'Peggers show devotion to Audience

DAVID SCHMEICHEL -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 10:58 AM ET

Audience -- your audience awaits. Despite being admired in the early 1970s for their sax-infused brand of prog-rock, the British-born members of Audience were never able to amass anything more than a minor following on the global stage.

But try telling that to anyone who grew up here in Winnipeg, where loyalty to the band -- and especially to its 1972 masterpiece House On The Hill -- was devout enough to cross over into the realm of legend.

"I couldn't give you any numbers but I believe it's probably true that House On The Hill sold more units in Manitoba than in all of North America," says former music critic Andy Mellen. "I can remember being (at now-defunct record store Opus 69) on Saturdays. You could just put the album on, and people would be tripping over each other trying to find out what it was and where they could get it. People would just be captivated."

Indeed, House On The Hill -- a lively and still infinitely listenable blend of smart lyrics, complex rhythms and trippy cover art -- was an integral addition to the record collection of many a young Winnipegger and the likely soundtrack to countless bong-soaked basement parties to boot.

But while Audience's many followers all agree on the band's impact, they're at a loss to explain the geographically-specific nature of the adulation.

"It was just a unique sound," says Mellen. "It was the combination of the acoustic guitar, the wonderful sax by Keith Gemmell, and (singer) Howard Werth's voice. The songs just seemed to touch people."

Radio deejay Howard Manshein -- he of the perpetually gushing on-air delivery and encyclopedic knowledge of classic rock -- counts himself among the band's biggest fans but agrees Winnipeg's love affair with House On The Hill pretty much defies explanation.

"Not only have people here fallen in love with this record, they would take this record to their graves," says Manshein, who'll be emceeing both of Audience's gigs at The Venue (Ramada Entertainment Centre) tonight and tomorrow. "The way you speak of your own child, that's how people speak of this album."

House On The Hill was one of the earliest -- if not the earliest - tracks Manshein played on his well-known Sunday morning show, and he's as thrilled as anyone to see that Winnipeggers haven't forgotten about Audience, whose members disbanded for more than 30 years before regrouping in 2004.

Interest in the band is still so high that the first of their scheduled shows in Winnipeg sold out, requiring a second gig to be quickly added to the slate.

"Winnipeg took such a liking to this band," says Manshein, ranking the city's infatuation with Audience alongside its love for the bizarre Brian De Palma musical Phantom Of the Paradise. "It just spoke to us in a way that wasn't anticipated."

Don't expect the band's members to be much help in solving the mystery, either.

Werth, who was once asked to take over as frontman of The Doors after Jim Morrison met his demise in a Paris bathtub, says he learned of Winnipeg's Audience-infatuation only recently, after he began to get e-mails from fans who were looking forward to the show.

"We weren't really aware of it," Werth says on the phone from England. "But nowadays communication is so much better, people write you or your record company and you actually receive what they've sent, instead of having it get lost somewhere."

The band -- which also includes bassist Trevor Williams and drummer John Fisher -- plans to begin recording again later this year, but first they want to perfect the sonic stylings that endeared them to so many locals in the first place.

"Our basic plan was always to incorporate as many styles as possible," says Werth. "I called it 'mongrel rock." And I think that in itself became a style of its own."

So, by all means, Winnipeg, prepare to take your place as Audience's unrivalled favourite audience, welcoming a long-overdue show that should bring a smile and some memories to those who have grown old along with their copies of House On The Hill.

"It just leaves the listener drained," says Manshein of the album. "It's like a seven-day weekend. It's absolutely special ... and it just gets better with age."

Audience plays tonight and tomorrow at The Venue, with opening act Swingsoniq, featuring former Guess Who guitarist Greg Leskiw.


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