Sometimes good ideas are really good – I Can’t Believe It’s Not :: The Strokes – Is This It @ The Manx

i can't believe it's not, the strokes, is this it, the manx, rolf klausener, ottawa

Creative people are really interesting for a number reasons. Yes, most of them are a little crazy, but that’s beside the point. They often spearhead new ideas and challenge us to use our imagination in different ways. Ottawa certainly has no shortage of these people (both crazy and/or imaginative), and they continuously bring about new ways of experiencing art. Whether it is visual, auditory, experiential, or something else completely, the ways in which we consume art on a local level is changing, with events that are seeming to growing in breadth and frequency throughout the year.

One of Ottawa’s longest serving active artists is Rolf Klausener, a name that needs very little introduction but a mind that deserves praise for constantly pushing the envelope with respect to what is possible in our town. His achievements as the lead singer of The Acorn have given him national notoriety, but there’s always more than meets the eye with this man. You would be unable to find someone who loves Ottawa more than him (read my in-depth interview with him from earlier this year to find out more). His more recent projects include Silkken LaumannArboretum Arts Festival, and Manx Music nights, just to name a few. Think that’s it? Well, behold his latest endeavour. Rolf has brought together some great musicians from around town (whom I will mention below) for a new live music experience: I Can’t Believe It’s Not. Although this concept isn’t novel, per se, it is certainly new to us here in Ottawa. So what’s it all about?

I spoke with Rolf  briefly to find out the backstory to ‘I Can’t Believe It’s Not’, here’s what he had to say:

Essentially, the event was founded by Jon Hynes in Toronto a few years ago. Since moving to Ottawa two years ago, the Newfoundland native has been looking to start the event back up here.

I’ve known Jon for a few years through the national music scene. He used to be in Hidden Cameras, tours with Evening Hymns, and as it turns out have a billion mutual friends.

Although he’s been here a while, any one of us will attest to how hard it is to make connections sometimes in a city like ours. He reached out to me a few months ago to see if I’d be interested in helping him start the night up here. I really loved the idea, and just started reaching out to virtually anyone I thought might be remotely interested. Since I curate the Manx Music series, we thought the smaller space might be a great place to pilot the first edition.

Our main priority was really finding a mix of folks that would be able to do the music justice with a very limited amount of rehearsals, and have fun performing the music with confidence.

The best feedback we got was hearing how exciting it was to hear a classic album like this performed live. You can get to know every nuance of a great record, but nothing is as exciting as being there, amps in your face, watching the musicians commanding these precious tunes from their instruments.

It’s a frustrating fact that Ottawa gets skipped more often that not in national touring schedules. With a bit of joyful work on our part and some attention to detail, we’re hopefully giving Ottawa a chance to see some classic albums performed live, in smaller settings where they likely never would have been performed in their heyday. Plus, it’s a hell of a lot of fun for the musicians and singers.

Next edition will come at the end of January. We’re currently scouting for a bigger location. The Manx was super gracious with the event, but we’re not going to put them through that again.

No, it’s not low-cholesterol margarine with butter-like qualities.

The idea is really simple – get some of our favourite musicians around town together and play a classic album that everyone loves front to back, with different singers throughout. The first installment of the series took place on November 25 at The Manx. The chosen record was Is This It (2001),  the pivotal debut album by The Strokes that set the tone of the 2000’s (Rolling Stone ranked it the #2 of the decade, and #199 in the top 500 albums of all time). I found this concept really interesting, since I’m one of those music nerds that appreciates an album in its entirety. To me, albums tell a story – not only within themselves, but across the careers of the artists. That’s why I love vinyl, because it almost forces one to listen to the album as it was intended – start to finish. So this music series basically has two badass treats in one: raw, live music played by terrific musicians, and the full album played start to finish. Here is the lineup from Nov.25:

Singers (or, Julian Casablancas impersonators, as it were) – Steve Adamyk (Steve Adamyk Band), Adam Saikaley (Silkken LaumannCEREMONY), Ryan Mill (‘music superfan’), David Pierce (Ornaments), Mallory Giles (Politique), Steve St. Pierre.

Band – Pat Johnson (Drums), Rolf Klausener (Bass), Michael Simon (Guitar), John Hynes (Guitar)

While the Manx is one of Ottawa’s finest cultural hubs, it was pretty clear to most of us that it may be a bit small for this event. And it was, but we made it work. I could sense a slight bit of tension as the crowd packed in and the band got ready to play. This had never been done before here, and the musicians didn’t know each other all that well (well, some of them did). Plus, there must be a bit of pressure to deliver the kind of performance expected from a band like The Strokes. The album is already considered one of the best of that decade. In my mind, Is This It marks one of those albums of a whole generation, representing a genuine break from anything we knew in the 90’s.  I guess it was just a matter of nobody knowing what to expect.

the strokes, is this it, ottawa, the manx, i can't believe it's not

The show started with a bang, as David Pierce belted out the title track ‘Is This It.’ He made sure that whatever tension was in that room was cut like a sharp knife through butter (no pun intended with respect to earlier Fabio butter reference). The band got into it so fast that it was like a Strokes cover band that had rehearsed for years. Pat Johnson’s drumming was perfect, as always, and kept every song super tight. One of the best things about this whole experience was that the singers did their own thing. There was no pressure to sound like Julian Casablancas, it was all just for fun. Mallory Giles took the helm for ‘The Modern Age,’ and as the lone female vocalist that night, she took her performance by the balls and followed up David with comparable energy and presence. A really nice effect was the vocal distortion, a la The Strokes, which did contribute to the overall experience. While all the vocalists were unique in their own way, it gave each one a similarity to Casablancas with respect to the lo-fi, crunchy sound of the vocals. The band was now relaxed and just having fun with it, using their instincts as musicians to keep the flow going as it started to get pretty sweaty inside The Manx.

Casablancas’ vocals, mixed to the fore and ringed with distortion
like he was singing from a pay phone. – Rolling Stone

Things were reaching critical mass as Steve Adamyk took the stage. I’m lying, there was no stage. But he grabbed the mic and sang ‘Soma’ and ‘Barely Legal’ really, really well. This guy is just so good, and he roared through the two songs with the same raw, edgy style as  he does in the Steve Adamyk Band. No punches were pulled in his performance, as he basically became part of the crowd as people started dancing and singing all around him.  The place was swelling with excitement and fun as the night went on.

Steve Adamyk, Ottawa, Strokes, The Manx

Steve St. Pierre sang the crowd favourite ‘Someday,’ and he did not disappoint. I had only seen Steve St. Pierre in the intimate, quiet setting of Raw Sugar Cafe and was unsure what kind of sound he would go for. In the spirit of a sweaty dance party, he launched into the song with fury. His jugular vein seemed ready to explode, but luckily it held together as people cheered and danced to what probably was the catchiest song of the night.

Adam Saikaley also surprised us by continuing with ‘Last Nite’ and ‘Hard to Explain.’ I was aware of Adam’s skills as a multi-talented musician and composer, but had never heard him actually sing before. Well, he proved that he can do it all. He and his thick, full beard dominated. His good friend Rolf on bass was moving with the pop of the song, as was the crowd. Way better than Vitamin C’s cover, I’ll tell you that much.

Adam Saikaley, The Manx, Strokes,

For me, the highlight of the performance was David Pierce letting loose on the last three songs. His raspy voice bellowed through the venue, perfectly melding with the band’s energy. ‘New York City Cops’ and ‘Take it or Leave it’ are my two favourite songs on the album, and he made sure to end the night on a high note. The song ‘New York City Cops,’ as with the cover art, was actually replaced for the US release of the album in 2001. The song was deemed unsuitable for the US market, as it contained the refrain “New York City Cops, they ain’t too smart” which didn’t sit well with the band following the role the NYC Police Department played in dealing with the recent tragedy on September 11 of that year. For me, nothing beat David screaming “Just take it or leave it” in the chorus of the album’s final track. The intensity was pure greatness.

Not only was the night a massive success, it sounds like it will be a bi-monthly installation here in Ottawa with future venues to be determined. It was a whole lot of fun, and I’m sure everyone is itching to know what the next album performance will be.