Monday, November 03, 2008

4 Nights at the Palais Royale

As I was driving home from work tonight, I was reflecting on birthdays past. Last year's was pretty quiet, a quick trip down to Guelph to visit the boyfriend; the year before that was...well, messy but a lot of fun. In the long run, only a few of my birthdays really stick out in my mind in a really concrete way. And that's just well--it really is only another day, but with cake. (If you're lucky. There was no cake for me this year.)

There is one birthday that stands out from all of the others, though, and as I was driving home, I came to the realization that this is actually the tenth anniversary of that day.

The year was 1998. I was in grade twelve. Chretien was Prime Minister; Mike "the Knife" Harris had Ontario firmly in his grip. It was November, which is a threshold month in Ontario, neither autumn nor winter. But none of this mattered: It was my seventeenth birthday, and I was going to see my favourite band in concert for the first time.

Sloan defined my adolescence in a way that no other band could. Most of my friends hated them, often for the reasons that I liked them so much: strummy Beatles-esque guitars, earnest vocals, playful lyrics, warm production values. Of course, there was also the boys themselves. (It is strange to think that at the time, they were the age I am now.) The boys of Sloan were real: genuine, Canadian, and normal. Unlike the Backstreet Boys or Hanson or other boy bands that some of my friends adored, these were no poster boys--sure, I was head over heels for Patrick, but he was the kind of guy that you might serendipitously run into at the mall when shopping in Toronto, not some farflung matinee idol. (That did actually happen, and he was totally awesome about it.)

The other reason that Sloan was integral to me as an adolescent was because of their online presence. My introduction to Sloan via "The Lines You Amend" in 1996 (a song described by Rolling Stone as beginning like "The Ballad of John and Yoko" before morphing into a "likable hybrid of T. Rex and Crowded House"--srsly, you wonder why I love this band?) came at roughly the same time as my introduction to the internet. The early Sloan online community was a revelation to me: as socially awkward, nerdy, and unsure of myself as I was at that age, the Sloan Message Board was full of fine, kind, accepting people. No one online cared that I wasn't sure about drinking, or that I didn't want to do drugs, or that I liked school. In some ways, these relationships were often more satisfying than my real life friend: these people liked me for who I was. For the first time, I was able to forge an identity as part of a group that I felt secure in. As a result, ten years on I am unable to separate my love for the band/music from my love for the people that they connected me to: it is part and parcel of the experience for me.

So on that cool November day, my dad drove me and my friend Erin down to the Palais Royale, a converted dance hall right on the shores of Lake Ontario in Toronto. It had been a popular venue for big bands, once upon a time, and the floor was mounted on springs to move with the dancers. It was a truly magical venue.

Rufus Wainwright was the opening act, having just released his debut album, and his pop-opera sound was mesmerizing--especially "April Fools". His sister Martha performed with him wearing black pants with red pockets. It's strange what you remember after all this time.

My dad ditched us for the safety of the 19+ section, so we positioned ourselves on the Jay side of the stage, right in front of the speaker stack. On its technical merits, the concert wasn't anything spectacular. Sloan wasn't an especially tight live band at that time. Anything it lacked in technique, the show more than made up for in charm: the set list might have been taken right from my heart. And even now I have a hard time remembering another show that hit so many of my favourites.

After teh show, my dad found Erin and me, and we watched the roadies clean up the stage. When one of them got to the drumkit, he pantomimed throwing the drumsticks out into the crowd. My companions began to short, "Birthday girl! Birthday girl!" until he relented and handed half a drumstick to me.

I still have it, along with the letter Jay wrote to me one time, in a box in my parents' basement.

Sloan played four shows at the Palais Royale that week, which were collected and mixed into 4 Nights at the Palais Royale, a double live album. I bought it on its release date, six months later, and though tonight is the first night in years that I've listened to it, I couldn't ask for a better momento of that night.

I would go on to see Sloan some five or six times over the next few eyars. I would eventually meet all of them, and run a fansite for one. But as I got older, I grew up and away from the band. University and adulthood crept in, and Neil Finn/Crowded House became my defining soundtrack. (Ironically, the first time I would see the Finn in concert, it would be in that same Palais Royale.) Somewhere along the way, my world had changed.

The seventeen year old Rhiannon could hardly have imagined what her world would look like ten years later. The friend she loved most, enough to share this concert with, is someone I haven't spoken to in eight years. She dreamed desperately of owning a record player--I don't even own a CD player anymore. She dreamed even more desperately of having a date--I've just bought a house with my partner of four years. She went to so many shows, bought so many CDs--I've been to maybe two shows in the last year, haven't seen Sloan in five, and haven't bought a CD since January. I'm not as smart, as cool, or as indie as she thought she was. In the end, it's okay, though--I'm also a lot happier than I ever thought I could be, when I was seventeen.

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