Barenaked Ladies: Talk to the Hand: Live in Michigan [DVD]

[5 November 2007]

By Mike Schiller

The Barenaked Ladies have gone environmentally friendly.  Yes, they’re full-on Al Gore devotees now, a trait that one needs to look no further than their latest DVD release Talk to the Hand to see. 

Before you even pop it in, it’s impossible to miss the eco-friendly, post-consumer CD tray housed in an entirely recyclable case.  A good portion of the backstage banter (actually just a sit-down interview) that we get as a bonus feature on the DVD is about how the Ladies have been part of a movement to eco-friendly up the touring experience.  There are biodiesel buses involved, along with lots of recycling.

In an odd sort of way, it’s a mentality that seems to fit the performances of the Barenaked Ladies quite well.  It’s not that their stuff seems recycled at this point, as despite the Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young overtones and Simon and Garfunkel interplay that happens through much of it, they don’t sound at all like a rehash of anything.  It’s also not that they perform with the laser-focused intensity of the types of people who would go greenfreak on you (at least, not while they’re performing), chastising you for accidentally tossing an aluminum can in the trash when you’re at a party.  They’re too laid back for that. 

No, it’s because the word organic comes to mind when you witness a modern-day performance of the Barenaked Ladies.  They are what they are and what they’ve always been; maybe a little weathered, maybe a little more mature, but just as entertaining, without preservatives, pesticides, or genetic engineering to mess them up. Does that make sense?

To put it more succinctly, one could say that they haven’t sold out.  This would be an oversimplification, however.  It’s more a matter of what you can and can’t find at a Barenaked Ladies show.  Talk to the Hand: Live in Michigan was recorded in June in Clarkston, MI, and it is at its heart a perfect synopsis of the Barenaked Ladies live experience.  The elements of a typical Barenaked Ladies show?  Follow along…

1. The Poignant Masked in the Puerile Via Guitar-Pop-Rock
This, of course, is the most obvious element, as it can be found in the studio incarnation of Barenaked Ladies as well as the live one.  A typical Barenaked Ladies song has, at its heart, some sort of serious theme (though this is by no means a certainty), but that serious theme has a tendency to be masked in clever wordplay and a charmingly juvenile sense of humor. 

This is true of the Ladies’ earliest tracks as well as their most recent.  “Be My Yoko Ono”, from the band’s first full album Gordon, is at its heart a simple love song, and actually a rather touching one at that, even though accordion is one of its primary instruments and there’s a break in the middle where the entire band gets to scream and yodel and hoot in their own interpretation of Ono’s solo career. 

More recently-written is “Bank Job”, a dark song that touches on the base selfishness of humankind told through a bank heist thwarted by nuns.  It’s this juxtaposition of the serious with the silly that allows the Ladies’ music to last beyond the first listen, and also allows the songs to sound like they belong next to each other in a live set.

That the Ladies manage to incorporate utterly ingratiating melodies into all of those songs doesn’t hurt.

2. An Air of Predictable Unpredictability
Unless you’ve never heard of the band, you know that something silly is going to happen at a Barenaked Ladies show, and it’s usually going to turn into an improvised song of some sort.  In this case, the band gets it out of the way pretty early: after a fairly rote-but-energetic performance of “The Old Apartment”, the second song on the DVD, Ed Robertson (the band’s Paul Simon-esque guitarist and vocalist) notices a guy in a cowboy hat who is either playing maracas or shaking beer bottles around. 

This, of course, leads into an improvised little ditty that would probably be called “Old School Maracas” if it were to appear on an album.  The thing is, it doesn’t seem all that improvised—it’s more like they picked a spot where keyboardist Kevin Hearn would be holding a guitar, and put “improvised song” on the setlist.  Ed found something to sing about, and the rest is recorded history.

The thing is, the audience, predictably, eats it up.  And they should.  I would love this stuff at a show.  It’s a credit to the band that they’re willing to put a little something in to every show that’ll make the audience feel like they’re watching something special, something unique.  It comes off great on the DVD, good natured and fun and not overlong.

3. “If I Had $1,000,000” at the End of the Show
It never could have been called a chart hit, but the band is nearly defined by this song.  Maybe it’s that the lead vocal is shared by Robertson and the more operatic tones of Steven Page, creating a communal sort of vibe that brings in an audience.  Maybe it’s the improvised banter.  Maybe it’s the long-celebrated tradition of the audience tossing Kraft mac & cheese in the air when the band mentions “Kraft Dinner”, a practice the band now discourages due in part to overzealous audiences tossing dangerous objects (explained in the backstage interview portion of the DVD). 

Regardless of what makes it so indispensable, however, it’s clear that a Barenaked Ladies show simply cannot be called such until this song is played.  The version on Talk to the Hand is well-performed and as silly as the song deserves.

...What you won’t find at a Barenaked Ladies show includes techno beats, lip synching, costume changes, or choreographed dance routines—well, actually, that’s not entirely true.  In Talk to the Hand‘s only iffy moment, the band breaks for an entirely choreographed theater/ dance routine, complete with sound effects and a Charlie’s Angels pose at the end for most recent album Barenaked Ladies Are Men‘s only represented track, “Angry People”.  Pre-recorded music continues to play while they do this, lending the show its only moment of fakery for a stunt that feels merely gimmicky. 

The inclusion of the sound check for the song in the disc’s bonus features offers no insight as to why the band decided it’d be a good idea, just a rehash of the concert version with less people watching.  Despite this single misstep, however, Talk to the Hand is a well put together DVD with a very nice, career spanning setlist (following “Pinch Me” with its B-side “Powder Blue” is a nice touch) and fantastically-mixed audio. 

If you’ve always wanted the Barenaked live experience in your living room, well, this is a hell of a lot cheaper than hiring the band to actually play in your living room, and almost as entertaining.

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