It’s been two decades since Art Bergmann, who once fronted early Vancouver punk groups The K-Tels and Young Canadians, picked up his guitar and performed for a live audience. A kind of homegrown Lou Reed, now hidden away on a non-descript Alberta farm, Bergmann enjoyed local acclaim for his depth and poeticism but was overlooked by the masses until 1995’s What Fresh Hell Is This? earned him a Juno in Alternative Rock. Following this achievement the Sony A&R bigwigs puzzlingly cut Bergmann loose and he, along with his recordings, fell into relative obscurity.
The night’s opening act, local spoken-word artist CR Avery, pulled a meagre crowd to the front of the stage as he worked through material both new and old. He was nevertheless enthusiastic, proclaiming “My friends, we read poetry on a Saturday fuckin’ night at the Commodore,” amidst fans chanting “Art! Art! Art! Art! Art!” with one unabashedly belting out “Get off the stage… You suck!”
Not that I shared this sentiment, but given the balding ponytails and salt and pepper headbangers, it was impossible to argue with the hordes of aging rockers that grew up with Bergmann’s solo work, and probably even Young Canadians, on heavy repeat in their cassette deck.
Female three-piece The Courtneys fearlessly charmed the crowd with their adorably awkward anecdotes that prefaced songs like “Insufficient Funds” and the buzzing extended single “Lost Boys” as they effortlessly wove through their set, mesmerizing the hundreds standing before them. When the chorus of “90210,” finally came around, the West Coast mantra “Slow down / Chill out / Breathe in / Breathe out” seemed to be getting through to the impatient audience.
All bets were off though by the time they had finished. The crowd roared as the iconic rocker and his five backing members took the stage. It was undeniable that Bergmann, who returned last month with the four-song EP, Songs For The Underclass, after nearly 20 years of silence, had earned this hometown greeting. The scathing, and admittedly extended, political statements that embody his latest work, including the two standout cuts, “Drones of Democracy” and “Company Store,” was requisite material on this night.
Over the two hour performance — a commendable feat for any performer, no less one that can legally cash in on seniors’ discounts — clothes were thrown off, technical difficulties were worked through, mistakes were made, and smoke breaks were taken to deal with these mistakes. Namely the extended opus, “Drones of Democracy,” whose first failed attempt he apologized for, while the second indulged in a krautrock breakdown whose drum solo could easily have found a home on the Tago Mago sessions.
Throughout the night Paul Rigby’s mandolin accented Bergmann’s new, slower pace, and at the crowd’s request, the Young Canadians’ hit “Hawaii” was played at nearly half-time before the band finally closed on the carefree “Bound For Vegas” — played at full speed.
For a man who seemed haunted, even tortured, by how much he has to say about the current, and future state of affairs, the enigmatic figure nevertheless maintained his reputation as the local prince of punk. For on this night, where troop rallying newcomers were juxtaposed with drawn out age-old hits, Bergmann’s ideas were delivered unapologetically, and in a manner of extremes.