Saskatchewan rockers The Northern Pikes played to a sold-out crowd at the National Music Centre on Saturday night. Their eclectic two-hour set included a mix of familiar CanCon hits and surprising deep cuts.
Blending classic rock, country, and alternative, Northern Pikes songs alternate between glib anthems for disaffected youth, earnest love ballads, and dour political commentary.
2017 marked the 30th anniversary of their debut Big Blue Sky, which they commemorated with a sprawling re-release featuring a 1986 live set and an album’s worth of previously unreleased material.
“Essentially, a new Northern Pikes album recorded thirty years ago,” explained singer and bassist Jay Semko.
Speaking of, the Pikes are currently recording new music at one of the NMC’s on-site recording studios. “It’s as good as, if not better, than anywhere else we’ve recorded in the world,” Semko raved.
The venue’s intimate performance hall was a fitting showcase for the Northern Pikes’ mix of tight musicianship, distinctive vocal melodies, and gregarious stage presence.
The first half of their set was made up of Big Blue Sky-era tunes. The highlight was their early single “Teenland,” which Semko said was the band’s “least understood song.”
The “spooky,” “dissonant” track (partially inspired by James Bond) is often misinterpreted as a nostalgic “oh, the joys of youth” anthem, Semko said. However, he explained, “It was actually looking back at a time that was pretty tough.”
After a brief intermission, the Pikes returned with a strong selection of songs from their later releases. The setlist included singles “Hopes Go Astray,” “Wait For Me,” “Girl with a Problem,” and “Dream Away,” as well as the mellow “It’s a Good Life” from their 2003 album of the same name.
It was a nostalgic evening, both for the audience and the performers. Semko frequently stopped to reminisce on the group’s early days, including his successful attempt to poach guitarist Bryan Potvin from another local band.
“He’s one of the most interesting guitarists I have ever played with,” Semko said of his longtime bandmate.
Rocking a bright orange double-necked Gretsch, Potvin repeatedly proved him right. His guitar work, which ranged from no-nonsense rock riffs to atmospheric solos that would make The Edge jealous, was one of the best parts of the show.
A pair of lovely solo performances by touring guitarist Kevin Kane, known for his work with The Grapes of Wrath, added a few welcome melancholy touches to the night.
Kane also inadvertently led a chorus of jeers against a Canadian music icon. Introducing his “All the Things I Wasn’t,” Kane happened to mention that the track had been nominated for a Juno Award (Single of the Year) in 1990, but had lost out to Alannah Myles. To his shock, the audience began booing.
“It wasn’t her fault!” Kane cried, a look of horror on his face.
“I guess we’re not playing ‘Black Velvet,’” Potvin chimed in.
“You knew we weren’t going anywhere!”
The final song of the night was the Pikes’ 1990 hit “She Ain’t Pretty,” which I believe to be the greatest Canadian rock song ever written. (Among other witty lines, it includes the brilliant couplet “She said, ‘Take me home and I won’t be no fuss’ / I said, ‘Sure, you got some change for the bus?’”)
Saturday’s rollicking live version turned the song into a medley, with snippets of “Highway to Hell,” Aerosmith’s “Draw The Line,” and an audience singalong of Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” interspersed between verses.
It was a perfect ending to a show that managed to be both nostalgic and surprising.
Performer: The Northern Pikes
Venue: National Music Centre, Calgary
Date: February 10/2018