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Music Review: The Tea Party

January 5, 2009

The Tea Party kind of sucked. But not all the time.

This Canadian trio sliced through the early-90s grunge scene with The River, the first single from the disc Splendor Solis. Big, loud, pretentious and hairy, it was a psychedelic epic, a big fuck-you to the current spate of mumbling, shambling Seattle sounders. I liked it. It was like Jim Morrison fronting a Led Zeppelin cover band, sort of. The rest of the disc was okay, nothing as strong as that first single, but better than a lot of Canadian rock at the time.

In the fall of 1993, I met the band at a bar in North Bay, Ontario, called Wylders. We did the obligatory interview, and I stayed to review the show itself. The River was getting a lot of airplay, and there was some buzz around these guys. And the show was solid; I remember how the three of them turned their song Sun Goin’ Down into Stone Temple Pilots’ Sex Type Thing, then drifted back to their own tune. There was a mellow interlude with bongo drums and acoustic instruments, and a lot of eastern influence.

Towards the end of the show, singer-guitarist Jeff Martin was leading the band (Stuart Chatwood and Jeff Burrows) through a raging version of The River, and the crowd went wild. Crazy wild, in fact, and it was really something, considering Wylders’ could seat about 150 people max. Martin played harder, really got into it. The crowd grew even more frenzied. And then everyone fled, running next door to the adjoining sports bar. Joltin’ Joe Carter had just won the World Series for the Toronto Blue Jays, and his ecstatic run around the bases was dominating the big-screen TVs. So much for the Tea Party. You could see the pissed-offedness on Martin’s face. But I didn’t feel bad; he was actually one of the worst interview subjects I had in 20 years of journalism, and I was still a little peeved.

A couple of years later, the band released The Edges of Twilight, a much more polished disc. I consider it their best; the tracks Fire in the Head and Sister Awake are among their strongest songs. Martin brought the sounds of the Arab world to the forefront, and it worked well in  a hard-rock context. But just like Splendor Solis, I found the same problem: one song, okay, two songs, okay, three or more … too much. I’ve still never listened to a Tea Party album all the way through. And that’s sad; they were excellent musicians, gifted multi-instrumentalists, and Martin is one of the country’s best guitarists. All of that, though, matters little if the songs are bogged down under a heavy velvet curtain of pretension (says the guy who loves the Cult, right?)

It was that year that I saw the band for the second time, in one of the biggest gyps in Canadian beer promo history. A leading brewer was holding a “win to get in” concert series; you had to win a ticket via radio promotions to be able to see a big concert in a small venue. My city was fourth on the list. And the featured act was a surprise until the show started. The first three shows featured, if I recall correctly, Metallica, Lenny Kravitz and Alanis Morissette. When our local show happened, the big rumour was AC/DC.

I was there, covering it, and it was not AC/DC. It was the Tea Party. And even the free beer couldn’t keep the crowd in the bar. By the end of the first set, the place had cleared out. I stayed; I still hold that the Tea Party was one of the best live bands in Canada at that time, and it was a fantastic show. But I was pretty much alone in that sentiment. “Imagine that,” a rival radio DJ said the next morning. “If you’re sorry you missed them, just wait; they’ll be playing at a bar in town next week.”

The Tea Party kept on releasing albums all through the 90s and into the 2000s. Standout singles include Temptation, Heaven’s Coming Down and The Writing’s on the Wall.  But just as with their earlier albums, these singles were high points on otherwise unlistenable albums. Transmission, for instance, boasts the short sharp shock of Temptation, which introduced electronics to the band’s patchouli sound, but the rest of the disc is tiresome and self-indulgent. The trend continued until the band split up a couple of years ago.

Some groups are best suited for greatest-hits discs. This is one of them. Unless you’re a diehard fan, you are not going to sit through the entire Tea Party output. But a disc with their dozen or so excellent hard-rock singles would be nice to have in the car.

Here’s that first video for The River:

And here’s Temptation:

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One comment

  1. I can’t decide if the video for The River is being cleverly ironic, or just trite. Interesting sound, though.



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