First and foremost, let me get it out of the way: somewhere along the line in the past few years, I became a hipster (of sorts; let me explain).
Whereas I once approached all music with open ears, giving anything that lumbered through my field of hearing a fair shot, these days I couldn’t be bothered with most (almost all) of the music I encounter on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps I’d simply lost faith in most of the music that was coming at me, instead seeking out more interesting stuff on my own or by recommendation.
And oh what music there is, both in our offline world and that other one, the one many of us spend more and more time in these days.
So many bands, so many influences and styles that I’ve been exposed to (or have exposed themselves to me – you know who you are, and I haven’t forgotten) that have given me a deeper appreciation of the music that I do listen to. But in my aural journeys – which, if read aloud, just sounds like a bit of softcore that’d play on late-night City TV back in the nineties – I had lost track of something. I wasn’t even sure what it was, or maybe that it was even missing in the first place, but it was indeed gone.
It was bad. I took (if I’m being honest, take) pleasure in my ignorance when someone would ask me if I knew a song or artist off the top 40. The corner of my mouth would turn up in that ‘I don’t care’ sneer, perhaps followed by a snooty “I don’t really listen to the radio, but sure.”
Just awful, I know.
Whenever I encountered the radio for any length of time, I could feel the disdain dripping out my ears and down my neck in warm, reeking trails. You’d be surprised that I could hear anything at all over the muffling sound of my own sense of self-importance.
Hopefully this explains why, when I was heading to Hugh’s Room a few weeks ago, I wasn’t particularly excited to go see Justin Hines perform at the release party for his new album How We Fly.
My parents had invited me to go see it with them. They’re big Hines fans, and my mum has been on-and-off trying to get me into his music. She’d play something for me on her iPad occasionally, but I can’t really get absorbed into the music off tinny speakers in a living room. My only real exposure to Hines prior to that night had been one or two of his more ‘sweetly serenading’ tunes, which for the most part have not traditionally been my musical cup o’ tea (regardless of who’s singing them).
So I smoke a cigarette outside Dundas West station after a long, annoying day at work (listening to the same four songs from the top 40 played all day – am I right, dishwashers?) and wait for my family to arrive. Hey, there’s a dinner in it for me and it’ll make my mum really happy. Why not?
Shortly after this fatalistic shrug of the shoulders, I would walk out of Hugh’s Room holding the pieces of a shattered ego in my bag. That is, along with the eight pieces of fish I was able to snatch from work to freeze for emergency-poverty-dinners (score!) later.
Fast forward to after dinner. Hines takes the stage with his band, and immediately you can feel how dynamic his presence is. Prior to his performance, he’s at a nearby table entertaining fans; shaking hands, taking the occasional picture, all the while with a subdued smile that I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds very endearing. The modest tone doesn’t disappear when he gets onstage, either. Hines strikes me as a performer who’s very much in control of the room. His speaking voice is just as genuine as his smile, and the audience seems to know this. Over the course of his set, he cracks jokes effortlessly, real laughter breaking through from time to time.
Did I mention that Hines has Larsen Syndrome? It’s a disorder that affects the joints, meaning that when Hines gets to the stage, he does so in a wheelchair that he’ll use for the rest of his life. When he takes the mic to talk or sing, he does so with only a couple of fingers, the rest curled into his palm. Apparently, in order to sing for How We Fly, Hines had to learn a new technique for his singing due to further complications of Larsen’s. You’d never notice – he sounds like an old hand at it.
It’s around this point that I start to feel like a real asshole for thinking I have problems of any magnitude. Confronted with this man, so burdened but unbowed, I nudge the bag of fish at my feet and mentally roll my eyes at Past Me. What a dick.
So then Hines and the band launch into their set. I’m immediately blown away. Even if I hadn’t just been reminded that I could have much bigger problems than I do, the sheer quality of their sound just makes me feel better. Even inspires me.
I’m a fan of bands with personality. I could name a few, but maybe the best and most relevant example is Eclectic Revival, a Toronto-based Celtic band. I mention them specifically because ER has a habit of spending as much time bantering with each other and the crowd as they do playing their songs. I get a similar impression from Hines; although he spends far less time speaking than the lovable oafs (and oafette) of ER, I feel like there’s a lot of context in his interactions with the audience that I’m not privy to. Inside jokes, things like that. My mum and dad chuckle along with many others in the crowd at references I don’t get (who’s the hipster now?) and there’s a real sense of belonging.
It works. Even as a relative stranger here, I feel like I’m at an Italian family dinner and they’ve made me an honorary cousin for the night. It’s only when the band starts to play that I realize this show is much, much more than just a free dinner and some tunes.
Justin Hines makes me believe in the blues again.
I love the blues. I played bass in high school, and my favourite tracks by far to play with the jazz band were blues. There’s just something there that many other genres lack. It’s hard to describe – for me, anyway. That being said, I had lost my faith in contemporary blues long ago. I don’t claim to be particularly well-versed on the subject, and I certainly haven’t searched for any contemporary bands with anything approaching vigor. But the fact remains is that for years, I believed that the blues had lost its balls.
It seems to me that whenever I encounter the blues, it’s being played by enthusiasts. People who, to paraphrase George Carlin, had no business singing them in the first place. It struck me as the #firstworldproblems of musical pain. I couldn’t recall a time where I’d heard someone play under the same crushing conditions as the people who birthed that sound.
Well, the fact of the matter is that Hines is a man under the weight of a crushing condition. Just like Robert Johnson and his ilk, Hines is a slave, sometimes treated like a second-class citizen (don’t believe me? Ask somebody in a wheelchair how easy it can be to use Toronto’s transit system). Just like them, he is shackled to his fate. Just like them, Hines chooses to achieve, to be happy, to love, to sing and scream and share his incredible talent with the world.
Justin Hines has, in my opinion, given the blues its balls back.
I don’t want to give the impression that the only reason I enjoyed the music that evening, or the only reason I consider Hines talented, is because of Larsen’s. Being the cynical dick that I am, if I’d been less than (incredibly) impressed with their sound, I’d might’ve thought something about gimmicks or playing on sensibilities. This is most definitely not the case. Hines says that he’s choosing to be more honest these days; when someone asks him how he’s doing, he’s not afraid to say ‘not great’ simply to offer a platitude like ‘I’m fine.’ He asks us to do the same.
My knowledge of Hines only unlocks the suspension of disbelief. Alone, it wouldn’t be enough to chip away at my cynicism to invoke any real feeling. Without his talent to back it up, I don’t think I would’ve been as touched by his music as I was. It applies context to lyrics I don’t normally pay attention to or understand. I don’t pay that much attention to lyrics, mostly only hearing the notes that are sung rather than the words. But it provides a foundation for the feelings he’s sharing through his music. The rest is unlocked with the help of his fantastic band.
Even as I gain appreciation by way of learning about Hines, he does the same for the musicians on stage with him. One by one, he introduces them as people, personalities on stage with him instead of people holding instruments. They’re as much a part of the family in this room as his parents in the audience (they were late to the show – Hines cracks a quick “gee, thanks guys” that gets laughs throughout the crowd). I learn that nobody can pun as well as his pianist, Scott. Rob on drums is “just a guy you really want to know,” Drew on bass is “the most friendly dude ever,” and makes every room bright just by walking into it.
Watching Hines subtly and surely direct them, taking cues from them and vice versa, I can feel the dynamic even more. The way that some singers rock to and fro from the mic, leaning in and pulling back, Hines does it too. Until now, I’ve never seen anyone groove so smoothly from a wheelchair before. Not for the first or last time that night, I smile.
Is he really my age? Hines carries himself with the confidence and surety of a man in his prime. I envy him, but realise that he’d laugh if I told him so. Is he a fellow Gen-Y’er, a contemporary wondering what sort of world he’s growing up in, coming of age in? What are his beliefs, religious or otherwise? I can only make assumptions about that part, so I don’t. He remains relatable despite whatever differences we have, or don’t, in our views of the universe. It’s not important here, anyway. Hines has tapped into something larger than himself, regardless of his beliefs, mine, or anyone else’s.
After the lights come up, the CD’s get autographed, and all of the other post-show stuff, I’m ready to go home. Meeting Hines after the show, he asks how I am. I tell him “I started out not great,” but after his show I’m “getting to OK.” He laughs, and says that means a lot. I believe him.
Outside Hugh’s Room, it’s surprisingly quiet. I hug my family goodbye, and walk to the subway. When I get on, I realise at some point I’d forgotten to plug my headphones in. For context, I try never to ride the abysmal TTC without some sort of sound going through my head. Yet here I sit, in relative silence but for the hollow rush and clatter of the train through the tunnels, and there’s a smile on my face. I keep the silence all the way home. The smile too.
I’ve lost the silence since then. Plenty of music has gone through my brain. New music, old favourites, everything I can get my hands on. All of it heard through new ears, filtered through new context (or without filters, whichever you like better). I’m glad for the lack of silence. I like it sometimes, but these days I think it’s better to have sound that means something than it is to tune everything out. So I don’t really miss the silence all that much. The smile’s still there, though.
One time I had a terrible day, and live music made me feel a lot better. Go figure.