“So, explain it to me again?” my companion asked me, looking at the wide variety of instruments set up at the front. Mainly a Radio-Canada listener, he didn’t recognize the beloved figure of CBC Radio 1 host Alan Neal fiddling with a computer near the front. “It’s a concert?” I leaned over to him as Alan took the microphone: “It’s like, yeah, a concert, and sort of lyrical exegesis and … it’s amazing.”
Random Play was Alan Neal’s brain-wave that first delighted the 2013 Writersfest crowd at the smaller of the two rooms in Knox Presbyterian. He took his iPod, packed with his varying musical passions, and chose the first 10 songs that came up on random shuffle to be performed and dissected as only a truly nerdy musical lover can. (Whenever possible, that is: Madonna, for example, declined his invitation). Neal expounded on lyrics that caught his interest, pushed the musicians to reveal their artistic intentions and inspiration, paired stars in unlikely but fabulous ensemble pieces and generally ensured that everyone present felt part of a huge, hilarious, musician party. “I was shocked how people played along with my crazy idea in 2013,” he mused, “and then even more shocked when Writersfest let me do it again!”
Neal introduced the 2015 version of Random Play in the somewhat more imposing new Writersfest venue of Christ Church Cathedral, with quite a few audience members pleasantly curry-scented from the new Writersfest Café. The formerly-of-Ottawa duo Bonjay, Craig Finn from The Hold Steady (I saw a few “The Hold Steady saved my life” t-shirts), Rose Cousins, Elliot Brood, isKwé, Ottawa band The Split and Slim Moore took the stage one after the other to perform an incredibly varied set of songs.
One of the chief delights of the event is getting to see such an eclectic group of performers at the same event. Elliott Brood stomped and wailed and banjo-ed the crowd back to the Wild West, Alanna Stewart from Bonjay’s long, elegant frame threw her techno-dance-hall patois upwards and outwards, and Rose Cousins collapsed into her piano from to the side of the stage, blanketing the room with her melodic darkness. Particularly electrifying was Cree/Dene/Irish artist isKwé’s piercing “Nobody Knows,” about missing and murdered aboriginal women.
In between taking surreptitious photos of the musicians like the superfan he is, Neal extended the meaning of each song to its furthest boundaries. As in 2013, he picked on particular lyrics, asking for meaning from the artists, and, when the artists weren’t available, tracking down their next of kin or aged managers about it. Neal maintains a touching faith in the integrity of lyrics, insisting that the artists often have to believe them in order to sing it. He interviewed David Axelrod, Lou Rawls’ 84-year-old producer, and played the clip of Alexrod’s gritty voice talking about the meaning of “Breaking my Back Instead of Using my Mind” (performed with panache by Slim Moore in a natty suit and hat). “You gotta unnerstand something,” drawled Axelrod: “every once in a while, Lou would put his name on a song. Maybe he wrote it, maybe he di’nt. Everyone did it. Cause he sang it, you know.”
Neal complemented every song with a similarly delightful commentary – after encouraging Alanna Stewart from Bonjay to rail against fake Jamaican accents in Hollywood movies, he read out a grovelling email from Jamaican actor Doug E. Doug apologizing to Stewart for the hideous accents in the film Cool Runnings. (Stewart subsequently taught the entire audience how to properly imitate a Jamaican accent. It involves the word beer can. You’ll have to ask her.) Craig Finn’s story about his loss of youth when an influential punk band returned to his favourite venue as Hari Krishnas was verified through an interview with the heart-breaking Hari Krishna himself, and Neal even called up the Car Wash Union of Los Angeles to determine the veracity of the car wash mentioned in Bruce Springsteen’s Car Wash (beautifully performed by isKwé, Craig Finn, and The Split). While some of the background colour was too far down the rabbit hole for most fans (a prolonged journey through Hank Snow discography left a few audience members cold) most of it was like Christmas for music and history lovers – there was even a video clip of an interview between Lou Rawls and Peter Gzowski on Gzowski’s short-lived TV show!
The 2013 performance had that kind of spontaneous magic that is the reason people go to live shows. That didn’t happen this year. Maybe it was the absence of a few really big personalities, like 2013’s Measha Brueggergosman, to jolly-up the show, or the fact that the audience was physically much farther away in the new venue, with a not-ideal sound-system to bring them in. In particular, the final numbe—a short story about aquaman that Neal loaded onto his iPod after finding the record at a garage sale—lacked the hilarity and verve of the on-stage dance party that happened in 2013 with the same piece. But that’s why we—and Neal—love music. All the talent and work in the world can’t guarantee that special chemistry.
That is not to say the show was not a delight. Random Play is like a road trip with hours to listen to fantastic music and wonder about what the artists were thinking, about their life and times. Only with Neal as a host, the audience has the actual artists present, clips from the CBC archives, and his inexhaustible enthusiasm to know to support such musings. We went from the punk scene in 1980s New York with Craig Finn, to Capitol Records in the 1960s, to the Winnipeg aboriginal community after the murder of Tina Fontaine. I hope Alan is already thinking about where we’ll go next.