“For some, his music may sound a little square, but hey, it’s hip to be square,” said mayor Denis Coderre, in a surprise appearance at Huey Lewis’ first show in Montreal in thirty years, this Canada day at Salle Wilfred Pelletier. Earlier in the evening, at the press conference preceding the show, the mayor had described his devotion as a Huey fan and didn’t miss a beat handing over his honorary mayoral pin from his jacket when it was asked for by mister Lewis. At the press conference Huey seemed very at ease, and spoke to an older audience, many of whom had grown up with his music.
“We started in ’78, pre-music television. It was all audio. If we had started in ’82, I’d probably be tattooed head to toe if that’s what it took,” he said, regarding his rise to fame. This comment in particular stood out to me. Huey spoke of a time in which musicians greatly differed from many of the young, rebellious musicians you’d meet today. In the Montreal underground punk, metal and folk scenes with which I am familiar, it is rare to see someone look at their art or image as something that should be modified in order to get mass appeal. When interviewed, most musicians say they write songs for the sake of the music and never care too much about fame or anything of the sort. Meanwhile, Huey reminisced of a different style and ethos. “When you had a hit in 1982, it was a real hit and everyone heard it. We were beneficiaries of that system at that time. Making a hit pop record was our main objective. We aimed every record right at radio. We knew we needed one hit. If you didn’t have one, it was over.” What struck me next was his relationship with this old self. “I think today we would be a jam band. Thirty years ago I didn’t think about much to be honest. It’s popular to say you play music to attract girls or be rich or to be a rock star. But ultimately the idea is to play music because you love to play music, and to have people show up so you can pay the bills.”
The interviewer continued to ask questions about their old material and “the glory days” and at one point Huey interrupted her. “I’m not a backwards thinker – we have new songs. I don’t know why we have new songs, but we do. I want to look ahead a little bit.” Later into the conference, questions came firing from the audience, many of which reverted again to his past. “With the technology available today, which song on your hit record ‘Sports’ would you re-record?” Huey responded to this question sounding a little put-off. He explained how the past is the past and it should be left alone. He explained how he could still make music nowadays. “I’m actually a better singer today then I have ever been. There’s all kinds of singing. There’s foie gras and there’s hamburgers. I’m probably somewhere in the middle. My range isn’t as good as it used to be but I make better note choices now. In that sense, I’m a better singer than ever.”
Taking to the stage, Huey looked cool, calm and collected under the spotlights. After the short introduction from the mayor, they started off with The Heart of Rock n’ Roll; immediately everyone in the place stood up in their seats and started to dance. “We used to be a beer and hotdog band, and now we hang with the wine and cheese crowd,” said Huey. I looked around the place and boy was that true. In my 125$ seat I wasn’t as close-up as I would have liked to have been. Around me were people in their forties and up – I must have been the youngest person there. The place was booming with folks in fancy attire swinging their hips lightly to sweet nostalgia. Once the song stopped and the band moved into a lesser-known track, everyone immediately sat down. This up-and-down process continued track after track.
“I know what you guys want to hear. This is a new song.” Immediately, everyone sat down. I looked at the musicians’ faces and there was an overarching recognition that the band was committing social suicide. However, their new song was actually quite good and I danced to the beat and blaring sax solos. All the instruments were mic’d up very well and the ventilation in the room made the venue quite comfortable. I looked to my side and saw a toddler dancing to the new song. At least we liked it. Several other people seemed upset, checking their watches and phones, wondering when he’d get back to the classics. How many new songs are permissible on a 125$ ticket? Immediately afterwards, they played Back in Time as compensation.
Later in the set, the band played another new one. When Huey announced it, a couple people actually booed him. “I understand, how can you like something you’ve never heard before? Endure this song for the next five minutes and just pretend like you enjoy it. We enjoy playing it. This song’s about getting older. We’re old but we’re not done yet.” These newer songs were actually some of my favorites of his. As the people around me began sitting down as their patience for standing wore thin, I decided I’d dance more intently. It was good seeing Huey and the band playing something not for the popular appeal but because they enjoyed it. I could see it in their eyes as they played these new tracks that they were having a great time. It made me think about how much they’d probably grown since they started as band. It’s a shame that their aging audiences didn’t see it the same way. The bandmates were in their twenties in their “glory days” – understandably, they’re not the same people anymore. I enjoyed them most when it seemed as though they weren’t just playing to appease the audience.
At one point, word got out that Huey’s birthday was fast approaching and the audience sang “Happy Birthday” for him. He smiled and laughed at that. Another highlight was when one audience member shouted out, “Huey, I love you!” and was responded to with an “I love you too sir… Now stay back there.” They also played a couple a-capella tracks to switch it up. Towards the end, I realized that it had honestly been a better performance than I had expected. Huey left saying: “I know it’s been thirty years since we last came here to Montreal. I promise that it won’t be another thirty before we’re back.”