It's hard to imagine that a band like Babe Ruth who have been out of the spotlight for an incredible thirty five years, would even ponder the idea of making a comeback after all this time. This classic rock outfit from the U.K. might have only been around for a relatively short period in the 70's (1972-75) but to many serious rock fans their debut album First Base ranks as an all-time classic. That first record incidentally also managed to connect with the hearts of many Canadian music fans, which as a result garnered them their first gold record abroad. Armed with an absolutely stellar new album Que Pasa, one that features all of the original members, it seemed only fitting that Babe Ruth would formally launch their return to the live arena with a series of three Canadian dates in Ottawa, Ontario (July 9th) , Montréal, Québec (July 10th) and Mont Tremblant, Québec (July 11th). Sea of Tranquility writer Ryan Sparks was on hand for the band's return to Montréal and brings us this full concert review.
The band arrived in Ottawa mid week and after some serious rehearsals were out of the way they hammered out a short set at a small club across the river in Aylmer Québec the evening prior to their first official gig at the Ottawa Blues Festival. By all accounts that outdoor show was well attended and things went off without a hitch so spirits had to have been high as they rolled into Montréal for their show at the Metropolis.
The highly touted local progressive / instrumental band Karcius was chosen to open the evening's festivities. While I wasn't familiar with their material going in I have to admit that their forty minute set of jazzy, progressive rock was intriguing to say the least. However, their biggest response of the night wasn't for one of their own compositions, it came after a sizzling rendition of Pink Floyd's "Dogs" which featured some pretty impressive guitar work from Simon L'Espérance.
After a thirty minute intermission the moment that diehard fans had been waiting for all these years had finally arrived. Before the group had even played a note, fans were on their feet as they made their way onstage. I had the pleasure of interviewing vocalist Janita Haan back in 2007 before the physical release of Que Pasa and I distinctly remember winding up our phone conversation by telling her that I hoped to see the band back on this side of the pond one day. At the time I have to admit that I probably wouldn't have bet the house that they would have been able to make it happen, and yet here they were three years later actually taking their places behind their respective instruments.
It all felt a bit surreal but the instant surge of adrenaline as the band kicked into "A Fistful of Dollars" jolted me back to reality in a hurry. While I thought this track was a solid choice for an opening number it puzzled me a bit as to why Janita was off to the side of the stage behind bassist Dave Hewitt for the duration of the song. If you're going to open with an instrumental why put your vocalist out there if she's got nothing to do? When you consider that the band followed this up by diving straight into a ripping version of "Wells Fargo", had she stayed out of sight for the instrumental and appeared onstage just as guitarist Alan Shacklock was tearing into that signature opening riff on "Wells" I think it would have made for a more dramatic entrance. Anyway I digress, because it was definitely a potent one two punch to kick off the evening and for the next hour and half the band had the crowd eating out of their hands as they deftly blended the old classics with songs off of the new record.
Considering that this was only their second official gig if there was any rust to get out it wasn't showing on this night. As Shacklock and Haan executed their vocal tradeoffs on "Joker" I had to pinch myself for a minute to make sure it was all really happening. The last song off of First Base has always been one of my favorites, but to watch them effortlessly pull it off live was definitely one of the true highlights of the evening for me. From there they slid right into a rousing version of "Dancer" off their self titled album from 1975 before injecting the first of four new songs into the set with "The Blues". If there were ever any doubts as to whether or not Janita's voice would still be able to cut the mustard I think they were promptly thrown out the window after she absolutely nailed her vocals on "Black Dog". Her performance was absolutely spot on and if anything it proved that she hasn't lost one ounce of her trademark vocal power.
The anticipation level was high around the half way mark as the band launched into their instrumental cover of Frank Zappa's "King Kong". However, before keyboardist extraordinaire Dave Punshon and Shacklock could lock horns, stretch out a bit and Alan could even take his solo, his amp suddenly cut out on him. Punshon was left to improvise a little bit as he extended his electric piano solo while the crew desperately scrambled to fix Alan's amplifier. In the end it was the amp of Simon L'Espérance from Karcius that came to the rescue, unfortunately it took the entire duration of the song to get Alan back up and operational, which must have been as disappointing for him as it was for the crowd who were probably as eager as I was to witness some musical fireworks between the two musicians. "Mother Tongue" off of Que Pasa came off a bit flat, but the band quickly recovered by serving up a back to back helping of two of the strongest tracks off the new record "Break For The Border" and "Sun, Moon & Stars". These two songs are nothing less than a true return to the bands signature sound as Punshon and Shacklock play the dual harmony lines in perfect unison, something the band was never able to successfully replicate in the past with previous keyboard players Chris Holmes and Steve Gurl back in the 70's. The band sealed the deal on the evening with what else, their signature song "The Mexican" from First Base.
After a brief moment offstage to catch their breath their first encore was a pleasant surprise as they tore into the old blues staple "I'm Ready". Shacklock fired off some wicked solos while Janita once again proved why she is considered one of the best female vocalists in the business. If the first encore was a serendipitous moment then the second encore was a bit of a head scratcher as they went right back to "The Mexican". Now this isn't the first time a band has played the same song twice in the same show, but considering they had just played it less than ten minutes ago, it definitely wasn't expected. I understand that the band hadn't rehearsed any more material but that being said what was stopping them from having another go at "King Kong"?
All in all though minus those few minor qualms that I mentioned, plus the fact that the show wasn't even close to being sold out, I have to say that Babe Ruth definitely delivered the goods and then some. They promised an evening of hits and they didn't disappoint. Hell they played every track off of First Base minus "The Runaways" which probably wouldn't have come across well in a live setting anyway. Each one of these musicians is supremely talented in their own right, but when they come together like they did on Saturday night, after thirty five years apart, and they are able to rekindle that magic like it was never lost in the first place, well that is not only something very special, it's also very rare. Here's hoping that this ride continues because Babe Ruth is as vital now as they ever have been. They are a true force to be reckoned with.
- Ryan Sparks
Photo courtesy of Roch Parisien