Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Wye Oak, stadium rock

Opening a stadium show is a thankless task. It doesn’t matter who you are: ask any of the sacrificial lambs who land “plum” gigs opening for the Rolling Stones and the like. The one and only time I saw Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders perform, they were the inconsequential soundtrack to the hot-dog lineup at a Neil Young amphitheatre show. I was a huge Los Lobos fan in high school (perhaps the only Los Lobos fan in high school, ever), but the first time I saw them, in 1987, they were being patently ignored by a full CNE Stadium waiting for U2.

And yet this week I’m headed to the Air Canada Centre only to see the opening acts. Granted, it’s the “theatre” setting of the venue, which is only half the size of the arena. And the headliner is The National, a band mysteriously popular with my demographic—i.e. 40-year-old dads who still try and keep up on new music—but I know at least the group has taste in other bands, as evidenced on the excellent Red Hot compilation they assembled, Dark Was the Night. Further proof comes in their choice of opening acts for their first arena tour.

Opening the show is Neko Case, a woman who needs no introduction. The last two times she played Toronto, if I’m not mistaken, she played Trinity St. Paul’s church and the Danforth Music Hall. There was a time when I saw Neko every time she came to town; then I decided I needed a bit of a break, after being underwhelmed by her much-awaited Fox Confessor Brings the Flood album. That was before I fell in love with 2009’s Middle Cyclone, an astounding record that still gets regular rotation in my household, and one she promoted in Toronto with merely one visit (that sold out instantly). [Ed. note, Dec 8: I forgot that she headlined Massey Hall as well, whoops.] She’s always had a voice that could fill caverns; I can’t wait to hear it fill the cavernous corners of our hockey hall. And because her commercial stature is almost that of The National—and she has many close ties to Toronto—it’s safe to say that she’ll have a rapt audience.

But almost as exciting is the presence of Wye Oak, a Baltimore duo whose excellent third album, Civilian, I gushed about here.

Jenn Wasner’s guitar playing is massive—or at least, it is when she wants it to be, as one of this band’s many strengths is its sense of jarring dynamics. Her partner Andy Stack tackles a drum set and keyboards simultaneously—and flawlessly. If for some horribly tragic reason this well-travelled band ever suffered a Def Leppard-style accident, they’d only need a new keyboardist; Stack has the one-armed beat-keeping down pat. He’s also a big fan of mallets, which draws out much more texture from his kit than most rock drummers do (at least, those who aren’t named Glenn Kotche or Jason Tait).

While Stack’s multi-tasking is impressive, it’s really Wasner’s show: she’s electrifying on stage and completely owns her instrument, each delicate note and thundering chord resonating through every bone in her body. Their music together isn’t afraid to embrace a dramatic pause before lurching forward or push and pull tempos apart in ways that only the most symbiotic musical relationship can.

On Civilian (and its predecessor, The Knot), their Neil Young/Dinosaur Jr. template is laced with dub textures, country shadings, and subtle synths, with barely a major key in sight. Wasner’s husky, androgynous, almost sleepy voice seeps with melancholy; Wye Oak doesn’t do happy. And yet there is joy and release when a tension breaks, when a song busts wide open and gallops into the distance, chased all the while by ghosts whose siren calls threaten to pull the protagonist back to the claustrophobic bedroom where their secrets are stored. But honestly, I can’t make out Wasner’s lyrics, so it’s the music that does all the talking.

So yes, it’s a big sound. One that deserves to heard in large venues. And yet Wye Oak themselves are ambivalent about big venues; for a pair of 24-year-olds, they’re as realistic as they are idealistic, and like their many esteemed labelmates on Merge Records, they know that big isn’t necessarily better. They’ve said that 2011 is the year they say “yes” to every opportunity that comes their way, so who knows—maybe this will be the only time to see them in a venue this size. Get there early and make them feel loved—and you’ll more than likely fall in love yourself.

Ed. note, Dec. 8: 'Twas an amazing show, proving their one of the only bands who actually sound better in a hockey arena: sparse but massive drums, ringing guitar, haunting voice. They have better energy in a club, but this was a sight to see. And it was much more thrilling than the two headliners that followed.

Wye Oak give good interview: check out this Venus article, this piece on The Huffington Post, and this from something called Swide.

And don’t sleep on Civilian, one of 2011’s finest rock records.

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