Tuesday, October 27, 2009
The Diableros / Planet Creature
The Boat. Friday, October 16, 2009.
Headed down to The Boat for a rather highly-anticipated evening — a release party for The Diableros' new EP Old Story, Fresh Road.1 The band was particularly impressive last time I saw 'em, end of May at the Pitter Patter Festival, especially with the new material that they were playing. Definitely now worth celebrating getting those tunes out to the world. It was a busy night around town, with several other worthy gigs from some new and celebrated groups, but a good crowd on hand, skewing a little older, and perhaps valuing consistency over novelty. Not that, like, the members of Diableros are haggard old wrecks or anything, but, y'know.
In a fabulous visual twist, openers Planet Creature took the stage with the members all wearing custom t-shirts bearing a picture of their counterpart in The Diableros. Playing a half-hour of bouncy garage-pop, the band played a similar set to the one I'd seen in September, and my reaction about the same. There's absolutely something there in their slightly shambolic attack, but I had this sense that this band hasn't quite put it all together yet — that something at just a slight angle from what they're doing is going to fall into place with a satisfying "click", and they'll take it to the next level. One element that might help them get there would be to share the vox around more. Although they have some satisfying backing vocal arrangements, there were a few moments where most-usual vocalist Brooke Gagne was pushing things outside her range a bit — perhaps the band might have a go at passing the baton a bit more on leads.2 And though the band has a winning demeanour on stage, they still have a momentum-sapping lack of quickness when it comes time to pass the instruments around. But this is all relatively small stuff — and probably the best prescription for most of this is simply to keep playing more shows. With luck, we'll get more chances to see this band grow into their masterpieces.
Listen to a track from this set here.
A nice crowd in place for The Diableros, although they were not wearing custom t-shirts bearing a picture of their counterparts in Planet Creature.3 The band moved right into a one-two punch of the first pair of Old Story tracks. A logical extension of sophomore album Aren't Ready For the Country, the new material contains all the hallmarks of The Diableros' sound, with Ian Jackson's aggressively atmospheric guitar spreading disintegrating shards in competition with Jordan Walsh's organ holding it all together. Gathering momentum, the band made a driving run through "Push it to Monday" which segued straight into EP standout track "Heavy Hands". Working up a sweat, Pete Carmichael had to pause to catch his breath before the band stormed into "Turning Backwards".
The set was capped with "Old Story, Fresh Road", played with a pair of guest saxes on hand, which, combined with the "we'll still have rock 'n roll" sentiments of the lyrics made for the most tightly-bound track in the band's repertoire to the classic rock tradition. After a break, the band closed it out with a trio of oldies. Impressively tight throughout, the five new songs nestled comfortably into the setlist. The crowd was calling for more, put Pete demurred, commenting "those are all the songs we know". The band sounds engaged and eager, so hopefully this lineup can stick it out for a spell and keep generating more new material.
1 From what I can gather, there is no CD release planned for the new EP, with only vinyl on sale at the show. It is, however, available online at Zunior, and, for those so inclined, there's so surcharge for downloading the FLAC files.
2 During their "encore" — a nearly acapella number (a cover?) tossed off with under-rehearsed enthusiastic vigour — bassist Sofia Silva showed off some pleasing pipes that could have been used more.
3 Although bassist Keith Hamilton was wearing a styling L.A. Kings shirt.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Sonic Boom Records. Friday, October 16, 2009.
With some bad transit luck (two subway delays? Really?) heading down after work, I arrived later than I was hoping, the band already well on stage in the Sonic Boom basement. Nice crowd out, skewing a bit younger as expected. I'd come around on this bunch after back to back shows at NXNE in June, but it was interesting to see that they seemed to have sharpened their attack even a bit more than I remember. Perhaps just a bit more used to their new material, the songs I saw were presented with a knife-edge sizzle, and their upbeat-gloomy dance pop — think The B-52's on a bad trip — was presented with vigourous fun. Still visually sharp, too — vocalist Airick Woodhead was looking a little blonder than previous. I was fairly impressed with the chunk of the show I saw.
Arriving late, I chose to just settle in at the back and enjoy it as a spectator, so I have no media on this one. Check out a video from the show at Now to get a flavour of it.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Amy Millan / Bahamas
The Mod Club. Wednesday, October 14, 2009.
I was a bit sad that other engagements kept me from going to see Amy Millan at the Harbourfront in July — her previous turn there in the summer of '06 was a fondly-remembered show. So it was pleasing that a club gig came along to make up for it. Thus found myself in a pleasantly full Mod Club on a Wednesday night.
Looking back over the crowd, H. adroitly commented, "these are the people who don't go to gigs every week." It was also a more female-skewing crowd than I'm used to, clumps of women out together and the occasional glazed-eyed guys with that dragged-along look — sorta the inverse of most gigs. Which, from a behavioural standpoint, is totally fine by me: even if there were more people around me singing along during the main set, there was a paucity of belligerent doofuses.1
Opening things up was Bahamas, current nom de geurre of Afie Jurvanen, mostly familiar these past few years as a sideman to a who's who of the local rock scene, including a substantial stint in Feist's touring band. Last time I'd seen him up front was a while back — August 2005, with his old crew Paso Mino, opening for Jason Collett on a night they were also serving as his backing band — and, strangely enough, in this same venue. To be honest, my opinion at the time was that as a frontman he made a good touring guitarist, and besides seeing him now-and-again in other people's bands, I hadn't given much thought to his own stuff 'til some good notices started appearing for his Pink Strat alb.2
Playing solo (though apparently these days he's usually backed by a drummer), Jurvanen had his mellow on — loose and chatty in a slightly blazed-out "niiiiiice" kind of way as he played a forty-minute set of classical singer-songwriter hurtin'-on-the-inside, poppy-on-the outside songs. His lyrical sense is sorta maudlin, but in a self-knowing way that allows him to undercut it with humour, which also came out in his amusing chatty commentary between songs. He was appreciative, surveying the quietly respectful, female-heavy crowd: "Normally I play at these roadhouses at Dundas and Ossington, where all these skinny jeans hang out, just drinking their Jägerbombs and shit... this is nice!" It was, on the whole, a winning set, even if a bit goofy, demonstrating that Jurvanen has progressed a fair chunk in his songwriting and presentation — obviously he's picked up a thing or two from the people he's been working with.
Listen to a track from this set here.
Having given a few spins through Masters of the Burial, Amy Millan's new album, I was left with a pleasant but indistinct impression — as if afterwards I realized I'd enjoyed something, but I was rather fuzzy on the details. I was curious to see if some live energy would sharpen my impressions any. The band entered onto a stage decorated with roses heaped across a keyboard and littered across the floor, opening with "Some Day", a gospel bluegrass mourning song, and a dedication to Doug Campbell, before easing into "Old Perfume", complete with dual trombone accompaniment. The band's sound was, unsurprisingly, warm and rootsy — more acoustic than electric. There was a drum kit on the stage, but it sat unused for most songs, one band member or another rotating back there as necessary. It was pretty much an all-star band, the same crew that'd worked on her album, including Dan Whiteley (masterful mandolin and guit), Christine Bougie (lap steel, some drums), Darcey Yates (bass) and Doug Tielli (banjo, guit, keyb).
Millan seemed to be rising to her opener's challenge, boosting her onstage banter and throwing in several amusing monologues in between songs, sometimes even overshadowing them. A story about her grandmother's infidelities illustrated "Lost Compass" and brought the song's conclusion ("love is shady") into relief, and yet the story was still the more interesting part. I must confess that at a couple points Gene Siskel's maxim3 crossed my mind — were these songs, in fact, better than the banter in between them? In terms of the vibe of the whole night, the music felt, at a couple points, almost extraneous. But those were transitory feelings, and in the end the music mostly paid its freight as well. There were several good performances here including particularly strong readings of "Baby I", "Bury This" and "Towers".
Unsurprisingly, the crowd went up in a roar when Feist popped out for some backing vox on "Bruised Ghosts" to close out the set, hamming it up on stage, and grinding up to Millan with a rose in between her teeth. A high-energy burst of excitement to end the main set. After, the crowd was soothed with a solo mandolin instrumental number by Dan Whiteley, filled with fast pickin' and lightning runs, before Millan and band re-emerged and played "Skinny Boy", the song that the crowd had been shouting out the most by name. The night ended on "Day to Day", perhaps Masters' outstanding track, just voice and a spare drum beat supplied by Evan Cranley. So that's a lot of ground covered: sixteen songs and a fair bit of banter, and all packed into sixty-five minutes. Perhaps ultimately, my reaction to the show was similar to how I felt about the album — enjoyable in a non-specific, not-overwhelming way.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 The flipside of that, though, is that in this kind of crowd I feel like there's a greater chance that I'm the obstacle blocking someone else's view of the show.
2 For the record, the titular guitar was not in evidence on this night.
3 "I always ask myself, 'Is the movie that I am watching as interesting as a documentary of the same actors having lunch together?'".
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
Torngat / Muskox / I Have Eaten The City
Teranga. Thursday, October 8, 2009.
Starting the long weekend early, made the last-minute decision to go out for a Thursday-night gig — might as well, I figured, seeing as I didn't have to be up early in the morning. Looking over the listings, there was an embarrassment of riches, three or four things I could have gone to and had a good time. In the end, went with a bit of a left-field choice, eschewing the poppy-boppy usual suspects for a night of instrumental — um — not-pop at Kensington's Teranga. The venue was boasting a new stage and PA system, but having not been previously I can't comment on the extent of the changes.1 Paid at the door and grabbed a spot along the wall as people were trickling in. A long and narrow windowless room, Teranga is an African restaurant as well as a venue, with tables and bar in the back half of the room. A smallish space with capacity listed at eighty-seven which, from a quick guess, would feel a mite crowded. Actually turned out to be a nice crowd out for this one, though mildly thin as things started off.
I Have Eaten The City, normally a trio, were performing on this night without drummer Brandon Valdivia, leaving Nick Storring (cello, laptop, effects, vocal sounds) and Colin Fisher (guitar, pedals) to improvise as a duo.2 The set started of with low frequency rumblings before deconstructed cello fragments put it all into place, followed by some Lanois-esque guitar soundscapes. I found the opening movement the most compelling, pure environmental abstraction that filled the room like a fog of forgetfulness. The loudest, central part of the performance built from glitchy zarps and whipping/thwapping noises that slowly ramped up, though without becoming too busy or just noise, building up in intensity before easing back off. There was a good sense of give and take, and of the players giving each other space. A section with Fisher's guitar accented by cello was spare but highly evocative, creating a very lovely, floating moment. It was followed by the ending suite, dominated more by Storring, with beats created from vocal noises adding form as a percussive bass loop slowly built in volume underneath. This last ten minutes or so was fine, but grabbed me less.3 A couple segments where I was swept into it, a couple where I was less into it, but a nice set on balance.
Listen to an excerpt from this performance here.
In between bands, took the opportunity to grab my chair and move in closer to the stage to get up close to Muskox. I was familiar with the band's work from their series of EP's on 3" compact discs, each an economical and concise musical statement. Six members deep on this night, including banjo, marimba, cello, saxophone and dual harmoniums, the most apt term for Mike Smith's progressive chamber jazz unit might well be "arranged". There's a buttoned-down sensibility behind these compositions, with each musician's parts playing off each other just so. While such rigour could come off airless or academic, the band maintained a deft touch throughout, and a nice contrast in musical approach from I Have Eaten The City. Three of the four pieces in the half-hour set were from their forthcoming debut full-length, including "Ghost Ride" and "'72-'76"4, as well as the standout (and album lead-off track) "Humphries' Tide". Beyond genres, but worthy of soundtracking something complicated and thoughtful.5
Listen to a track from this performance here.
There was a slightly longer switchover with Muskox having more equipment to break down. So had a few minutes to duck out for some fresh air and a stretch and still have time to spare while Torngat got ready. The band was pretty much an unknown quantity to me, but they obviously had some fans out, as a small knot was soon standing in front of the stage. A three-piece from Montréal, I recognized Pietro Amato of Bell Orchestre and The Luyas with his french horn. He was accompanied by Mathieu Charbonneau (on keybs and synth) and drummer Julien Poissant (also playing keyb). The variety of keyboards and electronics gave the band a wider sonic palate than their numbers might indicate, their atmospheric, instrumental songs with a pleasant lushness and enough ideas to maintain momentum. One track had an Aphex Twin music box vibe, with analog synth ululations that, after building up, had Charbonneau playing on a drum and the metal leg of his keyboard. Amato treated his horn sounds in a variety of ways, at some points making it sound like a guitar. The songs mostly stretched out to the six or seven minute mark but never felt bloated or as if the band were repeating themselves. The band was not particularly interested in stagecraft — or banter for that matter, and were content to let their music speak for them. Partially a function of entering without any expectations, I found myself enjoying this set a whole lot. After fifty minutes on stage, the band was convinced to stay for one more,6 making it a solid hour's entertainment.
Listen to a track from this performance here.
On the whole, a very well-constructed and balanced bill, the bands contrasting with each other nicely. Not rip-out-your-throat or jump-up-and-dance music, but the "implied" pleasures of these bands made for a top-notch night out.
1 The sound was, however, quite good throughout the night. Special props are, indeed, due to whoever was doing sound, handling three different set-ups — including a somewhat-complicated one for Muskox — with no hiccups.
3 Not to be confused with "'74 - '75", the '93 semi-hit by The Connells. The Muskox tune is somewhat more expansive. How much more expansive? Well, four, obviously.
4 Interestingly, I found this last segment much more engaging listening to my playback, where the percussion sounded a bit more subtle amongst the other elements.
6 Not really an encore in the truest sense, as, without any sort of backstage to retreat to, the band just sat for a few seconds, discussing amongst themselves what else they could play.
Monday, October 19, 2009
Artist: Not the Wind, Not the Flag
Song: [excerpt from an improvisation]
Recorded at SPK, October 4, 2009.Not the Wind, Not the Flag - [excerpt from an improvisation]
My notes for this show can be found here.
Faust / Not the Wind, Not the Flag
SPK Polish Combatants Hall. Sunday, October 4, 2009.
Sometimes when you're improvising your way through life, the contingencies you have to deal with aren't the contingencies you were planning on. Keep this in mind.
I was intrigued but nervous when the announcement for this show made the rounds. I mean, a chance to see a legendary and highly-influential band — legendary Krautrock unit Faust. Or, kinda, half of Faust. A rupture in the original collective has led to an unusual turn where there are now two co-existing units operating under the Faust name, each working out different elements of the original sound. This unit, consisting of original members Zappi Diermaier (pummelling drummer) and Jean-Hervé Peron ("art-errorist", provocateur, bassist) is now supplemented by James Johnston (ex-Bad Seeds) and Geraldine Swayne. But they still have the original cement mixer out on tour and a rep as a good live unit.
Headed up the stairs into the Polish Combatants Hall under an elaborate Bucky Fuller-esque geodesic entrance arch made of twigs — a holdover, I was guessing, from the previous night's Nuit Blanche installation. But it turned out that a fair amount of effort had been put into the presentation of the hall proper, with slightly spooky gouaches flanking the stage as well as being draped across the floor. There were also transparent balloons tumbling underfoot and in the centre of the room, a dangling sculpture of water-filled balloons.1 In lieu of an elaborate lighting rig, there was several old lamps on the stage. And beyond that, the musical set-up was visually interesting. What with the cement mixer taking up a good chunk of real estate on the stage, there was gear spilling over onto the floor in a row in front, and beyond that, the openers' gear. That took up most of the space up to the paintings on the floor, with the early arrivals starting to accumulate behind that.
I was interested to see what the crowd was going to be like for this one. "There was a time, like, say, 10-15, 20 years ago, when our audience was of a certain age, and had a beard, and were mostly male, and would think a lot and would be heavily intellectual," said Peron in an interview, and, to be honest, that was about the kind of crowd I was expecting. As it turned out, this was pretty much exactly the case, a male-heavy crowd, skewing older, and laden with the sort of guys who you could probably engage in arguments about optimal speaker positioning and the merits of various record producers.2 There were, as is usual for shows like this at SPK, chairs lining the sides of the walls, but soon guys were pulling the chairs out to the middle of the floor to get in closer.
Starting things off were Not the Wind, Not the Flag3, a local duo composed of Brandon Valdivia (drums, etc.) and Colin Fisher (guit, sax), both busy members of the local improvisational music scene.4 Fisher played guit with a semi-circle of pedals arrayed around him on the floor — including one that I believe was mixing in a keyboard loop. That was one ingredient of a slow build, five minutes or so of the the music gaining intensity. It took about a dozen minutes for the swell to build, before it faded and reprised in an echo of itself. The middle of the set was a quiet valley with eastern-sounding flutes, played by both musicians, until Valdivia kicked into a fast beat and Fisher replied with his guit, building up to a shred-y crescendo. With the pedals sustaining some noise, he switched over to sax to close out the set, playing some energetic runs. Lasting a half-hour, there was a nice flow here and the well-explored ideas moved at a pace that kept everything fresh. The audience was well into it. Nice work.
Check out an excerpt from this performance here.
In between sets, another indicator of the breakdown of the crowd: I went over to the bathroom, only to find a queue forming, while women had no wait to go in and out.5 Meanwhile, the crowd, now fairly well built up, was getting dammed up behind the invisible line behind the artworks on the floor, a situation resolved when Jean-Hervé Peron came out to invite everyone to move closer. The bricabrac was pushed aside and it ended up being a mix of people right up against the instruments, sitting on the floor, rows of people sitting on their chairs and those preferring to stand. Peron, while saying he was giving the smokers outside a chance to finish up, gave a little pep talk to the waiting crowd: "make sure we're not serious about nothing, and make sure we take the time to revert to infantility, spontaneity and all that kind," he said, before retreating back for another ten minutes.
Once Faust took the stage — and, um, the stage-front environs — they started with an instrumental that I think one could reasonably call krautrock-y, about six minutes of carefully contained rhythms with increasingly unhinged guitars and keyb sounds. Not revelatory, with a good groove and a nice table setter. Then Peron stepped into the crowd, passing around uninflated balloons, to be blown up and the air released in a collective squeaking symphony. As this happened, the band were joined by Brandon Valdivia and Colin Fisher, who joined in on an improvised jam that resolved itself into "Listen to the Fish".6 And then thundering drums announced "Fresh Air", another rocker, that was getting along for a couple minutes and settling into a groove when suddenly, most of onstage power cut out.
Given that this is a band filled with a love for improvisation and spontaneity, wanting to do more than just a "rock show", they rolled with the punch. Johnston switched to piano, Peron picked up an acoustic guitar and the band played a most-unexpected unplugged segment, leading off with "The Sad Skinhead", which roused appreciative recognition from the crowd. After another tune and a brief jaunt through "Miss Fortune" from 1971's self-titled album ("I lift my skirt when Voltaire speaks, his mouth full of garlic.") there was power back on stage, though apparently no monitors working.
Faust unplugged? Check out a sample here.
The band plugged back in and went back into their setlist, sounding a little ragged and unable to hear themselves — "we are having heavy problems with the sound", Peron commented, still sounding, at this point, more apologetic than unhappy. It's unfortunate that the band was thus crippled, as it was apparent that this was a powerful unit — one number that worked well featured Johnston's unflashy, harsh-edged guitar backing a lyrical spoken-word piece from Swayne. Then the band launched into the primal stomp of "It's A Rainy Day (Sunshine Girl)", which was cruising along — about seven minutes in and feeling like it could percolate for several more, when, suddenly, the power cut out again.
This, evidently, was the band's breaking point. Still apologising, Peron announced that the band was done. At almost exactly sixty minutes of fits and starts, it never quite felt like things were getting off the ground. A vague sense of frustration could be felt in the hall as people looked quizzically at each other and made their way out. A bit of a disappointment — at some level I wanted more, and better. Looked at another way, though, if you subscribe to that whole "the perfect is the enemy of the good" school of thought then this show was arguably a masterpiece. And, if nothing else, a unique night.
Listen to a sample of Faust rockin' out here.
1 These would later cause some apprehensive upward glances from the guy beside me, standing right below them during the show and feeling an occasional drip.
2 To be clear, this isn't making fun — I feel pretty at home among this tribe. Perhaps another indication of what kind of music enthusiasts were attracted to a show like this was the fact that I noted, besides myself, at least two other tapers on the floor, plus possibly someone else set up at the sound board. And some people with a fancy video camera as well.
3 Googling the band's name brings up this Zen epigram:
Two monks were arguing about a flag. One said: 'The flag is moving.'
The other said: 'The wind is moving.'
The sixth patriach happened to be passing by. He told them: 'Not the wind, not the flag; mind is moving.'
This is probably as evocative of what this band was doing as any description I could come up with.
5 On the rare occasions that this happens, I'm amazed that no women stop to point and mock about the shoe being on the other foot.
6 Despite being seminal post-punk direction pointers, it's essential to remember that Faust were always essentially hippies. For all of their sonic influence, this commune-happy strand of their origins kinda gets swept under the rug.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Nuit Blanche. Saturday, October 3, 2009.
"To the man who loves art for its own sake, it is frequently in its least important and lowliest manifestations that the keenest pleasure is to be derived."
— Sherlock Holmes
This year, I said, I was really gonna "do" Nuit Blanche, Toronto's, ahem, "free all-night contemporary art thing". Saw a few things during the inaugural event, a nice evening out with friends, though it ended fairly early. I was out of town two years ago. Last year there was, er, an incident, and I was in bed, sleeping it off by about eleven p.m. and saw no art whatsoever. So, I was eager this year to put in a fuller effort. Had a list of three or four things I most wanted to see and a vague notions of things I was semi-interested in. Perhaps it's no surprise that the things that interested me most were some of the sound installation pieces.
Heading back into the core after the Yo La Tengo gig, decided to start with the geographical outlier on my list and then work towards where stuff was more clustered. So, hopped off the subway at St. George, about one a.m., wanting to go check out the goings-on at the Royal Conservatory of Music. Walking from the subway, it had an unusual feel for a Saturday night, disco music blaring from a flatbed truck parked on Bloor, fair number of people bustling about. Walked over to the RCM to find a substantial line from the entrance down on Philosopher's Walk back onto the sidewalk on the street. Paused and considered my options. Did not feel like standing in line, so I moved along. Had a couple friends I coulda called, with vague plans of possibly meeting up to wander around, but I was feeling not so much like I wanted to try and co-ordinate plans with anyone, so just went on alone.
Walked around the corner, past a giant queue at the ROM, and down into Museum station. It was a kinda fascinatingly heart-warming panorama on the subway, full, at this hour, of people clutching their maps and guidebooks, flipping through and pointing things out to friends. Heaps of people with fancy camera gear. It was as if there was some sort of spectacular treasure hunt going on.
Things felt less romantic hitting the streets. Got off at Union, figuring I'd just amble northwards and see what I could see. Big crowds on hand, plenty bunches of loud, obnoxious drunken partiers, empty cans and bottles littering the streets. Bay Street was closed off to vehicles, but still quite packed most of the length up to Queen Street. Ducked in to see Witches' Cradles, a sensory-deprivation installation whereby members of the crowd would be suspended in dangling sacks. Which might be interesting if you were in one, but as a spectator event was dull. Watched the "cradles" dangle for a few minutes, and vaguely thought, in a schoolboyish way, that it'd be cool if the curators starting swinging them into each other wrecking ball-style — and moved along.
Moved along up through Wild Ride, a working simulacrum of a carnival midway. Set up amongst the Bay Street towers, it was meant to be a comment on the reckless roller-coaster nature of capitalism, etc., etc. This was, at least, big and open and fun and participatory on a large scale, with people lining up to go on the rides and so on — not that I was particularly interested. Walked past a woman crouching beside one of the clown-head garbage cans, camera held out at arms' length to get a photo of herself and the freaky vista. Wondered idly as I walked by why, with all these people around, no one was offering to take a picture for her. Stopped a couple steps further on, half-turning around as she was scowling at her camera screen and getting ready to take another picture why I wasn't offering to take a picture for her. Turned. Moved along.
Starting to feel my energy level lag a little. Moved on, stopping by City Hall, giant LED's strung between the towers spelling out random four letter words. It read "DOWN" as I went by. Cut over to Yonge Street, which was a bloody zoo — why wasn't this closed to vehicles, too?1 Inched my way northward, past groups of drunken young men doing that "Olé, olé, olé!" football chant, towards one of my most-anticipated events, the sound installation at Massey Hall. Got up to Shuter and saw the end of the queue in front of me, beside a sign reading, "Please note there will be a 75 minute wait from this point. Thank you for your patience." I was not nearly that patient and kept going. Passed through Dundas Square, with plenty of people milling around under the illuminated advertising screens, and walked over to the Atrium on Bay.
So far I'd been running an oh-fer on the stuff I wanted to see, so I was feeling wary as I headed in to check out The Element Choir. Here, however, as I made my way over towards the chanting/singing noises, the crowd was manageable enough. Stood and watched for a few minutes as indefatigable leader Christine Duncan led her choir with a series of sweeping gestures, and then turned to the crowd to conduct them as well. Talking Guy — one of the choir's most distinctive instruments — started talking about "buckets of paint", and Christine picked up on this and soon the whole place was shouting, "buckets of paint!", and members of the choir were singing about it, and it was getting passed back and forth. With audience members coming and leaving, some room in the foreground where people were sitting on the floor opened up, so I grabbed myself a spot and settled in for a spell. After everything so far, it was actually a bit comforting to see some familiar faces, especially among the band that were setting up beside the choir. A half-dozen guitarists, a bass or two, one drummer, with the musicians, like the choir, coming and going from time to time in shifts. The band came in with an improvisatory-but-controlled noise-rock jam, spelling off the choir for a bit, but soon the two were playing off each other, the band building from quiet to loud mostly as the choir was doing the opposite. It was nicely captivating, and really turned my night around.2
Check out some action from the choir + band here.
I'd been flagging before this, but was suddenly re-energized and feeling more well-disposed towards the nuit. After about forty-five minutes, I realized I could stay here anchored for hours, or I could go and try and see more while I had the energy. So, when the music reached the end of a large swell, I stood up and, slightly sadly, made my way back out to the street. Which, circa 2:45, was feeling colder and a mite emptier, but the crowds were still substantial. Without much hope, made my way back down to Massey Hall, where the queue was actually slightly longer than it had been before. Considered my options. Thought I could try and make my way over toward Liberty Village to see the stuff clustered around there, but wondered to myself how much endurance I'd have.
As a compromise, decided to make my way home the long way, and retraced my earlier route in reverse, heading back to Koerner Hall. This time, there was no lineup, and a pleasingly small number of people around. Sadly, the live environmental performance of James Tenney’s In a Large Open Space ("one note performed in unison by musicians on various instruments, with ever-expanding layers of electronic music") had been replaced by a pre-recorded version, but it was nicely done, with different elements being mixed in through various speakers throughout the space. The building itself — the newly opened prestige recital hall for the Royal Conservatory of Music — was very lovely, a beautiful space. Given the sort of music this facility caters to, it's doubtful I'll see many gigs here, so it was nice to have a chance to wander around, find a seat and settle in for a bit.
In fact, to just take some time and let the ambiance soak in was a highly soothing experience. Between the etherial notes (note?) being played and the gently ululating curves of the ceiling,3 I felt a sense of peace come over me, all of the minor grumpiness of the night easing away. This is what music is supposed to do, isn't it?
Bliss out to the ethereal sounds here.
Sat and soaked that in for fifteen minutes or so, then did a wander around the rest of the facility — a very lovely job all around. And then, I was feeling like I'd seen enough. Headed to the subway and made my way home. Turned out to be one of those less-than-stellar late-night TTC experiences, but what can you do? Got home, grabbed the newspaper on my doorstep and went up to bed.
1 In fact, why is the event catering to the automobilists at all? Given the crowds, the smart thing to do would be to close an area — say, Front to Dundas and York to Yonge — to all non-emergency vehicles except the TTC.
2 One can only imagine the logistics required to co-ordinate a twelve-hour continuous music performance, so it's no slight to the choir to think about how much more could have been done if the band had the time and the resources to really occupy the space. There were some attempts to decorate in the area, silver foil taped along the glass barriers and so on, but the band still kinda just felt plunked down in the space, Looking around, I was imagining what it would be like if there would have been mini-choirs at each of the balconies on the several floors of offices rising above and so on. But still, a lovely experience.
3 The ceiling is, in fact, a sort of architectural cousin to the wavedecks that appeared along the waterfront this summer.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Yo La Tengo / The Horse's Ha
The Opera House. Saturday, October 3, 2009.
And so, for the second night running, headed out to the Opera House. After a decent time there the night before, had some hopes that the venue would do right by me. Wrong, friendo. At the door, the bouncer takes a look at my satchel and I'm emphatically told I have to check it to gain entry. Why? Because it's a sold out show and all bags have to be checked — although purses of any description are apparently fine. I go to the coat check and I'm told that I have to pay separately, three bucks apiece, for my coat and bag — unless I can stuff my coat in my bag, in which case I can check them as one thing. But my bag is pretty small and there's no way it'd fit. So, after a couple moments of frantically transferring all my gear into various and now over-stuffed pockets, I check coat and bag and make my way into the hall, in a grumpy mood. I've just spent the money that I would have used for one of the venue's over-priced drinks, so I just found a spot of wall to lean against for a few minutes to regain my composure and relax. As things start to stir, I move up, taking a moment to admire the giant banner behind the stage.1 I try to maintain focus as a guy with a bag slung over his shoulder — one a bit larger than the one I was forced to check — walks by in front of me.Came in not knowing much about opener The Horse's Ha, but YLT usually shows good taste in the bands they choose to share the stage with.2 I did know the singer was Janet Beveridge Bean, known for her work in Freakwater and Eleventh Dream Day and a friend of YLT. Hailing from Chicago, the principles are both immigrants to that city — Bean from the American South — charming twang in her banter attesting to that — and James Elkington (of The Zincs) from England. Bean sang and provided some melodica and shakers while Elkington sang in a low baritone not unlike Brett Sparks of the Handsome Family. The two often combined in a high/low harmonies as the band unspooled gentle arrangements around them. The five-piece (including cello and double bass) played in a quiet British folk vein, and it appears some of the band are members of Chicago's jazz/improvised music scenes. The band members members were mostly seated, with Elkington and the cellist facing each other, turned perpendicular to the audience — not a particularly engaging approach. That, plus the fact that their music was quiet and reflective made them a somewhat disjunctive pick as openers, and gave the sense this wasn't the right band at the right time. In a smaller, seated venue this stuff would be wholly engaging. In this big space, facing a largely indifferent crowd, it just didn't work. Listening back to their set, I find myself rather enjoying the songs; though I was trying to get into them while they played, it just wasn't working then.
And then the crowd started to thicken. As I held my spot, the ranks in front of me filled up. I was mostly hopeful that someone shorter than me would settle in front of me, and that made me thankful for the couple who moved into the space. At least until he took off his jacket and handed it to the woman, standing in front of me, who stuffed it in her purse slung over her shoulder, which poked me every time she leaned over to shout in his ear. Sigh. By the time Yo La Tengo took the stage, the floor was pretty packed, as the Opera House tends to get for sold out shows,3 but at least the crowd was pretty much all into it, and no longer talking so much.
With a stage setup that looks like something for a band twice there size — there were at least six "stations" for the three musicians to rotate between — the exciting part of a Yo La Tengo show is that you never know what you're gonna get. One would expect a fair sampling from the new album, sure, but what would the band pick from their vast catalogue to fill in around that? You're probably not going to hear everything you want, but they have enough great songs that you're pretty much guaranteed to get something you really want to hear. As it turned out, taking the stage, the band launched into "Double Dare" (from '93's Painful, possibly my all-time fave YLT alb). You might call this softening up the crowd before moving into new material, but the band wasn't going to do any more easing into it, moving on to nearly twelve minutes of "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven", the night's first extended feature for Ira Kaplan's guitar stylings.
And then a nice mix of new material and old. "The Summer", from 1990's acoustic and mostly-covers Fakebook was one of those unexpected tracks, and a lovely quiet interlude. "Stockholm Syndrome" — James McNew's vocal spotlight — was less of a surprise, having become a crowd favourite. And then the new "Periodically Double Or Triple" — if there's a unifying thread to the band's last couple albums, it might be an attempt to create their own Nuggets box set of all-new songs, such as this 'un, which was great fun to hear on stage.
Ira seemed to be in a buoyant mood, and gave, as usual, some quality banter, including tangential references to the Toronto Raptors and this warning: "at the risk of putter a damper on the evening, in the spirit of full disclosure, I gotta let you know there was a squirrel running around in here earlier today. We're nearly positive it's gone, but, y'know." Meanwhile, the band alternated quiet segments ("Black Flowers", "When It's Dark") with noisy ones ("Deeper Into Movies", "Big Day Coming"). The main set's ending mirrored the start, with a new guitar showcase ("And The Glitter Is Gone") and a classic ("Sugarcube").
Taking the stage for the encore, Kaplan commented he had seen a couple people in the crowd with banana t-shirts, reason enough to pull a VU cover off the pile — although in this case, we got relative obscurity "She's My Best Friend",4 which required a short huddle to discuss the chords. And then the seasonally appropriate "Autumn Sweater" in a slightly deconstructed version, before taking a request from the front row for "You Can Have it All", done quietly and acoustically — though the band has dispatched with the dance moves they used to have worked out for this one. Still, very pretty.
Coming back for a second encore, Kaplan sent out a cover of Devo's "Gates of Steel" to local punk crew Fucked Up and the band closed things out, appropriately enough, with "The Hour Grows Late", the entire performance lasting nearly two hours. All told, a pretty great show — this'd be the fifth time I've seen 'em, if my memory is correct, and this would stand up to any of the others. It had been awhile since the bands had passed through town for a full show; hopefully it won't be that long again.
Check out a loud and a quiet selection from this show here.
1 The banner employed Dario Robleto's buttons — made from melted-down Billie Holiday albums — as deployed on the back cover of YLT's new album Popular Songs.
2 Past successes have included The Sadies, Lambchop, Portastatic and Daniel Johnston.
3 There must be something particular about the Opera House's layout that makes it seem more packed than other venues. Perhaps it's just the fact that the raised area further back doesn't have particularly great sound or sightlines makes it less a enticing place to watch the show sends more people cramming further forward.
4 Has anyone ever worked out what percentage of the complete Velvets catalogue YLT have covered? Now that would be a worthy live comp.
Monday, October 12, 2009
Os Mutantes / DeLeon
The Opera House. Friday, October 2, 2009.
Down to Queen and Broadview after work on a Friday evening, headed to the Opera House, one of my less-favourite venues. Too big to be intimate, too small to feel spacious, it's a begrudging destination for bands that are somewhere in that nebulous range of appeal between Lee's and the Phoenix, either of which I'd prefer. It's more tolerable when there's more elbow room, and the smallish crowd early on helped my disposition. A cool and rainy night brought to me another one of the small sadnesses that summer always papers over: you don't have to worry about what to do with your jacket at a gig when the weather's nice.
Came in without much info on opening act DeLeon, knowing only their "hook" — that they do modern-day versions of fifteenth Century Sephardic folk songs.1 Without knowing that angle, one might just interpret their music as bouncy latin-ized pop — a vast territory of music with a lot of distinct subgenres that I lack pretty much any knowledge of. But regardless of language or style, the band did the first best thing an unfamiliar opening band could do in keeping things upbeat and bouncy. A Brooklyn-based trio consisting of Daniel Saks (guit, banjo) singing in Ladino, Hebrew and English, backed by bass, percussion and laptop beats. My main complaint with the band early on was that, with that laptop on stage, some of the songs felt more "canned" than they should be. And indeed, Saks would later explain that the band usually played as a five-piece including drummer and horn player, but was asked to slim down for touring purposes. A pity, as the drummer's absence was keenly felt, and could have really taken the songs to the next level. As things were, though, it was still a reasonably entertaining set. Saks, in a puffy, lacy shirt, had strong pipes and though things veered a few times towards Starbucks-compilation edgelessness, I had few complaints, even if I was not completely won over. That aforementioned upbeat bounciness will go a long way towards ensuring tolerance.
I came to see Os Mutantes more as a curiosity-seeker than a partisan. Over the years I came to them like I came to a lot of other bands that "received critical wisdom" has collectively accorded retroactive importance to. So I had a basic grounding and an appreciation of why they were important — anarchic hippies for truth and justice, forging a unique Tropicália synthesis of Brazilian rhythms and psychedelic rock. That the band — whose seminal lineup had broken up in the early '70's and had been defunct since the end of that decade — was around at all had been one of those pleasing second act, late-recognition success stories. A 2006 one-off reunion generated enough good reviews and momentum for the band to be re-formed on a more permanent basis, now leading to extensive touring and a new album. The current incarnation revolves around longtime singer/guitarist Sérgio Dias. Besides O.G. drummer Dinho Leme,2 the rest of the band are replacements from a younger generation. The band rolled with dual keyboard players, guit, bass and Bia Mendes in the "Rita Lee" role as female vocal foil.
Dias took the stage in a purple cassock, a maple leaf pendant on a chain around his neck. Radiating joyful beneficence, he greeted the audience and commented "I hope you guys have a great trip" before launching into "Tecnicolor". This was followed a version of "El Justiciero" — with Dias tossing in some off-the-cuff Cancon lyrics, including naming the protector coming down from the mountains "Pierre Trudeau".
I felt some mild concern over the course of the first few songs — did they always sound so much like the Fifth Dimension? Was I wrong in remembering the band as leaner and more "rock" than this? Not that the songs weren't good, it just felt like the edge was a little blunted. After the first five songs in twenty-five minutes, I was wondering if I was going to have a good time. Fortunately, the band shifted gears and did a run of songs from their new album Haih or Amortecedor, starting with "Querida Querida", which had a bit more edge. It over-simpifies things a bit, but my enjoyment of the show was mostly proportional to the amount of fuzztone on Dias' guitar.
Introducing the songs from the new album, Dias was humble, expressing surprise that the old songs had outlasted the band and that the reunion happened because of the fans keeping the music alive — the new album being a gift back for the energy they'd experienced. For about three songs, the new material held up well, and perhaps because it was more "owned" by this lineup had a nice freshness to it. This section of the show was sorta subject to diminishing returns though, and by the fourth Haih track, "Bagdad Blues", which didn't really work, I was ready for the band to move along. Fortunately, a shift back to 1971's "Jardim Elétrico" was a revivifying jolt, and started the best stretch of the show, with the band really firing on all cylinders.
This fabulous stretch included "Top Top" and "Neurociência do Amor" from the new album and climaxed with "Balada do Louco" — so lovely that, had Paul McCartney written it, he could have bought the whole of Hampshire and put in a fair bid for Sussex. The main set concluded with a monster version — ten minutes plus — of megahit "Ando Meio Desligado" which had an appropriately lengthy jammy middle, complete with lyrical nods to "While My Guitar Gently Weeps". The band came out for a couple songs more, including a rocking "Bat Macumba".
I was rather surprised that I recognized most of the classic material, and the new stuff garnered mostly passing grades. It's probably inevitable that any band playing songs from their glory days more than three decades ago is going to be a bit softer in the middle than they were in the youth, and though there were a few moments of easy nostalgia karaoke, this was, in the end, a good enough show. Praise due to the mutants.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 The band's own claim of "Pre-Inquisition Melodies, post-modernized" has a certain charm to it.
2 Dinho was the bit of grit in the oyster for this band. While everyone else was wearing glad-to-be-here grins, Dihno's expression was somewhere between stoic and grumpy as he occupied the role of no-frills Charlie Watts-esque beatkeeper. At the end of the show, when the band came out for the curtain call, arms linked shoulder-to-shoulder and bouncing up and down, he just stood off to the side, smiling politely.
Friday, October 9, 2009
The Hidden Cameras
Goodhandy's. Tuesday, September 29, 2009.
Despite a couple invitations, I'd never quite had cause to visit Goodhandy's, the "pansexual" nightclub at the corner of Church and Richmond. But this was finally going to be the night — a special small-venue CD release gig, tickets available only with album purchase at Soundscapes and some other local stores. Making my way over through a dour, drizzling night, I showed my precious ticket at the door and headed up the stairs, wondering what manner of decadence I was headed into. It ended up being, unsurprisingly in retrospect, disarmingly normal — a bar is a bar in some ways, and form follows function.1 Hank Williams playing in the background, found a spot to sit and flip through a copy of Xtra before A. showed up and we had a some time to chat. In fact it turned out to be a longer chat than anticipated — the nine o'clock start time on the ticket came and went and it was about ten to ten when the band took the stage. Time enough to check out the crowd some, seeing how easily they could be divided into folks who knew the spot and the music-lovin' tourists just checking out the band. That division was apparent upstairs in the bathrooms, doorless and defiantly not gender assigned in the usual way. But most of the guys on hand on this night were rigourously sticking to the one with the urinals. Mind you, that gave 'em a chance to think on the fact they were one night too early for the "live twink spanking" at midnight.2
But soon enough, the cowled band took the stage to the long, slow build of "Ratify the New". A small stage not usually used for this kind of live action required some creative personnel arrangements, leading to a rather dramatic presentation for the band, with the main five to seven players in front of the audience, the horn section on the second level to the left of the stage, and perpendicular to that, the choir, hovering ghost-like above the stage in front of what I was told were the private booths. "This is the ninth church in Toronto we've played," said head Cameraman Joel Gibb as the band slid into the bouncy "In the NA". Gibb confirmed, indeed, the plan for the night was to play the new album front to back and no old stuff. The crowd had no complaints with that, and the band did an excellent job with a full set of new material. I can't find a list of everyone in the current unit — there were several familiar faces including Maggie MacDonald and Laura Barrett — but I can't place some of the other members.3 Interestingly, this was the first time that I've seen the Hidden Cameras without at least one string player on stage, but with the dual-keyboards and horns, there was no lack of texture in the music.
Midway through the set, Gibb came close to losing his voice, soliciting a fortifying shot of scotch from the crowd that got him through. The band tossed a curveball into the track-for-track setlist by slipping in b-side "Pencil Case" before the fabulous "Underage" — a surefire hit in the offing with its dance-y rhythms and singalong a-whoo-ah's. After doing a respectable job of the complicated arrangement of "The Little Bit", the set closed out with the slow-dance splendour of "Silence Can Be a Headline". Taking only a quick step off the stage, the band encored with a song they claimed not to have played since their 2001 gig at the Metro Theatre, one I didn't recognize — there was a lyric about "the dark night of the" something, or possibly "dark light". An unrecorded original? A cover? Anyone know this one? All told, a fine show leaving me with anticipation with their main local gig, upcoming in December at the Opera House at the other end of their tour. Although there was a DJ and a post-gig party for the band, fans and celebrities in attendance4, we elected to head home.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 From one perspective, the biggest difference between a sports bar and a sex club is what manner of activity the muscular men on the big-screen TV's are involved in. Granted, though, most sports bars don't have cages. Or, I suppose, racks of their own in-house produced hardcore DVD's.
2 When I mentioned this to A., he just rolled his eyes and said, "oh, it's not as interesting as it sounds."
3 Can anyone run off a list of the current touring band so they can be praised by name? Singled out for special recognition at this show should be the member of the horn section who came down to play guitar on one song, having to fight his way through the crowd and up the stairs to move back and forth.
4 Including Glen Murray, former mayor of Winnipeg (and once, long ago, my city councillor), who was warmly welcomed from the stage.
Thursday, October 8, 2009
Artist: The Hold Steady
Song: We Can Get Together
Recorded at Lee's Palace, September 27, 2009.The Hold Steady - We Can Get Together
Afterthought: I had this previously listed as "Heaven is Whenever", which was the assumed title before it was formalized on the album — it was even introduced as such at the time.
My notes for this show can be found here.
The Hold Steady / Still Life Still
Lee's Palace. Sunday, September 27, 2009.
Making good time over to Lee's, had a few minutes to check out the merch table, grab a drink and rest for a moment, looking over the early-arriving types grabbing seated spots along the walls. Looked like a bit of an older crowd, folks who didn't come out to as many shows as they used to, but were making an exception for The Hold Steady. Once J. — the one who's like the drums on "Lust for Life" — made an appearance, we grabbed some spots in the middle of the dance floor, figuring it'd be harder to claim 'em later on.
Openers on the night were Still Life Still, not exactly an intuitive stylistic match, so perhaps more a sign they know people who know people in order to get them some primo exposure like this. Say what you will about the lads, they are certainly working it hard — this was the fourth time I'd seen them this year, and that was with me hardly going out of my way to do so. Their total number of local gigs over the past year must be pretty impressive. None of the previous shows had totally won me over, though I'd found their album to be okay. My ultimate conclusion is that I find them to be kinda enjoyable for three or four songs, then their lack of variety leads to diminishing returns.
On this night, it certainly felt like the band was cramming in as many songs as possible into their set, rather than letting some of the songs breathe and stretch out some. They played the entirety of their Girls Come Too album, though substituting the non-album cut "Keep Your Gun" — which isn't working a radically different sound — for "Wild Bees". The mid-tempo-y1 "Kid" and "Planets" might have worked the best, the latter with a crowd sing along for "it's a family of wolves out there, they bury their young". It seems remarkable that despite the fact that this was a very sold out show for The Hold Steady that SLS still had a large, vocal coterie of fans right up front. After the set, I looked over at J. to gauge his reaction, and he sorta shrugged and shook his head — not a strong endorsement. The overall crowd reaction was pretty similar — warm approval from those up front, not particularly overwhelming from the HS crowd they were trying to win over.
Taking the stage to the strains of The Eagles' "In The City", one could immediately see and hear who the crowd were there for. Singer/guitarist Craig Finn was immediately handed a hand-made sign reading "THERE IS SO MUCH JOY IN WHAT WE DO" — a frequent pronouncement from the stage — that was received with a smile. That's a line that encapsulates The Hold Steady pretty well: you could come to love them either because of their classic rock riffs or their literate lyrics, but when it all comes together live, it's always an explosion of joyous energy. As always, Finn was an irresistible focal point, spitting out his sung/spoken words, and always having more to say than there are lyrics in the songs, his lips moving to a never-ending off-mic stream of consciousness between lines.2
The show's very existence was an unexpected delight. I got into THS one tour too late to see them in a club, and never thought I'd have a shot at seeing them in such intimate quarters. This cross-Canada jaunt seemed to be "one for the fans", and the band, no longer really touring behind '08's Stay Positive was choosing freely from all of their albums. We got a half-dozen from '05's Separation Sunday and a trio from Almost Killed Me (2004), not to mention a handful of new tracks, including the Hüsker Dü-referencing "Heaven is Whenever". Nice to hear some stuff that isn't normally pulled out, including an extended "bar band" version of "Charlemagne in Sweatpants" climaxing with a lead guitar face-off between Finn and Tad Kubler3
I suppose I don't have a lot more objective stuff to say — this was simply a rather fantastic show. A pretty good crowd, too, well into it and with plenty hoots of joy to be heard. The band played seventy-five minutes plus a four-song encore, starting with another new one and ending with "How a Resurrection Really Feels", with the penultimate track a run through "Most People Are DJs", including an extended mid-song get-those-hands-clapping monologue talking about how the experience of listening to music at home or at a party or wherever isn't like being at a show, crowded in among people. "This is rock and roll!" shouted Finn. Precisely.
1 Well, everything the band does is kinda kid-tempo-y. The main rhythmic difference, I guess, is how busy drummer Aaron Romaniuk gets on the high-hats.
2 I've always imagined that Finn's additional unheard interjections would add up to a sort of Talmudic commentary on his own lyrics.
3 Or, "My good friend, Mr. Brett Favre", as Finn called him. Indeed, after a tour-cancelling bout of pancreatitis last year, Kubler is looking hale and hearty and leaner than previously.