Monday, July 6, 2009

Gig: Constantines / Chad VanGaalen

Constantines / Chad VanGaalen

Harbourfront Centre. Wednesday, July 1, 2009.

Riding a string of, what — five or so consecutive Canada Days at Harbourfront,1 I wasn't going to miss this one, despite the fact that the lineup was less compelling to me than some in the past. The usual sort of very mixed crowd sitting patiently before the show — older ladies perched up front, young people patiently waiting at the back for them to bail.2 I got there just early enough to snag a seat in the centre and reasonably close to the stage. As showtime got closer, the crowd swelled pretty large — it's hard to evaluate how deep the people standing were, but it seemed like a goodly number. Turned out to be another gig being broadcast live by CBC3.

Things kicked off with a set by Chad VanGaalen. Given that — despite not having really gone out of my way to see him — this was my third time seeing him perform in less than a year I was curious to see if anything'd rubbed off on me. And indeed, as he ripped into the Crazy Horse-esque "Mini TV's", there were some things that rang a bell. Backed by a four-piece band (including Julie Fader — who I'd last seen in these parts with Great Lake Swimmers — on vox, keyb and flute) VanGaalen started loud and then switched over to quieter songs as the set progressed. Getting through fifteen songs in fifty minutes, Chad was impressed with the turnout and excited by boats going by behind the crowd. On stage, his manner was a bit like a brilliant artist friend who spends most of his time in the basement — someone that you bring to a party only to have him say mildly confusing and scandalous things in public. "Was Canada born from a vagina, like everything?" he asked at one point, pausing, and then correcting himself, "countries aren't born from vaginas. Sorry, I didn't go to school for anything." A weird, slightly prickly kind of insular charm.

Having a chance to sit back and soak in his performance more than last time I saw him, I was certainly able to appreciate it a lot more. Whether playing from his more amped-up stack of songs or his more folksy stuff, there's a dark consistency to his lyrics about pain and loss expressed through a winning mix of plainspoken narration and haunting imagery. All told, well done, and a boat-honkin' good time.

Listen to a track from this set here.

By the time Constantines took the stage, the aisles had filled in with rabidly partisan fans, cheering as the band led off with "I Will Not Sing a Hateful Song". I was feeling somewhat ambivalent. This is a band that I've liked for a long time — and really liked for a while, round the time when Shine a Light came out. I remember the first couple times I saw 'em live as being bracing, vital affairs. But then they released an okay album followed by a dull album, and lately I'd been wondering if "maturity" — that most dreaded of all rock'n'roll afflictions — had crept into the band's joints just as classic-rock dynamics have been creeping into their songs, displacing punkish spirit.

The performace sort of reinforced those feelings in me. Underwhelming album cuts from Kensington Heights like "Million Star Hotel" and "Shower Of Stones" didn't gain much live. This is obviously something that the band is aware of, and obviously their musical development over their last couple albums is an attempt at finding a way to transform youthful kineticism into a more subtle, implied kind of power. "Tomorrow'll kill you dead," as Bry Webb sang in "Time Can Be Overcome", a song about entropy's tensions, and right on point for what I was thinking. I guess for me the problem is that though the band seems self-aware and is facing these ideas head-on, what they've come up with just doesn't do much for me.

Which isn't to say this was a bad show — it was, largely, an entertaining time — just, subjectively, less vital than I was hoping. And anyways, there were certainly some exceptions that proved to make me look callous, such as "You Are A Conductor", perhaps the quietest thing the band played, that managed to have a certain power drawn from its elegance. And if nothing else, the band filled out their timeslot, playing from 9:30 right up to the eleven o'clock curfew. There was also a pretty good moment when a burst of energy seemed to correspond precisely with the beginning of the fireworks from Ontario Place. The Cons remain a talented and important band, so I wouldn't put it past 'em to find the songs that integrate their youthful fire with their maturity.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Okay — let's look it up. Working backwards:

2008: Martha Wainwright / Basia Bulat

2007: Final Fantasy / Do Make Say Think

2006: The Dears / Jason Collett

2005: Feist / Apostle of Hustle

That's as far back as I was there for. Looks like Rheostatics played in '04.

2 There was one older gentleman — for a moment I thought he was Mose Allison, inexplicably still at the Harbourfront on the day after his gig there — sitting in the row in front of me. Perhaps because he was hemmed in and didn't want to fight the crowd, he stayed for the entire gig, despite nodding off a couple times, and looking painfully uncomfortable at others.

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