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Size (of venue) Doesn't Bother Barenaked Ladies

By YOSHI KATO, San Jose Mercury News, October 6th 2000.

When the Canadian smart-pop band Barenaked Ladies recently played its latest single, "Pinch Me," in a pair of TV appearances, the musicians sported distinctly different looks.

On "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," the Canadian quintet wore stylized leather outfits for a look somewhere between the Smashing Pumpkins and "Lexicon of Love"-era ABC. The next morning, the band appeared on "Live With Regis" sporting tone-on-tone suit-and-tie outfits from the host's clothing line.

Tipoff to versatility

That they were able to pull off both looks is a stylistic feat that hints at the versatility of their sound. Barenaked Ladies is known as a humorous band that plays well-written tunes peppered with clever lyrics. But the members — vocalists-guitarists Ed Robertson and Steven Page, double and electric bassist Jim Creeggan, drummer Tyler Stewart and keyboardist Kevin Stewart — not only look credible in rock couture but are impressive musicians. When clad, however, in three-button jackets, dress shirts and neckwear, they could easily win over more mature audiences with their instrumental chops and crisp vocal harmonies.

"I remember when I first started playing, I wanted recognition for all the hard work and hours in the practice room I'd put in," says Creeggan, 30, a classically trained bassist. "I wanted to get some kind of Olympic medal or something. Then I just kind of went, `Well, what's the bottom line? Is everybody having a good time?' And if everybody is being carried, it's not important, necessarily, how the music got levitated or enhanced. It doesn't matter how it got brought to the people; it's just important that it is there."

Creeggan and the band are on tour in support of "Maroon," their fifth studio album, released Sept. 12 by Reprise Records. The band performs Wednesday at Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View.

"It's remarkable — I always forget what it's like to do shows where there are so many people out there," continues Creeggan from a tour stop in Houston. "It still mystifies me. When I'm doing it, it amazes me how I can just go, `Oh, today's another day, and we'll be playing for 10,000 people.' . . . But sometimes I won't be doing this; I'll be making an album or be on a canoe trip, and that'll be normal, too."

One of the band's strengths is its live shows. As in great cabaret or folk concerts, the group's banter is almost as compelling as the music. Talking about current events and life on tour, Robertson and Page consistently make the audience laugh. And the band's improvisational skills often lead to impromptu musical merriment.

Appeal remains

Even after progressing from smaller venues, such as the Warfield in San Francisco, to amphitheaters, the band retains its charm, as it proved in the summer at a Shoreline show. Projecting pre-filmed video skits and conscripting an audience member to participate on stage, the group made the venue seem much more intimate.

"I'm all for bringing somebody on stage with us," says Creeggan. "I love when it's not us doing all the playing. We try to make the big shows as intimate as the smaller ones by just being inclusive of the audience. There might be a tendency for some performers to treat them as a wall or a group, since you can't really see them. We put the house lights up a lot and get them to sing along or clap or whatever."

After Barenaked Ladies' previous album, 1998's "Stunt," went quadruple platinum and spawned the Billboard Hot-100 single, "One Week," the band started to get the level of exposure in the States it had enjoyed in its native Canada.

For "Maroon," Robertson and Page have written songs that are less whimsical than introspective. Yes, memorable lines still abound (in "Sell Sell Sell": "In terms of Roman numerals/ He's IV league with Roman Polanski"). But there are also moody sonic settings ("Conventioneers," the hidden track "Hidden Sun") and darker subjects ("Helicopters," "Tonight Is the Night I Fell Asleep at the Wheel").

Shift by critics

In press materials accompanying "Maroon," Page said, "I think that, at this stage in our career, we've just lived a little more. There's been a lot of Life — capital `L' — in our lives. We just write about it all."

Creeggan says, "I've caught little reviews of `Maroon' here and there, like in Entertainment Weekly. I think what's interesting is that a lot of critics are being surprised and are shamefully liking this record. The critics that didn't like us before, who were thinking that we were too powder-pop or too light, seem to be looking a little deeper into this record. That's kind of nice."

Veteran fans of the band rank "Maroon" as a watershed album, bringing the music to a new level. It's an older, wiser band that comes across in this material, they say.

"If you can continue the thread of who we are through the next record but introduce something new as well — that's something to accomplish," says Creeggan.