Vancouver Calling: A Tribute to Joe Strummer and The Clash, Electric Owl (928 Main Street, Vancouver), Sunday, Dec. 23 at 8 p.m. Tickets $25 in advance (tickets.capilanou.ca/TheatreManager/1/ login&event=0)/$27 at door, cash only.
IMAGINE putting together an all-star team of top athletes: only, those athletes come from a whole range of different sports and they're playing a game that no one can define.
That would be about the closest comparable thing to the roster Vancouver musician Steve Dawson has put together for Vancouver Calling: A Tribute to Joe Strummer and The Clash.
"The Clash get lumped into the punk scene, but you've got to get beyond that label and listen to their music," says Dawson.
The show is presented as part of the Black Hen Music Series in collaboration with Capilano University at the Electric Owl Dec. 23 to mark the tenth anniversary of Clash frontman Joe Strummer's death.
The Clash pioneered what we know as punk music as part of a larger movement that has been called the greatest youth rebellion since rock 'n' roll bringing non-conformist, anti-establishment values into the mainstream.
People attach words like folk, roots, jazz and blues to him but Dawson - like the Clash - is impossible to define as a producer, songwriter and performer.
Each month, Dawson and his band back somebody different in the Black Hen concert series. This month, that somebody happens to be eight different artists.
Heavy hitters on the Canadian music scene such as Colin James, C.R. Avery, No Sinner's Colleen Rennison, Jim Byrnes, Rich Hope, Craig Northey of the Odds and Mother Mother's Shaun Verreault (along with other guests) hail from genres as diverse as hip-hop, blues, roots, rock and soul. What better way to tackle a band so undefinable?
"We're gonna jump in and get greasy," says Dawson.
Dawson decided he would grab the opportunity and "do something crazy and awesome."
As musical director, Dawson has been mentoring his fellow performers in getting to the bottom of the songs - exploring how each artist interprets the Clash and how such differing acts can engage with the raw material.
The Clash were renowned for doing to other famous songs just what this motley crew are doing to the Clash's songs, boasting an extensive catalogue of covers ranging from Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" to Richard Berry's "Louie Louie."
Genre-bending beat-box poet, punk piano artist and hip-hop harmonica player C.R. Avery may not be squatting in London's vacant flats, but like the Clash his sound evades definition.
"The music biz in the eighties was weird, disco was dying and everyone was clean and safe and then the Clash just came out with this anti-racism, anti-quiet thing. It's inspiring to this day. All that I can do is hold that torch as high as I can," says Avery.
The Clash were inventing a genre with their rebellious, free-thinking melting pot of rhythms and lyrical content, says Avery.
"It's such a bag of blues and folk and hip hop," he says.
Efforts to define The Clash often have them categorized as the proto-punk band although their sound and their roots were as eclectic as Dawson's cast, including reggae, ska, rockabilly, roots and punk.
"They definitely had the middle finger raised so people call them punk," says Avery.
The authentic British version of punk was essentially rock and roll protest music driven by anti-authoritarian values.
"Punk now is like a haircut, before it was a stance," says Avery.
The genre has become something completely different from its 1970s roots. "It's essentially power pop with none of the values that were originally there," says Dawson.
The songwriting is among the things that drew Dawson to The Clash. Held up as songs, the written works transcend time and musical classification.
"When you peel back some layers there are these songs left that are really quite amazing," says Dawson.
A good cover goes beyond playing the same chords that the original artist wrote in the right sequence.
"You can't just do a cover. You go in deep, find something that fits," says Avery.
Dawson principally aims to pick artists for the Black Hen series who are able to bring something new and different to the table.
He will be performing a cover of "Straight to Hell," written about the children of Vietnamese women and American G.I.'s who were left behind after the Vietnam War.
Avery, meanwhile, is tearing the original songs apart and mixing them with Grandmaster Flash; soulful Colleen Rennison will perform songs that suit her voice, while Rich Hope will likely blow the roof off with quintessentially Clash-like renditions.
"These are the Clash songs that you're used to but painted by Frida Kahlo," says Avery.
This won't come across as a tribute show, says Dawson, but rather a group of different musicians playing songs.
Avery looks back to Strummer, Jones, Simonon and Headon for comfort, finding reassurance in predecessors who didn't fit into one box.
He recently finished an album with the Prague Symphony Orchestra and is the artist in residence this month at Vancouver's antique-shop-turned-cafe, The Prop House, where he plays with acts ranging from burlesque dancers to string quartets and jazz bands.
The Clash listened to reggae, Hank Williams, hip-hop and ska and read everything from communist pamphlets to Ernest Hemingway, he says.
"They're kind of a folk band that played really loud," says Avery.
Different musical genres must go through transitional periods where the style is undefinable, until the genre changes or a new one is born - for better or worse.
"What's happened to country?" asks Avery. "God have mercy on our souls."
Avery grows frustrated when burgeoning genre or boundary-pushing artist is likened to other, more accessible artists so that people can relate to the music without challenging the comfort zone of their prior tastes. At every show, someone unfailingly compares Avery to Tom Waits.
"People have lack of imagination. They say 'Oh this is like that,' rather than seeing it for a whole new thing," he says.
Rather, everything is and was a combination: "Ray Charles took gospel chords and put sexy blues lyrics to them and made soul," says Avery.
If Charles had not known both genres, soul wouldn't have been born, says Avery, who has thousands of inspirations from Edith Piaf to Muhammad Ali.
"I'll talk tango, Picasso, Spike Lee, Billie Holiday and Big Mama Thornton."
The Black Hen series provides a venue for artists to put forward music they wouldn't normally play in order to forge new sounds and new ideas.
Because December is the industry's non-touring month, Dawson was able to put together this incredible spectrum of artists who will, without a doubt, "break up the Christmas carols."
Tickets for the show, Sunday, Dec. 23, are $25 in advance and $27 at door (cash only).
Partial proceeds from ticket sales will go to the Vancouver foodbank and non-perishable food items will be collected at the venue.
Doors open at 6 p.m. Showtime 8 p.m.
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