Friday, December 14, 2007

Eyeful of live reviews, fall 07

There is much housecleaning to be done before the year-end: expect interviews with Jim Guthrie, Secret Mommy, Amon Tobin (bonus round), Weakerthans and Handsome Furs in the next week or so.

In the meantime, here are some live reviews penned for Eye Weekly's web site, in reverse chronological order. For scrolling reference, here is: Spiral Beach, Tunng, Black Mountain, Beirut and Suzanne Vega.

SPIRAL BEACH, Run With the Kittens, Donlands and Mortimer, Friendly Rich and the Lollipop People, Sister Suvi @ Centre of Gravity, December 1. link

Lots of great pics here

How’s this for a hot Saturday night: a five-band bill in a black box-y room in the depths of Toronto’s east end featuring bands barely out of high school. But immediately upon entering the Center of Gravity—which, for you scientists out there, is at Gerrard and Greenwood—it was obvious that this was worth braving the season’s first serious snowfall for. Colourful curators Spiral Beach are a band that take the tired term “CD release party” very seriously, rather than just another random gig where a new album happens to be for sale.

It wasn’t just the grilled cheese sandwiches on offer for a toonie at the dry bar, or the mountain of coats on the floor as an ersatz coat check, or the tire swing in the corner, or the neon face painting, or the tricycles—though all these elements made a world of difference in transforming the space into a welcoming atmosphere. The fact that every band but one (Run with the Kittens) had a distinct calypso influence in at least one song only added to the festivities. Anywhere else, it would stick out as the least likely indie rock influence imaginable. Here, it was imperative to the fun factor.

The real indicator was the early sight of gawky teenagers dancing giddily to the intense ukulele-driven art rock of the opening act, Montreal’s Sister Suvi. There was equal enthusiasm for everyone and everything on this bill: everything but jaded cynicism and blurry boozing. There’s plenty of that on West Queen Street West, where many of these bands haunt Elvis Mondays at the Drake. This show was for the real-life kids of Degrassi Street, the spawn of boho parents and arts schools, the next generation who will take the Torontopian torch and run with it. In other words, Whitney, the children who are our future.

Friendly Rich was happy to play the token fogie on the bill, if only because it gave him a chance to play up his dirty old man image. “Back when I was in high school, I would have sex with cantaloupe,” he informed us. “Any of you kids do that?” He was greeted by a small round of cheers—slightly less so when he told us, “I’d touch all of you if it wasn’t illegal.” Nonetheless, the fedora-adorned ringmaster had no trouble getting the crowd two-stepping to songs about Toronto boxer George Chuvalo and Afghani warlords, with his lovely Lollipoppers on harpsichord, trombone, bassoon and banjo. The gig poster had promised “circus acts” that didn’t materialize; by merely being himself, Friendly Rich more than compensated.

After the old dudes shuffled off stage and went home to bed, the kids took over. The boisterous six-piece party Donlands and Mortimer are considerably more exciting than the non-descript east-end intersection they’re named after (although it does sport a spiffy dry cleaning joint). Ridiculously talented and good looking, both guitarist Carmen Elle and drummer Steven Foster have plenty of stage charisma to burn; they trade off lead vocals and own the stage as if it were their birthright. The rest of the band are no slackers either—including a tight horn section—but there’s a clear sense that this is more of a group of friends than a real band. Several have their own solo projects that will likely begin to take precedence, but in the meantime D&M’s exuberance goes a long way. It’s a bit like Most Serene Republic—only good. They got the largest crowd reaction—if only because the crowd had dwindled somewhat by the time the equally ecstatic Spiral Beach took the stage at 12:30 a.m.

Run With the Kittens took advantage of the venue’s day job as a circus training centre when singer/guitarist Nate Mills—clad in a Santa suit, as were his bandmates—entered on a harness, elevated a good fifteen feet above the stage, while his rhythm section plowed through a Primus-y medley of “Phantom of the Opera” and “Kashmir.” Mills’s flailing legs suggested that a few more dry runs with the stage hand might have served him well, especially when he was unceremoniously yanked around—seemingly unexpectedly—in the middle of the set. The bizarro theatrics helped distract from the band’s mid-90s frat party music, complete with a terrible rap called “Let’s Make Fuck” that even Ice-T (he of “Let’s Get Buck Naked And Fuck” fame) wouldn’t chuckle at.

Spiral Beach didn’t need theatrics in their own set—their music is a new wave circus unto itself. They’ve always been an exceptional live band, but in front of a packed house fuelled by teen spirit, bathed in strobe lights and egged on by their peers, Spiral Beach made it clear why they will be the first band from their graduating class to conquer the world. Airick Woodhead is morphing into a guitar hero and a much better vocalist; brother Daniel balances the push and pull between prog and pop, bassist Dorian Wolf has toned down the mugging and lets his instrument do the talking; and keyboardist/singer Maddy Wylde is easily the most magnetic female stage presence in the country. Too bad, then, that one young girl decided to face the crowd and dance on stage right in front of Wylde for most the night—the show is not about you, honey.

The main attractions called it a night at 1.30, though the venue remained open until dawn, with a pancake breakfast promised for the stragglers. Outside was a blustery wind, some serious snowfall, and the sight of streetcars slowing to a crawl. Staying inside with Spiral Beach kids all night seemed much more appealing.

Live Eye: Tunng @ the Horseshoe, October 28. link

Listening to Tunng’s third album Good Arrows—where they transform from a promising folktronica band to a bonafide pop outfit—you would never expect their live show to be a visceral experience.

And for the most part, it wasn’t. By the time a rousing and rabid audience called them back for a well-deserved encore, it was easy to forget that most of the audience walked into the Horseshoe well prepared for a subdued Sunday night show observing six somber hippies quietly enacting their 21st century Wicker Man pageant. Yet from the moment they took to the stage, the smiling troubadours of Tunng were quick to replace any mystique with full-on geek, courtesy of their jovial stage banter, which dwelled on their fascination with Toronto’s many charms—especially our black and albino squirrels (“Wot, do you play chess with them, then?”).

With their gorgeous four-part British folk harmonies and three acoustic guitars, Tunng may well have been playing Hugh’s Room for Fairport Convention enthusiasts. It’s their electronic touches—loops, drum machines, and live manipulations—that likely got them signed to Thrill Jockey in the U.S. (home to Mouse on Mars, Trans Am and all things Tortoise) and a crossover to a slightly cooler, non-boomer crowd. Though the modern embellishments provide lovely Four Tet textures on CD, in a live setting they proved to be minor distractions, especially when clarinetist Martin Smith’s seashell percussion was just as effective at providing creepy crackles as Phil Winter’s laptop machinations (though Smith should lay off the g-damn windchimes). There were times when the electronics seemed downright gimmicky: during the somber murder ballad “Jenny Again,” Winter injected an incongruous sample of a man exclaiming “Jenny!” For a split second, it actually seemed like they might break into De La Soul’s “Jenifa Taught Me.”

Though the not-so-freaky folk is their core strength, the beats do transform Tunng’s material on the dancefloor. By set’s end, the cross-armed chinstrokers in the crowd were clapping along and dancing to the current single “Bricks”—a song that fulfills the pop potential of the long-lost Beta Band much better than that group’s current spin-off The Aliens manage to do.

But it’s not because they can pull off a pop song that places Tunng in a position to be much more than a footnote to the fading folktronica fetish: it’s because that’s only one of their many strengths.

Live Eye: Black Mountain @ Horseshoe, October 5. link

If it’s too loud, I am without a doubt too old. But for the record, I wasn’t the only one plugging my ears while Black Mountain tried to peel paint off the back walls of the Horseshoe on Friday night.

Sure, there were occasions when the visceral punch was welcome—as on the one-two punch of “Druganaut” and “Don’t Run Our Hearts Around,” two of only three songs they played from their near-flawless 2005 debut, which remains a vibrant mélange of psych rock, glam, gothic garage and stoner soul.

The other old favourite was the set-closing “No Hits.” It was an apt choice, seeing as how the bulk of the two-hour set was devoted to material from the forthcoming In The Future [isn’t the future always forthcoming?], due in January. As a showcase for new material, however, little of it connected—and the bludgeoning volume didn’t help.

The most welcome change is the increased presence of vocalist Amber Webber—who previously played second fiddle to guitarist/songwriter Stephen McBean, and shines on her own in Lightning Dust. The set opened with an ambient number that allowed her to play with her vibrato, but even that powerful tool soon wore out its welcome. Instead of swooning at her Grace Slick stylings, we were left wincing while Webber’s wails lacerated our eardrums.

On the other hand, McBean’s guitar playing does benefit from that volume, especially on new tracks “Tyrant” and “Lake of Fire.” And he’s become a better player—if not a better soloist, as some of the more extended (read: jammy) passages betrayed.

But what was truly missing from much of the new material was powerhouse drummer Josh Wells. His propulsive fills were key to the grooves that made the first album so exciting; now he seems content to lay back and play it straight. On one of the only new numbers where he was let loose—with several bars of a drum solo at the conclusion—the audience let loose the loudest roar of the night.

Who knows—this was early in the tour, and maybe these songs came together better in the studio, which is how the first album was written. And maybe they’ll be easier to appreciate without our individual pain thresholds entering into the equation. Hopefully Black Mountain can still be a land of mystery and beauty and awe, rather than the scorched landscape we saw Friday night.

Live Eye: Beirut @ Danforth Music Hall, October 2, 2007. link

The ukulele has taken a beating over the years. After all, it’s hard to recover from an association with such an iconic figure as Tiny Tim. And other than Beirut’s Zach Condon, the only modern singer daring enough to redeem this poor instrument is Stephen Merritt of the Magnetic Fields, who may well be using those dainty strings only as a perverse counterbalance to his deep baritone.

It suits Condon’s confident crooning style to a T, however, a feat that may well make him the only man capable of making the ukulele sexy. The only instruments that inspired more screams of adoration at this sold-out show were Beirut’s trademark, triumphant Balkan horns. They served as a rallying call for dancers, who—as usual—were deterred by ushers. Halfway through the show, it was becoming obvious that a typically Torontonian reserve was what restricted Beirut from delivering a great performance as opposed to a perfunctory run through songs from 2006’s Gulag Orkestar and the brand new album, The Flying Cup Club.

And so at just over the halfway point—and in an exact replication of last week’s Devendra Banhart show at the same venue—the band gestured the audience to not only get out of their seats, but to join them on stage. Soon enough about 100 people flanked the band and cheered them on—except for the incredibly awkward dude who planted himself directly in front of the drum set and looked nonchalant with his hands in his jean pockets. If you’re so bored, buddy, why on earth did you rush the stage?

Condon and his crew were delighted by the newly charged atmosphere, but they didn’t alter the set list to play up the momentum. Indeed, it was remarkable to see that no matter what the tempo was—or how many of them are waltzes—Beirut songs were consistently stirring and anthemic enough to cause inspired wig-outs from hippies and preppies alike. And there are few stranger sights than seeing how early track “Postcards From Italy”—powered by little more than ukuleles, mandolins, and Condon’s soaring voice—was received like a rock’n’roll rave-up.

The other citizens of this Beirut are well-assembled: other than the accordionist, the violinist and the drummer, each of whom stayed put, everyone else traded off on guitar, bass, ukulele, mandolin, brass instruments, clarinet, flute, saxophone and keyboards. Owen Pallett ran on stage, without a violin, to sing “Cliquot” from the new Beirut album and then promptly disappeared, re-emerging only for the encore to play some horn and dance with the hordes.

Colleen opened the show with her electroacoustic loops of acoustic guitar and cello, which works much better in the studio than on stage. Maybe it’s because her loops take too long to accumulate—especially when she’s standing alone on stage with a set of wind chimes—but her payoffs aren’t worth the wait. When listening at home, her music suggests all sorts of fantastic worlds. On stage, the mystique evaporates quickly.

Of course, that’s also true of Beirut: mystique was a big part of their early appeal, when Gulag Orkestar came out of nowhere to become a word-of-mouth indie hit. But stepping out from behind his ukulele doesn’t detract from Condon’s charisma, and when those Balkan brass lines kick in, one can’t help but think of that old Waterboys line: “Your love feels like trumpets sound.”

Live Eye: Suzanne Vega @ Mod Club, September 26. link

Six years after her last album, 11 years since her last Toronto gig—not to mention a divorce, a remarriage, a label change, a battle with depression and a death in the family—the 48-year-old Suzanne Vega hasn’t aged a bit. Not her poetic, observational odes to New York City, as heard on her strong new album Beauty and Crime, which is vintage Vega. Not her style, which inspired one lady listener to heckle, “You’re still a total babe!” And not her stage presence, which can shift from engaging storytelling to a steely-eyed glare, as on her classic teen alienation anthem “Left of Center.”

The set touched down on all corners of her catalogue: the sexy slink of “Caramel;” six songs from her first two albums; seven songs from Beauty and Crime, including the peppy pop song “Frank and Ava” and the haunting “Ludlow Street.” Many were introduced with brief stories or statements that only a songwriter of Vega’s stature would dare get away with: “I was walking down the street pondering the nature of desire—as I often do,” she chuckled.

Her four-piece band arrangements are more vivid than those heard on Beauty and Crime, though they did lean heavily towards her 80s sound: string patches for the keyboards and flange and chorus pedals for the electric guitar. There was no denying that the secondary star of the show was engaging bassist Mike Visceglia, whose dextrous playing provided the lone accompaniment for Vega’s vocals on “Blood Makes Noise” and “Left of Center.” No wonder he’s been in her steady employ for over 20 years.

Obscure tracks from her back catalogue were greeted with cheers at the opening chords, yet the most obvious song was met with relative silence. After she introduced the band and started “Luka”—which we assumed would close the set—it felt like the room took a deep breath and thought, “Oh right, this one.” It’s simultaneously her biggest hit and her most depressing lyric. No matter how great a pop song it is, no matter how stirring the chiming guitar solo still is, its frank character sketch of an abused child still casts a pall over a room.

As on 1987’s Solitude Standing, Vega bookended the set with “Tom’s Diner,” arriving on the stage to sing it a cappella—only to discover that the audience was determined to interrupt her by singing the coda as a chorus, as it was on the early 90s dance remix. She closed with her own band’s take on the remix, where the polite and poised songwriter took the mic in hand and awkwardly danced around the stage.

“I could see some of you getting worried there for a moment,” she deadpanned after the dance. Really, the only thing we were worried about at that point was the prospect of another 11-year wait for her return.


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