Twenty years ago, the world was a vastly different place, but good, solid, well-written rock ‘n’ roll was pretty much the same as it is today. Maybe there was more of it around back then, or maybe not.
What is certain is that the way we connect with music — the “it” factor that makes us drop what we’re doing and let the singer and the song into our hearts and minds for a while — has not changed and likely will not change, whether we listen to that music on luscious vinyl, crinkled cassette tape, coldly impersonal CD, too-cute iPod, or surgically implanted brain chip.
Which is why the record that Toronto’s Lowest of the Low released in 1991 — a little indie-rock collection of astute, witty, singer/songwriter fare played like rough-and-tumble rock ‘n’ roll that goes by the name of “Shakespeare My Butt” — still connects with the same speed and clarity it did back when Kurt Cobain was still alive and people actually went to a store and paid for the music they were interested in. This also the reason that the band’s series of dates commemorating the album’s 20th birthday, as well as the release of the deluxe remastered edition of the record, have caused such a stir amongst the faithful.
On Friday, Buffalo mirrored the reception granted the temporarily reunited Low — Ron Hawkins, Stephen Stanley, David Alexander, and John Arnott — up north by rapturously welcoming the band to the Town Ballroom for the first night of a two-night, sold-out run.
So many of “Shakespeare’s” songs name-check Toronto, deal with the Bohemain’s early-90s existence in that city, and turn that life into an idealized narrator whom you may or may not accept as trustworthy. Yes, it’s a Canadian record, but really, its concerns are universal ones — art, love, passion, loss, and the manner in which a sense of humor can help you navigate the above. So a Buffalo audience can grab just as much from a full performance of the record as can one in Saint Catherines or Toronto.
That’s exactly what happened on Friday.
The full house seemed to have been waiting for this for a good while. The songs in the “Shakespeare” portion — the band played the album in its entirety, then returned for more nuggets from its catalog — held up remarkably well and were received quite enthusiastically. Is this surprising?
No, because the quality of heart-rending but somehow uplifting tunes like “Just About ‘the Only’ Blues,” “Kinda the Lonely One,” “For the Hand of Magdalena,” “Subversives,” and “Bleed A Little While Tonight” is not to be questioned. Most of these songs were written by Hawkins, who has consistently proven himself a man capable of finding new wrinkles of inspiration in the folk tradition, and whose lyrical observations recall the likes of Elvis Costello and Warren Zevon, two writers consistently capable of making heartbreak seem like fun, or at least something worth laughing about.
Add to this the fact that the band played as if it had never broken up, as if all that transpired in the 20 years since “Shakespeare” was released had only made them better and more sympathetic musicians, and you understand that Friday’s gig was more than a celebration of nostalgia and a temporary visit with the younger, less stressed-out, and probably thinner version of ourselves — it was a killer rock show in the here and now.