Ottawa’s Algonquin Commons Theatre was the site of Big Wreck’s electrifying performance Tuesday night. Built in 2012, the theatre offers state-of-the-art sound and lighting, amazing acoustics, and a seating capacity of 700. A block of the seating near the stage area was removed for the show, which allowed a portion of the audience to stand, and created an intimate setting between the crowd and performers. There wasn’t a bad seat in the house, and in fact, was the perfect sized venue for this event.
Big Wreck has come a long way in its 20 year history, and clearly have a large and loyal band of followers. The Canadian hard rockers formed in 1994 by the merging of four students who met while attending Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After some years of hard work, heavy touring, and the usual paying of dues, a record deal ensued with Atlantic Records US. The band released their first album, In Loving Memory Of in 1997, which saw hits, “The Oaf”, “That Song”, and “Blown Wide Open” garner widespread success and airplay.
Their second release, The Pleasure And The Greed (2001) experienced a more lukewarm reception, primarily due to poor marketing. Also during this time, frustrations began to rise and communication between band members became strained, ultimately leading to the band’s breakup in 2002. I had a chance to chat with Ian Thornley, the band’s principal songwriter, guitarist and lead singer, about this turning point.
“We weren’t enjoying it anymore…there was no communication and we were all entering different points of our lives. I began looking more and more at that dangling carrot of doin’ the Thornley thing. I also realized I’d rather be making music that I love, instead of trying to write that ‘hit’ that makes a million dollars. I don’t give a shit about any of that. As long as I can carve out a modest living by creating the music I want, that’s good enough for me.”
And so Thornley took his ideas and formed his own band, Thornley almost immediately. Under a new label, 604 Records, he would release two solo albums, Come Again (2004), and Tiny Pictures (2009), and worked with various musicians that came and went throughout the course of the next several years.
In 2010, a visit from former Big Wreck guitarist and friend, Brian Doherty would lead to a reuniting of forces. Thornley explains, “I didn’t just miss playing with him, as I did simply just miss his friendship. We were like brothers, the way we got along. He came out to visit and catch a Thornley show, and at that time, another show was added to the tour unexpectedly. Our guitarist, Paulo couldn’t do it…he was off on his honeymoon. Brian just piped up and said sure, he’d do it. It wasn’t weird or uncomfortable – it felt completely natural to have him there.”
Doherty officially joined the band as their third guitarist and fifth member. In 2011, a label change to Anthem/SRO Records allowed Thornley free reign to dig deeper and take bigger risks in his songwriting. “There were so many things we wanted to try”, he adds, “so we started experimenting more and did whatever we could get away with”. Initially against the idea, Thornley finally gave into changing the band name back to Big Wreck, and have since released two glorious albums, Albatross (2012), and Ghosts (2014).
Throughout the past 20 years, Thornley’s distinct songwriting formula of textures, layering, and the use of various musical styles has remained the common denominator in all his work. He pulls from a stockpile of his own and shared ideas, which get woven into songs that are full of different flavours.
“It’s finding the right place for them, and then they get turned into a tune.” Influences from Zeppelin to the Beatles, classic and modern progressive and neo-progressive styles, different shades of jazz and blues, make up the many colours the music delivers. Drops into half-time tempo, contrasts of hard into soft, counterpoint melodies, minor to major progressions, various guitar solo stylings, lush and at times very ethereal vocal harmonies, further add to the music’s pure listening enjoyment. Like a box of chocolates, each song contains a different center, with twists, tangents and surprises inside each one. And then there’s the Thornley voice – wide-ranged and flexible, with the ability to sing clean or harder edged, along with occasional flips into his falsetto that mark his signature style.
The show was a wonderful compilation of tunes from past and present. Thornley shared his belief in the importance of giving the fans what they came for. “You can’t be too selfish and just play all the new stuff. When I go see a band, I like to hear those songs that I know and love.” And he certainly kept his word, having pulled out “That Song”, early into the set. Thornley spoke to the enthusiastic crowd intermittently, and thanked Ottawa for coming out on a school night.
I was extremely impressed with “War Baby” (Ghosts), a beautifully crafted interpretation of Tom Robinson’s 1983 hit. It began with a steady, pulsing heartbeat, and a gorgeous melancholy guitar solo by Thornley. I loved its tribal beat and the half time drops to the resounding choruses of powerful vocal harmonies. It was a lush, atmospheric masterpiece. The ending flowed directly into “Albatross” (Albatross), where Thornley donned his double-neck and went over to Doherty’s side during the intro. His soulful voice filled the room, and brought the house to one of several standing ovations of the evening.
I also enjoyed the constant driving rhythm and haunting melody of “Ghosts” (Ghosts), elaborated with a seriously grooving bass solo intro by Dave McMillan, which included a blip of Queen’s, “Another One Bites The Dust”. It also featured Thornley, who switched to his Strat to play a very cool “Stevie Ray”-like blues guitar solo. Similar surprises would include the cover intro of “Another Brick In The Wall” which led straight into one of my personal favourites, “Ladylike” (The Pleasure And The Greed), with a great guitar solo by Paulo Neta. Another began with a piece of Peter Gabriel’s 1980 protest song, “Biko”, before it naturally delved into “Blown Wide Open”.
This segment of the show ended with “Hey Mama” (Ghosts), a song I’d been waiting for in silent anticipation. I loved it’s raw, to-the-bone southern rock/blues feel, contrasted by exotic modes, and more of these ethereal vocal harmonies sung by Thornley, Doherty, and Neta. It was another symphonic piece of brilliance, that worked its way to a dramatic crescendo, which included the boys walking off the stage, leaving their instruments behind to reverberate in feedback.
After relentless cheering, the crowd was granted two encore songs, the first of which featured guitarist Paulo Neto on lead vocals, who did his best Bon Scott on “Highway To Hell”. The last song of the night, “The Oaf”, was very well placed. It left the crowd with that bit of instant familiarity of the early days of Big Wreck, and the very song that catapulted their career. This is a band that even after 20 years, seem to be just getting started. I realized this was one of the best and most talented rock bands I’d ever seen, as I left the building and went into the cold night…their music still fresh in my mind all the way home.