Monday, August 31, 2009

Recording: Jah Youssouf and Abdoulaye Koné

Artist: Jah Youssouf and Abdoulaye Koné

Song: Unknown*

Recorded at Musideum, Thursday, August 27, 2009.

Jah Youssouf and Abdoulaye Koné - unknown

My notes for this performance can be found here.

* This is actually two songs, but they flow together very well and give the listener a chance to hear the musicians' different styles. If anyone know the titles here, please leave a comment!

In-store: Jah Youssouf and Abdoulaye Koné

Jah Youssouf and Abdoulaye Koné

Musideum. Thursday, August 27, 2009.

I don't recall when I'd put myself on the Musideum's e-mail list. In fact, when a message arrived in my inbox, I had to tilt my head and think for a second who they were and why they were sending me stuff. Turned out to be an invite to an evening of acoustic Malian music featuring Jah Youssouf and Abdoulaye Koné, and looking it up, this sounded like exactly the sort of thing I'd dig. Headed down to Richmond Street after work and found the perfectly lovely Musideum, vendors of exotic instruments of all kinds in a restored warehouse space that felt more like an art gallery than a store. A small crowd of fifteen-twenty people gathered as the musicians tuned up. As I was snatching a chair close to the action and settled in I felt a bit shabby and out of place amongst an older, professional-looking crowd, but what can you do?

Hosting the evening was Lewis Melville — musician, producer, and a true hero of Canadian independent music — who had met Jah and Abdoulaye in Mali, has recorded with them and worked to bring them to play in Canada. He introduced the artists and acted as translator.

More than just sitting and playing a few songs, it was a chance to hear the musicians talk about their music and background and to really get a feel for their personalities. Both spoke in French, and I usually managed to get a general impression, which would be filled in by Melville's summaries. Jah Youssouf, Malian star, is a player in the Wassoulou tradition, and was more of a talker, a naturally forthcoming storyteller while Koné, a young griot, was a bit more reserved, with a sly smile and a soft but magnetic manner of expression.1 Both musicians were playing the ngoni, a stringed instrument often thought of as a forerunner to the modern banjo. Koné played a traditional griot version of the instrument, and used drones and circular rhythms to accentuate his dazzling flurries of notes. Youssouf played a larger kamale ngoni, a ten-stringed version that looked not unlike a kora and was capable of dazzling, harp-like runs.2 When called for, Koné even improvised some percussion, using keys on the side of a metal water bottle to add some rhythm while Youssouf was playing. We got to hear each of them playing in their own distinct styles as well as together, utterly cooking with complementing cascades of notes. It boggles the mind a bit to consider the complicated music that can be wrung from a construction of gourd, cowhide and fishing line.

The pair played some traditional songs along with their own compositions — one even recounted their impressions of playing in Canada ("beaucoup de cowboys", declared the chorus). There were no few musicians in the crowd, evidenced by the fact that when the floor was opened for questions, the first one was about the tuning of the ngonis, and the answer (pentatonic scales, I believe, if I got the gist of it right) caused general murmuring and nodding. The musicians — Youssouf especially — gave the impression that they would keep playing for as long as there were people sitting and listening, and the performance ended up lasting over an hour-and-a-half, certainly much more than I was expecting.

Certainly an excellent night, and kudos to the Musideum people for sharing their space so graciously. I note that Youssouf and Koné have a local gig coming up at the Music Gallery, Saturday September 19th with the Woodchoppers Association, the long-running improvisational music collective that includes Lewis Melville. Probably worth checking out.

Listen to a couple songs from this performance here.

1 Koné also told a fine story about his grandfather, a blind griot of great renown, whose music was so powerful that on putting his ngoni down on the table, it would continue to play itself!

2 Youssouf was playing not only his own ngoni, constructed out of a calabash, but also a Canadian-made version, designed with stage performance in mind.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Recording: The Wooden Sky

Artist: The Wooden Sky

Song: The Wooden Sky*

Recorded at Sonic Boom Records, August 24, 2009.

The Wooden Sky - The Wooden Sky

My notes for this show can be found here.

* Thanks to Jen for passing along the title to this one.

In-store: The Wooden Sky

The Wooden Sky

Sonic Boom Records. Monday, August 24, 2009.

A Monday night found a good-sized crowd down in the basement of Sonic Boom to see local crew The Wooden Sky1 playing a free show to celebrate the release of their new album If I Don't Come Home You'll Know I'm Gone. The textured five-piece played their stripped-down country-rock in a quiet fashion, more suitable for a back porch than a bustling saloon.2 A smart move, then, that the band had been out on tour in a quiet configuration like this, playing living rooms and other quiet sanctuaries. Lead singer Gavin Gardiner — rocking a Charlie Starkweather kind of look — and his be-plaided cohort brought some swell touches of violin, keyb, harmonica and high falsetto backing vox to flesh out his songs, played softly enough that Gardiner's squeaky stool was as much a part of the sound as anything else.

It was such a relaxed vibe that I was rather glad I'd claimed a spot up front suitable for sitting down with an unobstructed view. After three or four songs, I found myself eased into a blissfully zoned-out kind of state of mind, just kind of soaking it up. I can't say all the songs made a huge impression on me, but I dug the mood. The band played a generous forty minutes — just enough for a Monday night on the way home from work.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Formerly known as Friday Morning's Regret.

2 Actually, this was very much of a piece of the last couple shows I've seen downstairs at Sonic Boom. I think if you took all three of these performances and compressed them down to three minutes, it'd turn out to be a cover of "Ripple".

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Recording: The Dutchess and the Duke

Artist: The Dutchess and the Duke

Song: Out of Time

Recorded at the Bicycle Film Fest Afterparty, Studio Gallery, August 22, 2009.

The Dutchess and the Duke - Out of Time

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: The Bitters

Artist: The Bitters

Song: Can You Keep a Secret*

Recorded at the Bicycle Film Fest Afterparty, Studio Gallery, August 22, 2009.

The Bitters - Can You Keep a Secret

My notes for this gig can be found here.

* Thanks to Zerstörungstrieb for providing the title to this one.

Recording: Mutating Meltdown

Artist: Mutating Meltdown

Song: Raised By A Pack Of TVs*

Recorded at the Bicycle Film Fest Afterparty, Studio Gallery, August 22, 2009.

Mutating Meltdown - Raised By A Pack Of TVs

My notes for this gig can be found here.

* Thanks to Barry for helping with the title to this one.

Recording: Heaven

Artist: Heaven

Song: Huck Finn

Recorded at the Bicycle Film Fest Afterparty, Studio Gallery, August 22, 2009.

Heaven - Huck Finn

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Gig: Bicycle Film Fest afterparty

The Dutchess and the Duke / The Bitters / Mutating Meltdown / Heaven (Bicycle Film Fest afterparty)

Studio Gallery. Saturday, August 22, 2009.

Made one slight error on this night in failing to write down on a scrap of paper the address of the unfamiliar place I was heading to — walked up and down on the south side of College a bit before I realized I was looking for an even number, and then crossed the street and found the spot I was looking for. The venue had a small poster outside the door, but nought else. Up a flight of stairs and pay the cover. The woman running the door has a copy of Ulysses on her table, and I off-handedly ask, "if you finish it before the end of the night, do you get a prize?" She looks at me, confused, and I wince internally — evidently this is not my night to win people over with my wit. Or not yet, anyways, as I find the bar and crack open a PBR.

The space is largely made up of two long, narrow rooms, parallel strips beside each other. One is black-walled and has a small stage at the far end, a DJ set up at a table one one of the long walls, a futon couch at the back beside a sad-looking fake plant. The other room is lit and filled with the slightly muffled sounds coming through the wall, but well-suited for mingling/conversation. The improvised bar is set up in the back. Minutes before eleven, when the first band is scheduled to play, both rooms are pretty much empty. Somewhat trepidatiously, I settle into the couch, and take another look around the darkened room — one entrance, no sprinklers, exposed wiring near the stage, big hole in the ceiling with dried plaster dangling down. The words "Great White" whisper through my mind and my inner Fire Marshall winced a bit.1

In due time, Heaven take the stage. Having seen them just a couple weeks ago, I basically know what to expect, and get a fairly similar set — a bit more compact with five songs in just over a quarter hour. Interestingly, it seems like with a less powerful sound system, the songs are a little less awash in noise and the tunes have a bit more room to creep in. Familiarity might've helped, too, as I recognize a few hooks from the first time 'round. Not out to get you dancing and not out to win you over with onstage amiability, Heaven are putting on a good show regardless. Picked up their CD after the set, though on a quick examination the recorded output is a bit anaemic compared to what they're doing on stage.

Listen to a track from this set here.

After a break and a fairly quick turnover, Mutating Meltdown, out of Austin TX, hit the stage. A three-piece (drums, bass, keyb and everyone singing), they play a slightly herky-jerk kind of de-evolutionary post-punk — imagine early Six Finger Satellite as a surf band. The room is now looking a little emptier — I'm pretty much right up front and not exactly blocking anyone's view. The sound is pretty rough at the outset, and not a lot of vox are getting through, but the band has a fun groove. When Chad said, "this next song is a Styx cover", my recorder inexplicably shut itself down. Towards the end of the set, it all comes together, the songs finding the right balance of sci-fi keybs and feedback and the vox getting back in the mix. There didn't seem to be a large contingent of folks out for this band, but they were right down my alley.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Between sets, the room starts to fill up. The Bitters' crowd has arrived — rambunctious and passing around 40's of Old English. Once ready to go the band plays a powerful short set — "We only have five songs, so we're just gonna chill a minute" singer Ben Cook3 tells us in a tuning break between songs. It was sweaty fun, but I realize after the fact that I don't actually remember the music at all. Checking the recording, it comes back to me some — good old fashioned rock'n'roll energy with a punkish edge, co-ed vox up front from Cook and Aerin Fogel, and a beachball bouncing around the crowd. The band also brought along a good old-fashioned anti-most-things punk rock attitude ("Keep shoplifting our records from Soundscapes!") which the BYOB crowd ate up. I was mildly worried about the audience, but aside from some beer being mouth-sprayed into the air, this was a decent crowd of people to be in.2

Listen to a track from this set here.

After a quick break from the Black Room to cool off a bit, I return and note that the last band of the night are eschewing the stage, and setting up their gear on the floor. Before things get too crowded, I figure to stake out some real estate near the front of the crowd. Except for having been told that this is their DIY gig on the side after being the night's openers for Modest Mouse, I know pretty much nothing about The Dutchess and the Duke. But not long into the set, I realize I'm being completely fucking blown away. R&B in the sense that early Stones or Them or The Animals were R&B, the band (a five-piece co-fronted by the titular Kimberly Morrison and Jesse Lortz) had a batch of excellently-written songs, delivered here with off-the-cuff casualness blearily sagging into exhausted raggedness. It really felt like there was zero distance between performer and audience: shakers and tambourines were shared around, we sweated like they sweated, and the drummer's bottle of Johnny Walker Red got passed around so everyone could get a swig. By the end of the set, the walls were dripping with condensation and guitars were well nigh impossible to keep in tune. A singalong of "I Am Just a Ghost" capped the set — one of the best shows of the year.

I note that their sophomore album is due in early October, so hopefully it won't be long before they pass our way again.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 I got the same feeling a bit later on heading to the bathroom, noting that all the party's patrons' were sharing a co-ed facility with one urinal and one toilet stall — less than pleasing, I'm guessing, to the line of women consigned to waiting on that one toilet.

I actually spent a bit of time while at the show — and more after the fact — thinking about the tensions between the event's DIY spirit and the sort of amenities I usually take for granted at a venue. While I realize I sort of have a vested interest in the folks putting these things together keeping the overhead low — so that it's cheap for me at the door and (hopefully) the artistes are getting paid at the end of the night — but I do appreciate some of those "finer things" at a venue. Call me soft and decadent. On the other hand hand, if it had to go through all of the nanny-state's bureaucratic wrangling, there's no way that shows like this would go on at all. I dunno, I guess — I'm totally not in the loop enough to know much about shows taking place in the "grey market", so maybe I was worry too much about small things.

2 Which applied for the whole night, really. Partially just due to the two-roomed layout and the sheer volume by the stage, anyone not there for the band was wise to stay next door, meaning this was an attentive, well-into-the-music crowd, far less yappy than many a show I've been at.

A special note of praise for DIY kingpin Mark Pesci, the guy who put this whole thing together. This was an event serving several different audiences — I'm sure there were plenty of folks there for the party part of it and indifferent to the bands, as well as some like me who were just the opposite. (there were even a few peopel there for the "bicycle" element of it, based on a couple of guys I saw wearing spandex shorts and those little Tour de France hats.) It was nicely set up so as to keep the "just here to make the scene" crowd separate from the bands, which I appreciated.

3 Also of Fucked Up, and holder of a lengthy punk CV.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Recording: Isla Craig

Artist: Isla Craig

Song: Birds In Flight

Recorded at Holy Oak, August 21, 2009.

Isla Craig - Birds In Flight

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: Melissa Boraski

Artist: Melissa Boraski

Song: Too Tall

Recorded at Holy Oak, August 21, 2009.

Melissa Boraski - Too Tall

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Gig: Melissa Boraski, Isla Craig, Lisa Bozikovic

Melissa Boraski, Isla Craig, Lisa Bozikovic

Holy Oak. Friday, August 21, 2009.

Friday evening, Bloor and Lansdowne. Found the venue, just steps away from the subway station, but needed to walk a bit — to unclench — before heading in.1 I had some time to kill.

After a bit, once I realized that the sky was not permanently grey and that ash wasn't raining down from the sky, I started to feel more myself and headed back towards the spot. Ducked into an empty-ish space — turned out to be a very nice little coffee shop, a homey room with a mishmash of assorted tables and chairs. Bought a cup of tea and settled in as some other patrons also started to straggle into the shop. Billed as a show for Eiyn Sof, turned out to be more of a pass-the-guit singer-songwriter night. Which was just what I was looking for. Figuring that my Saturday night was going to be a late night of loud/aggressive music,2 I kinda wanted the opposite of that, which was what led me to see these unfamiliar singers in a neighbourhood I don't get to much.

The room fairly nicely filled up with twentyish people on hand, Melissa Boraski started things off, standing barefoot at one end of the seating area and launching into a song with a voice as clear as spring water. Playing compact compositions with a strong melodic sense, Boraski's music was generally in the country-folk idiom — this is someone, I'd wager, who's spent some quality time with some Townes Van Zandt albums. Nice chops on guit, too. Her music definitely left an impression on me, evidenced by the fact that I found myself humming a couple of her tunes a day or two after the show.

Listen to a isong from Melissa here.

Lisa Bozikovic may have showed the most range on the night, not only in her voice, but also in presenting songs on piano and accordion in addition to guitar. One tune on guitar also featured a nicely bluesy tone, but her work was generally less "pop" than Melissa's songs. Lisa's work was less based in immediate hooks — more of an implied yearning exploration and an open-hearted emotionality.

Up last in the rotation was Isla Craig — the night's only known quality to me. Playing a spontaneously-derived set on piano and borrowed guit, Isla — with the third fabulous voice of the night on display — gave a bit more of a sense of someone whose songs are inherently designed for fuller arrangements. On guitar especially, she played with a two-stringed circularity, giving the songs a hypnotic regularity recalling sequencer arrangements. Isla threw in a cover of "It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry" to go with her originals. Fine stuff all around.

Listen to a song from Isla here.

The artistes played three songs apiece once through, and then did a second round, a bit more relaxed the second time through, with spontaneous harmonies popping up on a couple songs. At the end, after the hat was passed around, the three conferred to see if they could come up with anything else they could play together, but settled for conversation with friends in attendance. A very nice night, and done pleasingly early. Different sort of thing than most gigs I get to, but it felt like a nice change of pace.

1 This book is freaking me out! Getting off the subway, other humans suddenly seemed alien and suspect — I had that punched-in-the-gut ache I recall from reading all those Reagan-era "Day after" novels. What was the Scholastic book club doing selling those books to kids anyways? I think they left me scarred for life. But I digress.

2 This turned out to be more or less the case.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Recording: Pony Da Look

Artist: Pony Da Look

Song: Wishstick*

Recorded at the Trash Palace, August 17, 2009.

Pony Da Look - Wishstick

My notes from this gig can be found here.

* Thanks to Chuck Skullz for providing the title to this one.

Recording: Buildings

Artist: Buildings

Song: Unknown*

Recorded at the Trash Palace, August 17, 2009.

Buildings - unknown

My notes from this gig can be found here.

* Do you know the title to this song? Please leave a comment!

Recording: Romo Roto

Artist: Romo Roto

Song: Catapillar Massacare [sic]

Recorded at the Trash Palace, August 17, 2009.

Romo Roto - Catapillar Massacare

My notes from this gig can be found here.

Gig: Pony Da Look / Buildings / Romo Roto

Pony Da Look / Buildings / Romo Roto

Trash Palace. Monday, August 17, 2009.

Headed down to the Trash Palace on a stifling Monday evening for a gig. To me, the biggest selling point may have been an assurance that the whole thing'd be over by eleven. This goes a long way towards convincing me to go out on a Monday night these days.1 Walked in to a pretty empty room and settled in for a few minutes, idly watching an old concert video of The Police as people started to trickle in, and the 8:30 start time came and went. After a bit, members of Buildings, sitting down at the back, started to wonder if they should just go ahead and play when our openers arrived.

Romo Roto turned out to be a co-ed duo, consisting of Tomas Del Balso (from local spaz-punk crew DD/MM/YYYY) and Alexandra Mackenzie. Their gear consisted of a small, stand-up drum kit and a boom-box, into which Del Balso would cram in cassettes with gurgling keyb noises. The music started off sounding like pummelling shout-fests that felt like free-form bursts of primal scream therapy. After a bit, though, it did become clear that this wasn't merely random noise — there were songs underneath it all. I'm not sure if the caterwaul and crawl-on-the-floor harshness of it were meant as a bit of an épater les bourgeois kind of move, but I was, at first, put off a bit by it. Not the sort of thing that I would have my manservant put on while sitting in my wingback chair, running my fingers down the spine of a hand-bound leather volume and savouring a fine sherry, but while standing in the boiling depths of the Trash Palace, swilling PBR as Howdy Doody gambolled in the background on the screen behind them, it was all right.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Buildings, out of Washington, D.C., were the night's out-of-town guests. A four-piece, two guitar combo with a slight post-punk edge. Oh, and all-instrumental, too, though don't be fooled into thinking that says all there is to say about 'em. Avoiding the clichés of the "post-rock" sort of instrumental bands, Buildings' songs rely on the forward momentum of their guitar interplay to drive the songs, without any too-tricky time-changes or stop-start rhythms. They also didn't fall have any of that Explosions in the Sky-esque stuff where every song builds into a big crescendo to get easy points when the tension is released. One track reminded me of a speeded-up version of Faust's "Krautrock", which may be a better indicator of this band's approach. They also came correct with the visual angle covered, their songs accompanied by a series of home-made projections on the screen behind them — ranging from home-made kaleidoscopic animations to detourned video game footage. It all combined into a transporting experience, and the half-hour set really made the night for me. The band were also friendly lads, willing to engage in a bit of a chat before and after their set. Picked up a CD afterwards and then went outside to try and cool off a bit, but as muggy as it was in the basement, outside didn't feel much better. But still managed to regain my breath for the final go-round.

Listen to a track from this set here.

It'd been a couple years since I'd last seen Pony Da Look, who are now sporting a different lineup, including Rob Gordon on drums. But even if it's been a while, it's impossible to forget a band with such a unique and striking aesthetic. If most bands are something like method actors, working hard to learn to mutter just like we mutter, Pony Da Look are more like operatic divas, looking for the perfect heightened gesture to get their point across. It was not for nothing that they chose a DVD of Lars von Trier's The Kingdom to project on the screen behind them during their set, which was a perfect visual counterpoint to the music. Three voices, three synths up front, with Gordon's drumming pushing the band, as if recklessly rushing them along the rocky path on the side of a dark mountain. Highly entertaining stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

And, as promised, I was out and walking to catch the streetcar before eleven, so a successful night all around. Kudos as always to the Trash Palace for allowing strangers to rock out in their space.

1 Hell, if it came with a promise it'd be over by ten, I'd be even happier. This reminds me of a story — recounted in Heylin's From the Velvets to the Voidoids, if memory serves me right — that in the Cleveland scene in the '70's, because it was acknowledged that everyone had to go to work in the morning, it was standard practice for the headliner to play first, and then the other bands in order of descending popularity, so the lowest group in the food chain had to wait around the longest to play and got to bed last.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Recording: Revolvers

Artist: Revolvers

Song: Unknown*

Recorded at the Silver Dollar, August 15, 2009.

Revolvers - unknown

My notes for this gig can be found here.

* Does anyone know the title of this song? Please leave a comment!

Recording: The Caraways

Artist: The Caraways

Song: Winter Passed*

Recorded at the Silver Dollar, August 15, 2009.

The Caraways - Winter Passed

My notes for this gig can be found here.

* Thanks to Laura for passing along the title to this one.

Gig: Revolvers

Revolvers / The Caraways

The Silver Dollar. Saturday, August 15, 2009.

With a little more lag time between plans than'd be perfectly elegant, I had time after leaving Cinematheque (confused all to hell by the Cocteau-y weirdness of Les Enfants Terribles) for a relaxed walk over to the Silver Dollar. Still got there mildly early, as witnessed by the fact that the last of the evening's blues bands were breaking down their gear as I settled in. A chance to witness the venue in transition as the last scraps of the older crowd out for the early show finished off their drinks before the late-night denizens began to take over.

Hadn't heard of The Caraways, the night's opener, though I had seen it mentioned that the band's membership included John Sutton (ex-Weakerthans). While they were setting up, that seemed less striking than the cocktail dresses and exotic instruments that were taking the stage, and indeed, the real motor of the band turned out to be vocalist Laura Keightley, complemented on harmonies, french horn and melodica by a possibly newer member of the band, as yet unnamed in their info. The five-piece turned out to be working in a sophisticated, textured vein that left them looking classier than the crowd they were playing to. If the Blake Babies played downcast, west-coast pop it might sound something like this, albeit cut with a 90's alternative sensibility.1 But the dominant vibe was a smoky ambiance driven by Nikos Kougias' "Out on the Weekend"-styled drums. The band wasn't putting across a dominating stage presence, but that gave the impression that they were folding themselves into the environment rather than shrinking into the woodwork. Quietly impressive and solidly professional — keep your eye out for 'em.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The main attraction for me on the night was Revolvers, a local quartet broadly in the two-guitar psych-garage genre, celebrating the release of their first album with a gig. Although the style of the day is to amp up yr nuggets with extra layers of noise and slop, the most unique element of Revolvers' sound was the restraint they applied to their songs. At the places where most bands of their ilk would pile on more chaos, Revolvers held back, making it sound like a sort of contained fury than a psychotic reaction.2 In theory, this means that the band has room to shift up, if they ever decide to kick their songs up a notch, but it implies they're finding the most rewarding territory in their songs' melodic centres, and kudos to them for that.

It's not all there yet — the songwriting might feel a tad undercooked, for example — but this was an enjoyable set from a young band that has some elements tantalizingly in place. Were I offering advice to the band on where they could take this implied psychedelic explosion, I would suggest less blues, more Galaxie 500. If they're not looking to explode, they should consider learning how to shimmer.3 The band played for thirty-five minutes, and the crowd on hand would have been happy to hear some more.

There was more rock action on tap from Drunk Woman, who I have heard kick up a righteous fuss, but the time I'd spent tromping around in the hot afternoon's sun was catching up with me and I was feeling well exhausted. Stopping to grab a copy of Revolvers' CD, I made my way out to the street.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 The latter quality was especially apparent on a song with Sutton on vox.

2 Another sign of their restraint: drummer Lavien Lee played with brushes for the duration of the set.

3 Of course, what I recommend for my aesthetic edification and what would get this band filling up rooms with happy, beer-drinking patrons are probably two different things, so, like, consider the source there.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Recording: Bob Wiseman

Artist: Bob Wiseman

Song: The Disappearing Trick

Recorded at the Factory Studio Theatre, August 15, 2009.

Bob Wiseman - The Disappearing Trick

My notes for this show can be found here.

Performance: Bob Wiseman, "Actionable"

Bob Wiseman — "Actionable"

Summerworks Festival (Factory Studio Theatre). Saturday, August 15, 2009.

Me and Bob Wiseman have a history.

In fact, Bob Wiseman meant — means, I guess — a lot to me. One of the first musicians I dug when I realized that music wasn't just on cassettes and on MuchMusic, pretty much the first time I came to really dig someone through seeing them live.

First time I saw him would be in '92, I guess, if I'm doing the math right. Winnipeg. Went to The Spectrum1 to see Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet — which, given they did the music for Kids in the Hall made them about the coolest thing under the sun in my book. Tour support were Huevos Rancheros who had their own take on the instrumental twang-rock thing. There was another opener, who didn't fit in that mold at all, but who suddenly had the dancefloor full of people sitting on the floor, watching raptly as a guy played his keyboards and sung his strange little songs.

A couple months later, I came across one of his albums, used, and bought it on a whim. And it hooked me. And after that, every time he came to town, I went to see Bob Wiseman. He'd stop in Winnipeg pretty frequently, because of family ties, so there were a good string of shows — some with band, some solo — that were different every time. Often filled with new, not-yet-released material, sometimes with more banter than songs, these shows were among the ones that taught me that going to a gig wasn't just like listening to the album, but louder.

So I was really into Bob Wiseman. I remember when "Accidentally Acquired Beliefs" came out, in '95. I put on my Bob Wiseman t-shirt (oh, yes!) and strolled down to the music store to go get a copy. And I especially remember a couple of shows at the Blue Note Café, summer of '96, with a new and totally kick-ass band that played what was to me at the time the best show I'd ever seen in my life — so good that I went back the next night to see them play the same set again and was equally blown away.

And then things changed in my life and I moved to a different city and didn't have the time or money to go looking for live shows any more. And I thought less about Bob. Our drift was probably exacerbated by the fact that after '97's More Work Songs from the Planet of the Apes there was a long gap between studio albums, and Bob became "something I used to listen to". But still, he wasn't entirely absent: after I bought my guitar and tried to learn how to operate it, the first song that I realized I knew the chords to, without having to look them up online but just from listening to the song as I was walking down the street, was Bob's "10,000 Miles".

And when, a few years ago, a lengthy recording hiatus ended with some new stuff on Blocks I bought the albums, but kinda kept my distance from his live shows for some reason, maybe figuring that anything I saw now couldn't live up to my memories.

It's against that background that I went to see Bob's show, "Actionable", at the Summerworks Festival.2 Graduating from the music programme (in which he appeared last year) to the stage side of things, Bob hasn't so much changed his show (from what I can gather) as much as the context in which he's delivering it. His monologues and songs (on guit, key and accordion) were accompanied by video projections to create a multimedia happening that managed to feel like more than a gig — but perhaps also less like a fully-conceived theatre piece.

Which didn't particularly bother me too much, seeing as I was there for the music. Playing old and new songs, Bob played both some of his "actionable" songs that had resulted in layers' missives being sent his way ("Have a Nice Day", about notorious Canadian lawyer Douglas Christie, "Rock and Tree" about the political connections behind the 1973 Chilean coup3) as well as songs about love and confusion ("The Disappearing Trick", "Who Am I?").

Although it's outside my specific knowledge to go on too much about the qualities of this as a piece of live theatre, I found it interesting to put myself in the place of someone who might have come to this knowing nothing about Bob and his music. My feeling is that though they'd find some entertainment here from the songs and the thought put into the presentation, there'd also might be a sense of frustration at the lack of a dramatic arc through the whole thing. Although the "actionable" concept — discussing the various times over the years that Bob's songs have been frozen in their tracks by lawsuit-fearing suits — is used as a sort of thematic linking device in the show, it remains just that — a series of stories. there's no development of dramatic tension or a sense at the end how this has affected Bob as an artist or social activist.

Listening to this set of songs also raised some additional questions that the loose narrative didn't really touch on, mostly revolving around the time-bound nature of political songs. Is the "Actionable" concept just an easy way to prolong the life of topical songs that might now otherwise feel a little dated? For example, "My Cousin Dave", Bob's epistolary paean to David Geffin, is, these days, suffering the time-lapse wilting of pretty much any pop-culture riffing — much as I delighted in the song during all those mid-90's gigs. On the other hand, some of the songs taking a longer historical view still feel cutting, including "Response of a Lakota Woman to FBI Intimidation Circa 1973 Pine Ridge"4. The flipside of this time-boundedness, though, is that when the songs touch on something more immediate (such as the name-naming "Cpl. Monty Robinson, Const. Gerry Rundel, Const. Bill Bentley and Const. Kwesi Millington", about the death of Robert Dziekański) it feels as if they're touching a nerve.

I was also thinking about the fact of this show as an escape pod for Bob, a means to play music to attentive, relatively eager audiences in a theatre instead of in bars, before indifferent crowds there for something else. Is this a viable approach for other musicians to take? How does this kind of situation change the dynamic between artist and audience? At this performance, the audience clapped between songs, but besides some laughter, there was less of the back-and-forth energy between stage and crowd than might be expected at a gig. Does that make it a less fulfilling gig when people are interacting less, or does the audience's very attention make up for it?

In the end, this was a worthy performance. Besides Bob's songs and engaging manner, credit is also due to Marissa Zinni, who worked behind the screen providing the live visuals (and showed off a good set of pipes on "Rock and Tree" — perhaps more backing vox are indicated?). Because this was, after all, a visual show as well as a musical one, I will provide here this link to a youtube performance5 in this show's style, to give a flavour of Bob interacting with the screen:

And in the end, the show also reminded me of some of the reasons that I used to dig Bob Wiseman so much in the first place — not just the songs, but the sense that this is someone I'd want to have a cup of tea with, and listen to his stories. I've changed, Bob's changed, but it's still cool. I didn't mean to stay away for so long, I guess, but welcome back, Bob.

1 Or was it The Pyramid then?

2 I must have picked an auspicious afternoon to check the show out, as the audience was populated by some of my favourite Bob-affiliated pop stars.

3 This song was, in fact, pulled from In Her Dream, Bob's first album, by Warner records just prior to its release. But you can download that song, along with the rest of that album — and it's a good 'un, too — at the Free Music Archive.

4 This one was played here on the guitar but accompanied by a mournful piano line playing on the screen — a particularly effective use of the audiovisual setup. Ex post facto question: does presenting this as "theatre" rather than "music" give the artist a loophole where they don't have to argue against the old rockist critics who rant when a musician is playing in any manner that is "not live"?

5 True story: because I sort of felt that different rules apply to what one can "take" from a theatre performance as opposed to a gig, I felt mildly weird about sharing a recording from this show. Just to make sure I was staying on the side of the angels, I emailed Bob to see if I was stepping on any toes and he not only responded that it was okay, but sent me some youtube links in case I needed any visuals to illustrate my points. A true mensch!

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Recording: Masaisai

Artist: Masaisai

Song: Chikende*

Recorded at the Gladstone Hotel, August 14, 2009.

Masaisai - Chikende

My notes from this set can be found here.

* Thanks to a commenter for confirming the spelling of this title.

Gig: Masaisai


Gladstone Hotel (Ballroom). Friday, August 14, 2009.

On a Friday evening, I was a little sleepy from having been up late the night before watching Forest City Lovers and The D'Urbervilles tear up the stage at their Summerworks show, so I wasn't sure how long I could last. Considering the options, I decided to check out this post-Afrofest show at the Gladstone. Not only was it free, meaning I'd feel okay about leaving early, but it was also front-loaded with the band I was most interested in, Masaisai, a local band with most of the membership having roots in Zimbabwe. The band's music is based around the mbira (thumb piano), and mixes a roots music with a modern sensibility. The band was six players deep: drums, bass, guit, two mbira and a dancer/percussionist. Anyone familiar with the work of the mighty Thomas Mapfumo's chimurenga would have an idea of where this band is coming from. It's energetic, infectiously danceable stuff. If I were going to pick one adjective to describe it, it would be "bright" — redolent not only of the sunny emotional tenor, but also the skipping treble like light reflecting off a lake.

The musicians, including one youthful mbira player, were operating at a high level. The drums provided an excellent backbone with a steady skittering beat and guitarist Larry Lewis provided a lot of that aforementioned brightness. This was a really good half-hour of music, although were a couple tweaks that could have improved matters: the mix wavered a couple times, with the mbira disappearing a bit and the shaker overpowering things at a few moments. And while singer Tichaona Maredza did a fine job and held forth with a warm presence, he could have exercised his frontman's prerogative to inveigh the crowd, which seemed a little hesitant, up and dancing in front of the stage. After four songs, the band thought they were up against their time limit, but were convinced to stay up for one more, which sounded a little rushed in the tempo, as if they graciously didn't want to overstay their welcome on the stage.

But these are small things. Overall, this grabbed me in just the right way — fun stuff that makes you want to dance some. Don't take my word for it — the band has some more upcoming gigs listed on their myspace, including a free show on Saturday, August 22.

There was a whole slate of acts following Masaisai on stage at the Gladstone, and from what I heard catching the end of some of them soundchecking, it was a solid lineup throughout. But I was getting sleepy fast and decided to call it a night with a warm feeling from a band I'll be looking to see again.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Recording: "The Family Band"

Artist: "The Family Band" (Forest City Lovers + The D'Urbervilles)

Song: Watching The Streetlights Grow

Recorded at the Theatre Centre, Summerworks Festival, August 13, 2009.

"The Family Band" - Watching The Streetlights Grow

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: The D'Urbervilles

Artist: The D'Urbervilles

Song: Get In or Get Out

Recorded at the Theatre Centre, Summerworks Festival, August 13, 2009.

The D'Urbervilles - Get In or Get Out

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: The D'Urbervilles / Forest City Lovers

The D'Urbervilles / Forest City Lovers

The Theatre Centre (Summerworks Festival Music Series). Thursday, August 13, 2009

Celebrity encounter! Frank Chromewaves had sent out a call for audio from Joe Strummer's 1999 T.O. gig, something that I happened to have in my stash, so as Frank was walking by to head into the Theatre Centre, I accosted him and passed the material along and chatted a bit. A class act, natch.

The word on the street was that the night's set wasn't just going to be one band followed by the other, but more of a collaboration. More details were scant but theorized over. Such time-passing diversions were again required, as we were left sitting around outside in sultry heat well past the doors time, watching the building crowd for this show slowly block the ongoing panoramic entertainment of Queen Street. Once we were granted our ingress, the reason for this night's delay was apparent: the stage had been split in two and angled out into a V, with a drum kit on each. On the floor in front, two sets of gear were set up in near mirror-image. Grabbed a spot to sit at the base of the first riser as the crowd — by a good chunk the largest I'd seen so far at the Summerworks gigs — filled in.

Forest City Lovers didn't keep us waiting long once the crowd was in place. Taking their place on the stage right half of the setup, the crew launched into a short set of their delightful pop, animated by Kat Burns' shyly smiling vox. A good way to start the night, the crowd sitting down and adjusting to the underground gloopy warmness.

At the end of five songs came the switchover. Kyle Donnelly (a member of both bands and pulling double duty) started a bass riff while the rest of FCL started snapping their fingers like the Sharks challenging the Jets. Drummer Greg Santilly appeared behind his kit, pummeling out his beat, and suddenly the rest of the D'Urbs flung themselves out, stage left, and into "Spin the Bottle", as if picking up the West Side Story challenge and banishing the Sharks off their turf.

When I'd last seen The D'Urbs at CMW I was left with a sense of astonishment at how powerful a rock'n'roll machine the band had become, and on this night I'd say I felt that even moreso. The band played five songs — including two new ones — during their half of the set, and at the start, the switchover was so quick that the crowd stayed put sitting down. It only took a couple guys moving up once "The Receiver" started for the open space on the dancefloor to be filled up with sweaty, dancing people, and suddenly I was about two feet from vocalist John O'Reagan. The set ended with "This is the Life" and a new song — powerful stuff all around — and the band announced that they'd take a short break before reconvening, both bands combined, as "The Family Band".

Listen to a track from this set here.

I was interested as the full seven-piece joint band came out to see how the two sounds would combine, and wondered to myself whether FCL's more delicate edges might get overwhelmed by the D'Urbs' rollicking energy. As it shook out, the bands'd put enough thought into this to avoid that pitfall, and managed to put the extra hands into more texture rather than more volume. Which isn't to say that this wasn't muscular — we're talking about a seven-piece, two drummer combo here, after all — but it generally meant at least two people on keybs, plus Mika Posen's violin enriching the sound. Things really hit their stride and felt like a true collaboration in the middle of the set, when John added background vox to a lovely version "Watching The Streetlights Grow" that built up to a beautiful coda, followed by a funky party version of "Dragnet" that had John and Kat trading verses. The set had been announced as a birthday celebration special for Out of This Spark honcho Stuart Duncan and must've felt like a treat indeed. The bands, though dripping in sweat, were clearly having a ball and have to be congratulated for putting something like this together. I'd seen these two bands share a stage before1, but seeing them working together like this was a whole other thing. One to be remembered. Although the crowd would have gladly stayed for more, the band returned to the stage only for a final bow before sending the crowd out to the cooler outside air.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 At their joint CD release party at the Tranzac, March '08.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Recording: Vandermark 5

Artist: Vandermark 5

Song: Friction (Part 2)*

Recorded at Supermarket, August 11, 2009.

Vandermark 5 - Friction (Part 2)

My notes from this gig can be found here.

* Thanks to unreasonable animals for providing the title to this one.

Gig: Vandermark 5

Vandermark 5

Supermarket. Tuesday, August 11, 2009.

Headed down to Kensington and into the back room of Supermarket right at nine to find a fairly full room, but still managed to snag a nice seat. The crowd was about what I'd expected: middle-aged white guys being the core, with smatterings of various other "types": proggy musos, experimental/avant heads, and even, to my mild surprise, a couple dudes in metal t-shirts. A few women in attendance, mostly girlfriends who came along for the ride.1 A crowd whose members probably not only have alphabetized walls of albums, but also know who engineered their favourite discs and have strong opinions on the sound quality of their remasters. That said, this was a fine crowd to sit in, hitting a sweet spot between non-jabbering appreciation of the music without the too-serious "high culture" reserve that sometimes makes jazz gigs feel like a night at the opera.2

Saxophonist Ken Vandermark wears many hats3 but his Vandermark 5 is arguably at the centre of his work. Structured along the lines of a traditional jazz small combo, the V5 exhibits a depth of knowledge of the music's history but is profoundly forward-looking in execution — jazz that acknowledges, and lives in, a post-modern world. It's also, name notwithstanding, not merely a vehicle for Ken Vandermark — no rhythm-section-plus-blowing here, but a unit where each player brings a strong identity to the table to explore a steadily-shifting set of compositions and improvisations. On the stand-up acoustic bass, Kent Kessler might have the most traditional role, but his playing encompassed a wide rage, only at a couple times essaying a "typical" walking bassline. Tim Daisy's work included a lot of percussion-y bricabrac beyond his kit, adding to the music's texture, and when drumming, brought a steady backbeat that was satisfyingly rock'n'roll while still placing itself in a line stretching from Jack DeJohnette and Tony Williams and back. Cello player Fred Lonberg-Holm was the swingman of the group, neither wholly of the rhythm section nor the front line. Sometimes just adding colour to the horns, he was equally capable of stepping up with guitar-like tones — and on on "Second Marker" ran his cello through a raft of effects, twiddling knobs to get an abrasive, oscillating wave of sounds. The two horn players each played within a wide range, but never let their virtuosity get in the way of playing with emotion. As band leader, Ken Vandermark is utterly uninterested in hogging the spotlight, often content to just soak in the performance, and sometimes conducting the band with a series of hand signals.

There was no opening act on this night, but two hour-long sets gave good value for money. The first set ranged around a bit through the V5 catalog, including takes of "Some, Not All", "Second Marker" and "Compass Shatters Magnet". The second set featured all-new music from the forthcoming V5 album Annular Gift, opening with "Spiel", a suite-like piece with quiet interludes between frantic group work and climaxed with some excellent Ayler-like soloing from Dave Rempis. "Cement" concluded on a cookin' groove, and the set ended with "Cadmium Orange". Exciting throughout and the band, despite perhaps being tired at the end of a long tour, was in excellent form.

Although this kind of show is at a bit of an angle from what I normally attend, the underlying reasons for going aren't anything different. This isn't "difficult" music — it's just music.4

Listen to a track from this gig here.

1 It brought to mind an observation I'd made in a notebook once: "Jazz gigs and ballgames are places men go to be alone".

2 It's also a nice change to hear music being produced in a different way, i.e. live right off the stage, with less mediation of microphones and P.A.'s. Not that I don't love electricity and what it does to music, but it's good to hear it the other way from time to time.

3 His discography lists more than twenty different combos that he has released albums with.

4 I also appreciate how Vandermark's relationship to the "industry" side of things has him acting much more like most of the rock bands I see — his shows feel more like "gigs" than "recitals", and he is clearly interested in cultivating an indie-ish rapport with his fans — you can most definitely go talk to the band after the show schlepping merch. They're also very cool with people recording them — I probably had the third-best equipment in the room on this night.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Recording: Still Life Still

Artist: Still Life Still

Song: Pastel

Recorded at Theatre Centre, Summerworks Festival, August 9, 2009.

Still Life Still - Pastel

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Gig: Still Life Still / Kids on TV

Still Life Still / Kids on TV

The Theatre Centre (Summerworks Festival Music Series). Sunday, August 9, 2009

Subpar rock'n'roller I am, I have it as a rule of thumb to avoid Sunday gigs, so as to finish off all the chores and get to bed nice and early to start the new week all fresh etc, etc. But still, sometimes you have to break the rules to free your heart.1 So, heading out in the middle of a beautiful/mildly terrifying thunderstorm, I ducked out during a break in the driving rain and actually made it down to the Theatre Centre a bit earlier than I'd planned. Fortunately A. arrived on the scene not long after me, so we chatted while we waited for the doors to open — mildly late, as seems to be par for the Summerworks course.

A sparser crowd on hand, not surprising given the Sunday/lousy weather situation. The night was designated a fundraiser for Sketch, an arts program for street involved and homeless youth — a cause that Kids on TV have supported in the past. On this night, we got an eight-song set again showing off their newer material and a couple old tracks. The crowd (except myself and A.) seemed largely to be there for Still Life Still and were hanging back on the seats as KoTV took the stage. Thank goodness there was an intrepid front-stander to lead the charge to the stage, although after a bit the music started to draw more people onto their feets and some dancing ensued. Adding to the multimedia spectacular, most of the songs came with flashy new video art. The disco-y "Dazzler" impressed even more in this setting and was a rockin' good time. "Poison" was beset by the same electro-gremlins that had visited Miracle Fortress on Thursday2 with the sound system cutting out in the middle of the track. The band gamely took a mulligan, and when the sound died again, persevered with one more re-start and managed to get through the track3 The set ended with "Breakdance Hunx" and its attendant party breakdown — stretching her mic cord to the limit, Roxanne took to the seats to bust out a verse and John hit the dancefloor to show off his breakdancing skillz. A ripping set wherein the band overcame the technical issues and a crowd that was not necessarily there to see them.

Between sets, A. decided he wanted to be alert at work in the morning and split for home. Fortunately, changeover entertainment was provided by Masta Myst, a young rapper who has honed his craft and done some recording at Sketch. That filled things in well enough until Still Life Still were ready to go. My previous encounters with the band had left me mostly ambivalent, but I was still willing to see if there was something there to interest me. The crowd, on the other hand, were right into this, and there were plenty folks dancing and singing along straight from the get-go. It's an A&R reality I'll readily acknowledge — if it comes down to whether a band impresses me or impresses a dancefloor full of girls, I know which I'd use as an indicator of future success.

Fighting against shock-inducing rented gear, the band put together a respectable set. All things considered, SLS' decentred sound should be right down my alley — no obvious frontman, vox shared around, and instruments melding together into a smeary haze. But somehow it seems this galling limitation must not be persevered in — sometimes it feels that the band is occupying its patch of musical real estate a bit too securely. A couple "new" songs — newer than their as-yet-unreleased album — are generally cut from the same cloth. I suppose in the end it's just that what they have doesn't quite hook me in, but, truth be told, I did enjoy this more than my previous encounters, and felt like three or four songs really connected. This is already a capable live act, and I can only imagine some road work concomitant with the new album will only sharpen that further. Whether this gets them to the point where they're too successful for random women to just wander on stage mid-set to get some pictures of them remains to be seen, but I do reckon we'll be hearing plenty about 'em this fall.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Marge: "You got that from a movie poster."

2 Weirdly, it's been the electronic acts, with their DI'ed gear that've been having all the bad luck with the fusebox, and not the rockers with their amps and whatnot.

3 This supremely catchy little number will be featured on the soon-coming Friends in Bellwoods II comp — start making your plans to get your mitts on a copy!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Recording: St. Vincent

Artist: St. Vincent

Song: Save Me From What I Want

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, August 8, 2009.

St. Vincent - Save Me From What I Want

My notes for this set can be found here.