Former Triumph frontman as comfortable in front of a symphony as he
was in front of a head-banging trio
May 16, 2009
I like the way Rik Emmett, former lead singer of Canadian prog-rock
trio Triumph, politely puts me in my place when I point out the irony
of an '80s headbanger who once pranced around in a mullet squeezing
out guitar riffs on songs like Lay It on The Line fronting a
symphonic '60s review called Woodstock Revisited.
"You are dismissing, of course, everything I've done since 1988,'' he
notes over the phone from a tour stop in Cobalt, Ont. "The classical
guitar records, the jazz records, the critical reviews . . . "
He's not peeved, or annoyed, or up-in-arms. If anything, he's mildly
amused, I think, that his eclectic solo work -- which makes him a
natural frontman for a 40th anniversary concert honouring the seminal
hippie mud bath -- has somehow flown under the radar of doofuses like
myself, despite his industry reputation as a musical heavy hitter.
But Emmett, who scaled the heights of rock stardom before quitting
Triumph two decades ago amid squabbles over the usual artistic
differences (since reconciled), has been around long enough to know
critics, and the general public, are less concerned about the
intricacies of his solo career than, say, whether or not Adam Lambert
is "too gay" to be the next American Idol (for the record, Emmett
says the question is irrelevant).
Fortunately, for him, he's at a point where it doesn't really matter.
"I played a gig last night in Kirkland Lake,'' he points out with no
trace of ego. "And some people had absolutely no idea who I am.
"Nowadays in soft seater (venues), you're dealing with folks middle
aged and even older, who have bought season passes, who tend to be
retired and who say things like 'Oh, that was some lovely music -- I
hope they don't play too loud, though!'
"It's not like you're in front of hard-core metalheads going 'what the hell?' "
The veteran string-plunker, his days as a shrieking, high-pitched
guitar god tucked safely behind him, says this, too, with a sense of
"Sometimes a concert is like playing to a soccer stadium with guys
who want to be a big part of the experience chucking things and
setting off fireworks,'' the loquacious 55-year-old recalls of his
rock god heyday.
"But that doesn't really happen anymore. Now I play a show with
intermission and people go out and get a glass of wine. It's more
sedate and civilized and, ironically enough, people pay a little more
attention to the music.''
Which brings us to Woodstock Revisited, a Jeans 'n' Classics symphony
featuring a cast of respected industry pros paying tribute to the
August '69 youthquake that marked the high tide of hippiedom.
That Emmett was only 15 at the time and took little more than a
passing interest -- he was too busy fighting with his parents over
the length of his hair -- is beside the point.
"There was something about that hippie culture,'' he observes
rhetorically. "The whole idea that all you need is love and putting
flowers down gun barrels . . . I'm not saying everyone should drop
acid and wear fringe jackets, but there were some things that were
very valid and true.''
While it may not have touched his life directly, the fact most of his
guitar heroes -- Jimi Hendrix, The Who's Pete Townshend, Alvin Lee of
10 Years After and, of course, Carlos Santana -- appeared at
Woodstock gave him a healthy respect for the era's out-in-the-cosmos
"I was reading an interview with Santana and he apparently did the
concert stoned on acid,'' notes the veteran guitarist, who sees the
humour but makes no judgements. "In his mind, the guitar neck kept
turning into a snake, so that was one of the problems he faced.''
He'll skip the drugs during his own performance, he laughs, which
will include "all the stuff I cut my teeth on as a teenager" --
Santana's Black Magic Woman and Samba Pa Ti, Hendrix's All Along The
Watchtower and a group jam on Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young's iconic
"The most challenging thing will be the changing of the gears," he
notes. "How do you get into that Santana mindset and play with that
calm and tone and then, later, do Hendrix and it's a completely
different ballpark? But my whole career has been a shifting of gears.''
Asked if he finds it ironic that a rock festival notable for young
people rolling naked in muck during a series of torrential rainstorms
will be reconfigured as a sedate orchestral revue that would have
made the original hippies run screaming in horror, Emmett reveals
himself a streetwise philosopher king.
"It's ironic but it's also human nature that anything that was really
pop culture is bound to turn into nostalgia and keep cycling and
recycling,'' he notes, referring to the "tribalism" that influences
the musical preferences of young people.
"People always want to see their own mythology in a historical
context, with memories of what they were. So there's this nostalgia
thing we all indulge in to a certain extent -- whether or not it's
actually true or valid is beside the point.''
Centre in the Square
May 20-21, 7:30 p.m.
Featuring the music of Jefferson Airplane, Joe Cocker, Blood, Sweat &
Tears, Sly and the Family Stone, The Band, Santana, Jimi Hendrix and others.
With Rik Emmett, Neil Donell, Jean Meilleur, Rique Franks, Katalin
Kiss, John Regan, Peter Brennan, Jeff Christmas, Mitch Tyler and the
Tickets: $29 for 519-578-5660 or www.centre-square.com