What: Burton Cummings
Where: Royal Theatre
When: Sunday night
Rating: 4 stars (out of five)
These days, rocker Burton Cummings is doing pretty well everything right.
Poised to turn 65 (his birthday is New Year’s Eve), Cummings tours with a superb backing band, the Carpet Frogs. He gives the audience hit after hit, both from his solo career and his days with the Guess Who. He sings well — with bona fide enthusiasm.
What more could anyone want?
Cummings and company were in strong form for Sunday’s show at the Royal Theatre, well received by a baby boomer audience. The edgiest part of the evening was his dedication of Guns, Guns, Guns (to the Connecticut school shooting. “I’m sending out the best possible vibes,” Cummings declared. The lyrics are cryptic — the song seems to be mostly an attack on American hunters. Still seemed appropriate, though.
Mostly, the two-hour concert was a rollicking romp down classic-rock lane. Cummings, dressed in his usual all-black ensemble and sporting his legendary ’stache, sounded great. He pounded his Yamaha piano with rock ’n’ roll verve. And his voice, remarkably, remains powerful — impressively supple and limber.
Indeed, Cummings sounded better than ever.
He won over the crowd immediately by encouraging photos and recording devices. And then the trump card — he declared Victoria to be his new “Canadian hometown.” (The singer recently sold his Winnipeg home — he spends winters in California and summers in Central Saanich.)
The Guess Who always seemed like the most Canadian of rock bands. Fittingly, Cummings served up his old group’s most Canadian song. Running Back to Saskatoon, featuring the singer on blues harp, seems to reference every hoser-Canuck town on the Prairies: Red Deer, Medicine Hat, even Moosomin. If you’re a rock ‘n’ roll fan (of a certain age) in this country, there’s something spine-tingling about the patriotic chorus: “This spirit’s homegrown!” Makes you feel like hoisting a Labatt’s Blue or something.
Guess Who fans will probably hate this, but most of the group’s late-career songs always seemed like B-material to me. That said, many of these tunes have aged quite well. Cummings’ piano playing on Albert Flasher displayed great time feel. Clap for the Wolfman had a jangling, ’70s groove, somewhat reminiscent of Dr. John. And Star Baby … well, Star Baby actually rocked.
The ballads from Cummings’ solo career mostly fall into the guilty pleasure category. I’m Scared (which Cummings said was his late mother’s favourite) is schmaltzy, as is Break it to Them Gently, which in concert had entertaining references to other rock classics tagged to the end — everything from Rock Around the Clock to Working in a Coal Mine. Stand Tall, sung in full vibrato, is a heart-on-my-sleeve inspirational anthem. Cummings, now singing it in a lower key, earned cheers with his melodramatic rendition (it’s impossible to sing this pop-operatic humdinger without being melodramatic).
The best stuff — and the stuff that made the Guess Who one of Canada’s top rock bands — are the early hits associated with Randy Bachman. These include No Sugar Tonight, which kicked off the night, These Eyes and American Woman. The latter commenced with a long bluesy introduction, during which Cummings indulged a long-held Jim Morrison fixation by dropping in a little Roadhouse Blues. This was a seriously rocking rendition, complete with note-perfect replications of Bachman’s super-sustain guitar solos.
Although the crowd didn’t leap to its feet until the end, it was obvious they loved the show. And it was a good one. Cummings is doing what all the worthwhile classic rock acts do: having fun, playing well, performing with passion. It’s impressive — I would bet not a soul left the Royal Theatre disappointed.
© Copyright 2013