I had partially written this story in August of 2017, but never wanted to complete it because I'm in the story, and I always focums on the artist. I never want to steal any of their spotlight because, well, they have more interesting stories. I like to put the reader in my seat so to speak. So reluctantly, I finished the story last night. This is for "The Faithful"...
There are second chances in life, and sometimes, they’re worth waiting for. I’m referring to the 8/17 Burton Cummings concert at the CNE Bandshell. Why was this a second chance? Well, because the last time I saw Burton Cummings perform was at this very spot, back in 1983, as part of The Guess Who reunion. At that time, I thought this was probably the best concert I would ever see, because in my heart of hearts, I love The Guess Who, and I was born Canadian, and this was a few years before I gave up the maple leaf for the stars and stripes. I don’t just love The Guess Who, it’s a part of my fabric. I grew up listening to the band. I can listen to their music today and it’s still so powerful, I can close my eyes and be brought back to a place and a time that’s as vivid as though I was watching a blu-ray. Only something you love that dearly can evoke those kinds of feelings, or at least that’s what I think. So why was this a “second chance”? Beacause at the reunion show in 1983, I brought my camera, and the shoot was the worst I had ever done because I was so far back. It’s the only time I ever threw my negatives away. But over the years, I felt no remorse for not having photos because the concert was so powerful it had burned itself into my brain. I remember the shirt Burton Cummings wore, I remember the stage banter. I remember him introducing ‘Orly” and telling the audience he thought it sounded a little pretentious but he wasn’t trying to be. How many concerts do you remember those kinds of details of? Not too many I bet. And I have been to hundreds of shows.
So here I am, once again at The Bandshell for a do-over. Actually, this is only my second time at this venue, and it’s for the same act (almost). I don’t get up to Toronto much, and when I do, it’s certainly not for a concert. But this is different. Not to bring myself into the story, but in the last couple of years I’ve become a friend of Burton’s, and to borrow a phrase, “I don’t mean this to sound pretentious”, but it is a fact. Burton, Ernie Cefalu (one of the greatest artists of modern times and a very very dear friend) and I regularly gather near Wilshire blvd to just have a lot of fun. So seeing Burton in person, on the stage, in the city of my birth is staggeringly powerful for me. It brings back many warm memories. It makes me feel young again, it reminds me of what I set out to do so many years ago. And tonight, Burton Cummings is about to make that happen. I have some idea of what I’m in for, an evening of great songs, both Guess Who and Cummings’ solo work. I’ve been told that “the Carpet Frogs are so good, they’ll make you forget about Bachman, Kale, and Peterson”. I think there’s no way that could ever happen, but that’s exactly what took place. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Guess Who, and I always admired the rhythm section, but they didn’t have this full of a lineup. They didn’t have so many people capable of such stunning harmonies and backing vocals. They didn’t have the benefits of modern technology.
It’s too bad that Neil Diamond already used the “Hot August Night” title for an album, because that’s what I would have called this story, or perhaps “Hot Humid August Night By The Lake”. It threatened rain that night. I knew days before the show it would probably rain, and once again I’d have my shoot ruined, but luckily the gods were on my side. Burton took the stage to thunderous applause rather than thunderous rain, and by the time he took the stage the crowd had grown past capacity to become the largest audience ever in attendance at this venue. Burton and his band had surpassed The Guess Who! And the show is only starting. Burton launched into one number after another and not only did I remember what it felt like to be a young man again, Burton had magically morphed into a young man because nobody in their 60’s could rock it like that could they? Maybe only Mick Jagger…
For one magical night in August, Cummings and his band The Carpet Frogs turned back the clock and made everyone forget all their troubles and just be back in the moment, whenever exactly that moment was. There has never been a more quintessentially Canadian band than The Guess Who, and during this show, every single person in the audience not only was made to feel just how much a part of Canadian music history the band was and still is, they reached into the audience and made every single person there feel more Canadian, and more proud of it. Even people like me who have been gone for thirty years felt it. If you’re around my age, you understand this feeling. The Guess Who gave all Canadians who were music fans an identity. They didn’t tell us that Canada mattered, they didn’t need to. They played their music, and we the listeners knew that Canada was now at the banquet table with Beatles, Dylan, and any other performer or group who was considered the “de facto” band of that country. No, The Guess Who isn’t in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but maybe it’s because what they do is far greater than that. Maybe it’s because their music allowed every Canadian to feel good about themselves through the music. I don’t know too many bands that have had this effect.
So, back to the show. Every single Guess Who and Burton Cummings solo hit was played. Perfectly. Not a single mis-stepped note, not even a nanosecond of a missed queue. This is what people refer to when they say how tight a band is. Burton is pure showmanship and he leaves everything out there on the stage. You could say that I came away from this concert more impressed than I though I could have been, because I can tend to be hyper-critical, having attended so many concerts. I doubt you could have gone back 45 years and have the original band turn in a better performance.
At about the three-quarter mark, the band paused so Burton could tell the audience about his recent poetry book, and again I felt a connection when he informed us that he wished his mother had lived to see the publishing of his book. And right after this, I experienced the most profoundly touching moment I have ever felt while at a concert, one of the most poignant moments I’ll ever have at a concert. Burton turned to look at me and said “Wow, look who’s here! It’s Ivor Levene, he somehow made his way up to the front row”. Burton then went on to describe our saturday evenings together. IN FRONT OF THE CROWD. My hometown crowd. I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life. So many emotions. To have the voice of Canada mention me, in front of more than 20,000 people is overwhelming.
I’ve been hanging out with Burton for a couple of years and I normally don’t view him in this manner, as rock royalty. Sure I know who he is and what he does, and I love his music just like any other person, but when you do find yourself in a situation like mine, you don’t make it all about that. He wouldn’t want that, I wouldn’t want that, and it would just be kind of strange. Over time, you get to know someone as themselves, not as their stage persona. Both Burtons merged for me on this night and I got to witness the showmanship of what he does, every nuance of it.
I’ve always known he did the flute solo in “Undun”, but to see him do it up close is entirely a different affair. I don’t know of any performer who can pull that instrument off other than maybe Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, but with Burton it’s much more subtle and jazzy. Hearing “American Woman” on the radio? How can you not hear it? It’s a classic rock staple. But when Burton did it, he did the intro with flair, and dramatic pause and accentuation, standing there almost non-chalantly, ankles crossed, while snapping off the syncopated beats with one hand like a bandleader. And speaking of bands, The Carpet Frogs are quite the ensemble. I’ve heard Ernie Cefalu state on numerous occasions that “they’re better than The Guess Who”, because they’re fuller. He was right. Not only do they have every single nuance of each song down pat, they’re fuller. They fill in some “gaps” that may have been there for some songs.
At this show, you could say that Burton blew The Guess Who off the stage, because this show had the largest attendance of any show ever to take place at The C.N.E. bandshell. So either this band is better than The Guess Who, or they’re more popular, or time has been kind to Cummings. It’s a combination of all three really. I’ve been in the room with him and sat a few feet away while he belted out a tune, and he has such an amazing voice it’s almost jarring. The man can project a note and aim it like a laser-guided missile.
The set started to wind down when Burton brought out his signature blue Gibson Les Paul “Goddess”, a rare guitar I’d like to add to my arsenal. This beauty looks like a cross between a Les Paul Custom and a Les Paul Junior, with the body of the former, and the controls of the latter, and it comes in the most delicious blue and violet colors. Something you don’t see often, unless of course you see Burton on a regular basis.
There was one other component of this night that made it perfect for me, and that is a group known as “The Faithful”. The Faithful are what Burton’s hard-core fans call themselves, and I have never met a nicer and more committed group of fans. They support him, spread the word of his events, attend his gigs, and do all kinds of nice things, which on this night included saving me a spot right up front so I could shoot the show. Without them, things could have gone considerably different on this night.
When the show ended to thunderous applause, I trod out of the old Dufferin gates for what will probably be the last time, with the sights and sounds of The Ex looming large, and Burton’s words and song dancing around in my head. A night I will never forget!