I had seen Barenaked Ladies in concert probably a half-dozen times, but only once since Steven Page left the band in 2009. Page is a man of many musical interests, so don’t label him just a pop singer. He’s penned the music for three plays at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and just concluded a tour on Sunday night at the Dakota with members of the Art of Time Ensemble, with whom he recorded in 2009.
Page – whose Judaism is on display in Barenaked Ladies’ 2004 album Barenaked for the Holidays, where he wrote and sang the beautiful song Hanukkah Blessings – showed why the band he founded almost 30 years ago is not the same without him.
Here’s the interesting thing about the Dakota show: The band didn’t play its own songs, but don’t confuse it with a cover band. The arrangements of songs well known – and not so well known – were both superb and complex.
Page was backed by a violin, cello, stand-up bass, piano, guitar and saxophone. Performing songs like Leonard Cohen’s A Singer Must Die is one thing; it’s a pretty stripped-down song anyway (but the collective still captures its beauty and rawness anyway). But songs with percussion, like Elvis Costello’s I Want You, David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes, and Tonight We Fly by The Divine Comedy, were expertly arranged so you missed none of the drumming.
And yes, he worked in a rearranged version of the BNL classic Brian Wilson, as well as Entourage, an original song he wrote post-BNL break-up about a memorable trip to the World Music Awards.
Page recorded the album A Singer Must Die with Art of Time Ensemble in 2010, which included the title track and Costello’s song on it. The third song they played at the Dakota from that album was The Weakerthans’ Virtue The Cat Explains Her Departure, which was written by John Samson – who Page calls the greatest living Canadian songwriter.
The venue size that Page plays may have changed over the years, but what hasn’t is his ability to connect with an audience. Whether an arena or a small club, Page had the room laughing at his stories, like the one time he met Cohen, the late Canadian singer-songwriter. He thought Cohen was staring into his eyes as they shared a microphone on stage together when Cohen was actually reading his lips to remember the words of the song.
Nine years after leaving Barenaked Ladies, and as the band is about to be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, Page shows that he can thrive fronting a band in an arena or playing the role of a crooner in a club.