Fred Spek's Camp Combo live at The Local, December 30th, 2008
As 2008 draws to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to post some photos from the last show that I saw this year. The year in live music closed out for me last night at The Local, a cozy little pub within walking distance of home, with a live performance by Fred Spek's Camp Combo. This was a great night out, an intimate venue and an upbeat, swingin' set from a highly entertaining alt-jazz outfit. Fred Spek leads the Camp Combo, a unique quartet on the Toronto jazz scene in that they operate almost as a novelty act, selecting obscure and unusual numbers from the distant past to complement their own off-kilter originals. They sound a bit like a circus sideshow act, a ramshackle group of players belting out songs heard on scratchy old 78s and LPs found at garage sales, but behind all the wacky fun are some serious chops to back it up.
The Camp Combo (l to r): Fred Spek (sax), Nichol Robertson (guitar), Great Bob Scott (drums), and Rachel Melas (bass)
I've known Fred for two decades now (has it been that long?!), and he's always known how to deliver a good performance with an edge. I first met him when he was playing with an underground experimental art/jazz/punk group known as Blank Crowd. This St. Catharines-based project (eventually relocating to Toronto) were quite original at the time, particularly on the Canadian scene, maybe distant cousins to The Lounge Lizards or some of the post-punk bands flying under the radar in the mid-'80s. Fred played an angular, art-damaged sax, banged a snare drum, snarled vocals, and programmed stark beats on a drum machine within the context of Blank Crowd, and it was something to behold. From there, he moved on through various other groups, including Braino, D.E.A. (Dub Enforcement Agency) and The Mood Swingers (the precursor to the Camp Combo), away from the angst and into a jazzier world. Fred even spent a brief amount of time in my own project, post-industrial electro-pop group Parade, back in the early '90s, before figuring out that jazz was where it was at. He has continued to chart out original territory on the jazz scene with his latest endeavor.
Spek and his band of merry jazz pranksters were in good form at The Local, spreading some holiday goodwill and revelry to send out 2008 on a positive note. The Local has to have one of the smallest stages around, but the Camp Combo didn't seem to mind, and they treated the audience to two sets of unpredictable song selections to confound and delight. Opening with their signature tune, the vaudvillian "Camper Fanfare", and tackling other originals such as the moody "Cairo", "Rock Paper Scissors", and "Irony Rhumba", the Camp Combo proved to have some composititional talents behind the novelty front. A colourful assortment of song filled out the remainder of the setlist, including (from my hazy memory) "Baby Elephant Walk", "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise", "My Heart Belongs to Daddy", "Animal Crackers In My Soup", "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", and the themesong to TV show "The Hilarious House of Frightenstein". How's that for entertainment? Some good light-hearted fun, occasionally veering into debauched and bawdy songs (something about a burlesque dancer named Tanya Cheex!). The Camp Combo's lineup tends to change from show to show, and this evening's group consisted of Fred Spek on sax and vocals, guitarist Nichol Robertson, bassist Rachel Melas, and the legendary Great Bob Scott on drums. This was the first time I'd seen the Combo with Scott in the drum seat, and he was a great fit for the group, adding his usual wild and crazy charm and impeccable chops to the performance.
That was my final taste of live music in 2008. From there, it was off into the night, to navigate my way home through snow-covered streets, echoes of old jazz songs and irresistible melodies ringing in my ears. This is what it's all about.