Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Top Ten Campfire Singalong Songs - by Alex James

Ah, summertime. Beers on the patio, attractive women parading about in varying degrees of undress, and for the more adventurous of us – camping. Now I'm not talking about real camping – the trip I just took bears little in common with the kind of camping experiences I've had in the past (which basically equates to “drinking in the woods”) but I still hold a special place in my heart for those lazy evenings spent tending an amateur bonfire, consuming unhealthy amounts of whiskey and strumming my guitar with my friends singing along. So today, in tribute to those simple, happy times, I present a very special Best Of list: the top ten Campfire Songs as chosen by my various Correspondents from Turning Down the Suck, State of Affairs and beyond.

House of the Rising Sun (The Animals)

Nothing speaks to a song's staying power like the number of times it's covered by other acts, particularly if nobody has any real idea who wrote the thing to begin with and therefore gives credit to the most successful of the apers – in this case that term is exceptionally clever since the band most credited is English outfit The Animals. But the list hardly stops there: “Rising Sun” has been covered by dozens of other artists including Bob Dylan, Nina Simone, Shawn Mullins, Bachman Turner Overdrive and even Muse. With that many versions of the same tune floating around it's a guaranteed crowd pleaser because everyone around the fire has heard at least one of them about a million times. The only kicker? Getting everybody to agree on the gender of the song's narrator – turns out the infamous House has been the ruin of many a poor girl and boy in its time. Deciding this early on will also determine whether the gamblin' man is his father or her sweetheart.

Hey Jude (The Beatles)

No singalong anywhere would be complete without at least one obligatory Beatles tune, and John and Paul's ballad entreating the titular character to “take a sad song and make it better” has a big group wind-up at the end that ensures it a place on this list. The chords are pretty easy if you avoid the major sevenths (depends how drunk you are) and when it comes to singing along it doesn't matter how drunk anybody is – as far as lyrics go, it's extremely difficult to screw up “nah nah nah nah” and it still sounds pretty awesome even if nobody can agree on what key to sing it in. My advice? Just pour another drink and sing louder. The rest of the campers in the park will definitely thank you for it.

Sweet Caroline (Neil Diamond)

This song is perhaps the most ubiquitous of all campfire songs, ever, thanks largely due to that Labatt commercial from a few years back. You remember the one: some loser serenading his obviously-disinterested girlfriend when suddenly all manner of colourful characters emerge from the woods to join in the chorus. At least, I assume that was what made it so popular, because at the end of the day “Sweet Caroline” isn't actually that great a song, nor does it have much to do with camping – granted, most of the songs on this list don't have much to do with camping either, but this saccharine pop number is probably unique in its mediocrity given it was written by Neil “What Else Has He Done Recently” Diamond. Doesn't matter though; as long as you can get through the “bap-bap-baaaa” part you'll probably enjoy it.

Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)

Also known as one of the very few Pink Floyd songs people who aren't into Pink Floyd will actually know the words to. Also known as one of the very few Pink Floyd songs people who aren't David Gilmour can actually play on an acoustic guitar. Everyone has at least one stoner friend who will insist on dragging out this hoary old chestnut either by manhandling your guitar away from you and awkwardly trying to strum the tune while keeping hold of their gorilla-finger joint, or else by reaching for the sonorous ethereal harmonies and not quite making it, giving the whole thing a decidedly minor-key feel of impending doom. Oh, and they'll probably do the wind noise at the end by making ridiculous pucker-lips and eagerly blowing smoke in your face.

Wheat Kings (The Tragically Hip)

Since Drinking in the Woods is a fundamentally Canadian practice right alongside consuming maple syrup direct from the tree before cutting it down and using the wood to build a canoe, it stands to reason that campfire singalongs have to include mandatory Canadian content. And you'd be hard-pressed to find a more suffocatingly, moose-lovingly, leaf-wearingly, Molson-drinkingly Canadian outfit than the Tragically Hip. I was torn on which of their ballady acoustic numbers to include on this list since they constitute most of the Hip's catalogue; I almost went with “Bobcaygeon” just to hammer the True North Strong And Free backslapping even further into your moist frontal cortexes, but instead I chose “Wheat Kings” because the studio version of the song actually samples the ambient sounds of the woods. And it still mentions Prime Ministers and the CBC (and the song is about David Milgaard), which are all so principally Canadian they could only be outdone by the entire band appearing in a film cameo as a curling team. Oh, wait.

And It Stoned Me (Van Morrison)

Van Morrison has always been synonymous with the outdoors to me. My dad turned me on to Van when I was a small child; he recounted stories of listening to songs like “Into the Mystic” and “It Stoned Me” while sitting on the shores of Hudson's Bay when he lived next to a Manitoba polar bear research station in the 70s. Seriously. But regardless “It Stoned Me” is an ideal campfire track for two major reasons: one, the lyrics don't make any sense (“stoned me just like Jelly Roll”?) and two, the song requires precisely three chords to play through, and when you've consumed enough whiskey to kill an entire den of beavers, you'll be grateful for the simplicity. Besides which, I love this song, and it's my list, so I'm putting it on whether you agree or not. So there.

Mrs. Robinson (Simon and Garfunkel)

This one is recommended for the advanced campfire player only: the guitar parts are considerably more complicated than most of the rest of this list, and most people don't know any of the lyrics other than the chorus involving Jesus. Simon and Garfunkel are almost certain to be on the request list, especially if your fellow campers are any older than about 35, so you'd best be prepared, and if you have your eye on a Mrs. Robinson of your own, this song is guaranteed to impress even the most jaded cougar. By cougar, of course, I refer to a Kim-Cattral-Sex-in-the-City cougar, not the kind who'll leap from the bushes and eat you, guitar and all. I'm in no position to recommend a song that will save you from an untimely death at the hands of a ravenous mountain cat – maybe “The Lion Sleeps Tonight”? You can try it, but I refuse to take responsibility if you come back without a face.

Free Fallin' (Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers)

Before all you nascent rock stars out there start jumping on my head for this – perhaps the most eye-rollingly obvious selection on this entire list – let me preface my choice with the disclaimer that if I never played this song again for as long as I live, you'd have to jackhammer the smile off my corpse. The number of times people request this most famous of Tom Petty's poppy ballad set comes in just ahead of “Sweet Home Alabama” and just behind “The Gambler”, and frankly I'd rather take a cheese grater to my own face than hear any of those three songs again. But even in a campfire setting, for better or worse the guy or girl with the guitar is relegated to “dancing monkey/human jukebox” for the duration, and it's their own damn fault for showing up with an instrument to begin with, so if somebody requests “Free Fallin'” (and they will) you will have no choice but to play it. Life's tough, get a helmet. If, however, somebody has the gall to ask for “Don't Stop Believing” you have my express permission to feed them to the chipmunks.

Sugar Mountain (Neil Young)

As The Mule made abundantly clear to me (and he's entirely in the right), if I didn't include Uncle Neil on this list I would immediately be required to hand in my Canadian Musician badge and then likely be executed for this inexcusable crime. Simply put, there is no scenario in which playing a Neil Young song is inappropriate or unwelcome. Bonus points if you can ape Neil's signature “I sound like somebody's granny” singing voice. I was particularly pleased to find a live version of this song to share with you, dear readers, if for no other reason than it features Uncle Neil in his prime. Check out those mutton chops, will you? Just look at them. They're magnificent. And you too will be this magnificent if you haul out a toe-tapping favourite like “Sugar Mountain”. Well, maybe not quite this magnificent, but if you find yourself being favourably compared in any way to the Godfather of Grunge, you're in august company of the highest order.

The Weight (The Band)

When I first heard of The Band my immediate thought was “golly, they'd better be some kind of amazing outfit if they want to call themselves THE Band”, and after watching Martin Scorsese's absolutely brilliant musical documentary “The Last Waltz” in which The Band is joined on stage by pretty much anybody who's anybody in the mid-70s music scene and proceed to play their asses off for two plus hours, I gladly acknowledged that The Band deserves to be The Band over and above any other Band I'd heard up to that point. “The Last Waltz” is on my list of desert island albums (post coming soon) and I don't see it being usurped anytime in the near future. “The Weight”, better known to amateur classic rock afficionados as “Take A Load Off Fanny”, is one of my all-time favourite songs by The Band, and nicely rounds out my top ten by virtue of being perhaps the most sing-along-able song on this entire list. What made the group windup at the end of “Hey Jude” so much fun is repeated in every chorus of “The Weight” - and there are no fewer than five choruses in the song. If somebody you know can remember every verse, you're guaranteed to win the hearts of not only your own campfire circle, but every campfire in the park. Believe me; I've seen it happen, and there is nothing cooler than an entire provincial park worth of campers screaming “you put the load right on me”. Guaranteed good times.

What Did We Learn?

Obviously this list is a suggestion only; one of the many things I've learned as an impromptu performer over the years is that you have to play to your audience, because as I mentioned, as soon as you pull out the guitar you're automatically Juke Box Man for the rest of the night. A lot of this list heavily favours 70s era rock and ballads, and sometimes you'll get a group who wants to hear something recorded more recently than 30 years ago; you might as well have the likes of “Wonderwall” and “Good Riddance” ready to go on your internal playlist in case somebody's taste in music sucks. But at the end of the day, remember to have fun – campfire singalongs are the kinds of memories you'll carry for a lifetime. Now get out there – the Great Outdoors is waiting.

Alex James is the head writer at State of Affairs, and can regularly be found chasing Will 'o the Wisps through the woods on nights when the moon is full.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010


Mojo, the latest effort by veteran outfit Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, has been a long time in coming - the band's last release was way back in 2002 - but Mojo is well worth the wait. Petty and the band bring every ounce of their diverse and fine-tuned musical talents to this record, and the result is a dynamic marriage of roots-folk, blues and that old-time rock and roll that made Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers a household name.

From the upbeat delta rhythm of "Jefferson Jericho Blues" to the Dire Straits-esque swing sentiments of "Running Man's Bible", from the haunting psychedelia of "The Trip to Pirate's Cove" to the mournful soul of the bookend "Good Enough", the album is very much a musical journey, not just through genre or style, but through the novel's worth of stories Petty has collected in his years on the road. And back on the road he is yet again with a full North American tour. Starting on June 1st in Colorado, and ending October 2nd in California, you can click HERE for all tour dates.

Another song that has to be mentioned is the single "I Should Have Known It." Petty and the Heartbreakers really stripped down to the bare bones for this album, going for a no-nonsense raw sound. They even went as far as recording all instruments simultaneously 'live off the floor' in the studio with no overdubs, and the difference is like night and day. No song represents this sound more than "I Should Have Known It." Through the video they made for the song which showcases the band's "jam space," you can't help but get the feeling this is exactly how they recorded the album together:

Many bands try recording live off the floor and it's a pretty hit/miss recording technique. In the case of Mojo, Tom Petty and his producers got it spot on, and in this writer's humble opinion, this is one of the best sounding live-off-the-floor records I've ever heard. They managed to reproduce their dynamic and energetic live sound successfully, without sacrificing the quality and high production value you get from multi-track recording separately. Well done.

Overall, from start to finish Mojo is a must-have for Heartbreakers fans the world over, but the album's true value will be in introducing a whole new generation to a well-oiled rock and roll machine that - even after more than thirty years of touring - is still producing quality material guaranteed to appeal to music lovers of all stripes.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


This is a recent memory of a really odd incident that occurred. I’m fortunate enough to be given an opportunity to work for bands on tour. I was currently out on the road with the Canadian pop-rock band Faber Drive. A lot of random situations can take place while on tour that make for unforgettable moments. With that being said, this is a story about a senior citizen getting violent and then arrested at one of the shows.

It was a sunny afternoon and we were mid-way through our spring tour. On that day we played in a small town. Like most small towns, it was peaceful with not much going on. The concert was at some community centre featuring multiple rooms. Working for the headlining band, we load in the equipment after lunch and begin setting up for soundcheck to take place immediately after everything is hooked up / in place. Everything was going according to schedule with no problems at all.

At the upstairs part of the venue, the community centre rented out a room to a small group of senior citizens to play card games. We were unaware of that and we still have no idea why this place would be renting out space for the same day a concert was taking place. I’m sure the senior citizens would have never paid for the room if they knew there would be a lot of noise throughout the day.

Mid-way through soundcheck, an old man (who looked like he was probably in his late 60s) walks into the room and points to the band yelling “do you have to play that damn noise so damn loud?!” The Faber Drive guys point to our tour manager who’s at the back of the venue working as a sound technician. As the old man walks toward the back of the room, a locally hired crew guy cuts in and tries to explain the situation. The elderly man didn’t care for the explanation other than wanting dead silence for the rest of the day, and the crew guy's attempts to remedy the situation only made it worse. Crew guy then tried to calm the old guy down and attempted to escort him out of the room to work out a solution. At this point, the disgruntled senior pushed the crew guy away from him and then put up his dukes. As the crew member continued trying to calm him down, the enraged old man suddenly threw a straight punch to crew guy's face that knocked his glasses completely off, then left the room and went back upstairs to his card game. The last thing I expected was a senior citizen to haul off and start smacking around our crew.

Soundcheck is obviously delayed after this to assess what just happened and to let the community centre staff know . The crew guy is all right and sits down holding ice to his cheek to avoid any possible swelling. The staff members of the centre are in shock after we explained the altercation. They then proceeded to immediately call the police to handle the situation since it was clearly a case of assault.

When the police came, they analyzed the situation and spoke to all the witnesses. From there, they proceeded upstairs to confront the elderly man. The officers waited outside of the room where the old man was having his card game with his friends and told him to come out. He refused to listen and continued on as if nothing had happen. After multiple attempts, the officers went inside to confront him. After still trying to talk to the old man, the only response back was a bunch of cursing. The officers then tried to escort him out of the room, only to have him resist. The old man actually tried to fight the officers too.

No one really got to see the outcome of the cops vs. the old man; all we saw after that was the man’s face being blooded up as the officers took him outside to the car. No surprise – trying to physically attack an officer is not the smartest thing to do.

Even though it was really inconvenient and put the entire day really behind schedule, it made for a funny and memorable story. No one would ever expect any sort of violence at a Faber Drive concert which makes it even better. If you’ve never heard of the band, check them out below to see what I’m talking about.

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