Nostalgia is complicated – especially when you stop and think about it.
Not so much the feeling of nostalgia itself, mind you. It’s not difficult to understand why we want to try and recreate or relive past experiences that meant something to us: by recalling emotional cues, these reconstructions generally provide a more reliable and less-risky entertainment option. In other words: you know what you’re getting into, and you’re predisposed to liking it.
No, it’s more our commercial relationship with nostalgia that’s a bit tricky to navigate. Take live music, for example. Generally, the deal being made when someone buys when a concert ticket is based on the promise of a unique experience – a live, in-person event that will never quite be re-created the same way (note: I’ve got more to say on this particular subject in a separate post later this week). But when nostalgia gets thrown into the mix, is that really what’s being sold? Or is it one’s own memories and emotions that are up for grabs – a commercial exchange based on the promise of recreating something that felt like ours to begin with? Is it not our own experience being sold back to us again?
There’s a second level of complication to this: that nostalgia is also being sold to people who never had that original experience in the first place. This is what I call the “shoulda been there” sell, a chance for generational stragglers to play catch-up and simulate the experience that they never had the chance to have in the first place. From a live music perspective, I often find myself caught in this exchange, especially here in Halifax where it often takes bands five or ten years post-relevancy to finally add us to their touring itinerary.
And so it was this weekend, as the reunion tour for 1990s Halifax indie rock icons Thrush Hermit and the lifelong party that is the B-52s both hit Halifax for two shows; I spent Friday with the former and Saturday with the latter. In both cases, these were new opportunities for me. By the time I really got into music Hermit had broken up and I only discovered their music by working backwards through Joel Plaskett’s solo work. And while I’ve always enjoyed the B-52s – I’ve got their first two records on vinyl, even – it’s been 20 years since they were a pop force and they’re certainly not a band I’d travel to see.
Did it hurt the experience that I attended these shows with as much a sense of obligation – changing “shoulda been there” to “at least I got there eventually” – as I did anticipation? Not really. And that’s because while the potential for a very cynical commercial relationship always lingers when nostalgia comes into play, most of the time the exchange is much more earnest on the part of both artist and audience.
With Thrush Hermit’s show, the band was having as much of a time on the stage as we were on the Paragon floor. Though words were kept short and sweet, the band’s chemistry flowed through every song, as if the past ten years spent apart was just a blip. If anything, the songs may have sounded even better than back in the day – a decade’s worth of professionalism will do that. But whether it was a deep cut or one of the obvious Clayton Park smashes that closed each part of the set (“The Day We Hit the Coast,” “From the Back of the Film,” “Before You Leave”), there’s was a youthful energy that was recaptured and shared with the crowd, to the point where it didn’t seem at all silly for these grown men to be playing songs they wrote as kids.
It wasn’t quite the same with the B-52s, but there are more degrees of distance at play; after all, it’s been over 30 years since the band first wrote and performed “52 Girls” or “Planet Claire.” There are also some societal biases at play: while we’ve accepted seeing men and women in their 50s and 60s playing rock and roll, vamped-up surfer party music is a slightly different ballgame. Plus, give the band credit for the quite-decent Funplex, but their best material is still their earliest work, relying on the late Ricky Wilson’s sense of the musically bizarre.
All that, plus the fact that they were playing in the tackiest possible venue – a Casino showroom – left me worried that I was taking part in something quite cynical. That fear evaporated, though, as soon as the band took the stage. Not only did a good portion of the crowd get out of their assigned seats to rush the stage and dance, but the band never put on that they were going through the motions (even if they were). Yes, there were wrinkles and bulging waistlines on display, but the youthful energy at the band’s centre was muted only slightly from their heyday. Moreover, they can still hit the notes: “52 Girls,” in particular, lost none of its power, and show-ending “Rock Lobster” had the floorboards shaking from the audience’s grooves.
So yes, maybe there is something cynical lurking beneath the surface in these sorts of nostalgia shows, but it plays out more like an unspoken pact – “you guys have fun, we’ll have fun, and we’ll pretend together.” And ultimately, it’s hard to find fault with that.
Photos of both shows after the break…