Iconoclasts and icons
"People have painted us as being iconoclasts although,
more often than not lately, I hear us described as Canadian icons.
I think it's great to be iconoclastic icons. It means that people
acknowledge you as being this force that represents constant change
and constant challenge. Canada is recognized for being a cavalier
place, culturally, always trying to push it harder, certainly in
the audacity of Canadian film and literature. There's no reason
music can't have that same reputation." - Dave Bidini, Rheostatics
For more than two decades, the Rheostatics have mapped new frontiers
across Canada, embracing the nation that bore them and reinterpreting
its sea-to-shining-sea grandeur in music of startling variety and
indisputable beauty. The band has remained fiercely loyal to a unique
vision that is entirely dependent upon the alchemical interaction
of its members, the catalyzing friction that renders gold from lesser
metals - and that distinguishes the Rheostatics from bands of lesser
Their music has been described variously as "prog-rock,"
"art-rock," "orchestral psychedelia" and "a
loosely organized cacophony of sound," all of which reveal
the frustrating limits of language, especially as employed in the
service of music journalism. As the irrepressible court jesters
of culture insist, writing about music is like dancing about sculpture.
A truer description may be much simpler.
"The modus operandi of the Rheostatics," says
guitarist Martin Tielli, "is that you can be a complete buffoon
one minute and then say something profound the next."
The Rheostatics have released eleven albums since 1987 -- only
one a major label release, which speaks to their independent spirit,
tenacity and mutual, though not unchallenged, commitment. Inspired
by such national treasures as the Group of Seven, Stompin' Tom Connors,
the divinatory -- not divine -- government of Mackenzie King, rolling
prairies, Canada's national game, les couriers du bois and more,
the Rheos have plundered the Canadian mythos to become a kind of
bedrock myth themselves.
In a millennial survey of Canadian music critics, the Rheostatics
placed two albums - Melville and Whale Music - in
the top ten Canadian records of all time, a feat duplicated only
by the legendary Guess Who. "Canada Listens," sponsored
by CBC's Saturday afternoon magazine Definitely Not the Opera,
mirrored the search for the great Canadian novels undertaken by
"Canada Reads" and chose Whale Music as the single
rock album with which all Canadians had to be familiar. And yet,
it would be disingenuous, even on the band's own website, not to
acknowledge that large-scale commercial success is something that
perversely eluded them.
Speaking to the adolescent dream of rock'n'roll stardom, bassist
Tim Vesely says, "Maybe we started off having great expectations,
like playing to thousands of people, but we
know [now] what
to expect. Making a connection is what's great."
That band's desire to connect fuels the fierce loyalty of Rheofanatics.
Rheos' fans are willing to share their contagion with reckless abandon
and eagerly look for the listener whose ears are big enough to become
a novitiate in the Rheostatics confraternity. In the past few years,
the demographic at Rheos shows has begun to shift to a new generation,
kids whose parents were responsible for introducing them to the
band, kids who -- in this instance at least -- confess their parents
aren't middle-aged know-nothings.
The Rheos' live shows are legendary among fans and often exceed
two hours. The band sometimes abandons the stage - and amplification
- in favour of the dance floor for a short acoustic set, and everyone
is encouraged to sing along. Other times, extended jams on old favourites
open up new possibilities, and songs are reinterpreted with greater
complexity - or satisfying simplicity.
Songwriting duties and lead vocals are shared between bandmates
Dave Bidini, Martin Tielli and Tim Vesely. This unstintingly democratic
commitment makes the band doubly difficult to pigeonhole as the
particular talents of each member are showcased in rapid succession.
In performance, band members also swap instruments or pick up new
ones, stretching this four-piece in new directions.
The Rheostatics are also famous for nurturing new talent. In the
beginning, their annual, and now legendary, Green Sprouts Music
Week, which not only showcased the Rheos, but gave new opportunity
to up-and-coming bands searching for opportunity. That same supportive
attitude now extends to their annual Winter (Fall) Nationals, the latest
of which was an 11-night stand at the Horseshoe Tavern in November
2004, and which featured guest performers from across Canada. The 2005 edition happens December 8-17 at the same venue.
For those who have yet to experience the Rheostatics, their first
hearing may mystify until they settle into the aural receptiveness
required to expect the unexpected. Those 'in-the-know,' know they
know something special.