SameDiff BNL

Home Boys

By BARTLEY KIVES, Winnipeg Free Press, February 24th, 2001.

ASIDE from burlesque parlours and the occasional Shriners' dinner, Barenaked Ladies haven't appeared on a Winnipeg stage in almost five years.

When the Toronto pop band plays Winnipeg Arena on Monday night, it will mark the quintet's first local show since a Walker Theatre performance in June 1996.

"We haven't toured at home in years, so this is a big deal for us," says singer/ guitarist Ed Robertson, whose band is touring North American arenas with Winnipeg-raised Chantal Kreviazuk opening up.

Over the past five years, BNL focused its attention on the United States, hitting the bigtime with 1998's Stunt CD and last year's follow-up, Maroon. Now that this hyperactive outfit has sold millions of albums south of the border, the group has not only regained but surpassed the profile it enjoyed in Canada almost a decade ago, when tunes like If I Had $1,000,000 and Be My Yoko Ono rode the top of the charts.

"When we were doing really well in the States and not doing well at home, it was kind of a thorn in our side. You always want to be appreciated at home," says Robertson, speaking over the phone from New York city the night before a BNL concert at Madison Square Gardens.

"But now that things are going well in both countries, it feels good. The fact that we may be doing better in the States doesn't matter."

Least egotistical

You don't need the intellect of a Russian chess champion to comprehend the band's success. Besides being top-notch musicians who can win over non-fans at any live performance, Robertson, Page, drummer Tyler Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan and keyboardist Kevin Hearn are five of the hardest-working, least egotistical and most unassuming musicians in pop music today.

They're ordinary guys who just so happen to play in a platinum-selling rock band, and that's something fans on both sides of the border can embrace pretty easily.

"We were joking about that the other night in the dressing room," says Robertson, referring to a show in Dayton, Ohio. "Some guy held up a sign that said, 'If I had a million dollars, I'd buy backstage passes.'

"So I was joking on the stage (that) backstage is basically us, sitting around in our underwear, listening to ZZ Top and drinking juice. Or water. It's not exciting, and it's certainly not worth a million dollars.

"And after the show, Steve was saying, 'You know, I think we are the most normal band ever in rock 'n' roll. We get off stage, we chat a bit about the show and then we get on the bus and watch art films.' "

Maroon is the band's darkest album yet. Songs like Never Do Anything and Sell, Sell, Sell express overt cynicism, something that used to be just a subversive undertone in the band's overall sound.

'Darker material'

"There's always been darker material and there's always been serious themes. We've just been quicker to shroud them or skirt around them," says Robertson. "This time, we were more comfortable writing the song we wanted to write. This record is a little more personal."

In all likelihood, the serious outlook stems from keyboardist Hearn's battle with leukemia, which almost claimed his life in the late '90s. However, Robertson claims Maroon is more of a celebration than a sombre statement.

"It's like, 'He's f--king alive!' For a long period of time, he was battling for his life. This record was a real time of rejoicing for us, that he was back and seeming healthy for the first time in three years."

If reviews from recent Barenaked Ladies shows are any indication, the celebration is continuing on stage. The New York Times recently lauded the band's live show, suggesting the group has successfully made the transition from theatre to hockey arena.

"Thank god for video screens," says Robertson. "Far too many bands get into a big space and just sink under their production. But if you go in there and make sure people can see what you're doing and make sure it sounds good, there's no reason an arena show can't be like a theatre show.

"We really work under that precept and we work hard to make those big shows feel intimate."

That being said, the Barenaked Ladies are no AC/DC. The have no chunky guitar riffs to carry the show — only clever folk-pop tunes and the occasional hip-hop cover.

Back in 1991, the phrase "Barenaked Ladies — arena rock band" would have elicited chuckles. But not from Ed Robertson, mind you.

"If you told me that 10 years ago, I would have believed you," he says. "Five years ago, I wouldn't have."