My wife surprised me with a trip to Toronto to celebrate our anniversary, which falls near my birthday. Well, not “surprised” in the sense that she blindfolded me, threw me in the trunk, and drove the nine hours to Toronto. “Surprised” in the sense that she booked the flight, bought tickets to a Blue Jays game and a Second City show, and then told me. I had a difficult time wrapping my mind around it, trying to fathom just how fun the weekend would be.
I got my first clue when we sought breakfast at the airport. We considered fast food—it was the cheapest choice—but the comfy seats at the nearby restaurant/bar were too inviting to pass up. I spotted some hearty early morning fare on the menu and was about to close it when I saw how many beers they had on tap. One of them was Hennepin. It was early, but it was also a sign. Every other morning of my life I have juice. Why not indulge? Why wait to make this a memorable weekend?
Me (to waitress): I’ll have a Hennepin.
Allie: What? It’s like 8:00!
Waitress: (Looks at watch) It’s almost ten. If I wasn’t working, maybe…
The only glitch at that point was the music. John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane.” But then said tune segued into “Rockaway Beach.” The Ramones at ten in the morning in an airport restaurant. The waitress brought my pint just as they hit the second verse.
I recognized that such a meal may have exhausted my good fortune for the weekend, and that was all right. We had tickets to a ballgame. We were going to the spiritual (though not physical) birthplace of the best TV show ever (SCTV
). This weekend was going to roll just fine. I had no idea how much so.
After an easy flight we unpacked at our hotel and went for a walk. I picked up a copy of the local weekly. The perfect weekend got better. Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet were playing the next night. The ad implied that tickets were available. Like I said, I had high hopes for the game and the comedy show, but the chance to see Shadowy Men? Too much to absorb.
If the name doesn’t ring a bell, think of the theme song from The Kids in the Hall
—that beautiful, reverb-saturated instrumental. That’s Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet. One of their tunes on was on a Taco Bell ad, too. They released a bunch of EPs and three albums during their original run (’84-’96). I listened to those records countless times but never saw the band live. I never even saw a photo of them. Shadowy Men were true to their name.
It took me a long time just to figure out who Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet were. I started my search when I was in college, probably after discovering The Kids in the Hall
when I was home on summer break. By the time I started trying to figure out who performed the show’s song I no longer had access to cable TV, just a vague recollection of the tune, which I later learned is called “Having an Average Weekend.” This was probably ’89.
At the same time I was working my way through the Replacements Twin/Tone records. When I found “Buck Hill,” a mostly instrumental number from Hootenanny
, I mistook it for the Shadowy Men song. Thus, for a couple of weeks I thought that the Replacements were the Kids in the Hall
band. I figured out the error of my ways next time I was home on break—watch the credits, son
—and spent the next few years tracking down Shadowy Men records.
Because Allie and I weren’t sure if we could get into the show we stopped by the club, Lee’s Palace, early. If you’re ever in Toronto I’d recommend stopping by Lee’s just to see the club’s façade. It’s an amazing sight—as intricate as a Howard Finster record cover with figures that criss crossed among Keith Haring, Robert Crumb, and Dr. Seuss. (I believe Alex Currie painted it.)
The front door was open. We heard music coming from the stage. The next door was also open and unattended. Before we knew it we’d stumbled onto a Shadowy Men On A Shadowy Planet soundcheck.
It’s always an eye opener when you get to see a favorite band for the first time. It’s a different bowl of Weetabix when it’s one of those pivotal bands you assumed you’d never see live; finally, faces and physiques to fill out the sounds.
We heard two songs. I couldn’t name either. I recognized both—one with their regular guitar/bass/drums line up, one on which Brian Connelly switched from guitar to organ—but with instrumental bands I can seldom match tune to title.
Allie and I rarely agree on music, so I was relieved when she said that the band sounded great. The sound guy said to come back at 8:45 and then shooed us away. We dined, waited in line to get a hand stamp for the show, and then we did the math. It was 9:00. Shadowy Men weren’t going to play for another three hours. There were two opening acts. Allie would likely take an innocent life if she stayed the whole time. She opted for a movie down the block. I staked out a stool just off the right side of the stage and resumed waiting.
That’s when the numbers we’d crunched sank in. True enough, good fortune had given me a front row seat/stool for a Shadowy Men reunion. But now I’d have to stay put. Doubt didn’t enter the picture but I realized I needed at least two of the following things to happen: at least one of the opening bands had to be listenable, the local paper I’d picked up needed to yield at least two decent articles, and my bladder had to hold.
Enter Canadian good will.
I’m always reluctant to strike up conversations with strangers, but this night people came up to me. Like the guy who discovered Shadowy Men at a punk show at an Italian supper club in Guelph. And the guy who knew Don Pyle, the drummer. (“He’s a really nice guy.”) Everyone wanted to talk about Shadowy Men. Everyone knew at least one Shadowy Man. They missed the band’s late bassist, Reid Diamond, but as the guy next to me, Henry, said, “This (the reunion) isn’t weird.” Before long Henry and I were trading rounds, talking about Nardwuar and watching each other’s seats, which was a huge help when I went looking for Allie.
This wasn’t the first Shadowy Men show since the band’s ’96 break up. That took place in Calgary a month ago. But this was their first hometown show since that time, prompted by the upcoming reissue of the debut album (Savvy Show Stoppers
, Mammoth Cave Recording Company) and they sounded amazing. They jumped into their tunes with “this kicks ass!” enthusiasm and stayed in that mode for all of their seventy-five-minute set. The mix was just as good as it’d been in soundcheck—a perfect blend with Brian Connelly’s hollow body Gretsch on top and just the right amount of thump from the rhythm section. Drummer Don Pyle engaged the crowd once in awhile but there were few breaks in the set. And not to sound too much like an Eagles fan talking about how the live version of “Hotel California” sounds “just like the record,” but a bunch of the Shadowy Men songs matched my recollections of the band’s albums and it was flippin’ wonderful.
A lot of people pegged the Shadowy Men as a surf band. I did too until I saw one of the tunes on their third album, “We’re Not a Fucking Surf Band.” I thought it was a joke. My friend Mike pointed out that while the title was a joke, it was also accurate. Shadowy Men are an instrumental band. Some surf, sure. But, there are also bits of country, jazz, spy movies, and spaghetti westerns among other subgenres.
Labels aside, it’s exceedingly difficult to pull off engaging instrumentals. Most rock instrumentals recede into the background for me. Without lyrics, there’s too much space for me to think about what’s missing, or if other people are around, too much room for talk. Either way, the songs pass by unnoticed. Shadowy Men, on the other hand, create sonic gravity. I'm drawn into their songs. No matter how many times I’ve heard the tune I marvel over the guitar sounds and the way they manage to find so many variations on a theme. (One other self-imposed obstacle is that most rock bands that play instrumentals stick with 4/4 time. The guitar player has a wide landscape to roam around, but the drummer and bassist are pretty much locked into one time signature.)
About a third of the way through the show (all times are estimations, for the most part I was too giddy to put pen to paper) Don raised a toast to the band’s late bassist, Reid Diamond. He acknowledged that a Shadowy Men show without Reid “might be weird for some of you.” It was a bit like an Irish wake, more celebration than eulogy. “And now we’re going to play a song about Chihuahuas.”
I have no idea why Shadowy Men broke up (they split long before Diamond’s passing) but all seemed to be pure joy on stage. That included Dallas Good who was filling in on bass. His was no easy task. Few bass players put as much lead into the low end as Reid Diamond did. It was not so much about how many notes he played as it was about how much presence each had. His playing kind of reminded me of Kim Gordon, especially when the guitar dropped out for a bass break. Good did great, if you’ll pardon the pun. He even borrowed Reid Diamond’s bass. (Okay, that was a bit weird.)
Also on the bill were Daniel Romano and Catl. They were both really good. Romano led a trio through a great set of country tunes that reminded me of Graham Parsons and Buck Owens’ slower songs. (Romano covered Buck’s “Together Again” toward the end of his set.) Catl reminded me of Southern Culture On The Skids, though more rough and tumble, with some Okmoniks for good measure. Reissue of 1st albumPhoto of Lee’s Palace