Classic Albums Live is a real Canadian music success story. The brainchild of Craig Martin, it began in low-key fashion in Toronto in 2003 and it is a now thriving enterprise in both Canada and the US.
The concept is simple: play the classic albums of the rock era, cut for cut, note for note, using top-notch musicians and singers to bring the music to life. Unlike with clone or tribute bands, there is no attempt to impersonate or look like the artists being covered, it’s just down to the music.
We caught up with Martin in Toronto yesterday, just prior to his going to Kitchener to supervise the Let It Be concert there. Tonight, Led Zeppelin 1 is being reprised in Richmond Hill and The Beatles’ Help in the prestigious setting of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall, plus Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced in Carmel, California. The March sked includes Beatles shows in Florida and Delaware, Led Zeppelin in Clearwater FL, and six Ontario shows.
“I estimate that half our business is now in the States,” says Martin. “I love Americans. They’re just like us only louder! We hire top local musicians for US shows, so this is free trade in action. We have 40 shows a year in Florida alone.”
Classic Albums Live’s regular cast for Ontario shows include the noted likes of Rob Phillips (“he has a commanding position on most of the Beatles and all the Pink Floyd shows”), Nick Walsh (formerly of Slik Toxik and a singer on Bowie and Zeppelin shows), Phil Naro, and acclaimed singer Mia Sheard. “Getting work for all these musicians is the real joy of what I’m doing,” says Martin.
Reflecting on the series success, Martin notes “it’s a case of if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. We stay with the tried and true, and after 13 years we know what works and what doesn’t. People love classic rock. It has clearly endured and will continue to do so, as shown by the fact that people are bringing their kids. It’s a bonding experience.”
On his radar for adding to the repertoire are Green Day’s American Idiot and U2’s The Joshua Tree. “Will we add a Mariah Carey album? I don’t think so,” Martin chuckles.
It is now common for artists of the classic rock era to reprise their landmark albums, something Martin has observed with amusement. “Let me tell you a funny story,” he says. “-I’m friends with a famous actor and recently we were backstage at Madison Square Gardens for Bruce Springsteen doing The River. Before he goes onstage he’s having a conversation with Elvis Costello and Jon Stewart and Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone, and Bruce says ‘the trend right now seems to be that people want to hear the entire album played from top to bottom. That’s how you make the hay.’”
“I’m standing there, the guy that started the trend. I so wanted to insert myself into that conversation, but I didn’t. I’m the low-key guy from Scarborough. That was quite a moment.
I love that they’re all doing that. They all know about Classic Albums Live. People like Brian May, John Paul Jones and The Stones know about us. What they like is the fact that we’re not imprinting our personalities on their music.”
For the Classic Live Albums schedule of shows, go to classicalbumslive.com