Review: Hawksley Workman at the Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver, October 29th


There's always going to be a certain anxiety about seeing your heroes as people. Seeing your parents and teachers, for example, as living people, is devastating. Being a person instead of some kind of godlike authority means that they have flaws too, and they're probably just figuring it out as they go along too. .. And no one has the secret to being a good person or living life well and oh my god are we all going to die alone and confused? I was really worried about seeing Hawksley Workman in person, because what if he turned out to be a douchebag, and I had to like him less? Worse still, what if he turned out to be boring? I discovered Hawksley Workman in high school, and used to sit outside watching the moon, listening to his songs on my Zune (yes, I had a Zune). What mere human musician could match up to teenage angst being quelled by songs and a moonrise? It would take a hero.


I didn't have very high expectations going in, because one of my friends told me she saw him live once and that he was basically just a drunk mess. Add to that Hawksley's tendency in recent years to wear white tank tops to his shows , and I was sort of expecting the alt indie version of Trailer Park Boys: The Musical. I went with an old friend of mine. We planned the trip together: well, basically, he planned the trip and I gave him money. The one time I tried to contribute to the planning phase, I sprained my ankle falling over while answering his phone call. It was decided that it was safer if I did not help.

We got there an hour early, because we'd already spent all of our money on tattoos and comic books and also we were both soft touches for homeless people who wanted bus tickets. We had had an inordinate amount of beer to drink the night prior, so part of our preshow adventures involved me elegantly retching for five minutes into a storm drain. That ritual complete, we decided that sobriety would be a good state from which to enjoy the show (see also: we gave all of our money to whomever asked us for it).

The entire ballroom was full of people in their forties; "it's like when I saw the Barenaked Ladies in concert", Connor, my companion, noted. A man who looked like Santa had a shirt from Hawksley Workman's first tour in 1999... or maybe it actually was Santa, I've never met the man personally. We parked at the very front of the stage, and when the concert started, we used our elbows to keep us there. I now know what the Romans felt like on the battlefield. For dreamy indie types, Hawksley Workman fans can be quite vicious. Also, they all had spears and battle armour. It was weird. I felt under-dressed.

There were two openers. One was an electronic guy who didn't introduce himself at all. He played dreamy experimental house music with trilly highs and moody lows that would have been great if they hadn't kept maxing out the speakers. At the end of his set, someone shouted, "your family loves you, Dave!" No one was clear on whether this was shouted by Dave's family or whether a kind group of strangers felt the need to remind him. My companion said, "Why are they clapping for the soundcheck?" I corrected him, but also kind of thought he was right.

Next came a talented English singer-songwriter named Fiona Bevan. She had a gorgeous voice, she was warm and had a really cool blonde afro. I didn't particularly like her music because it seemed to be mostly about falling in love and hanging out in London, two things which I've done but not particularly well. Way to rub in your success stories, Fiona.

Hawksley Workman's band finally appeared onstage at about 10:45. Everyone in his band looked exactly as they should. They were all at least in their forties, which satisfying.  Hawksley Workman put out his first album, "For him and the girls", when he was twenty-four. This fact didn't matter to me when I was in high school, but now that I'm in my early twenties, it fills me with a certain existential anxiety. The synth player wore skinny jeans and a long tshirt and looked like he despised everyone. The bass player looked like Alan Davies from the English game show QI and had a ruffled shirt and bellbottoms. The xylophone guy looked like someone who lived in my building in first year. This was shaping up to be excellent.

Hawksley Workman appeared with his toque tucked over his eyes and a white tanktop. I think that his toque was tucked over his eyes due to shyness, because as his wine glass depleted, his eyes emerged, like twin alcoholic tortoises emerging from their shells. At one point, he implored for the roadie to bring him more wine. The roadie looked annoyed but complied, similar to a serf, or housewives in fifties Christmas movies.


The band played a variety of songs from Hawksley's catalogue, including my personal favourite, Paper Shoes. Hawksley Workman is best when he's able to flirt with the audience-- their want turns into an opportunity for him not to provide, which makes for more want, which makes the ultimate payout so much better. At one point, he stopped right before the chorus and started rapping. It was weird, but creative and cool. You didn't know what was going to happen-- the band members would all raise their eyebrows as they kept time whenever Hawksley stopped to fall on the floor and writhe, or to start beatboxing, or to tell a girl in the audience she was his favourite. During "Safe and Sound", one of his classic love songs, Hawksley stopped to mime a penis and a vagina when he sung the line "we fit together like the ignition and the key." His range has diminished somewhat, but he was still able to thunder out the cries and lines that have become his trademark. He can go from a low and menacing bass to a mocking falsetto, and seeing him perform is more similar to seeing a theatre performance than a music show.

The evening was overall fantastic- any time Hawksley sang a song from his newest album, members of Mounties, his other band, came out to sing it with him. I got the impression that a lot of the audience didn't really know who these people were, but eventually everyone learned to cheer whenever Ryan Dahle of Limblifter or Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat came out onto the stage. They sang Tokyo Summer together to many cheers. Even the girl next to me, who was using her phone to videotape the whole evening, looked up and watched for once. I was annoyed with her for most of the night, but as soon as I pretended that she had a dying friend who couldn't make it to the show, I realized that her motivations (that I had made up for her) were good, and stopped paying attention to how irritating she was.


If you were a Hawksley Workman superfan, as I am, it was a perfect evening. I wished that he had played more of his eccentric songs, like "The Government Shall Protect The Mighty" or "we ain't no vampire bats", or  "When You Gonna Flower", but his catalogue is so extensive and multi-genred that any set list had to cover at least a few of his various musical iterations. Hawksley seemed really happy whenever he could see people singing along to his songs, which was basically every song. It was an awesome performance.  He only seemed annoyed at one point-- he asked for requests, and someone who was almost certainly me said, "play Google Jesus." Google Jesus is the worst song that has ever been made. It is so bad that it has been erased from the reissues of Milk, the album it was originally on. He shot me a dark look, as if he wasn't to blame for releasing the horror that is Google Jesus upon the world. For every sowing, there is a reaping, Hawksley. For every "Jealous of your cigarette", a "Google Jesus" to keep you humble. I am your greatest fan, but also your greatest critic. #LestWeForgetGoogleJesus when we start to feel immortal, Hawksley. Do not fly into the sun on your wings of wax.



It was a gorgeous night, despite all of my criticism, I nearly cried a few times, and soppily thought about how there is no true equality among humans, and how the best we can do is be the truest and weirdest we can be to ourselves, and hopefully it will resonate with someone. When he was 24, Hawksley Workman started making music, probably because he didn't know what to do with himself. I started listening to music, because I didn't know what to feel about myself, and I felt less alone. On the 29th of October, I got to see one of my musical heroes play, and I felt a part of something.