Ranking a Band’s Popularity Based on Concert Venue

Anyone following the career of Canadian alternative rock icons Sloan may have noticed an ebb and flow in their popularity over the years. On one tour they’ll be playing arenas (say, back in the mid-1990s), while next time they’re showing up in small dingy bars. A few years later and they’re appearing in respectable theatres.

I recently discovered that one of my favourite (now guilty pleasure) bands from the ’90s, Counting Crows, is presently playing casinos, which, as far as I can tell, is about the bottom of the barrel for an established musical group. After all, a concert venue says a lot about a band and its current level of revelance. Some bands, such as the Rolling Stones, reach stadium level and stay there because they both maintain their fan base by releasing new albums and attract new fans by the quality of their earlier work. Others, such as the aforementioned Sloan, go up and down the spectrum, while some drop off completely. It’s exciting to see great contemporary groups such as Arcade Fire increase their audience without selling out, changing their ethos, or pandering to the masses.

Meanwhile, I watch in horror as all my favourite bands from the ’90s slide further down the following list that ranks a band’s level of popularity based on concert venue:

1. Stadiums: Very few acts ever reach this level, and fewer still can maintain an audience of 30,000 to 60,000 for decades on end. Examples: Paul McCartney, U2, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen.

2. Arenas: A wide range of artists have large enough audiences to fill NHL-sized arenas. From nostalgia ’80s hair bands to current country artists, the arena seems to be the pinnacle of success for select bands. Examples: Arcade Fire, Motley Crue, Lady Gaga, Keith Urban.

3. Established Music Festivals: Headlining a festival such as Coachella or Roskilde indicates considerable popularity, at least among the hipster/hippie/drunkard crowd. However, since there may be other notable performers on the bill, a band cannot assume the audience is theirs alone. Examples: Bjork, Radiohead, Kanye West, the Flaming Lips, Willie Nelson. Continue Reading →

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Ballast Nominated for Nonfiction Award

Well, not really Ballast as much as writer Stuart Thomson for his essay “Norm Macdonald’s Weird, Wonderful Twitter Book Club.” It was published on Ballast, though!

The Writers’ Guild of Alberta has shortlisted Mr. Thomson’s piece for the James H. Gray Award for Short Nonfiction at the 2014 Alberta Literary Awards. He’s up against two other people who are probably also quite kind and wonderful. Winners to be announced on Friday, June 6 from within a Calgary hotel. If you want to read more about the special event, here is the official press release.

Final note: “Norm Macdonald’s Weird, Wonderful Twitter Book Club” is also featured in our new e-book, Northern Conversations: The Best of Ballast. Maybe you want to buy it now?

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The Miraculous Yet Woeful Tale of the Dionne Quintuplets

This essay first appeared on Ballast on January 14, 2013. It is also featured in our new e-book, Northern Conversations: The Best of Ballast. If you like what you read below, please consider purchasing our e-book. You will be left $4.99 poorer in the bank, but $99.99 richer in character.

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Not that long ago, in a small rural hamlet in northeastern Ontario, there was a world famous theme park that drew in as many as 6000 visitors a day. At its peak, it was as popular as Niagara Falls and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in spin-off revenue. The main attraction wasn’t a carnival ride, a petting zoo or the world’s largest stuffed moose. No, it was an outdoor play area surrounded by a horseshoe-shaped observatory where visitors could gawk at five little French Canadian girls in identical outfits.

On May 28, 1934, the first recorded quintuplets to survive infancy were born to Oliva and Elzire Dionne on a farm outside of Corbeil, Ontario, southeast of North Bay. Yvonne, Annette, Cécile, Émilie and Marie arrived two months premature, and collectively weighed less than 14 pounds. Midwives Mmes. Legros and Lebel delivered the first two, then called for local doctor Allan Dafoe when they realized more were on the way. The girls weren’t given much chance to survive, but Dafoe and the midwives kept them alive by bathing them in olive oil, feeding them rum and corn syrup and placing them blanket-wrapped in wicker baskets located next to an open door of the wood stove to keep warm. Neighbouring women brought breast milk, and once news spread further afield, the Canadian Red Cross sent nurses and an incubator.

The Dionnes were poor and already had five children, so a mere three days after the quints’ birth their cash-strapped father Oliva signed a contract to put them on display at the Chicago World’s Fair. In part because the Dionne parents were regarded as country bumpkins, and in part to protect an asset of “special interest to the people of Canada,” the Ontario government concocted the Dionne Quintuplets Guardianship Act to make the five girls wards of the state and keep them out of exploitative Yankee clutches.

The Act made “Papa Dafoe” responsible for the quints’ parenting, along with a series of attendant nurses who didn’t stay long and were discouraged from physical contact so that the girls wouldn’t become too attached. It also precipitated construction of a sprawling complex to house and showcase the girls across the street from their family’s home, which was officially called the Dafoe Hospital and Play House, but commonly known as “Quintland.” Because of Dafoe’s fear of germs and the government’s fear of kidnapping, the quintuplets rarely left the compound. Their insular world was encircled by a chain-link, barbed wire fence, with uniformed policemen standing guard at the gate. Continue Reading →

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Every Patriotic Canadian Must Go See ‘Afflicted’

It’s not very often that a truly entertaining Canadian film goes head-to-head against an all-American blockbuster at the box office. It’s actually pretty rare to even find a Canadian film that can be described as “entertaining,” but that’s another discussion altogether.

This weekend, however, that’s precisely what’s happening: Afflicted, the thoroughly Canuckified found-footage vampire film that rocked TIFF and Austin’s Fantastic Fest, is going up against Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

This isn’t just two popcorn flicks battling for eyeballs — it’s the war of 1812: The Post-Modern Redux. Choose American jingoism or choose CanCon ingenuity, but whatever you do, choose wisely.

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10 Religious-Themed Films Worth Watching

Already a box office smash, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah undoubtedly owes some of its success to the growing Evangelical Christian market. In fact, in a desperate effort to pander to the religious right, the producers of Noah placed a tacky disclaimer at the front of the film compelling audiences to read their Bibles.

The Evangelical bent of Christianity has also taken to creating their own films, complete with modest budgets, proper theatrical releases, and a bevy of B-rate actors. Consider the atheist-professor thriller God’s Not Dead starring Kevin Sorbo, the Kirk Cameron magnum opus Fireproof, and the based-on-the-book drama Heaven Is for Real. Watch how giddy some people get every time a Duck Dynasty cast member bows his head to pray. Even the Amazing Race usually makes a point to include a few religious folks among the cast members to kneel and invoke the Lord to help them through the next “Roadblock.” Then we have the History channel, which hoped nobody would notice when they cobbled together the god-awful Son of God film from pieces of a TV show.

There was a time when religion in the Western world inspired truly great works of architecture, art, literature, and music. Today, however, it seems that what Evangelicals have done to rock ‘n’ roll will happen to film, as well. When Christian rock was invented in early 1970s, pioneers like Larry Norman, whose 1972 album Only Visiting This Planet was recently marked for preservation by the Library of Congress, wrote politically charged songs that were respected by adherents and non-adherents alike (Frank Black is said to be a fan). Soon thereafter, however, the sub-genre Norman invented was taken over by marketers and turned into the pablum it is today. Continue Reading →

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How to Handle Your September Issues

This essay first appeared on Ballast on September 13, 2012. It is also featured in our new e-book, Northern Conversations: The Best of Ballast. If you like what you read below, please consider purchasing our e-book. You will be left $4.99 poorer in the bank, but $99.99 richer in character.

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September means different things to different people. For parents and children, it means back to school. For farmers, it means the beginning of the harvest season. For retirees, it means peak vacation time is over and they can finally go on their RV trips without being bothered by tourists.

For me, September means a subtle yet swift mood shift from satisfied to sour. It means the rapid onset of the September blues, which I try to stave off with indulgent behaviour, materialism and self-importance.

And there is no better aid in this admirable fight than the September Issue of Vogue magazine, which extols consumerism and vanity as the highest virtues, and pedals luxury and fantasy in an affordable paper format. So if you’re like me, and you find September trying, pour yourself a glass of wine — in fact, best take the bottle with you — slip on your most fashionable piece of loungewear and delve in. Here’s how I’d suggest you proceed:

Front Cover: Take a sip of wine and remember that Vogue isn’t about easy-to-assemble, I-bought-it-at-the-mall fashion. It offers daring, inspiring, outrageous style for women who know better. Feel conflicted about Lady Gaga’s fuchsia patchwork dress. The fuchsia really is fabulous, but the exaggerated hip may not work for you or most regular-sized women. Decide that legendary editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, knows best and determine to give the exaggerated-hip look a try. Read through the subheadings, pause on “HAIR IS THE NEW MAKEUP” and wonder what sort of makeup Lady Gaga’s hairdo would be equivalent to. Regret your own boring hairstyle and resolve to do something about it.

Pages 1-76: All fashion plebs flip through the first couple hundred pages of the September Issue and comment, witheringly, on the fact that it’s all ads. Those people are idiots. What they fail to understand is that the ads matter — more than any article and possibly more than some of the editorials. Advertisements allow you — the select few who get it — an opportunity to see each designer’s collection as they intended it to be seen. They have chosen the models, photographers and stylists who best express their style message — be it cast-off-your-unglamorous-morality-and-buy-a-fur-coat or skinny-girls-look-great-in-mesh-dresses. Admire mixed prints and Irish Setters in the Ralph Lauren campaign; large hats and chunky eyeglasses in Louis Vuitton; Monica Bellucci in Dolce and Gabbana. Covet Monica’s see-through lace dress. Vow to work out more so you can wear see-through lace dresses. Toast the wanton fabulousness of the fashion world with a considerable slosh of wine. Continue Reading →

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My Teenage Crush on Preston Manning

This essay first appeared on Ballast on September 12, 2012. It is also featured in our new e-book, Northern Conversations: The Best of Ballast. If you like what you read below, please consider purchasing our e-book. You will be left $4.99 poorer in the bank, but $99.99 richer in character.

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I can’t recall the first time I heard his prep-school name or his helium voice, but I do know that during most of my teenage years, when all the other boys were discovering their bodies and chasing after girls, I was in love with Reform Party guru, Preston Manning. It was an innocent enough infatuation, I suppose — had his picture up in my locker, wore t-shirts emblazoned with his name, memorized passages from his book like it were a sacred text. All completely normal behaviour for a 13-year-old Canadian boy.

My crush on Preston, like many love affairs, began on the rebound. When I was eight or nine I met Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his son Ben, who had yet to become famous and annoying and more hated than his father. My love for the elder Mulroney soon waned, though — I think it was the Meech Lake Accord that did it. From what I had culled from television and been told by my Baptist minister father, this Meech Lake Accord thing had something to do with unfairness. Quebec, apparently, was going to get a better deal — special treatment or something. At 10 years old this concept was akin to bucking in line or receiving an unequal distribution of Halloween candy.

My affection for Mulroney continued to decline, and I vented my disgust in stick-figure political cartoons. I sketched big-chinned Mulroney and Finance Minister Michael Wilson in what I labeled the “Debt Room.” I drew Mulroney and Wilson in drag, as if they were trying to escape the responsibility of tending to the nation’s debt by dressing as women, a la Klinger from M*A*S*H. I also recall taking great pleasure in pointing out to my schoolyard chums that our prime minister’s initials were B.M., which was shorthand for shit. To me, Mulroney was like a brutish schoolyard bully. Preston Manning, on the other hand, was the lovely hall monitor. Continue Reading →

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Victoria More Self-Absorbed Than Edmonton, Less Self-Absorbed Than Makati City

Time magazine has continued its tradition of useful public service in the world of selfies by determining the “Selfiest Cities in the World.”

Eight Canadian cities made it onto the list of 459. The nation’s pride is Victoria, which came in at 81st. Edmonton also broke into the top 100 with a respectable showing at 98th.

The other Canadian cities ranked as follows:

  • 101: Ottawa
  • 105: Winnipeg
  • 112: Halifax
  • 158: Toronto
  • 175: Quebec City
  • 180: Montreal

While some might point to Victoria’s comparatively good weather, picturesque coastline, or preponderance of cherry blossoms as the cause of the city’s high selfie status, the City of Gardens is a slouch when compared to its Pacific Northwest neighbours, Seattle and Portland, which ranked 41st and 32nd, respectively.

In global terms, Canada as a whole is a selfie underachiever. Makati City in the Philippines netted the number one spot, while the other top ten cities were mostly in the U.S., Europe, and Asia. It’s also important to keep in mind that Time’s metric only counted geotagged selfies posted to Instagram that were hashtagged #selfie, so millions of amateur life studies around the world went uncounted.

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The Best of Ballast E-Book Is Here: Buy Now

Featuring 11 essays and one Q&A with Peter Mansbridge, Northern Conversations: The Best of Ballast offers some of our finest sentences ever assembled.

Learn about British Columbia’s illegal tree houses and Ontario’s formerly famous Dionne Quintuplets, who once attracted 6,000 sightseers per day. Read the stories of a woman’s adolescent infatuation with boy bands and a man’s teenage crush on Preston Manning. Thoughts on retirement, miscarriage, the CBC, Norm Macdonald, living in the woods, and the world’s first miracle drug — they’re all here!

To purchase a copy for $4.99, please click this.

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The Pains of an Unpronounceable Name

Earlier this month, John Travolta made a huge mistake when he mispronounced singer and actress Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars in front of an estimated audience of 43 million TV viewers as Adele Dazeem. The incident sparked a good deal of internet fun-poking, but Travolta was quick to apologize for the gaffe. It seems all has been resolved graciously and amicably.

Given that the fallout of this incident has been so minimal, you would think I would be able to let it go. It was a minor glitch in an otherwise pretty okay awards show, and the world has moved on. But not me. I still replay the moment over and over in my head, wondering what went wrong. You see, listening to the John’s of the world mangle a strange and uncommon name is an occurrence far too familiar to me to just shrug off because I, like the Chiwetels, Gaboureys, and Joaquins of the world, have a name that’s difficult to pronounce.

My name is Mikael. I bet you read that as “Mikhail.” As in Gorbachev. But it’s actually pronounced like “Michael.” Think Caine or Clarke Duncan. So I’ve got two name issues: I’m a woman with a traditionally male name, which is enough to cause confusion. But add to that the fact that my parents chose a unique spelling rather than the conventional M-I-C-H-A-E-L, and you’ve got a morass of uncertainty that almost all first-time readers of my name stumble into. Continue Reading →

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Has Music Surpassed Literature as the Superior Art Form?

In an essay published in the Guardian last September titled “What’s Wrong With the Modern World,” Jonathan Franzen managed to make a good point so poorly that he alienated almost everyone, even those who would normally be sympathetic to his message.

In his non-fiction work, he is a difficult man to agree with. He uses phrases such as “the concept of cool,” describes hipness as something “adjacent” to cool, and tells us why he hates Macs and likes his PC. He’s still annoyed that people got mad at him for calling Twitter dumb (his word), and his essay makes him look like a man boiling with a million petty resentments.

When Dwight Garner wrote in the Times that Franzen looms “so tall in his novels” yet seems “shriveled in his nonfiction,” this is what he was talking about. Behold, the great American novelist: “…the response of Twitter addicts was to call me a Luddite. Nyah, nyah, nyah!” Franzen writes.

If you make it to the end of Franzen’s essay, though, you are rewarded with a fairly good conclusion. For the last century, technology has been moving so fast that generation gaps have been widening, bringing about a new set of values every few decades. The idea of a personal apocalypse, that our values are inevitably doomed in our own lifetime, is a fascinating one, and Franzen is smart enough to leave open the question of whether this is a bad thing or not.

He sees Amazon as eating the publishing world alive, and he is disturbed. He admits “this looks like an apocalypse only if most of your friends are writers, editors or booksellers (as most of mine are).” Continue Reading →

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Criminologist Says London, Ontario, Was Once the Serial-Killer Capital of the World

It’s hard to believe how horrible people can be sometimes. We all have bad days and are treated poorly on occasion, but to kill someone? To mutilate teens and children?

Well, in an upcoming book Western University criminology professor Michael Arntfield argues that between 1960 to 1985 the city of London, Ontario, may have been the home of up to six serial killers. With a population of 200,000 at the time, Arntfield feels okay calling London, Ontario, maybe probably the former serial-killer capital of the world.

And why London, Ontario?

Arntfield says the city’s proximity to the highways, its stratified social class at the time, and the fact that it was culturally isolated from larger urban centres may have all been factors making the city conducive to such criminals.

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Two Canadian Porn Channels Potentially in Trouble for Lack of Canadian Content

The CRTC regulates everyone equally, apparently.

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