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Canadian Interviews Joel Plaskett Emergency in St. Thomas

Location: Princess Ave. Playhouse, 40 Princess Ave., St. Thomas, ON

Sometimes a rock concert means more to a community than anyone might have expected. Such was the case recently at the Princess Ave. Playhouse in St. Thomas, Ontario, when East Coast musician Joel Plaskett checked in for a show with his band, The Emergency.

Talk about an intimate venue: the Playhouse is a converted church, complete with surprisingly comfortable pews sufficient to hold about 140 people. A curved balcony hangs nearly over the stage, adding to the distinctive atmosphere. Plaskett and his bandmates, bassist Chris Pennell and drummer Dave Marsh, seemed simultaneously amused and invigorated by the layout. “This place is cool, St. Thomas, look at this place,” Plaskett remarked early in the set. “St. Thomas — who’d of thought?”

Yes, who’d of thought …

For those unfamiliar with St. Thomas, it is reasonable to suggest that the small southern Ontario city of 36,000 is virtually the epicenter for the collapse of auto manufacturing in Canada. Locals have watched in recent years as many of the top employers in town have closed up shop: the Sterling Trucks factory, Ford assembly plant, the Lear seating company, and on and on and on. It is no exaggeration to say that the local economy has been gutted and destabilized, with more than 4000 well-paying jobs eliminated. Rebuilding the community will be a slow process.

The concert unfolded with Plaskett and the band playing songs from the freshly released album Scrappy Happiness alongside choice cuts from his terrific 2009 solo effort, Three. Particularly strong were versions of ‘You Let Me Down’ and ‘Tough Love’, the latter track punctuated by the line ‘tough love / is there any other love?’

Plaskett soon drove deeper into his back catalogue, one that is becoming as rich as that of any performer in the country. Terrific takes on ‘Natural Disaster’ and ‘Happen Now’ were highlights of the night, both drawn from the 2005 album La De Da. After a solo acoustic performance of the new song ‘Harbour Boys’ (and make sure to listen for that one on the festival circuit this summer), the singer delivered a rambling, funny, and ultimately very effective rendering of ‘Love This Town’, another tune from La De Da. Born out of a dreadful concert experience long ago in Kelowna, B.C., the song has long been a staple for Plaskett in concert. This time around, he commented on touring Canada and still finding little ‘nooks and crannies’ in the country, including St. Thomas, where he had never played before. In turn, someone in the crowd called out “we’re a nook and a cranny!” Nicely put.

With the band in tow, Plaskett proceeded to build the concert to an exhilarating peak, rattling off thunderous versions of ‘Lightning Bolt’, ‘Work Out Fine’, and ‘Maybe We Should Just Go Home’. The crowd seemed genuinely uplifted by his frequent references to St. Thomas lore, notably the fact that the city was once upon a time the ‘Railway Capital of Canada’, not to mention the place where the famous circus elephant Jumbo was struck and killed – strangely enough, by a locomotive. There is an impressive statue of the famed animal at the west end of the city, and the local brewery features a beer called ‘Dead Elephant Ale’. As Plaskett noted in the midst of the show, ‘Oh, that poor elephant … let’s do it for that poor elephant!’

And indeed, it was during a fantastic, expanded performance of ‘Extraordinary’ that the Joel Plaskett Emergency kicked things into high gear. Having started out a few weeks earlier in Victoria, the St. Thomas show was the final night of the tour before some time off back home in Nova Scotia. Near the end of the song but right before an ultimate, monumental jam, Plaskett roared to the band, ‘Last night of the tour, boys – empty the tank!’ This brought the crowd up and dancing in the aisles.

During the three-song encore, which included ‘I’m Yours’, ‘Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’, and a jubilant ‘Come On Teacher’, the audience seemed truly elevated by a band clearly in top form, playing a tiny venue in St. Thomas, led by a singer and guitarist seemingly determined to transform a quiet Sunday night into an unforgettable celebration. Plaskett accomplished this in most memorable fashion.

Following the show, plus a late-night stop with his band at the local Midtown Tavern, Plaskett posted the following note on his Twitter page: ‘St. Thomas. Legendary.’ Fans in the city are hoping for a return visit very soon.

Set-list for Joel Plaskett Emergency, April 29, 2012 in St. Thomas, ON

1. North Star?
2. You Let Me Down?
3. Deny, Deny, Deny
4. You’re Mine
5. Heartless, Heartless, Heartless?
6. Tough Love ?
7. Natural Disaster?
8. Happen Now
9. Harbour Boys?
10. Love This Town?
11. Face of the Earth?
12. Nowhere With You?
13. Lightning Bolt
14. Work Out Fine ?
15. It’s Catching On ?
16. Through & Through & Through?
17. Maybe We Should Just Go Home
18. Extraordinary ?

19. I’m Yours
20. Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’
21. Come On Teacher

by Andrew Gunn