Tuesday, April 7, 2009

United Steelworkers of Montreal

This is a review I wrote for a show here in Victoria last weekend. It didn't get printed where I was hoping it would, so here it is.

Full disclosure: I freaking love this band.


It is a rare thing to see a band called back to the stage for an encore. True, we have all seen bar bands take three unconvincing steps to the left and milk a few seconds of cheering from the crowd before finishing a set. And the perfunctory dimly-lit five-minute lighter-raising break has long been a hallmark of arena rock. Really though, encores in these cases are surprise to no one. On the other hand, seeing a band legitimately punch-out for the night and start packing up their gear only to be called back by an unrelenting crowd they have worked into an irrational frenzy is the stuff of Springsteen legend. Springsteen and, apparently, the United Steelworkers of Montreal.

Midway through an exhaustive coast-to-coast and back again tour in support of their third full-length, Three on the Tree, the Steelworkers brought their gritty harmonies and firey finger-picking to Logan's on Saturday night as part of a double-bill with Edmonton's Hot Panda. Drawing heavily on the new material but also hearkening back to their previous two releases, the sextet offered up heaping doses of back-breaking, love-making and whiskey-drinking all served on a cobbled platter of bluegrass, folk, country, blues, gospel and early rock and roll. The genetics of each of these styles are blatantly apparent in the Steelworkers' musical aesthetic, to be sure. However, the band's real talent lies in its ability to chew it all up and spit it out in distinct four-minute installments that make you want to drink, punch, dance and cry - sometimes all at once.

The sermon-infused Jesus We Sweat and worker's lament Shot Tower, both from the new disc, were foot-stompers of the highest order. On the flip-side, the gentle sway of Son, Your Daddy Was Bad had many in the liquor-soaked crowd in a full-on waltz while frontman Shawn "Gus" Beauchamp paradoxically sang of jealousy, murder and revenge. Beauchamp's voice was smooth throughout and fit like a work-glove in between the ranges of his co-lead singers - the gravely and janitorial Gern F., and the high-harmonizing Felicity Hamer. In addition to assuming vocal duties, Hamer shone instrumentally, adding soothing accordion tones to arrangements that would include banjo and mandolin (Chris Reid), stand-up bass (Eddy Blake) and searing electric guitar (Matt Watson), in addition to the rhythm guitars of Beauchamp and Gern.

Having to share the bill this night, the Steelworkers were just hitting their stride as the clock struck midnight on their hour-long set. Despite their best efforts to convey that their time was up - coiling up cords, packing instruments away and shrugging apologetically - the calls for encore were genuine and unrelenting. The band was noticeably touched by their local reception as they reemerged for the heartfelt Place St. Henri from their 2005 debut Broken Trucks and Bottles.

"If we had two or three Victorias, we'd be West a lot more often," Gern was heard saying after the show. Indeed, it's been a year and-a-half since the band's first Victoria appearance, this being their second trip to the Garden City. That said, if supply-and-demand has taught me anything we should be able to hope for a Steelworkers return much sooner than that this time around.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Grad Speech

What follows are remarks I made when given the humbling and daunting task of giving a toast to my graduating class at some festivities last weekend (it was an awesome night, by the way). I figured I'd put it up here for posterity's sake, and perhaps to jog some hazy memories.

Oh, and kindly hold your "congratulations on graduating" remarks until the conclusion of the performance, being my last exam on April 23rd.


I suppose a good place to start at a time like this, as we're nearing the end, is to think about the beginning. In our case, the beginning for us as a collective was the first day at the Fraser Building in September of 2006 (or 1997 for some of our esteemed co-op students). And as I looked around room 159 that first morning at all of my new classmates, sure much of what I saw was to be expected: one guy cussing like a sailor, another guy that the women were all fawning over and a woman with a rather over-the-top hairstyle. I knew, however, that I was somewhere special when I figured out that the guy who was cussing was my contracts prof., the apple of the ladies' eyes was teaching evidence, and the woman with the two-toned bright red hairdo is one of Canada's leading feminist legal scholars.

And I think those initial observations appropriately sum up a lot about the experience of going to UVic Law: things are done a little differently around here. From co-op to law center, Dean's barbeques to skit nights, and law games to lounge chats, while we may soon have the same letters after our names as other Canadian law students, we have definitely had a stranger trip in getting there. Indeed, it is the strangeness of the trip and our shared experiences over the past three years that bond us together here tonight.

That having been said, however, it would be naive of me to stand up here and say that we have become a group of 100 best friends. More than naive, such an implication would also be a disservice to the remarkably varied backgrounds and perspectives we all came here with and will soon be leaving with. The intimate nature of our faculty notwithstanding, it would be foolish to expect a group that ranges as much as we do in terms of academic priorities, extracurricular interests and personal and professional aspirations, to emerge at the end of three years as one cohesive unit.

In fact, there have been moments when the striking diversity of our student population has led to tangible friction. And I know that we have all had moments as individuals when we've felt that our own interests and perspectives have left us with the short end of the stick, whether in a classroom, at a wine and cheese or sitting in a lunchtime talk. The diversity and progression that this faculty seeks to embody, and the distinction that comes along with them, also bring their share of challenges. That we as one student body have continually sought to meet these challenges in the spirit of a peaceful co-existence with room for dissenting opinions, speaks to the intellectual integrity that we are leaving here with. We have not always agreed with each other, but I for one am grateful that I have spent the past three years in an environment where there are such engaging and intelligent people to disagree with, and where my personal views have been continually challenged by my peers. There is no harmony when everyone sings the same note, and I for one think that we have all made some beautiful music together.

And making music together - and you can take that however you'd like - is just one of the things people have used as a compliment to, or diversion, from our academic pursuits. Indeed, it would seem that for every class offered to us, there were two or three things we could do outside of class. For the athlete in each of us, there were the intramural leagues. The musicians and performers could always look forward to strutting their stuff at Lucky Bar for Air Bands or the Metro Theater for skit night. And for those who wanted a more direct link to the classroom, the ELC, IHRLA, UAWL, Outlaws, the Crim Law Club, the Black Law Students Association of Canada and others would bring any number of conference opportunities and lunchtime talks. In fact, if one were so inclined - and I know many of us tried - one's daily schedule could be chocked-full of entirely non-academic pursuits.

And then, of course, we had the social time that was entirely extra-curricular. And here again, there were as many different ways of enjoying social time as there were members of our class. For some of us, it meant hanging from the rafters at house parties, perhaps at the dearly departed Crap Shack, or having a drink or two out on the town. For others, it would be an afternoon walk with a classmate, perhaps a cup of coffee or a rousing game of Crainium on a Friday night. And of course there were the weekly poker games. Still for others, simply holding court in the lounge during the week would prove as socially enriching as anything, as we sat watching the world go by, drifting in and out of conversations with whomever would pull up a couch.

Indeed, having a strong social network - be it of family, friends, partners or pets - has been a crutch for many of us. I would find it hard to believe that there is a single one among us who has made it through the past three years without ever relying on someone else when the going got tough or the Property Law needed outlining. And for this we owe a debt of gratitude - certainly to our peers, but perhaps more significantly to the people who stood by us and offered a hand despite not subjecting themselves to the same sort of masochism that we chose to undertake when we walked into the Fraser Building for the first time.

But now with three years of classes, conferences and hangouts almost completely behind us, we sit here tonight on the brink of starting our chosen careers, whatever those may be. With these careers will come a whole new set of challenges and a new kind of prioritizing. The American poet R.A. Zimmerman warns of the character Ophelia, whose profession is her religion, and her sin is her lifelessness. Her profession is her religion and her sin is her lifelessness. I think that there's a valid warning in there for each of us as we leave here, regardless of what career path we may take. Whether we spend our working days at a home office on Salt Spring, a boutique firm in Kits or a sky-scraper in Toronto, we should all seek to avoid adopting our profession as a religion and committing the sin of lifelessness. Indeed, while our professional challenges are sure to be significant, perhaps the biggest challenge of them all will be staying human amidst the demands our careers will place on us. Remaining engaged in our communities - be it as a hockey coach, charity volunteer or simply as a good friend and neighbour to those around us - is something that we will each have to mindfully seek to do, so as not to fall victim to the traps of burnout, over-extension and self-absorption that are all too common in the legal profession. Higher education is an opportunity afforded to far too few in this world, and it is now the duty of each of us to contribute to the greater good in our own ways, so as to not squander the privilege we have enjoyed of spending three years studying the law and expanding our minds alongside a peer group whose talents and abilities are nothing short of remarkable.

We will also have a duty to uphold high standards of professional conduct. This, despite the fact that the prescribed standards we are to adhere to can sometimes be vague and offer little in the way of direct guidance. As such, it will be up to each of us to remain proactive and vigilant, constantly keeping ourselves in check to make sure that we are living up to high standards of personal and professional integrity. This will lead to moments of struggle for each of us, to be sure, but with the great honour of entering the legal profession comes the equally great burden of holding ourselves to the highest standards of ethics. Having the right to do something does not make it the right thing to do, and that is an important distinction we will all have to continually keep in mind. It is the cowardly lawyer who rationalizes conduct that violates good judgment and moral fibre by hiding behind ambiguous rules of professional conduct. Rather, constant self-regulation will be required by each of us, so that we are not fodder for a new generation of lawyer jokes.

But before we head on our merry way, we will raise a glass together tonight. The commonality of our experiences over the past three years have bonded us together, and it is now up to each of us to ensure that those bonds remain strong, cherished and nurtured as we move on with our lives and careers in the years ahead. Let us now lift up our glasses, class of 2009, and drink to the different roads that brought us here, the journey we have shared, and a future that is wide open.