40 years and 21 studio albums later, Canadian prog legends SAGA decided it was time to enjoy their well-earned retirement. And they surely went out with a bang, playing for a sold out audience in Toronto on February 24th in what was dubbed as their Farewell Concert. SAGA formed in 1977 in Oakville, Ontario, Canada, and released its first album in 1978. Since that time, SAGA has sold ten million albums and performed in over twenty countries to over fifteen million people. They are widely regarded as one of the most influential progressive rock bands in Canada and around the world.
Regardless all of the above, I will be honest and say that I had never heard of SAGA until very recently. For some reason they were never big where I grew up. Come to think of it, they didn’t even played where I grew up. Therefore, I went into this concert with the open mind and the absolutely fresh pair of ears of someone who had never being familiar with any of their well-known anthems. To listen to songs for the very first time, from a band who would play them for the very last time in their career turned out to be a remarkable and unique experience for me.
I arrived just in time to check out the beginning of the set of the opening band, James Blonde. If my credentials hadn’t been checked a handful of times before entering the Phoenix Concert Theatre, I would have thought I was at the wrong gig: James Blonde didn’t sound like anything a Saga fan would have pursued. They carried their Muse and Franz Ferdinand influences on their sleeves, delivering a competent pop repertoire with a lot of breathing space between each instrument. Here, the melodies are driven by the bass and keyboards, while the guitar is there to add textures for the most part. All three in the band shared the vocal duties, and while the crowd seemed a bit puzzled at the beginning, they certainly warmed up to the band as their set progressed.
While waiting for Saga, it was noticeable how aged the crowd was. My best guess is that the youngest person in this audience had probably already left college when “Dark Side of the Moon” was released. And overheard conversations of people seeing Rush in their “2112” tour or being at the show where Genesis’ “Seconds Out” was recorded only added more evidence to my claim. The anticipation was palpable though, and we were soon to witness a true historical event.
Saga hit the stage with “Take a Chance”, from the album “Behaviour” (1985). The devoted crowd sang each and every line, summoned by vocalist Michael Sadler. The stage had an unusual setup, with Jim Crichton (bass) and Jim Gilmour (keyboards) on stage right, a keyboard in the back, and Mike Thorne (drums) and Ian Crichton (guitar) on stage left. The new wave-influenced “On the Loose”, came next, and with a chorus like “No one can stop us now, tonight we’re on the loose”, it was hard not to follow Michael´s command to sing. “How Long”, the very first song off their debut album brought images of the early years of the band shown on a big screen. I was surprised to notice that Michael once sported a Frank Zappa look, while these days he looks more like a slimmer Ben Kingsley. Visuals aside, his voice is as strong as ever, and his authoritative stage presence and his engagement with the crowd was truly a thing to behold.
The galloping “The 13th Generation”, with spoken verses and futuristic keyboards had a massive crowd reaction – Ian‘s solo was met with great applause. On “Time’s Up”, Mike Thorne used his electronic pad, and Michael played keyboards, while rabid fans followed his ominous words “time’s up…you’ve been wishing your life away”. The intricate instrumental “Corkentellis” got an insane reaction, and looking at the back of the house it was hard to miss so many people playing air keyboards and losing their minds. At this point I questioned why they were calling it a day, since they effortlessly nailed this complicated piece. After so many years, it seems all those unissons and drum fills could be executed in their sleep! Classic after classic followed, with other highlights in the anthemic “Don’t Be Late”, “Mouse in a Maze” and “Book of Lies”, with yet another blistering guitar solo. Jim Gilmour took on the vocal duties for the 80’s-tinged “Scratching the Surface”, and the main set ended with the one-two punch of “You’re Not Alone” and “Don’t Be Late”, arguably their biggest ever hit.
With the back screen showing images of packed stadiums in the mid-80’s, the band returned to the stage for “The Flyer”, “Wind Him Up” and “Tired World”. Michael greeted once again the fans who came from all over the world to witness their swan song, and they bowed out one last time. With a setlist spanning their entire career, a packed venue and a devoted audience, this was surely a night to remember, and a fitting and emotional farewell to these Canucks. How long for a reunion tour then?
Take a Chance / On the Loose / How Long / The 13th Generation / The Learning Tree / Careful Where You Step / Time’s Up / Corkentellis / On the Air / Someone Should / Mouse In A Maze / Book of Lies / Drum Solo / Humble Stance / Scratching the Surface / You’re Not Alone / Don’t Be Late (Chapter 2)
The Flyer / Wind Him Up / Tired World (Chapter 6)