SameDiff BNL

Barenaked Ladies: The perils of too much fun

By NOAH TARNOW, Toronto Sun, October 7th 1998.

The Theater at Madison Square Garden is impeccably clean. An annex to the Garden proper, the Theater comfortably seats thousands of spectators who typically come to see concerts by adult-contemporary favorites like Van Morrison and Sting. In the lobby, a generous selection of beer, wine, and soft drinks are on sale. The sound system is tame; ringing ears after the show are uncommon. In essence, it's a venue for people who don't go to a lot of shows.

And there's a reason why the Barenaked Ladies were booked to play there. Despite their insanely-high selling new album, Stunt, their hit single, "One Week," and their near-ubiquity in the pop culture of the moment, the Barenaked Ladies are cursed. For whatever reason, they have broken big among a certain crowd: 14 to 24-year-old, clean-cut white kids, who made up ninety percent of the audience at the Theater that night. The band has become the current heroes of a demographic which doesn't buy all that many records, and certainly doesn't frequent a lot of rock shows. And in this is the irony: the Ladies exist primarily as a live band. Even before they started attracting attention in the States, they were stars in their home country of Canada by virtue of their funny and spectacular live performances. They were thirty times better on stage than on record, and it's no surprise that they first broke through down here with their live album, Rock Spectacle.

But with their whitebread appeal, much of the music world has written the Barenaked Ladies off as insignificant, frat-trash popsters unworthy of acknowledgment during these fifteen minutes that they hog the spotlight. This, as the band made very clear at the Theater that night, is a mistake. BNL threw everything they had into the show, with frontman Steven Page leaping about the stage like some hyperkinetic goblin, and guitarist/second vocalist Ed Robertson offering an only-slightly more subdued counterpoint. Genres were rakishly tossed into the mix, from mock hip-hop novelty, (the monster hit, "One Week"), to honest-to-goodness heartland country (the skiffling "Crazy"), to some plain old rock & roll (the straight-ahead speed-rocker "Shoebox," which was so pure and anxious in its melodic drive, it would've made the Buzzcocks proud.) In between, the audience was treated to BNL's typically atypical interludes, most notably a variety of improvised raps that waxed on about fast food, tax evasion, and e-mail etiquette ("No one understood sarcasm until they invented 'the winking guy.'") It was a kind of nouveau vaudeville: smart, funny, and thoroughly entertaining, especially at show's end, when the band chased each other around the stage, beat-boxing their way through a medley of contemporary hits like "Bittersweet Symphony," "The Boy is Mine," and "It's All About the Benjamins."

Typically, such antics tend to overshadow the band's actual musical prowess, but the BNL were entirely competent and, occasionally, exceptional. Page, who in this age of grumblers and shouters, has what's probably the best throat in rock & roll, delivered his lines with energy and heft. His powerful vocals slammed through rave-ups like "Alcohol" and "The Old Apartment," while maintaining the character and fine-tuned grace that rendered "Jane" one of the loveliest romantic ballads in recent memory.

Unfortunately, the homogenous crowd didn't really seem to get it. "Alcohol," possibly the most scabrous anti-booze song in years ("I loved you more/Than I did the week before/I discovered alcohol"), was met with drunken cheers and raised beer tumblers. It was a party, and parties usually end quickly, the party band going down with them. And that's a shame: Barenaked Ladies boast some great songs and a remarkable stage show, but they've been pigeonholed as inane good-time goofballs. Consequently, those who do frequent the seedier rock establishments will never learn to love the Ladies. And by the time the carpet is vacuumed at the Theater at Madison Square Garden, the high school and frat kids won't care either.