You probably haven’t heard of the Rheostatics before, but you probably know at least one band influenced by them. They were part of the same late 1980s and early 1990s Ontario indie scene that was brimming with talent like the Tragically Hip and the Barenaked Ladies. Formed in Etobicoke, they became one of the most eclectic and creative bands of Canadian history.
I had the pleasure of seeing the Rheostatics twice before, but neither were at what you’d call traditional venues. In 2015, I saw them play their 1995 album commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada, Music Inspired by the Group of Seven, in its entirety, and at the Art Gallery of Ontario no less. The following year I saw them play at Toronto’s venerable Massey Hall, where although the show was great, I was trapped in an incredibly uncomfortable wooden seat for three hours. So when I saw that they were playing at Maxwell’s on Nov. 24, I eagerly looked forward to witness them in a more intimate and traditional setting.
The opener was Bird City of Guelph, a folksy project of Jenny Mitchell with alternating banjo and guitar accompanied by drums and bass (and for one song, a melodica). They had a very toned-down, minimalist feel, and after playing the entirety of recent album Winnowing they ended with a solo ballad to salvage diving in the Great Lakes.
Rheostatics then took the stage and played an over two hour set. Besides the classics like “Claire” (their only Top 40 hit), “California Dreamline,” and “Legal Age Life At Variety Store” (featuring two verses sung by audience member volunteers), they also added some new songs to the mix showing the band had truly gotten back together after a decade of one-off reunion shows. They ended it with a huge encore of four or five songs that I never would have expected.
Although the age of the crowd trended older than the typical Maxwell’s show and about two-thirds had seen them before, there were still many students in the audience. It’s nice to see that they will not be forgotten by younger generations.
One of my favourite things about the Rheos is that they all have something to offer to songwriting and every member contributes their own taste in music. One song will be country-tinged folk rock while the next will be heavy, psychedelic, progressive rock.
It’s great that such a living contributor to Canadian music history like the Rheostatics is still around and inspiring people with their unique sound.