rodeo, Grapes of Wrath, The Tragically Hip, The Lowest of the Low and The Pursuit of Happiness, The Watchmen took their name from the highly original, literature redefining 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons. The band shared with their contemporaries a well-read intellect but an approachable attitude mixed with an outsider type of wry humour, an arched brow but always good humour.

In just five years, The Watchmen released an impressive four rock solid records: McLaren Furnace Room (1993) In The Trees (1994) Brand New Day (1996) and Silent Radar (1998) these were followed up with the compilation Slomotion in 2001. It’s no wonder we took them a little for granted, like so many good things of the 90’s, as The Watchmen became part of the fabric of our lives; believing we could always see them on the road; that our record stores would be our generation’s news stand forever; Edgefest would continue summer in and summer out; Eden Music Fest was just the first of many huge festivals to come and our College radio stations would continue to thrive and deny the encroachment of manufactured pop music that had retreated for awhile. We were there, we had the T-Shirt. The 90’s momentum, its genuine optimism and hope about the music industry and all the industries and culture itself that it fed, felt permanent and infallible for awhile. Fortunately though, we read our Watchmen back in 1988 too. We all braced for dark, even nihilistic times ahead, and as 70’s kids, were also well-fed on nostalgia. The great Alternative music era of the 90’s was about to be usurped by boy bands and Britney. The Watchmen would secure a strong legacy for their fans, but in this difficult, rugged and vast country, were and are yet underrated in the musical landscape.

At The Danforth Music Hall, the largest Toronto stage we’ve ever seen them on, the college girls of the 90’s still sing all the words, louder than the PA, for “All Uncovered”. The whole crowd treats themselves to singalongs. Singer Daniel Greaves shares this spotlight with the crowd, generously, saying “you got this.” We get more than 20 songs, a bit of bongos, a bit of a cappela (Billy Bragg’s Richard!) The crowd at the Music Hall is shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, polite, exuberantly happy.

What you need to know about The Watchmen in 2016 is they are still remarkable. They sound and look as strong and vital as if they stepped out of 1998. But as a band of that special, bygone time, they bring something back to this great stage that is increasingly hard to come by. The talent that grows through the authentic hustle. The working musician’s seamless, stoic energy and power. The sound that is brewed out of countless miles, years of guys-who are friends-in bunks trying to sleep in fits and starts, smokes shared outside hammered-in back doors of beloved and now endangered institutions like The Horseshoe with fans, and creating original, essential entries into the canon of rock music. It’s a sound that once was standard but can only be made by the noble few who’ve managed to travel this country and unite people far and wide for music and for love – all the intangible stuff of life that spreads so much further than money.

My life is a stereo
Kind of cheaply made though
How bad does it show
What ever did become of all my friends
What ever happened to the likes of all of them

My life is a stereo
Turn me on and let’s go
Turn me up louder
I’ll scream as loud and clear as I can scream
If you like what you’re hearing please hang on to me (“Stereo”)

Essential tracks: Silent Radar, Run & Hide, Stereo, All Uncovered, Crazy Days, Any Day Now.

The Watchmen play The Burton Cummings Theatre, Winnipeg, Manitoba, March 24th, Casino Regina March 25th, and Marquee, Calgary Alberta, March 26th.

The Watchmen’s official site The Watchmen on Twitter (All lyrics quoted in article c. The Watchmen.)

By Jacqueline Howell

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