Have you ever let the inevitably bleak future affect the way you take in a fantastic concert? I rigorously fought against this phenomenon just over a year ago. Back in October of 2017, Hey Rosetta!, one of the finest bands to emerge from the east coast, announced that they would embark upon an indefinite “hiatus”. The scare quotes seem necessary, because thirteen months on from their final shows in Toronto and St. John’s, the probability of Elvis rising again seems likelier than Tim, Adam, Josh, Phil, Kinley, Romesh, and Mara reuniting. At least in the near future anyway.
It has taken me this long to gather my thoughts and figure out how to put them into proper words. Favourite bands of mine have broken up, both amicably and uncivilly, but I hold none in the same regard as Hey Rosetta!. They toiled in their craft for just over a dozen years, ever since frontman Tim Baker returned home to St. John’s in 2005 with various piano and acoustic guitar compositions, seeking to craft arrangements for a full band. Now that most of the members of the group are nearing their late 30s, other interests, home life, and family matters have taken precedence over the monotonous touring schedule; it’s hard to blame them for that. Upon reading the band’s hiatus statement that fateful day in October, I felt despair and sadness that their time together was coming to a (hopefully) temporary end, but also an intense need to obtain a ticket to see them at least one more time.
Tickets for the show sold out remarkably quickly. Like the cyber-prisoners that we are (“in a tent for 12, fingers and elbows and innocent ribs”), fans jockeyed for whatever tickets we could secure, hoping we wouldn’t be left empty-handed. Toronto’s Mod Club was supposed to host the band for three consecutive nights from December 17th to the 19th, but demand for tickets required accommodations be moved to the larger Phoenix. Relief! More occupancy.
I snatched two tickets to the first concert, one for me and the other for a dear friend whose family introduced me to Hey Rosetta!’s music shortly after their second album, Into Your Lungs, hit the shelves in 2008. Rich Aucoin was wrapping up his colourful and confetti-infused set just as we arrived, settling into a spot in the middle of the floor. We mumbled our apologies while jostling for a spot in which we could see the full ensemble, my friend’s six-foot-five frame towering above the less fortunate.
As we awaited the band to take the stage before a sold-out crowd, I did some reflecting on all of the experiences I’ve had with their music. The beautiful thing about Hey Rosetta! is that you can listen to them in any mental state, delve into their music in a variety of differing moods, and emerge from your experience changed in some way. I was a scrawny 17-year-old the first time I saw the group live in North Bay, Ontario in 2011. The jet-black clouds pissed down rain upon the few-hundred brave souls who sought to stay for the group’s forty-minute set, wedged in between The Sheep Dogs and City and Colour. I had been a fan for a couple years at that point, and the very same friend who was at the Phoenix show with me was in North Bay as well. Soaked to the bone, we braved the storm and still reflect on that evening every now and again, reminiscing how Tim kicked puddles at us during “Young Glass”, and how easy it was for us to ask security to let us backstage to have a lengthy and willing chat with the group as they packed up their gear.
That’s just it; the warmth and kindness recycled from fans to band and back to fans is palpable. No matter how big a fan I’ve claimed to be, the other 1300 or so bodies packed tightly into the Phoenix that night have their own visceral memories of Hey Rosetta! to varying degrees. Everybody in the crowd felt a sense that they had to brave the emotions of saying goodbye to a beloved group amidst the beauty of their live performance. The future was bleak and dreary for us fans, but the show ahead of us had to be enjoyed. As the band took the stage amidst a giant roar from us Toronto faithful, they brought with them a sense of calm serenity, easing the turbulent waters of said dreary future. “And with one last easy laugh, the night released”.
With four studio albums and five extended plays (including the ever-cherished A Cup of Kindness Yet Christmas EP — a staple of their annual holiday shows), Hey Rosetta! had quite the repertoire of favourites to delve into for these farewell performances. They opened with “New Goodbye”, the first song off their second record. It’s a song about leaving the rock that is their homeland and extending their arms out to the rest of the world (“and we’re taking our aging lives and we’re waving a new goodbye, our arms open wide”). There was a collective sense that they’d be diving into a variety of different eras and albums that night.
As soon as the band stepped away for a brief intermission, the screen to the side of the stage began playing a montage of home-movie footage filmed by Phil that featured highlights from tours over a decade ago. Clocking in at just over seven minutes, the band returned to the stage at the video’s culmination, diving into another set of straight goodness, playing songs from each of the four studio albums and a couple from A Cup of Kindness Yet. After departing the stage once again, the imminent encore chants were up in the air “like a bird on the breeze”. The band returned, showcasing a stripped down a cappella version of “A Thousand Suns”, a song about giving thanks to those who have aided them in their musical blossoming — “We want to thank you so much!”. They closed out the show with their final recording, a cover of Ben E. King’s masterpiece, “Stand by Me” (more meaningful than ever), and just like that, the show ended. We came eager, giddy, and hopeful, and left drenched in sweat, hoarse, and satisfied. The sadness I feared would plague me if my mind deviated from the precious moments were instead conquered by joy and beauty. That said, I didn’t want it to end. So I didn’t let it; I scalped a ticket for the final Toronto send-off two nights later.
The final Toronto show had a more palpable sense of goodbye, of departure, and of loss, but in a triumphant way. It was marginally warmer outside than it had been the previous few evenings, and I secured a spot near the front after waiting for nearly two hours outside the Phoenix in just a long sleeve shirt, slightly more sober than I had been on Sunday. This was officially my last chance to bid their live show adieu, for there was no way my bank account could handle an impromptu trip to St. John’s to see them off properly.
The show, of course, was excellent. It was more enjoyable for me personally, knowing what to expect setlist-wise, and because I had better prepared myself better for the official “new goodbye”. A tremendous ovation swelled at the end of “Stand by Me”, and a few of the band members lingered around the stage or near the merch table to give hugs and connect with some faces that dotted the crowds for over a decade. Three nights later, at Mile One in their hometown, Hey Rosetta! took to the stage for the last time (for now). Countless spectators fixed their cameras and cellphones on Tim as he struggled to sing “Stand by Me”, choking up and wiping the tears from his eyes, holding the microphone out for the audience to carry the song onwards. It’s rather devastating, but at the same time, as the group took their final bows and Phil tossed his drumsticks into the clutter of passionate patrons, there lingers a sense that as open as their arms were when they first left Newfoundland, the rest of Canada was eager to catch them as their music took seed. That seed would grow and spread into the United States, Europe, Australia and beyond, and one can only imagine how much more their legend will grow as this “hiatus” continues. We’ll all just continue to stand by them and support them as individuals, with open arms, reaching out for it…