No, not that Tea Party. Allow me to be political for a couple sentences as, on this subject, it almost begs for a comment: My mostest favoritest rock band of all time is Canadian trio The Tea Party. They’ve been around since the early 90s. They are so utterly not affiliated in any way with the “political” party, the Tea Party, that when they broke up for a bit, they were thinking of selling, or even giving their Web domain, to Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert, or George Soros or Arianna Huffington, with the goal of their critiquing the lies and misinformation put out by the political movement (principally about Canadian healthcare which, like most Canadians, the band The Tea Party love). That aside….
So, not only did The Tea Party come back together last year, but they’ve been doing a reunion tour and recorded their Sydney, Australia concert for a double-size album. They pre-released the album through Pledge Music (with proceeds going to help the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto which does cancer research). I got myself a copy of the album… and I have not listened to an album with as much joy, excitement, air-drum-playing, as I have this one, since I first listened to their second album, Edges of Twilight, in 1995. Allow me to reminisce a bit.
It was the summer of 1994 when I was working at a brand new Hastings entertainment store while getting my BAs. The store hadn’t opened yet, we hired staff were in the process of constructing the displays and stocking the place, and the music department manager was playing CDs for us while we worked. And one of those days, this amazing sound came on the system. It was a melange of Led Zepplin, the Doors, some middle eastern flavor. Hard rock with a splash of mysticism. One could, fairly I’ll admit, make the criticism that they were trying too hard to be a reinvention of Led Zepplin. Even so, the raw, amazing musical talent of this group was certainly not a gimmick. The album was Splendor Solis, and I fell in love with a band like I hadn’t since I discovered Pink Floyd in high school. I believe the very day that Hastings store opened, before I put my employee apron and name tag on, I bought that CD, and if one can wear a CD out, I about did.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait too long for more. Not long after graduating undergrad, we moved to a different town, my wife and I, and settled in to life, and I heard The Tea Party was releasing a second album. Excited, giddy, doesn’t come close to the feeling I had as I waited for release day. When I got the album and brought it home, I made sure everything was right: the stereo settings, the lighting, the drink in hand, and I hit “play.” The experience of listening to that new album for the first time was nearly a religious experience. It did not in any way let down. Every song was as good as from their previous album, with new instant classics that rivaled anything on Splendor Solis, such as “Sister Awake,” “The Bazaar,” and “Inanna.” If asked, at that time, which album was better, I’d be hard pressed to answer.
Then came their third, and nearly equally amazing, album, Transmission. It was an even harder, more techno album, moving a bit away from the blues and middle eastern influences of their first two albums. While not every song is among my favorite, like the previous two albums, it’s still filled with mind-blowing works like “Temptation,” “Transmission,” and the heartbreaking “Release.” You would never see me in a more than 5 minute car trip without that album.
With their next album, Triptych, things started slowing down a bit in my They Can Do No Wrong passion for them. While still a great album with beautiful and technically amazing songs like “Heaven Coming Down” and “Samsara” and “Halcyon Days,” I wasn’t in as much love with each track like I was for everything prior. Then again with the album, Interzone Mantras. There are again songs that alone would make them better than 90% of the bands out there, like “Lullaby” and “Requiem.” But it almost started sounding like they were trying to hard to be mainstream at that point. (In point of fact, come to find out, they indeed were being pressed by their label to indeed become more mainstream.)
This discomfort with what they were starting to sound like extended into their final studio album, Seven Circles. While still a fine album, I have a hard time recalling off the top of my head any particular tracks I love. “Wishing You Would Stay” comes to mind because of how beautiful it is, and also because it’s their only song with a female guest vocalist. And evidently, the label pressure (and, *sigh*, drug issues, of course) came to a head in regards to interpersonal differences among the band’s three members, and singer/guitarist Jeff Martin left for a solo career, breaking the band. (And actually, his first solo Exile and the Kingdom, is really good. It felt like an attempt to return to Tea Party’s pure rock and blues roots. Sadly, his next band, The Armada, album, felt closer to Interzone Mantras.
And during this time I’d been waiting anxiously for the remaining members, Stuart and the other Jeff, to do something with The Art Decay. Where Jeff Martin is an undeniable guitar god, the reincarnation of the still living Jimmy Page, Stuart Chatwood is a musical genius. His skill and versatility at nearly every instrument he touches (primarily keyboards, bass, middle eastern percussion) is… well, “impressive” is a lame adjective. Alas, they never got anything together. But Stuart went on to do all the music for the Prince of Persia video games at least.
Despite the slow decline of my unholy love for The Tea Party over the last couple albums, when I heard they broke up, I was devastated. My hopes and dreams for hearing That One Next Great Album, or ever seeing them in concert, were dashed. Well, I thought, maybe I could catch Jeff Martin at least… should I ever find myself in Ireland or Australia.
Then, a few years later, the news that would make my heart swell with great, but cautious, joy: Their reunion for a Canadian music festival. The fact that they got back in the same room was pretty amazing–could it last? And, O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay! When they declared they were going on a reunion tour, I think I literally jumped for joy! When they later said they’d be working on a new album, well, I think I’m still recovering from palpitations and vapors.
Back to the present, I got the recording of their Sydney reunion concert. I didn’t take as much care setting the mood to listen to it as I had for Edges of Twilight, because I was excited, but still thinking, “Eh, it’s a concert album. I’ve heard it all before.” Boy, was I wrong! They do not simply play copies of their studio performances for their live shows. They freakin’ bring it! Bring. It! “Temptation” becomes even more brain-smyooshingly hard and edgy, they break “Save Me” down and jam in the middle of it like Led Zepplin would’ve, Jeff Martin’s familiarity and banter with the crowd, and letting them sing key passages (like the ending chorus phrases in “The Bazaar”) is intoxicating and exciting!
Well, it’s just an amazing album, and I listened to it the first time in shock and wonder, and a youthful excitement I’d not felt in some time. Over the last several years, I’ve come to love some bands, like Arcade Fire and Silversun Pickups and The Decemberists, and I really enjoy their music. But nothing has ever quite grabbed ahold of me and never let me go like The Tea Party. And no matter how much I greatly enjoy listening to Neon Bible or Picaresque, no experience has ever matched listening to Edges of Twilight that first time, nor Live in Australia this weekend. The Tea Party is back, and life is good!
(PS: The band is hugely active in The White Ribbon Campaign, “the largest effort in the world of men working to end violence against women. In over fifty-five countries, campaigns are led by both men and women, even though the focus is on educating men and boys. In some countries it is a general public education effort focused on ending violence against women.” Yay!)