Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Wavelength @ P.S. Kensington Feat. Lullabye Arkestra / Cloak'ed Claw (a.k.a. Hooded Fang) / Mindbender / The Guest Bedroom / Danger Bay / Isla Craig
P.S. Kensington. Sunday, July 26, 2009.
Walking over from the streetcar, I took my eyes off of the grey, threatening sky only when I had to wind my way past the phalanx of firetrucks. The smoke had cleared, but apparently Massimo's had gone up — though as I went by, I wasn't sure if they were in there or Rancho. Had a few minutes to wander, which, of course was the point of the day, Kensington being closed off to cars for Pedestrian Sunday. Despite the full morning of rain with the assurance of more to come, there were good crowds about taking it in, and the usual variety of small spectacles to behold. I was, however, down here with a purpose, to take in the activity under the Wavelength tents. So I found myself the least possibly befouled spot on the stairs in front of Neutral, somewhere between the cigarette butts and the discarded phone book on the sidewalk slowly being pulped into a mushy maché.1 Settled down and took in the Faceless Knifefighters stage, hugging the side wall of the convenience store at the top of Augusta as the Wavelength folks finished setting up.2
Isla Craig's soundcheck ambiently rolling over the streetscape melded nicely into her short set. Accompanied by backing tracks and a beat-conductin' companion, Craig lists her genre as "Gospel / R&B / Trance" which is a start. I'm guessing that this particular set was a bit more spare than her usual (if the tracks on her Myspace are anything to go by) but they provided an elegant soundtrack to the streetscape. The first number, with a slightly-wheezy, accordion-like keyboard was the most intriguing, enfolding itself on random chord-stabs by the end. The following songs, one with Craig on guit and the final one with just her vox + beats were pretty fair too. It was a quick set, but certainly left me wanting to investigate further.
And then a super-quick changeover for Danger Bay, playing their second gig. This is a new project for Jonny Dovercourt — who, frankly, you probably owe a hug to for all of the good work he's done — and his cohorts.3 Choosing such a nostalgia-inducing name might be seen a signpost pointing to a backwards-looking aesthetic, and, indeed, you could take your pick of art-punk signifiers to describe their sound.4 This could just be my read, of course, but one gets the sense that unlike a bunch of strutting young kids trying to "make it", this looked like a group that were celebrating the music they love, making a racket and having a good time, which are surely rock'n'roll values worth celebrating.5 As part of this process, joy, pleasure, and attraction are giving way to strength and creativity. All four members were contributing here, Howlett's bass tugging nicely against the guit, and O'Sullivan's frontwoman hoodoo, if not yet overpowering, was not being overshadowed. Perhaps as much a product of having newer and fewer songs, the band came out swinging with a series of punkish run-and-gun force bursts, but there are signs — such as on "Prince of Gauntness" — of some more complex dynamics to come. After the five-song set was over, I was surprised to note that it had all zoomed by in a sprightly twelve minutes and change. A fun performance from a band just getting wired up — keep your eyes on this bunch, there's undoubtedly interesting things a-comin'.
Listen to a track from this set here.
After a leg-stretching jaunt round to see the sights, came back with The Guest Bedroom already on stage. After seeing them a couple months ago, my notes included the slightly underwhelming "generally agreeable" as a summing up, which might say as much about my mood at the time. Of course, it could say something about my mood on this afternoon that I was much more into their sounds. Some nifty keyboard moves behind Sandi Falconer's guit subvert things enough to keep them interesting. This band is starting to sink in with me — once more ought to do the trick.
If you're of the opinion that a bit of chaos and unpredictability can make a gig better (a notion to which I am not entirely unsympathetic), then a cloudburst at an outdoor show might be just the ticket. It certainly added a unique flavour to Mindbender's set. Completely unknown to me save for the spraypainted stencil reading "MINDBENDER LOVES YOU" I saw as I was walking to the show. Turned out to be the nom de geurre for M.C. Addi Stewart, who came solo, rhyming over pre-recorded tracks. Just as he started his set, a few drops came down from the sky. Which turned into a steady rain, and soon a downpour. Refusing to bow to the elements, Mindbender increased his flow to a torrent and kept plowing through, and when he said he'd sooner be electrocuted than stop, I believed him — even if he was playing onto to a thin line of listeners hugging the building across the street and a few foolhardy passers-by. He came across as someone putting his guts on the line, so dedicated to his craft that he was willing to challenge the storm. Fighting not only the rain but a slightly glitchy sound system, he managed to deftly toss out dense clumps of accomplished rhymes. Eventually someone thought to hand him an umbrella, which he used as much as a prop as protection. It can't have been an ideal show from the artist's perspective, but it was captivatingly memorable stuff. Kudos. Look up "weatherproof" in the rhyme dictionary and there'll be a picture of Mindbender.
Cue the storm. While Mindbender was persevering, the volunteers were busy behind him, lowering the tents and generally battening down the hatches in an attempt to keep the gear dry. When he was done, it looked like there was gonna be a pause to see if things'd clear up any, so I passed some time looking for dry ground to occupy. I ducked around here and there, and on coming back, it looked like things were gonna be a go. Looking at the musicians milling around, I realized I had once again been slow on the uptake and Cloaked Claw, the next-billed band, were none other than Hooded Fang. Geez, you'd think I'd never done a crossword puzzle in my life. Hooded Fang's deck seems to have been shuffled a bit, this show finding Daniel behind the kit. The band sounded a little thin with the street system P.A., but still managed to get their peppy songs across. A bouncy take on "Circles and Blocks" certainly hit the spot, and left me looking forward to seeing them indoors at this week's Rural Alberta Advantage gig.
It might seem jarring to follow Hooded Fang's cuddly pop with the metallic apocalypse of Lullabye Arkestra, but in the Wavelength spirit, it made perfect sense. Both are part of the same community, and though playing last, the band were hanging around all afternoon, taking it all in. In fact, despite their abrasive music, the duo ooze positivity, and outside a union hall, there are few people who can publicly start a sentence with "brothers and sisters" more sincerely than Justin Small. All of which is to say is I love Lullabye Arkestra's spirit, even if I'm not one hundred per cent behind their musical direction. I do find it bracing, though, and it's hard not to pick up on the energy that these two put across. Under a persistent rain for much of the set, after a white-noise selection of their own stuff, their take on "Summertime" was like a cool breeze. The set ended with some mild chaos. After passing a mic out to the crowd for some collective vocals, the tarp covering the seams between the tents overhead began to give, dripping onto Justin mid-tune as volunteers tried to prevent/cause further confusion. Justin and Kat ended the set in a clinch before being called back for one more, offering a cover by 90's Winnipeg sludge-thrash warriors Kittens. Recently signed to Vice, L. Ark. seem poised to make waves worldwide and will serve as fine ambassadors of Toronto.
Listen to a track from this set here.
Feeling pleasantly exhausted, made my way back to Spadina to catch the streetcar, pausing only to gawk inside the smoke-damaged windows of Massimo's a bit.
1 This was one place where you would most assuredly not want to let your fingers do the walking.
2 In a nice touch, the wall of movie posters behind the bands had been painted over by artist Benjamin Oakley, who supplied a benign-looking cat to watch over the proceedings.
3 Because pedantic tracking of who was previously in what band never loses its appeal, the Danger Bay CV is useful to have on hand:
Jonny Dovercourt (guit, vox, butch moustache) — ex-Republic of Safety, The Magnetars, Currently In These United States, Christiana, Kid Sniper, Secret Agent, A Tuesday Weld
Paul Weadick (drums) — ex-Entire Cities, Forest City Lovers
Brendan Howlett (bass) — ex-Entire Cities, Henri Faberge & the Adorable
Deirdre O'Sullivan (vox, presence) — first band!!
Thanks to Jonny for providing me with this background info.
4 For what it's worth, I heard a certain amount of spiky Sonic Youth in there, but feel free to come up with your own.
5 This has hitherto been a niche in the local music ecosystem filled by The Two Koreas.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Jon Rae Fletcher / Ryan Driver
Imperial Pub (back room). Friday, July 24, 2009.
How has Jon-Rae Fletcher changed in the past couple years? Consider these lines from "Best of My Time":
I've heard some people say
forty bucks is too much to pay
when you're out drinking the night away
Back in the days when he was backed by the rollicking River, he'd lean into the final line: "But I say it ainnnnnnnnnnnnnn't". Now, the song's a little less rambunctious, and on this night, hitting that same line, he says, with an implied chuckle, "Well it kinda is."
I tend to think we kind of like to create little narratives for our pop heroes, and a little switch like this is grist for the mill in the tale of Jon-Rae Fletcher's own mythopoetical tale of recklessness and redemption, a prodigal son of the scene returning as a visitor to dispatch the wisdom of lessons learned.1
Playing again in the cozy back room of the Imperial Pub — site of another Jon-Rae gig thirteen months ago when he was bringing his new songs to the old town — there was a bit of a smaller crowd this time, about a couple dozen, all told. I was out with R., a friend from the Old Days, who came out based only on my recommendation. Honoring the vibe of the place, I was unironically drinkin' bottles of 50 and generally enjoying the surroundings. "The white piano haunts my dreams," R. lamented as we settled into the back room, looking at the low-slung stage and the old stand-up piano flanking it. There's usually a clear demarcation between the Imperial's regulars and folks coming out for a show like this. The regulars, for one thing, are given the respect of place that they can head outside through the door behind the stage and go for a smoke.2 One such guy — scruffy beard, Tiger Cats jacket — ducked out and came back in during Ryan Driver's opening set. Sitting down beside that piano for a minute, he seemed to be taking it all in as he pulled what looked like a small piccolo from his pocket and looked, for one queasy second, like he was going to start playing along, before heading back into the main area of the bar.
I was mostly familiar with Ryan Driver for his role in some of the Rat-Drifting bands. That's as good a sign-post as any to give some indication of what he was up to, a sort of fractured folk sound. Playing solo acoustic in a variety of tunings, mostly involving a high string or two being flattened enough to give the guitar a bit of a banjo-y sound. Driver has a pleasing voice (shades of, say, Sandro Perri and Bob Wiseman) and could hit the high notes cleanly when he wanted to — though sometimes, for effect, he'd mess with those those as well. Musically, his songs got by without a strong melodic sense, eschewing easy hooks for a trickier internal logic, dodging traditional structure to the extent that most of the time the ending of the song came as a sudden and unexpected stop. Sometimes, music like this turns me off, but Driver kept each song going with enough momentum that I was carried along. It helps that he's clearly got the chops to pull this off. Mighta just been the 50 speaking, but I dug this.
I'd come in expecting that Jon-Rae's set would be solo acoustic, so it was a pleasant and interesting surprise to see that this was going to be a bit more expansive, with Crystal Dee Denham's bass and Denver Rawson's trombone reproducing their fine work on the recent Oh, Maria album. Also somewhat unexpected was Jon-Rae's re-embrace of his own back catalog, as he split the set between the new album and his older stuff, something that he has pretty rigourously avoided in the past year. So besides solid runthroughs of "The Big Talker" and "Downtown", we were treated to an Old Songs one-two of "Time and Effort" and "Two Hands" as well as later River-era standards such as "Best of My Time" and "Fuck Me". The trips to the past even stretched back to "Fourteen Years", a song Jon-Rae said he wrote, in fact, fourteen years ago, his first country song after being in a "terrible teen band". The set ended with an excellent solo take of "Fire", which Jon-Rae would have left on to go out on a high note had he not been called back for a couple more, including "Come Back to Me", not heard in these parts for quite some time.
A very encouraging set. Jon-Rae comes across as being more comfortable in his own skin than he was a year ago, far less tentative, and reconciled to his own past good work.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 Which is to say, of course, that I have no notion as to what's a biographical clue and what's just a good line, just that it is pretty irresistible to try and wrap all of this up into a little story where the art and the artist blend into each other.
2 I've also wondered if there's any interesting byplay at that back door between the Imperial's patrons and the non-overlapping group of guys hanging out at the discount sneaker place right beside there. Take note, prospective documentarians, slice-of-life observers or aspiring odd-couple sitcom writers.
Saturday, July 25, 2009
Friday, July 24, 2009
Artist: Sonic Youth
Album: The Eternal
This far along the road, listening to a contemporary Sonic Youth album is a bit like watching a contemporary Simpsons episode — usually enjoyable, but often with the slight aftertaste of a rehash of something you remember from ten or fifteen years ago. Relative to their whole output, this may just be "just another Sonic Youth album", but it's not without its charms. You can look for the minute variations: get Kim to sing the chorus on Lee's song — it's like pairing up Lisa and Superintendent Chalmers! Lacking a killer single, this is saved by its depth throughout — good listening start to finish, and an especially good one-two punch leading off. After that, you can mostly sit back and enjoy the textures. Thurston seems to be bringing the least winning tunes to the table, leaving Lee's stuff to shine a bit brighter, and Kim, as usual, has a pretty good one and a not-so-good one in there.
I'm not sure what this says about the band and its music, but there's something interesting to the fact that more space in the album's liner notes are given to art and photography credits than to the music and who made it. Meanwhile, I dunno what high-art concept about "The Eternal" the John Fahey painting reproduced on the cover is meant to convey, but it unfailingly makes me think, "Mmmm..... cherry danish".
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Artist: Apostle of Hustle
Album: Eats Darkness
The third Apostle of Hustle full-length finds Andrew Whiteman and co. moving away from their signature sound — or perhaps digging a bit deeper into it. That is to say that the unique, Cuban-inspired "folkloric feel" that the band started from is a bit obscured by a more straight-ahead rock sound. But to call this a departure misses two points: first, that even if he has largely put down the tres, it has informed and been incorporated into his guitar technique; and also that this gets a bit closer to the sort of rockin' live sound that AoH have had all along.
The first two songs on the album are both crackers. The spiky energy of "Eazy Speaks" contrasts nicely with the warmly buoyant tones of the Lisa Lobsinger-aided "Soul Unwind". From there, the songs proceed quite sure-footedly, including two of Whiteman's most "pop" tunes yet in the bouncy "Xerxes" and closer "Blackberry". To the bad, though, the songs are interspersed between interstitial collages that play hip-hop mixtape skits up against Burroughsian cut-and-paste composition. Although they might fulfill a thematic purpose, helping to link the album's concerns (a fascination with cartoon-y hip-hop violence and Latin American revolutionary jargon and how all that relates to art and poetry), they are interesting to hear once, maybe, and after that are a bit of a distraction. They also pad out what is a short-ish thirty-six minute running time. Still, not much to complain about when there are a half-dozen top-notch songs here. A nice addition to the discography.
Track Picks: 2 - "Eazy Speaks", 3 - "Soul Unwind", 13 - "Blackberry"
Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Artist: Jarvis Cocker
Album: Further Complications
Somewhat strangely, people were shocked — shocked! — that Jarvis Cocker released a rockin' album recorded by Steve Albini. I mean, he is a famous rock musician and all, not an Elizabethan balladeer, or just some witty bon vivant. Perhaps Albini's name set people off, like suddenly they were expecting this to come out sounding like a Jesus Lizard album or something. But Albini is, to his credit, pretty flexible, more interested in getting music made in a fuss-free and direct manner. So while we do have a set of rockers here, it's not extraordinarily far removed from what we might have expected.
The stripped-down musical approach does correspond with stripped-down lyrics. But that doesn't necessarily mean equal dumbed-down: "I never said I was deep / but I am profoundly shallow," as our man admits. Which means for every song that seems a little obvious (like "Caucasian Blues") there's usually something a bit more clever, such as "Leftovers", which finds our hero picking up girls at the paleontology museum ("If you want to study dinosaurs / I know a specimen whose interest is undoubted"). Everything here isn't a gem — "Homewrecker" sounds pretty generic, part of an unfocused mid-album sag. But generally the album's brio and élan carry it through.
It ends on a bit of a left turn with "You're In My Eyes", an extended disco meditation on memory and loss that sends the listener off with a slightly piquant jab to the chest, which, despite all the cleverness and irony it's often cloaked in, is something that Jarvis Cocker is one of the best at.
Track Picks: 4 - "Leftovers"
Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Artist: The Thermals
Album: Now We Can See
A cracker of an album. On their fourth full-lengther, the Portland duo get even a little more pop in outlook and in the clean production. But there's enough DIY in the bleat of Hutch Harris' vox and in the unswept corners of these songs to keep it from feeling oversanitized. Continuing from the band's earlier works, the jaunty music is a spoonful of sugar to go with an intense existential concern, and a fear of apocalypses both personal and otherwise. As an experiment, I made a word cloud of this album's lyrics:
Almost as expected, "sick" and "never" are the first things popping out at your eyes, "nothing" and "dissolve" almost as prominent — but "love" and "need" are just hanging just back, waiting for their moment. I think that captures things reasonably well.
Track Picks: 4 - "Now We Can See", 7 - "I Called Out Your Name"
Monday, July 20, 2009
Album: I Feel Cream
A few slight tweaks to the Peaches persona, but this is generally a logical extension of Impeach My Bush. At first, following the state-of-the-Peaches "Serpentine", "Talk to Me" gives the impression that this album might be headed in more of a disco direction but after a couple tracks of that things revert a bit more to type. Which is too bad, as this is the album's best stuff. "Lose You" not only introduces a rare touch of vulnerability, but also has a soulful underpinning, bringing, say, The Gossip to mind. Most of the rest depends on finding the subtle differentiation from the rest of the catalog — and deciding to what degree it works. To the good, "Billionaire" is a good stomper with a rap cameo by Yo Majesty's Shunda K., while on the other side of the ledger, the title track sounds as if it were karaoke'd to a tired-sounding dance track from a decade ago. And so it goes down the line. There's really only a couple clunkers, so this is ultimately a worthy album. In the larger picture, whether you need this if you have another Peaches album depends on your affection for that sort of discographical hair-splitting.
Afterthought: Looking back on the above, it seems a bit churlish. The problem, of course, is that taken in the wrong context, this album's move-yr-bottom virtues are gonna be taken as, duh, merely repetitive. Properly applied in a "shut up and dance" situation, this is perfectly fine.
Track pick: Talk to Me
Sunday, July 19, 2009
Artist: The Wooden Birds
A new project from Andrew Kenny (ex of the now-defunct, much missed, American Analog Set) is going to be heard by any fan of that band (and I am one) in the context of that body of music. While one can certainly discern the same songwriter's hand, we have a different musical palette here — sparer, leaner — with the songs centred on acoustic guit and vox. There are other sounds colouring in around those, including some bass, a bit of percussion, some female backing vox, but they're very much supporting elements. It's tempting to hear some of these tunes as what could have been potential AmAnSet demos, and, while a song like "Quit You Once" sounds, at its outset, like it could have taken its place in the discography, one is left feeling that the key difference here is that without the warm drone of AmAnSet's keybs, there isn't a higher gear for these tunes to kick into. Which can feel mildly frustrating and confining, but taken at their own face value and within their own sound-world, these songs feel just fine. The quiet percussive thwack of the guit playing can get a bit samey at times, but this is a low-key pleasure. Suitable for drowsy days.
Track pick: 1 - "False Alarm"
Saturday, July 18, 2009
Just a quick note: I am headed out to the rural analog world for a few days, so there won't be any concert-y stuff up here for a bit. By the time you read this, in fact, I should be on a hammock, listening to Young Marble Giants and considering the wide Manitoba sky while sipping on some iced tea made with fresh mint picked from the garden.
Planning ahead for a time like this, I have a backlog of album reviews to fill the days with, so if you've been on the fence about any of February's big releases, this might be the consumer advice you've been waiting for. Regular service will resume in a week or so.
P.S. If anyone has any interesting observations (or links to same) for any of the gigs I'm missing while I'm away — say, Timber Timbre last night, Japandroids tonight, or even how crazy the Fucked Up gig is — do leave a comment.
Friday, July 17, 2009
Queen's Park. Sunday, July 12, 2009.
After a false start1, got to Queen's start with Menwar already on stage, and although I knew nothing about him, I was quickly entranced. He had the wiry energy of a prophet just down from the mountain (and dreads down to his knees to match) and a prophet's gravitas, but wasn't coming across as Old testament doom and gloom. Instead, on a musical bedrock of mostly percussion, he delivered lyrically somewhere between a muezzin and a reggae toaster. He employed a variety of percussion instruments, both traditional and home-made — including shakers with pistachio shells and something like a thumb piano made from a sardine tin — backed by three other percussionists. Madagascar Slim joined the crew on a couple songs. It was the first time in Canada for the Mauritian crew, and the crowd took to his material pretty enthusiastically, especially after about fifteen minutes, when he really started cooking. After the set, the merch table was doing good business with people grabbing his CD. A very pleasing introduction to this bracing, vitally driving stuff.
Listen to a track from this set here.
I'd been reading about Kemer Yousuf for a while now, especially since he made a giant splash around his triumphant return last year to Ethiopia — a country he fled as a refugee — as a bona fide pop star. I can't say I know much about Ethiopian music besides a smattering of Éthiopiques comps, which mostly represents the "golden age" of the 70's. Of the more current styles, I only know what I've heard while ordering more injera when eating out. I know that there has been, generally speaking, a shift from the ethio-jazz arrangements of the old days to more of a synth-based sound, so I was curious to see where Kemer's sound would fall. Of course, once he hit the stage, all academic questions slid away under the strength of his magnetism. Here's a guy who radiates charisma, with a big, easy smile and, at the outset, a striking getup including an all-white get-up and an ostentatious wig/head-dress.2
The set started with a tribute to Tilahun Gessesse, the recently deceased legend of Ethiopian music. Amongst his many claims to fame was that he was noted for singing both in the Amharic and Oromo languages, so respect was shown by playing the same song twice, in both languages, with Kemer taking the vocals the first time, and his backup singer (and brother?) in a different arrangement the second time through. I'm sure this was symbolic on a lot of levels beyond my ken as I know that Kemer is dedicated to Oromo language and culture.
Kemer was backed by a crack seven-piece band, with two keyb players, sax, drummer, percussionist, plus guit and bass. The sound seemed to be a bit of a middle ground between the two poles I'd been thinking about earlier, with a solid, organic groove provided by the rhythm section and accentuated by the saxophone that was offset by the modern stabs of the synthesizers. Most importantly, it was danceable stuff, and fronted by a man who had a Mr. Please Please Please level of dedication to entertaining — moving around the stage, dropping to his knees, pumping up the crowd. He was also the beneficiary of an African music practice that most local musicians covered in this blog would certainly envy: as a token of esteem, audience would hand him money — generally twenty dollar bills &mdash or, in a couple memorable instances, press the bill to his forehead, where the sweat would hold it in place while he kept singing. The second half of the hour-long set was especially cooking, as the two sets of female dancers, alternating between songs, grooved it out on stage. This guy has star power, and is definitely worth seeing live. A highlight of the festival.3
Listen to a track from this set here.
After that, had some time to wander around the grounds, which were getting increasingly crowded, and could have spent longer before coming back to the stage as, for the first time I'd seen, the soundpeople were having an awfully difficult time getting things set up correctly for Achilla Orru. Perhaps it was in part due to his unusual setup: two kalimbas, flute, trumpet, cello and violin. But even just vox and kalimba, as he started with, were causing problems, with feedback rising up from every noise. A bit unfortunate as both voice and thumb piano were wonderfully graceful-sounding instruments. With the full band, they were swathed in chamber-like arrangements. A bit rococo for my taste, and the sound was still kinda rough. When A., biking by with time to kill between Fringe shows, found me in the crowd, it seemed like an okay time to slip away and sample the eats.4
When I made my way back to the main stage area, I was suddenly struck by the giant crowd that had assembled. Whereas previously I'd had no problem getting right near the stage, now I was a reasonable distance back. Fortunately, I found a spot on a little rise that gave me a decent view, and stood behind someone's blanket so I didn't have anyone directly in front of me. To the bad, though, things had fallen behind, and an 8:30 start time got pushed to about ten past nine, leaving a little dead time. But that was forgotten when Oumou Sangaré hit the stage. I must confess that I had not heard of her before seeing her listed as the Afrofest headliner, despite the fact that she's an artist of enormous fame. A Malian singer in the Wassoulou tradition, Sangaré is a diva in the old-fashioned sense: larger than life, intensely magnetic, and bearing a gifted voice. Just to see her on stage gave the impression that this was a strong woman.
She was backed by seven instrumentalists and two singer/dancers. The band had a balance between western instruments (bass, guitar, drum kit) and more traditional ones (kora, djembe, African fiddle, and a variety of percussion). Over the course of her ninety-minute set, we got a range of moods and tempos, from slower, more ballad-based material to upbeat hip shakers. This audience, too, was showering its star with money, handing her no small number of twenty and fifty dollar bills, that were received with a friendly nod as a matter of course and dropped into a pile off to the back of the stage. It was pretty convincing stuff. I felt a bit exhausted by the end, but I had the sense that I saw something a far cut above the norm.
Overall, Afrofest was — as always — a very good experience. Such a relaxed vibe, and a diverse crowd, across every demographic, age, class, etc. In one sense, this is the Toronto that we like to think we live in all the time, crystallized into reality for a weekend by the music, but feeling as much like an act of citizenship as a party.
1 Met with A. for an early afternoon Fringe show that turned out to be incomprehensible and reach-far-outstripping-grasp — four stars, my tuckus. Walked over to Queen's Park after that, but I felt completely drained and a little grumpy at the world. So I went home for a bit, puttered around and caught the early acts on CIUT before heading back down in a much better mood.
2 He'd later change into a showy black number covered with thin, looping chains as part of another tribute: "If I can't sing like Michael Jackson, I'll dress like Michael!"
3 The merch table was selling his Nabek album for $10, quite a steal. I picked it up and on subsequent investigation, found it has a bit more of a dancefloor, synth-heavy sound, but is still pretty good stuff.
4 Listening back to my recording of the CIUT broadcast, it indeed sounds like everything got balanced out in the latter part of the performance, so I wouldn't want what I said above to sound like a dis on any of the musicians.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
Broken Social Scene / Rattlesnake Choir
Harbourfront Centre. July 11, 2009.
As I left the love vibe of Afrofest and climbed on the subway to get down to Harbourfront, I had this vague worry that I was leaving Woodstock to go to Altamont — to what would surely be an overcrowded, pushy cauldron of gatecrashers. Best to get there super early, then, and get a seat. Even if that meant standing for the length of the show, having a demarked bit of space would hopefully at least make things tolerable. Got to Union and walked down, and while I was making my way over on the boardwalk, I could hear that music playing. It was soundcheck, and there was a semi-full house already as I found a spot and settled in. J. found me a few minutes later as we listened to the band run through "Fire Eye'd Boy" and an couple more songs. Caught sight of Feist and Amy Millan amongst the whole crowd, the sense building that was going to be the full Broken Social Scene experience.
Then there was some time to kill. I talked about my Woodstock/Altamont theory and we discussed Lester bangs at Altamont while we watched the young crowd, seemingly fresh from the pages of Vice magazine, fill in the last remaining seats and begin to congregate in the aisles. In terms of time fillers, there was also an opening act, local crew Rattlesnake Choir, who played a competent set of perfectly fungible country-rock. "Didn't the Flying Burrito Brothers play first at Altamont?" asked J.1 I wasn't terribly excited by the act — not so much that I was going to stand up to watch — so instead I figured this might be the last best opportunity to get to the bathroom. Made my way through the crowd, by now pretty thick outside the seating area, and blinked my eyes a couple times when I thought I saw the Angels brandishing their weighted pool cues. Made it there and back without incident, not feeling so eager to have to do that twice. Meanwhile, Rattlesnake Choir were still playing. By and large, there was nothing wrong with them, and they'd probably sound fine in their native environment down in the Dakota. But at this show, in front of this crowd, if didn't sit right, and I was sorta looking at my watch, thinking of that curfew and how every minute this lot played meant one less for BSS.
Oh — did I mention the cameras? There were at least three big camera rigs on site, including a pair on the stage and one at the back of the seating area, plus guys all over with movie cameras. Turns out the event was being filmed by Bruce McDonald, who came out to speak to the crowd briefly. My mind was immediately flashing on the scene with Drew and Canning with McDonald in the editing room, going through the footage frame-by-frame to find where you could first spot the guy pulling the gun.
Anyways, just before nine, the waiting was over, and Broken Social Scene took the stage. Leading off with an instrumental, everything suddenly felt okay. After "Fire Eye'd Boy", Kevin said, "we got all your hometown heroes here tonight!" As Feist came on stage and the crowd shrieked with girlish glee, the band broke into "Shoreline".2 A couple solo numbers from Kevin and Brendan's solo/BSS albs followed.
Meanwhile, the non-annoying people that'd been sitting in front of us bailed, and the space was filled by a less-welcome crew of young dudes, sniggering at each other, lighting cigarettes, and yapping away between pouring shots from their concealed liquor bottle. They fell into that class of people who didn't give much consideration to those around them — if everyone in the place is standing up in the seats, does it really seem like a wise idea to sit on the back of a seat and lean back right up to the person standing there? This was the less fun part of the show, leaving J. muttering under his breath that he was going to unleash his inner Altamont on the young suburbanites.
But that notwithstanding, the show was getting on in cracking fashion. Divided into three acts, the middle segment was devoted to songs from members whose success has mostly led them away from the BSS circle. We got a new one from Amy Millan, which sounded nice, but was a little sedate for this situation, followed by a duet between Kevin and Feist, who mashed up the former's "Safety Bricks" with the latter's "Past In Present", plus some "I Feel It All" tacked on at the end. This was followed by Emily Haines fronting a slowed-down and BSS-ed up version of "Gimme Sympathy", which was very well done. Then, in a nice nod to the '04 Harbourfront show, Jason Collett did "I'll Bring the Sun", merging into a snippet of GBV's "Glad Girls" at the end.3 The middle part ended with Andrew Whiteman (joined by Apostle of Hustle's Dean Stone on drums) leading the band in a raucous take of "Soul Unwind" that used the horn section to good effect.
Listen to this version of "Gimme Sympathy" here.
The final act mixed old and new material, with "Almost Crimes" and an amazing "Anthems For a 17 Year Old Girl" bookending "New Country"4 and a new song known around the internet as "MTV Jam", presumably because of a video clip in circulation with them performing it on MTV — although I vividly recall the song from the BSS jam at Jason Collett's Dakota residency in December '07. Kevin seemed impressed with the speed at which the band had got through the setlist, and lapsed, for the only time during the show, into his new-age Primal Scream guru persona: "Everyone say 'I'm Sorry'!" He instructed the crowd. "Everyone say 'I Still Fuckin' Love You!'" For a brief second it seemed like the band was going to do the setlist and that's it, which confused me — I'd expected the band to fill every second up to that curfew. But normality soon re-asserted itself, and the band launched into a fiery version of "Pacific Theme", and seemingly everyone climbed up to stand on their seats. A couple more songs and that was it, again — except for an uptempo jaunt through "Major Label Debut".
Getting out wasn't terribly bad — people had started trickling away after 10:30 and after a small, dense knot of people in the standing area it was pretty navigable. Certainly one to remember, it felt like a summation of everything that's come so far. It'll be interesting to see when so many of the clan are assembled on one stage again, but at least it does seem like there's still some viable forward momentum in the old Scene yet. And while there were some moments where I was feeling less-than-charitable towards my fellow concert-goers, no-one ended up stabbed, so success on many levels.
Listen to another track from this gig here.
1 So as to not besmirch his rep as a rock'n'roll historian, I must note that J. subsequently corrected himself by noting that Santana actually played first that day.
2 Wherein she made one slight alteration to the lyrics — instead of saying "If you try to steal the beat / the beat will steal you", she said "If you try to steal the scene / the scene will steal you". Or you could capitalize that to The Scene for some interesting self-referential fun.
3 To complete the tribute to that '04 show, I was kinda hoping Canning would wear a towel on his head again, but no luck there.
4 A song that dates back to the You Forgot It In People era, but was never recorded, and has been recently revived — perhaps this has been tackled at the band's recent recording sessions?
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Queen's Park. Saturday, July 11, 2009.
Was awakened on Saturday morning by booming thunder and, within minutes, a torrential rainstorm had begun. Not a great sign for a day that I'd been planing to hit two outdoor events. Turned out to be lucky that the bad weather had passed through so early in the day, though, as it was pretty smooth sailing after that.
Had only been anticipating a relatively short stay in the park on Saturday. As I emerged from Museum station and walked over to the park, the sky was clear and it was quite pleasant out — even the ground underfoot didn't seem all that wet or mucky. Perhaps downtown had been spared some of the storm's force, although it did seem to have had an impact on the setup as things were going about a half-hour behind schedule. That meant I managed to catch most of Valu David's set. His soulful tunes weren't entirely my thing, but pleasing enough to find a spot under a tree and drink in the surroundings a bit.
After a quick and efficient changeover came Madagascar Slim, who I'd been most anticipating on the day's early lineup. I'd seen Slim playing in a more relaxed, acoustic configuration back during Luminato, but here he was with his own band and mostly playing his lavender telecaster. The band behind him was just bass/drums/percussion1, but they were joined on several songs by Malagasy dancers who kept the stage lively. Musically a very solid unit, rolling along nicely behind Slim's flowingly picked guitar. This is good-hearted, upbeat music that feels so easy and natural it's tempting to overlook the technical merits behind it. Fab summertime stuff.
Listen to a track from this set here.
After a bit of walk around the park to see the mix of things going down — kids climbing around King Edward's legs, a crush of people around the food and craft stands, quiet space to stretch out on a blanket around the edges, and Al Purdy taking it all in without complaint2. Went back over to the stage when I heard the sounds of reggae starting to waft through the air. After an introductory groove, the crowd was treated to a mini warm-up by Papa Levi covering "Too Experienced". And then, sadly, pretty much as Kwesi Selassie was taking the stage, I was heading away from the park. Too bad — sounded like a crack band and looked to be an irie show coming together. As I headed back to the subway, I felt a twinge of regret, and a part of me just wanted to stay in the park and enjoy the good vibes, rather than head for what I was expected to be a clusterflock of chaos down at Harbourfront.
1 The band included Ebenezer Agyekum on bass, who I'd seen the night before as a member of Afrafranto. Although he plays the light-hearted trickster on stage, this guy's obviously a solid pro, playing back-to-back sets in different styles and different bands.
2 I'm guessing the organizers slipped him a mickey of rye for his cooperation.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Vieux Farka Touré / Afrafranto
Phoenix Concert Theatre. Friday, July 10, 2009.
A ticketed kick-off event for Afrofest seemed more compelling to me than a free night down at Harbourfront watching Holy Fuck, so I shelled out the dough to see rising Malian star Vieux Farka Touré. The show had a decent turnout, but was by no means full. From my perspective, it was quite comfortable on the floor, with some room to groove around a bit without feeling empty. The crowd was, generally, older, whiter and more upper-middle-class than Afrofest itself, but still very keen for the music.
The opener was Afrafranto, a local (via Ghana) group playing in the palm-wine style. Generally mentioned as a precursor of highlife, the impression I gathered certainly brought the more genteel side of highlife to mind — perhaps a bit less punchy and without a horn section. Perhaps appropriately for a genre named after a type of liquor1, the music had a sort of mellow party vibe, suitable for dancing but not leaping about. The band's name might at first suggest "frantic", but different cognates apply, and it in fact means "Butterfly" in the Akan language — something fluttering, seemingly lighter than air not being a bad metaphor for the sound. The six-man band included three members of African Guitar Summit including Theo Yaa Boakye (vox), Pa Joe (guit) and Kofi Ackah (drums), plus Ebenezer Agyekum (bass), Sam Donkor (balafon) and Kwame (percussion). Excellent musicians all, though Pa Joe's supple guitar lines — never rushed but never, ever lax — were the clincher as far as I was concerned. The band played their forty-five minute set pretty much without stopping — songs would segue straight from one to the next at a turnaround. The set included a winning, lively take of "Obaa Y Ewa"2. If only every opening act could be so good! Information on Afrafranto seems a bit scanty of the web — not even a MySpace as far as I can see. So I don't know if these guys — all busy with other projects, I'm sure — play together all that much, but I'm keeping an eye out and would see them again in a flash.
Listen to a track from this set here.
After what might have been the quickest changeover I can remember at the Phoenix, Vieux Farka Touré, backed by an unembellished four-piece band (guit, bass, drums, percussion) took the stage, launching right into a spiraling instrumental, and establishing right off the bat the night's main attraction: Touré's amazing guitar work. I have seen some of the world's great guitarists — why, on that very same stage I've seen Television and I've seen Richard Thompson — and I think I can say Touré belongs right up there. It was fascinating to watch how completely effortless his technique looked. His right hand never seemed to even need to pick or strum the strings — just a gentle caress unleashed a torrent of notes. And though able to spin out rapid flurries of notes, the solos were never showy or losing track of the music's underpinnings.
Obviously aware of an angle when they see one, the PR types have been positioning Touré as an "African blues" player and invoking Eric Clapton. Which might serve as a useful tool to pull in some guitar geeks and members of the boomer demographic, but doesn't really throw a whole lot of light on what he's got going on. Obviously, it's part of the story, but it seems a bit reductionist. Regardless, he is virtuosic, and in playing for more than an hour-and-a-half, plus encore, it had the feeling of showstopper after showstopper.3 And at a youthful twenty-eight, he may be getting better yet. A very powerful live experience that went far beyond what was suggested on his rather good new Fondo album. Left the show feeling rather satisfied.
This concert was recorded for broadcast by CBC Radio2 — possibly on August 3 — so do keep your eye out for it.
1 This led me to put some thought into a list of other musical styles named after intoxicants. How many can you come up with? Put your list in the comments.
2 You can find this one on the first African Guitar Summit album.
3 One of the guys at the streetcar stop afterwards confirmed that a couple tunes were from the songbook of his father, the legendary Ali Farka Touré's.
Monday, July 13, 2009
Femi Kuti / King Sunny Adé
Harbourfront Centre. Saturday, July 4, 2009.
I was really looking forward to this double-header at Harbourfront with much more anticipation than usual — a chance to see two superstars of Nigerian music. Very much a co-headlining kind of deal, as both artists got extended, two-hour sets. And although he was up first, King Sunny Adé was the undisputed champion of the night for me, turning in what felt like the best set I've seen this year.
Maybe the sun had something to do with it. In a full switch away from the cold breeze of the day before, Saturday turned out to be warm and sunny, and as I took my spot I had plenty time of sit and read my paper and absorb the late afternoon sun pouring on the back of my neck. Once again, given the crowd, I'm glad I went down early — there's no way I'd have lasted through such an extended night of entertainment without a spot to sit. So the fact that the sun had lulled me into a mellow sort of state probably had something to do with the receptive state I was in when the dozen players in the band took the stage to start playing.
An all-male affair, King Sunny Adé's band included percussion and several talking drums; bass, drums and synths; plus three co-vocalists, even though everyone sang. The large ensemble sounded like there were exactly enough players on stage to produce the masterful brand of jùjú music made famous by Adé, a master pop synthesist who expanded the Yoruban traditional music, based on the rhythms of talking drums, with a wide variety of influences — none of which is essential to know, as the rhythm and energy speaks for itself.1
The show was also a compelling visual spectacle. Many of the songs came with their own little ritualized interactions between Sunny and the other singers — at one point miming tugging on a rope, later passing around a metaphorical hot potato. And then as a topper, the band was joined by two female dancers, who came out to vigourously shake their tail fathers. It was while urging them on that Sunny picked up his guitar, the only time during the night he would flex his virtuoso guit chops.
In retrospect, I'm mildly at a loss to explain as to why I was so into this — but that's one of the reasons to go to concerts, isn't it? For those rare moments where your self can get past itself and just feel the music in an unmediated way. Which, despite the intoxicating tools that can help it along, usually just has to come over you of itself. There was simply a presence to the show that transformed itself into one of those ineffably sublime moments.
Although it doesn't capture the entire whatyoucallit of the occasion, you can check out a track from this set here.
After that, Femi Kuti had his work cut out not to be upstaged. Added to that, in my my mind at least, he was also competing with his younger brother Seun, who I'd seen in the same venue almost exactly a year earlier. That was a fantastic, sweaty gig — non-stop action from a crew that included many veterans from Fela's band. The matchbook cover version of the critical consensus on the two Kutis is that while Seun was playing his father's songs with his father's band, Femi was doing more to push forward the boundaries of Afrobeat.
Regardless, Femi took the stage to driving Afrobeat, as if you show he can play it straight-up, and powerfully so, when he wants to. From the start, the crowd were standing, and would pretty much stay that way for the duration. Femi was backed by a ten-piece band (including five horn players) plus three dancer/backup singers, and came with his own conversational shorthand, ending anything requiring a response from the crowd with a ululating "la-la-la-la?", which the crowd would answer back with a "la-la-la-la!" To my ears, the wider palate of influences2 that he brings to his version of Afrobeat really came out in the middle of the songs, when the traditional groove would give way to jazzy exploration or some other excursion away from the music's centre.
While he was certainly the undisputed leader of the band, conducting the players and generally weaving their parts into a rich, textured whole, he wasn't entirely stingy with the spotlight, granting the various ensemble members their solos. For his own musical contributions,besides vocals and his many appeals to the crowd, he pitched in on sax, trumpet and keyboards, the latter especially bringing Fela to mind as he laid down Miles Davis-like flattened drones. Some of his music — including some horn solos where he seemed to be reaching for some notes he couldn't quite nail — had the sense of being slightly deliberately "off", the broken note that brings everything else into brilliant focus. Ultimately, I found myself more enjoying the music despite the excursions than because of them, which may be why I left feeling that this set was not the equal of Sunny Adé's — nor of Seun Kuti a year ago. Which is not to say this wasn't a pretty good show — the band was excellent, the tunes were pretty solid, and Femi was a pretty charismatic presence on stage, filled with amusing monologues and discourses on the state of Africa and the world, the Shrine, Nigerian politics, expatriates and more. All told, a fabulous night. What luck we have, living in a city where he get to see incrdible concerts like this — and for free!
1 Of course, that indicates that I was enjoying the music on a different level than the large ex-pat contingent to the crowd, many of whom were singing along to every song.
2 At one point, Femi reeled off a list of his influences: "Do you know Dizzy Gillespie? Do you know Miles Davis? Do you know Duke Ellington? Do you know Tanya Tucker? Do you know Billie Holliday?" Strangely enough, I seemed to be the only one gawping around, wondering, "did he just say Tanya Tucker?"
Sunday, July 12, 2009
Artist: Broken Social Scene (ft. Emily Haines)
Song: Gimme Sympathy
Recorded at Harbourfront Centre, July 11, 2009.Broken Social Scene (ft. Emily Haines) - Gimme Sympathy
My notes from this gig can be found here.
Thursday, July 9, 2009
Harbourfront Centre. Friday, July 3, 2009.
I had read up on the recent rediscovery and reissues of Sixto Diaz Rodriguez a.k.a. Rodriguez, but I must confess I haven't yet purchased either of the discs recently put out by Light in the Attic. I've actually picked them up more than once at Soundscapes to look them over, especially during one visit when Cold Fact was playing in the store while I browsed. But word of Harbourfront landing him for a gig still piqued my interest and I headed down on a Friday evening after work — an especially cool day and downright chilly by the lake.
When a pre-show interview in eye mentioned that he was touring on his own and playing with local pick-up bands, à la Chuck Berry, it didn't strike me as anything to get excited about — anonymous session hacks would get the gig, I figured. But when I saw Randy Lee wandering around the stage before gig time, I realized something inneresting might be going on here. Turns out the band was drawn from the Steamboat / Hylozoists axis — local indie veterans, all. Kudos to whoever's idea it was to hook this crew up with Rodriguez, as the five players sounded like a fully fleshed-out band whose intuitive interplay was the perfect counterpoint to the on-the-fly arrangements on hand ("We do sound check, so we treat it as a rehearsal," said Rodriguez in that eye piece. "And we go through four, five, six songs, and that will be half of the show, or a third of it. It’s simple stuff and we move to it.") The progression of the show more-or-less followed from that — the first stretch of songs felt more worked out, and by the end the band was rapidly leafing through notes as doing the best they could as Rodriguez launched into songs. The band seemed to be having a blast, breaking out into goofy smiles at the hepcat patter between songs, as if R. had whittled down a lifetime's worth of his best banter for concentrated use.1 Highlights included opener "Only Good For Conversation", "Inner City Blues", "Rich Folks Hoax" and "Sugarman". His most frequent points of comparison were on display in very Dylan-y "Crucify Your Mind" and the Arthur Lee-esque cadences of "Can't Get Away", a close cousin to "A House Is Not A Motel". Later on, the band was less sure-footed — "Like Janis" was a little ungainly, though "Climb Up On My Music" had a gutsy freshness provided by Jay Anderson's driving beats.
With his songs and period banter, Rodriguez gave the presentation of being a product of the sixties, and seemed to treat the fact that he was being recognized here and now with a vaguely bemused cosmic shrug.2 But with his dignified hat and craggy visage he projected a sort of mellow dignity. A small crowd compared to many down at Harbourfront, but despite the cold evening winds, a most worthy occasion.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 Some selected patter from Rodriguez:
"There's only one thing worse than a lying B-I-T-C-H, and that's a lying P-R-I-C-K."
"The boys make the noise, but the girls... rule the world. And the reason you can't trust women — the reason you can't trust women is that you can't trust men. Trust no one."
"So you want to know the secret to life? All you gotta do is just keep breathing in and out. It's an important secret — don't forget that secret."
"Old? I'm not old — I'm ancient. Old? Stick around long enough and it just might happen to you. Age? Age? There's only one age — either you're alive or your dead. I'm not gettin' old — I'm gettin' dead."
2 One of those random things that stuck with me was the fact that he was using his guitar strap in a manner unlike I've ever seen before. The strap went over his left shoulder, like usual, but instead of looping back and attaching to the base of the guitar, it was hooked into the belt loop on the back of his pants, making it like a suspender. Anyone ever seen that before? Did this used to be the style?