What if someone held a big live concert—and everybody came?
That’s what happened to Toronto’s Sadies when the Good brothers, Dallas and Travis, decided that their sixth full-length album was to be a live one, recorded in their favorite hometown joint (Lee’s Palace) and incorporating as many of their friends, family members, ex-bosses, and collaborators as they could fit on the stage.
In the end, 27 musicians were shoe-horned into the mid-sized space, bringing an assortment of electric and acoustic instruments, sharing dressing rooms and liquor bottles and sitting on each others’ laps when necessary. Some were near legends, like the Band’s Garth Hudson, the Mekons’ Jon Langford, Jon Spencer and Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, others bright current talents such as Neko Case and members of the Deadly Snakes. A few were blood relatives, others long-time friends. It was a party, though with 600 people out front and a tangle of mic cords and amplifiers to trip over.
“We had to have a big stage,” said Travis Good, who plays guitar, fiddle, and sings for the band. “We needed to have space for all the gear and all those bodies. We had no idea that we’d have so many bodies. We started asking all these different people we’ve worked with in the past and everybody was available.”
“It really wasn’t difficult to orchestrate,” said Dallas Good, the guitarist, singer, and main organizer of the Sadies extravaganza. “You know, the Sadies have played a lot of shows and a lot of them have been documented and recorded in the past. This one definitely was a mixture of continuity and flow, which is more of a normal show, as opposed to the sterility of having a studio performance basically. I think that was just because there was a lot of alcohol backstage. Everyone was just really comfortable.”
The Sadies had recorded live at Lee’s before, backing Neko Case in her album The Tiger Has Spoken in 2004. That album got the Good brothers thinking seriously about the live CD they’d been planning since signing with Bloodshot in the late 1990s. “We’ve always wanted to do a live album, because we’ve always been known more for our live show than for our studio records,” said Travis Good. “We’ve kind of been setting out in most of our records to try and recreate our live sound in the studio. So that seemed like a logical next step.”
Dallas Good said that family tradition had a little bit of influence, as well. “For one thing, my father’s band, the Good Brothers ... the only gold record that they’ve ever received, that was a double live record, back in 1981,” he explained. “A lot of my favorite bands have made live records and most importantly I felt that we’ve never quite captured what we do on stage on record.”
A live recording also would give the band a chance to revisit songs that had been well honed on the road. “Often when you make a record with somebody else in the studio, the songs haven’t had much chance to evolve. The players haven’t necessarily gotten comfortable with the songs at that point. And the record comes out, and you tour like crazy and the songs are better than they’ve ever been,” Dallas said. “So that was a great novelty at least, to be able to re-interpret songs with other guests and so on.”
The performances were recorded by Steve Albini, delegating at least the technical difficulties to experienced hands. “The truth is that with a live record, and especially one with this many participants, are and can be a nightmare, just for logistical reasons,” said Dallas. “I knew Steve would be as efficient as I could get. The guy is virtually flawless.”
Albini could not be reached for comment about the joys of recording 27 acoustic and electric instruments on a stage that measures 22 feet wide. However, Travis pointed out that he had written a short article about his experience for the Toronto Daily Post, where he compared live recordings to a “pain in the cock.” He was assisted by Don Pyle (who had played with Dallas in Shadowy Men from a Shadowy Planet) and Ken Friesen. “So between them and the front of the house guy who has worked for my father for 25 years and is one of my best friends—that’s something else that takes away any mystery out of this record—there was no member of the personnel that wasn’t directly linked to the band,” said Dallas.
A family tradition
Short of attending their own funerals, the Good Brothers could hardly have picked a better way to reconnect with the people that had influenced them, hired them, and recorded them. Sadies In Concert brought people from every stage of the Sadies career as a band into one room for two nights.
The Sadies musical history starts at birth—or maybe before—since the Good brothers came from a performing family. Their mother and father and uncles were all in the Canadian bluegrass band, The Good Brothers, a band which has been included in the Canadian Hall of Fame and still plays today. Their very first tour, with Janis Joplin and others, was documented on the film The Festival Express where Dallas and Travis’s dad can be viewed wandering around in the background.
Travis Good, who played bass with the Good Brothers throughout his late teens and early 20s, explained that his family never pressured him or his brother to follow the family way. “There were a lot of instruments lying around because of them. My dad encouraged us to play, but he was always cautious about it. He always warned us about it. He would say, ‘If that’s what you want to do, that’s okay, but ... don’t think because your dad makes a living from it that you can even make a meager living from it automatically.’”
The elder Mr. Good, along with Margaret Good (mom) and assorted family members, dominate the first CD of the two-disc concert recording, with a scorching version of the traditional “Higher Power,” as well as “Uncle Larry’s Breakdown,” “Eastern Winds”, and “Stay a Little Longer”. Travis, who admitted that bluegrass had little appeal to him as a teenager—he liked the Ramones better—said that his dad got up at the Lee’s Palace show and talked about his unusual way of bringing his boys to music. “Dallas was mad at him,” he said. “He was saying, “‘Dad, come on, we’re paying for tape.’ But Dad was like, ‘You know when I first got the boys to start playing guitar, I just lined up all of my guitars and amps along the wall, and I said, kids, don’t touch any of those things.’” The rest, as they say, was history.
Travis added that, even once they’d start playing, it took him and his brother a while to discover the virtues of traditional bluegrass and country. “The first stuff we got into musically was probably Alice Cooper ... and then we went from that to punk rock really,” he said. “And then it was funny, much, much later in life, we both discovered our parents’ record collection. I was like, my god, they have the Stanley Brothers and all this stuff.”
In fact, the main appeal of “dad’s music” at first was pure speed and technical difficulty. “It was as fast as punk rock,” Travis said. “There are bluegrass bands that if you were to put drums to them it would be a thrashing beast.”
The Bloodshot connection
That strong grounding in raging twang made the Sadies a natural for Chicago’s Bloodshot records, where they signed in 1998. Since then, they’ve recorded with half the label’s roster, many of whom make guest appearances on the live album.
Jon Langford, who sings “American Pageant,” and “Strange Birds” off his Sadies-backed album Mayors of the Moon, said that he first met the Sadies “at some Bloodshot event where the Wacos were really drunk, and the Sadies thought we were dissing them for some reason and decided they hated us.” He added, “But then we all got to know each other and it’s a mighty love fest.” Asked to explain their strengths as a band, he replied, “Height, youth, and extra finger jokes.” He may have been kidding, though the Good Brothers are quite tall.
Both Good brothers insist that they met Jon through Sally Timms, a connection that eventually led to a support slot on the Mekons 25th Anniversary Tour. “We opened for them every night as a Mekons tribute band,” said Travis. “We did different eras, like we would do 1970s at CBGBs only one night and 1980s only the next night.”
In fact, the second disc closes with “Memphis, Egypt,” a Sadies song that Langford and the Sadies often performed on that 2002 tour. “I would get up and sing that song with ‘em,” said Langford. “It’s one the Mekons don’t like playing anymore because they are old and afraid to rock. The Sadies play it better anyway, and it was great to be onstage with Garth Hudson and have him play a song that I wrote.”
Other Bloodshot compatriots that made the trip included Neko Case, who sang not one but two Roger Miller songs over the two night stand. “In the drunkenness, the set list was basically thrown out the window,” said Dallas of the Miller two-fer. “There are a couple of tracks that made the record that weren’t even on the short list.”
Neko Case brought in Garth Hudson from the band, whom she’d been playing with recently. He guests on a half dozen of the recording’s cuts, singing and playing keyboards. “We met him through Neko, at a show they were doing in New York and hit it off really well,” said Dallas. “Then it turned out he was in Ontario, so we just made it possible for him to stay a couple of extra days and sit in. We really didn’t know that was going to be in the cards until the day of the show…but we had a Band song or two on the set list.”
Case’s fellow Corn Sister, Kelly Hogan also made the trip north to add a spirited rendition of “1,000,002 Songs”, which she co-wrote with the Sadies. She also duetted with Margaret Good on the gorgeous, Morricone-leaning “Dying Is Easy” and joined most of the Good family for “Tiger Tiger.”
But Sally Timms couldn’t make it and Andre Williams, after intensive negotiations, also failed to make the trip. “I tried so hard to find Andre,” said Travis. “We ended up ... Jon Spencer got a hold of him Friday of the show. He said he was going to come up on Saturday. And then the Sunday was the Superbowl. He said that his brother had left to go to Detroit and had borrowed his passport…for the Superbowl. So he couldn’t make it because he had no ID.”
Spencer, of course, was already on the guest roster, since the Sadies had been touring over the past year with the rockabilly project Heavy Trash. The beginning of their partnership has, unfortunately, been lost in a haze of alcohol. According to Spencer, “I can not remember but Dallas has told me that an early version of the Sadies opened for the Blues Explosion in Toronto a long time ago, maybe in 93.” He added, “Apparently I climbed on top of his guitar amp and took a piss on the drums during the set but I have no memory of any such occurrence.”
Yet despite, and perhaps because of such hijinks, when Spencer was looking for a live band to flesh out his collaboration with Matt Verta-Ray last year, the Sadies were top of list. “We were huge Pussy Galore fans, so it was an easy step,” said Dallas. “We didn’t really have to think about it.”
A rampage through a series of strip clubs, bowling alleys, and other alternative venues on the East Coast and in Canada only confirmed that the partnership was a natural. “It has been a dream to tour with them,” said Spencer. “It kinda just fell together. I had seen ‘em around over the years, had heard the live Neko Case record and seen ‘em back Neko live. We both signed to Yep Roc. It just came together.” He added, “The first time Matt and I played with the Sadies it was so exciting, just felt great from the git-go. Sounded wonderful, like a powerful jet airplane.”
There’s already a follow-up Heavy Trash album in the works, this time with the Sadies as backing band. Spencer said he wasn’t sure how his new band would affect the Heavy Trash sound, except that there might be more songs about hockey.
Talking down and Pink Floyd
Sadies In Concert also features the Deadly Snakes, a rough-and-tumble Canadian garage band whose members started coming to Sadies concerts when they were too young to get in. Since then, the two bands have become closely intertwined with Sadies members appearing on Deadly Snakes albums and Deadly Snakes playing and touring with the Sadies. The song “Talking Down,” on disc two, is jointly credited to the Sadies and the Deadly Snakes Andre Ethier for reasons that go way back and involve plentiful liquor, Dallas explained.
“Yeah, well the way it worked was ... we were drinking with them, and I was talking bad about someone, and I said, but I don’t want to talk down about them. And then we realized that that was just a really odd slip of the tongue,” he said. “Then Andre said, ‘How about I flip you for it? And the winner gets the song title.’ And we did, and I won and released my record. a year later, the guy’s still in the same writer’s block and he had to steal my fuckin’ name. But so he came and we agreed to do the better version of ‘Talking Down.’”
He must have failed to specify exactly which version was best, however. The song, though mostly the Sadies version, also includes a good verse or two of the Sadies version, one of the many indicators of just how much fun people were having those nights at Lee’s Palace.
Another tip-off is the cover of Pink Floyd’s “Lucifer Sam,” from Piper at the Gates of Dawn an album that obsesses both the Good brothers and Gary Louris from the Jayhawks (who will be producing the next Sadies studio album). “Oh, well, that’s one of our favorites,” said Travis, when asked about the song. “We’ve probably drunkenly at parties hacked through most of that record, many times.”
“I’ll be honest. I don’t listen to anything besides 1960s psychedelic music, for the most part,” said Dallas when asked about the song. “It’s been that way since I was 13 or 14. and it’s really the only music that I can relax listening to.”
“With Gary, we’re like little kids, total music geeks. He calls me up and we’ll talk about a record for two hours,” he went on. “At that time, he was talking mostly about Piper at the Gates of Dawn and we would like to do something, but I always felt that that record is very difficult to touch, to even approach, because it’s pretty ... either people have done half-assed versions of the songs on it before or it’s just ultimately blasphemy—like, why bother? But that song was different because, well because it’s just a 4/4 rock and roll song. It’s as simplistic as Pink Floyd got on that particular record. And my brother’s been singing that song since he was old enough to sing ... since before his voice changed.”
Indeed with such a crowd of musicians’ musicians at Lee’s Palace that night, the range of possible coves was almost endless. The Sadies are known for being able to bang out covers—Travis tells a story about getting a request for Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio” one night on an early tour, nailing it and being rewarded with pizza and a place to stay—and their co-performers were similarly minded. Dallas said that several interesting covers didn’t make the record, including a Skip Spence song and one by J.D. Laudermilk.
CD listeners will also miss some of the musical pyrotechnics for which the Sadies are known. “It’s kind cocky, but in one of the songs that we do with Blue Rodeo towards the end, you can’t see it on the record of course, but me and Dallas play each other’s guitars for the guitar solo,” said Travis. “That’s something we would never do in a studio.”
From performance to record
The February concerts yielded two four-hour sessions of music, with alternate takes of most of the songs on the disc. With the help of Don Pyle and Ken Friesen, Dallas Good then started going through, selecting music for the disc and mixing the final versions. The same lack of ego that had big stars doubling up in dressing rooms extended to the mixing process. “No one else really heard the record during that process,” he said. “There are no egos involved in like saying, ‘Oh, you know, I wanted to go with Saturday night’s version.’ That I think is pretty amazing. It’s make this record a lot less daunting than it would be.”
The question, as you listen to the Sadies play with such a wide range of musicians, covering an even broader array of styles, becomes: what kind of music is this? CDDB says “Country” but even a casual fan will realize that it’s much more than that. Dallas Good, when asked about classifications, immediately changed the subject, suddenly noticing a completely hairless dog just outside his window. Travis was more patient with the issue, saying, “I think our instrumentation is country, the fiddle and the upright bass, and we do a lot of traditional country covers. I guess a lot of our songs are influenced by that, but certainly not just country. I don’t think that we really write in any specific genre. We just kind of sound like our record collection.”
Right, but it’s a record collection that’s having a really good time.