VAG HALEN are riding all the way to the Venice Biennale on the strength of their winking versions of cock-rock classics. Are they Toronto’s next great contemporary-art stars, or just a really rad rock ’n’ roll cover band?
At 5:45 on a Tuesday evening in April, the staff of the Drake Hotel is busy preparing for the night’s fundraiser—an event called “Celebrate Shary Boyle” in support of the Toronto artist chosen to represent Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale international art exhibition. Chefs are spinning up rolls of sushi. Bartenders are slicing citrus. Waitresses are doing that thing with cocktail napkins where you put your fist on a stack and twist them just so, creating a classy little pinwheel.
On stage, VAG HALEN is sound-checking through a verse of Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law,” guitarists Heather Kirby and Jackie Mohr playing that heavy-metal riff over a sampled police siren. VAG HALEN (all-caps theirs) is an all-female queer art band that plays hard-rock covers. In sweaty bars around the city, lead singer Vanessa Dunn performs like the possessed daughter of Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant, stripping down to a leather daddy hat and nipple-covering flying Vs of electrical tape while her band cranks out hard-rock classics with note-perfect precision.
So, yes: A $250-a-head party for the kind of silver-haired philanthropists whose names you see in the thank-you section of playbills and on the walls of museums isn’t their usual show. Indeed, when Shary Boyle first told organizers from the National Gallery that she wanted to bring a seven-piece feminist cover band to play Zeppelin tunes for the muckety-mucks of the international art world at the Biennale, the “Olympics of contemporary art,” there was, unsurprisingly, a certain amount of resistance.
“I pretty much had to convince everyone at the National Gallery,” says Boyle. “Why them and not somebody more mainstream, more tasteful, more pleasant?”
Boyle was insistent, though, so tonight’s fundraiser also serves as a bit of an introduction—a chance for the donors to see the band they’re reluctantly sending to the Canadian pavilion’s opening party on May 29.
You can sense a little defensiveness on the band’s part, as if they aren’t sure whether to be nervous about their reception or just give a pre-emptive eff-you to the suits and Rosedale grandpas. “I’m gonna do an impression of our audience,” says bassist Katie Ritchie. She sits at a table, props her head in her hand, and then delicately turns it away from the stage, the picture of politely suppressed disdain.
Sound check continues. In the corner, a server in starchy whites revs up the meat slicer and begins shaving off slivers of prosciutto for the charcuterie board.
“This is going to be the weirdest show ever,” says Dunn.
Vanessa Dunn was raised on big-haired dude-rock. The daughter of a Scarborough esthetician and the sister of two much older brothers, Dunn remembers watching the video for “Here I Go Again” by Whitesnake, featuring classic video vixen Tawny Kitaen writhing on top of a Jaguar in white lingerie, and falling in love. “I looked at that and thought, ‘That’s it,’” says Dunn. “There’s something so beautiful and powerful about that woman. That’s what I wanted to be.”
At a certain point, as she got older, this worship got a bit knottier. It became difficult to love those bands unequivocally. You can only hear so many hilarious stories about Led Zeppelin’s underage groupies before something sours. “It became kind of a problematic relationship, because a lot of those songs aren’t so hot on women,” Dunn says.
VAG HALEN is, among other things, a performance-art project designed to reconcile those problems. It’s Whitesnake reimagined with seven Tawny Kitaens on vox, guitar, bass, and drums. The band was formed when Dunn, an actor, and her wife, Katie Ritchie, former singer of the well-loved Vancouver band The Organ, decided they wanted to work on a project together. They coralled some friends, musicians who’ve played in local indie-pop bands like Ohbijou and the Phonemes, and put together a set of rock tunes for a “Steers & Queers” night in a west-end bar in November of 2011.
The project is simultaneously a high-concept lark—lesbians play cock-rock—and a serious musical undertaking. It’s camp, of course, but they’re not interested in performing as some kind of winky joke. “There’s nothing ironic about this,” says Dunn. “I would not work this hard at something and think this hard about something that was just an ironic cover band. That’s just not interesting to me.”
Since that first show, the band has taken off in ways unimaginable for many cover bands. While most bar bands playing Guns N’ Roses can, at best, hope to play a well-catered wedding, VAG HALEN has somehow managed to open theatre festivals, captivate the crowd at Fucked Up’s multidisciplinary Long Winter festival, and book a gig at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Much like Sheezer, Toronto’s all-female Weezer tribute band, VAG HALEN has been able to transcend its cover-band status, establishing a growing fan base that brings together supporters from unlikely corners—the queer community, west-end hipsters, fans of Black Sabbath. Ask the band members what makes them different, and they’ll give the classic artist answer: intent. Ask their fans, the people who have seen them tear it up at The Piston or at a Vazaleen: Shame party during Pride, and they’ll only say that some alchemy of the band’s charisma, skill, and cheeky approach creates an experience, transforming familiar songs into original art.
When Shary Boyle saw the band at the El Mocambo in January 2012, she was blown away. She knew they would be the ideal band to start a party at the Biennale. “They’re from Toronto, which is representing a city that often doesn’t get that much cred in the art world. They’re just extraordinary musicians, but it’s also super fun to see them subvert that iconic masculine music.”
The band plays covers, yes, but you only need to turn on cottage-country radio to know that nothing is more Canadian than American ’80s rock. “If you had to get a Canadian band that sang about Canada, I think the only person just died—Stompin’ Tom Connors,” says Boyle.
At 7:45 at the Drake, with a healthy crowd assembled, 82-year-old Jim Fleck is on stage. Fleck is a giant in the world of arts fundraising, the chair or president of more foundations and councils than you can name. As one of the big fundraisers for the Biennale, he is also tonight’s emcee, delivering the latest news from Venice and thanking the assembled donors before leaving the stage to applause.
While people mingle, munching on lamb rib chops and shrimp dumplings, Fleck weaves his way through the crowd.
“How long until the band?” he asks the Drake’s curator.
“Ten, 15 minutes,” she says.
“Can you make it five?” Fleck says.
The curator laughs—obligingly, nervously. “For you, Jim, I’ll see what I can do.”
There is a brief pause. “I better go see about the band,” she says.
Let’s say you want to make art. Well, Toronto is a good place for that. Put on a play, start a band, make a strange and beautiful porcelain sculpture: This city’s artistic communities are surprisingly welcoming. Here, our stereotypical “niceness,” often so infuriating, feels like an asset. A little while ago, novelist Sheila Heti wrote about the way that artists collaborate in a place like Toronto: “I often think of how the ethos here makes it easy to even find someone to rip tickets at the door of your show.”
Much of this art will be easy to scoff at, if that’s what you’re into. Some will be meaningful to just a few people for just a few hours. But some will grow and find an audience and, at a certain point, big institutions take notice.
Art, then, becomes an activity that is stage-managed by high-minded bureaucracies. In time, official-sounding organizations, like the National Gallery and the Canada Council, call the philanthropists—those precious few who have, at a certain point, become not just art fans or art enthusiasts but “patrons of the arts.”
Foundations are summoned, signature cocktails prepared. As a sign of goodwill, Adrienne Clarkson sends her personal assistant—an affable young man who makes sure to eat before the event so as not to embarrass himself scarfing down sliders or hovering over the cheese board. These are some of the ways that art gets made in a place like Toronto.
Fifteen minutes after his request, Jim Fleck is on stage to introduce the entertainment. “We don’t have Shary, but we have the next best thing,” Fleck says. “This is the band that Shary insisted be at the party in Venice.”
A few weeks earlier, a magazine piece had touched on the donors’ reluctance to bring VAG HALEN to the Biennale, and now Fleck brings it up on stage.
“There was an article in Maclean’s that said some of the donors wondered why they needed a band,” he says. “I was one of those donors. So I’m particularly interested in being here tonight and hearing what I’ll hear in Venice.”
As far as rock-band introductions go, it isn’t the most enthusiastic. Nevertheless, while the band starts playing the opening chords to “Iron Man,” Dunn and backup singer Stephanie Markowitz enter through the crowd, holding hands high above their heads.
You can sense wariness on both sides, the mutual distrust that can exist between the young and beautiful and the old and powerful. No one wants to feel like they’re being condescended to, after all.
Dunn is wearing a threadbare wife-beater with “Free Pussy Riot” written in black marker, and black jean shorts cut as high as it is possible to cut shorts. The band busts through “Iron Man” and “Breaking the Law” and “Panama.” Jim Fleck sits in a booth.
“Thanks to all of you that wanted us here,” Dunn says between songs. “And to all of you that didn’t.”
Writing about a band like VAG HALEN, it’s tempting to dwell on politics and performance art and how they subvert masculine rock postures, reclaiming them for queer females, et cetera. And that’s undeniably part of the appeal. It’s a pleasure to see a song by Van Halen—a band whose entire catalogue is pretty much just a list of sexualized female body parts—played by a half-dozen women. There is an intellectual fun in sussing out the layers of Dunn aping Robert Plant on “Whole Lotta Love,” watching a woman imitating a man imitating a woman having an orgasm.
Mostly, though, it’s a party. Dunn is on stage pulling out moves from the canon of cock-rock dancing. She’s grasping the mic stand for support and thrusting her hips in time. She’s crawling across the ground on all fours. She’s slinking along the stage, peering down the brim of her hat with a touch of invigorating menace.
The old rock ’n’ roll gestures—calcified through the years to the point where it’s virtually incomprehensible that the Mick Jagger shimmy was once meant to signify danger and virility—suddenly seem sexy and fun and, against all odds, weirdly powerful. When was the last time you saw a frontman straddle a mic stand and howl like he meant it? Where was the last concert you saw a singer “rock out” without a tinge of embarrassment? Show me the last unironic crotch thrust.
And heard here, rather than on a Sunday afternoon on Q-107, it’s apparent how good these songs are. Jackie Mohr—the young shredder they call “Junior,” who moved to Toronto to record an album with Hawksley Workman—is nailing every solo. Susan Gale is pounding the drums. Dunn is singing in a perfect, throat-tearing howl. Who can resist the chugging opening riff of “Breaking the Law”? What kind of po-faced monster would deny himself the rich pleasures of a passionately performed “Welcome to the Jungle,” the second “knees” of the kicker delivered like the most urgent of questions, as in “sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na knees, KNEES?”
You could see it happen before your eyes, the room collectively realizing that, no, they weren’t the butt of some hipster inside joke, and deciding to drop their mistrust.
Dress shirts were untucked. Middle-aged women in pearls danced, hard. People did that upright version of the Twist that is the default move for crowds of a certain age looking to get down. Had the girls heard of the Dutch ’70s rock band Golden Earring, a man in a tan suit jacket wondered aloud, flashing his rock ’n’ roll bona fides? Adrienne Clarkson’s young assistant took out his phone and snapped a pic. “VAG HALEN has got everyone moving!” he tweeted. By “Whole Lotta Love,” Dunn had the crowd with her. “I wanna give you every inch of my love!” she wailed—a phrase that seemed funny and incongruous and totally righteous all at the same time.
After that, the show just kind of ended. I don’t think Dunn ever said, “This is our last song.” Jim Fleck slowly made his way to the stage.
He shook Dunn’s hand. Did the band have a card, he wondered? Never mind, here was his—“James D. Fleck.” When the band landed in Venice, he wanted them to call him. They were invited to dine with him and his wife in their Venetian apartment. Years ago—before she became an Anglican minister, before he became a patron of the arts—his wife had been a ballet dancer. The band will eat food and drink wine with their patrons. And then, a few days later, they will play those surprisingly potent old songs to the people who had gathered to see what Canadian culture is all about.
Obviously, VAG HALEN isn’t the only Toronto band that makes a habit—if not a living—out of performing other people’s songs. Here are some of the city’s primo cover acts.
Sheezer: Girls, sometimes in creatively themed costumes, taking Weezer to the next level.
Horsey Craze: The Constantines (R.I.P.) tearing up Neil Young and Crazy Horse tunes.
Loving in the Name Of: Electrifying soul and Motown covers by killer musicians and guest vocalists.
Dwayne Gretzky: Classic rock, couched in the drive and charisma of a certain hockey great.
Wannabe: A journey through the greatest hits of the Spice Girls’ catalogue.
Pretzel Logic: Steely Dan, served with maximum sax and drums, and extra pizzazz.
River Street Band: Springsteen, transplanted from the Jersey shore to midtown Toronto.
The Neil Young’uns: Duh.
Floyd Factor: “Canada’s most comprehensive multimedia tribute to Pink Floyd.”