Were You There When 80,000 New Englanders Made a Tiny Band From Canada Famous?
Imagine you’re five goofy guys from Canada. Your popularity in your homeland is solid, but stalled. You’ve struggled to break through in the U.S., which isn’t surprising when grunge was ruling the radio and your most famous song talks about monkeys and Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Now, imagine that you’re en route to an album release party that could make or break your career, but you’re stuck in the nightmare that is Boston traffic.
DRUMMER TYLER STEWART was trying to make up for some lost hours after an early morning TV appearance in New York City.
"Oh my God," said Stewart, ahead of the band's appearance at Bank of New Hampshire Pavilion in Gilford, New Hampshire, on July 8 (and a return to Boston and the Leader Bank Pavilion on July 9). "That day was absolutely incredible."
"We had been in New York doing 'Total Request Live' with Carson Daly on MTV. Remember MTV, kids?? They used to show music!" he says, his trademark, playful sarcasm in prime form. "We were rolling in that morning, and there was this traffic jam."
Waking up from his nap, Stewart assumed there must've been a Red Sox game or construction delay due to the never-ending Big Dig project. "I thought we were being diverted somewhere, but no. Low and behold, it turns out the traffic was for us!"
SINGER STEVEN PAGE was also caught off-guard, but sensed early on this wasn't going to be a typical, low-key, stripped-down record store appearance.
“(The album release party) was supposed to be run by Newbury Comics. And in those days, in-store signings and performances were de rigueur,” he recalls. "On release week, you’d go to different record shops around the country, you’d play a few songs, and then you’d sit behind a table and sign autographs.”
However, the record store plan ran into trouble. Rather than a band’s worst fear (not enough interest), the sheer number of fans reaching out in advance made the planned signing impossible to pull off, as one might say, dans la maison.
When it became clear the couple thousand or so fans typically expected for such an event would be vastly eclipsed, it was suggested the band hold the event outdoors. So, they pivoted to City Hall Plaza, which at the time was unaccustomed to big crowds later brought about by Tom Brady and David Ortiz.
“We hadn’t understood what the scope of that was gonna be,” says Page, who founded the band ten years earlier with high school friend and guitarist Ed Robertson, later to be joined by Stewart, bassist Jim Creeggan, and multi-instrumentalist Kevin Hearn. "As we drove up, the traffic was insane."
“We’re saying, ‘What is holding up the traffic here??’ And they said: ‘You are.’”
80,000 screaming New Englanders greeted the quintet when they stepped off the bus. "There's people in the parking garages behind City Hall Plaza," remembers Stewart, who has a picture of the occasion in his office. "There's people in trees. It was insane!"
When reminded that a paltry 5,000 fans turned out to greet The Beatles at LaGuardia Airport in 1964, Page jokes, “The Beatles will now hold Barenaked Ladies album-burnings, since we said we’re bigger than the Beatles.”
In that moment, Barenaked Ladies kinda were bigger than the Beatles, at least in Boston. They went from being a fringe, college alternative band who'd show up occasionally on Late Night with Conan O'Brien to a household name.
The album Stunt debuted at number three; its lead single, “One Week” topped the charts, the follow up Maroon sparked the classic “Pinch Me", and Barenaked Ladies became a household name. The band also saw older songs such as “Brian Wilson” and “The Old Apartment” break through on U.S. radio long after their initial releases due to the band’s sudden success.
"New England in general has always been like Barenaked Country," Stewart gushes. "We couldn't be more grateful to the fine people of New England for pushing us over the top." On City Hall Plaza, he says, "That was one of the greatest days of my life."
But how come a band known for its lighthearted lyrics and joyful attitude hit it big in a region then-Celtics coach Rick Pitino referred to as "the followship of the miserable"?
"I think it has something to do with our approachability," theorizes Stewart, who took the reins on the live show's closing medley following Page's 2009 departure. "We seem like regular guys that you might want to hang out with."
"Plus," he adds, "the sheer number of college and universities in Boston and New England in general. I think we just hit the demographic perfectly."
Page agrees that it’s all about growing up together, but was surprised at the band's lasting power in the region. "What was shocking was when it went beyond (college). Because college kids leave. When they’re done, they’re outta there quite often. And the fact that we kind of translated to actual New Englanders…that was the big shift for us.”
"The great thing is, a lot of them have stuck with us over the years," agrees Stewart. "So they're bringing their kids now." Just as I brought my own daughter, Sadie, to Gilford to see Barenaked Ladies last summer.
While Page continues to tour with his own group, and BNL continues to tour with its annual "Last Summer on Earth Tour," the question is raised: is there a world where Barenaked Ladies could share the bill with their former lead singer?
It might take more than $1000000. Yet, while describing the odds as "pretty slim," Stewart cautions: "Never say never. We're very happy for Steven and the fact that he's got his own career going. He continues to make music, and it's all great."
Page echoed Stewart in likening the parties' separate directions to a divorce where everyone's happier apart. However, recent communication between him and his former bandmates seems the leave the door cracked open just a little.
In addition to staying in touch with Hearn, Page is again on speaking terms with Robertson. "Ed actually, after the last couple of albums, has sent me a nice little compliment...always very complimentary. That's a nice thing, when there's enough water on the bridge that we can do that is awesome."
it’s a different Barenaked Ladies in 2023. And it could be said that their new songs remain for the children, with oldhead, diehards like me enjoying it through our kids’ eyes. But we’ll always have clips like this one from late 1997, at the very same site in Boston where 80,000 New Englanders would put Barenaked Ladies on the map a year later. You can feel that something big is about to happen for the boys from Toronto...
To hear my full interviews with Steven Page and Tyler Stewart, CLICK HERE.