Racism meets indomitable rock

By Peter Hemminger

The benefit concert is a tricky beast. If you focus too much on the concert aspect, people will lose sight of the message and succumb instead to pure entertainment. If you focus too much on the message, people will get bored. It’s a fact. Most people have short attention spans and little patience for preaching. So what do you do?

For the organizers of this year’s Rock Against Racism, the answer was simple. The first step is to make sure you’re providing a solid message. Easy enough, apparently.

"Its going to be hosted by Su Lin Goh from Global television, and she’s going to be providing some historical background on the event," explains event organizer Cameron May. "Plus, the Canadian Heritage did this video project where they got a whole bunch of youth to submit videos with anti-racist messages, so we’re going to be screening those between the bands. Also, there are the cultural performers. We have a First Nations performer who’s going to be doing a dance and explaining the relevance of the dance. So there’s lots to take part in and see, and hopefully people will think that it is functional, and that it will talk about racism in a meaningful way."

Obviously, the message is well covered. With proceeds going to the Youth Reach Out Against Racism and the Calgary Committee for Race Relations, it’s safe to say that Rock Against Racism is going to do as much for racism awareness as any local event could be expected to.

But what about those short attention spans? That’s where the "rock" part comes into play.

The inclusion of four of Calgary’s top acts is sure to provide some solid entertainment. There’s Falconhawk, with their New Wave-influenced keyboard rock; Chad Van Gaalen, long considered one of Calgary’s best kept secrets, now making waves in Toronto on the strength of the recently released Infiniheart; The Dudes, who have never had a problem drawing crowds; and Vail Halen who, despite being relatively new on the scene, has quickly become one of the city’s more popular acts.

Maybe "new" isn’t the right word for Vail Halen. Chris Vail, the band’s singer and songwriter, has been in the Calgary spotlight for a while now. First as part of the art-rock group Shecky Forme, then in the rougher, more experimental XL Birdsuit. Vail Halen sees him return to his twisted pop roots, reminiscent of everything from the Dears to disco. Vail is clear that the only thing he’ll be preaching about is rock and roll.

"I think for us, we’ll just try to play a tight, short set, because there’s going to be speakers who will probably be way more poignant than we would be if we decided to talk," he says. "We’re just going to show our support by showing up and playing well. I don’t think [presenting a message] is something that artists should necessarily pursue, but I have no problem with politics in music. If nothing else it’s a nice gateway, especially for younger people who see a politically-minded punk band and its starts them down that path. Even if the band is misinformed, at least it gets the kids excited."

That excitement is something desperately needed in today’s political climate. For such a large city, Calgary has never been known for its protests or demonstrations. In fact, as far as politics go, the city is pretty quiet. If it works, Rock Against Racism may inspire more benefit shows throughout the city.

"It’d be nice," Vail muses, "but it’s tough to say. Maybe if it happened all the time, Rock Against Racism wouldn’t be as big of a deal as it is. I get confused all the time as to how big Calgary really is.

"I’m used to playing shows at The Night Gallery, and getting it almost full on those nights. But then you go to Mac Hall and it’s just packed with all these people. I’m looking at all these young rocker-looking dudes and dudettes, and thinking ‘who are these people? Where did they come from?’ I’ve been meeting people in the last year who are into really good independent music. They’re into all the stuff I listen to, they just aren’t particularly into local bands or have never been really exposed to local bands."

This event should provide a perfect opportunity for music fans to get that exposure.

The local scene is stronger than it has been in years, as the better bands have managed to strike a balance between pushing the envelope musically and maintaining an accessible pop sensibility. Some fans are describing it as a new golden age for the city’s musicians.

"That’s my perception too," Vail agrees, "but I couldn’t say if that’s true either. All the bands that I’ve known for a long time are now kind of the older guys. Like Hot Little Rocket started playing when Shecky Forme started playing, so I’ve sort of known those guys forever, and they seem to be one of the better bands in the country.

"It’s a pretty friendly scene, a lot of pals, but I couldn’t possibly comment. I think it’s good, but that’s what people always say. Either ‘it’s the best it’s ever been’ or ‘the golden days have passed.’ It was supposed to be the golden days in the ’90s, with the Primrods and all that. I wasn’t really around in those days, but I’ve heard compilations, and it seems dated to me now. I wasn’t really impressed, personally. So I’m sure that in another 10 years some guy like me will hear a compilation with me on it and just not be impressed. Only will time tell."

Whether you’re drawn by the night’s message or are just looking for a good time on a Saturday night, Rock Against Racism is well worth supporting. At five bucks, it costs less than a pint, and the entertainment lasts considerably longer. With the proceeds going to charity, it’s a hard event to turn down.

"I’m looking forward to the show," Vail says. " I think it’ll be well run. The bands are nice and focused, and everybody’s kind of popular right now.

"If you’re interested but you don’t really check out local bands, this’ll be a good opportunity to see what’s been going on very recently. Everyone’s very good quality. They’re all the kinds of bands where you can go ‘well it’s not my thing, but it’s good for what it is’ at the very least. If you don’t love it you’ll have a good time anyway. There’ll be really interesting speakers too. It sounds like a perfect event."

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