Red Earth is a record built on stable, elemental musical foundations.
I’m more of a listen-to-records-at-home than a go-out-to-a-gig person. I prefer the one-to-one conversation with recorded music over the communal concert experience, but I have gone to shows over the years that have felt just as intimate as listening to a record. The first show to ever leave an indelible impression on me happened on Saturday, August 18, 1990. The venue was Toronto’s Massey Hall; the concert was a benefit show presented by the Toronto Disarmament Network billed as No Time To Waste. Andrew Cash opened the night, and Blue Rodeo headlined, debuting songs from their soon-to-be-released third album, Casino. It is Crash Vegas, who performed second on the night’s bill, that continues to linger in my memory eighteen years later.
Red Earth Crash Vegas’s debut album, was a year old at the time. My best friend (in attendance at the show with me) had nearly worn his cassette copy out. He was an ardent fan while I was a casual admirer, learning the songs through osmosis and exposure (he had his driver’s licence and access to his parent’s car, ergo he controlled the tape deck). In hindsight, all the ingredients for a transformative experience were present: it was my first time at the venerable Massey Hall; the air was charged with political activism and the sense of higher purpose; the songs of Red Earth were already familiar to me. Once Crash Vegas took to the stage, everything else dropped away. The restless audience and the cramped balcony seats stopped being a bother, allowing the band and I to have the kind of one-to-one conversation I had only ever experienced with recorded music. That show forever changed my relationship with Red Earth.
Alt-country before the term was even coined, Red Earth is a record built on a stable, elemental foundation. Earth, sky, smoke, and rain all figure lyrically and figuratively in its eleven songs. On the opening title track, the band leaves space in the arrangement for the imagery and emotions evoked by Michelle McAdorey’s lyrics to play out like the film the song references. Moored by the interplay of bassist Jocelyne Lanois and guitarist Colin Cripps, McAdorey is free to let her expressive delivery go where it wants, from hushed, low-to-the-ground ruminations to skyscraping, full-throated highs. The Cripps/McAdorey-penned “Sky” is a spirited (if somewhat sombre) exercise in textures and dynamics, as is the jazzy “I Gave You My Heart”, wherein Lanois and McAdorey dance seductive circles around each other; the former providing the track with its bouncy rhythm, the latter’s cadence matching the bassist note-for-note.
It is often difficult to capture the live dynamic of a band in a studio setting, and while Malcolm Burn’s production work on Red Earth highlights the band’s tightness, seeing McAdorey and Cripp’s live interactions gave these familiar songs a new depth. I can’t listen to their cover of Neil Young’s “Down To The Wire” or the mandolin-led “Inside Out” without imagining the pair musically bobbing and weaving together on stage. And though I always found “Smoke” to be Red Earth’s most tender and heartbreaking track, hearing it now, I think back to that night and imagine Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor, founding member of Crash Vegas and the song’s co-writer, standing in the wings, watching McAdorey (his ex), break every heart in Massey Hall with her warm and generous performance.
I had certain expectations of that August weekend back in 1990, and falling in love with Crash Vegas and Red Earth wasn’t one of them. (The main attraction that weekend was Sinéad O’Connor, who I saw play at Exhibition Place the night before the Massey Hall show.) Funny what time does to memories. It wasn’t until I started working on this post that I even remembered that fact. What time hasn’t diminished or changed is my affection for Red Earth and the special memories it still conjures for me all these years later.