Monday, March 8, 2010

Gig: Wavelength 500 (night 3)

Wavelength 500 (night 3) (feat. From Fiction, The Bicycles, Laura Barrett, Magic Cheezies, Young Mother)

Sneaky Dee's. Friday, February 12, 2010.

The third night of the Wavelength Festival returned to the series' spiritual home base, where nearly three-quarters of the Sunday night shows had taken place. Showed up shortly after doors to find a bit of a lineup outside, but it was only a few minutes' wait to get in. Word was, after the fact, that some people showing up later had had a dire time getting in, so I guess I'm glad I was there in good time. Climbing up the stairs, it felt good to be in Sneaky Dee's, just something comforting and right about that space. All the more so with the swirling General Chaos lights feeling like they were back home, too. Like a "regular" Wavelength night, it was a little thin in the early going, even as things got started at about ten to ten.

A five-piece band on stage, with drummer, two saxophonists, bassist, and a guy with a bunch of electronics and a beat-up, old TV, the tube pretty much blown, emitting just a single, failing blob of light on the screen. This was Young Mother, who, on their myspace, pretty much swathe themselves in anonymity, though some searching does indicate that it's the project of one Jesse James Laderoute.1 Commenting, "we're going to play one song, how's that sound?" the band launched into a nearly five-minute introductory segment, with rising saxes and bursts of TV static before a regular bass line and drum rhythm kicked in. Suddenly, there was a bit of a jaunty, dark pop song here, Laderoute singing about being "a million miles away" as the band chugged behind him. And then back to the squall of static and bleating saxes, and the set ended with the speaker of the TV fuzzily spitting out one of those propagandistic messages from the government about "Canada's Economic Action Plan". One song, yes, but a bit more than fifteen minutes overall.

Quite good stuff, reminiscent of the avant-punk music coming out Cleveland in the mid-70's — this band wouldn't sound out of place next to some stuff by the Numbers Band or groups of that ilk. And as I was standing there at Sneaks, the General Chaos visuals roiling behind, a thin crowd up front, and a band working out some unconventional rock moves, I was happily thinking to myself, "this is Wavelength!"

Listen to an excerpt from this set here.

Still a lot of room on the floor as the From Fiction people started settling in (about whom, more anon) and Magic Cheezies took the stage. Shouting out her mic check in about three seconds flat ("Check-check-check! W-w-w-woah ah-hurgh ah-ah-ah! Okay, we're good.") singer/guitarist Heather Curley gave a hint of the conciseness to come. A rough start to the set, the first song going about thirty seconds before Curley waved it off, making some amp adjustments and calling for a do-over. A bit of roughness even after that, with Mark McLean's bass2 dropping in and out a little. By about their third song (which, given their song lengths, was about four minutes along) they were settling in, though from those original sound issues on forward, you could get the sense that the band wasn't entirely happy with how they were sounding. From the floor, though, it was good stuff, and rough edges wear well with this music — fast, brash punk, Kleenex-via-riot grrrl style. Curley led with her buzzsaw guitar and a roll of her eyes, her vox and body language suggesting, "oh, I'm bored with you." The set went nine songs with an average length less than ninety seconds, and if this was the band on an "off" night — though it sure didn't seem that way to me — by the end I was eager to see 'em with all cylinders firing.

And then, an object lesson in how an audience can have an effect on an artist. Right up front, against the stage, there was a small group of young people3 that had clearly come down not to celebrate Wavelength and see a bunch of cool bands, but to come to a From Fiction show — a different sort of conceptual mindset altogether. Looking them over, I was mildly apprehensive that they might be a tad, um, insensitive to the other patrons who were there for the other bands, and talk loudly amongst themselves until their band came on.

Especially in the face of the decidedly delicate creations of Laura Barrett. As Jonny Dovercourt took the stage to introduce her, they were rather boisterous. Again explaining to the crowd that he was substituting for Doc Pickles, one shouted, "I like you! You're awesome!"

"I like the cut of these guys' jibs," said Dovercourt.

Which set them to chanting, "Yeahhhh! Jibs!" — they were a bunch that could be described as 'easy to get to chant'.

"Yes... the future..." Dovercourt half-muttered, gesturing at the group in front of him, not quite keeping a laugh out of his voice, "is right here."

"Jibs!" shouted another, a step behind the conversation.

Getting back on track with the intro, he noted, "this musician plays an amazing instrument called the kalimba..."

And this was immediately take up by the group, shouting "Kalimba!" at each other, as Laura Barrett took the stage. Playing solo to start, she was just hitting the first notes of the intro as one shouted, "more kalimba!".

Much to my surprise, though, the group didn't immediately start talking to each other — they actually paid attention, and when Barrett hit the instrumental break with a flourish, there were again appreciative shouts of "kalimba!". They continued after the song as the rest of the band took the stage, and as Barrett was switching instruments and checking her monitor levels, she reported back to Chantal the sound tech, "all I can hear is these guys saying 'kalimba'."

Playing on this night with a three-piece backing band of Ajay Mehra on banjo, plus the double-duty-doing duo of Randy Lee (violin) and Dana Snell (flute and vox), both of whom'd be back on stage with The Bicycles. In the midst of a string of rather high-profile gigs opening for The Magnetic Fields, the band was in awfully good form, even if mildly discombobulated from facing a crowd probably quite unlike any they'd encountered lately in the soft-seaters.

"Somebody learned a new word today," Barrett commented after the now-obligatory shouts of "kalimba!" at one song's end. Running with it, Mehra commented to the group in front of him, "you know, usually the kalimba goes inside a calabash shell," eliciting some shouts back of "Callllllllllabash!", and "where's the calabash?" but that didn't prove to have as much sticking power. Throughout, Barrett managed to maintain an air of bemusement at this, and in turn, the group were surprisingly into it, clapping along to "Consumption".4

As Lee and Snell departed for the final song, Mehra remained on stage for "Robot Ponies", and in the spirit of the set's oddity, she called to him, "act it out!" and showing off some expert improv chops, he did just that, pantomiming the entire song, with Barrett just able to maintain her vocal momentum without breaking out into laughter. A rather unusual time, all things considered. Goofy as all hell, but fun. I've seen Barrett play in bars before, and sometimes it can be pretty dicey — I've seen her try to play to far worse than this lot. And it even seemed to have an effect back on them — "That was so good!" one of the guys said to his friends after. So I nodded to myself, thinking that maybe these kids are all right.

Listen to a track — played on kalimba! — from this set here.

Or maybe not. It wasn't long into The Bicycles' set that a member of their group had to be pulled back from getting into a scrap with one of their neighbours, which was defused before it could boil over, but certainly left some bad blood between different groups of people at the front of the stage.5 What precisely was going down I do not know, but it was an odd incident for a band that is perhaps as incendiary as a nice cup of chamomile tea.

It did, however, give the band a chance to make a lot of jokes about how fighting doesn't lead to anything good, and will just cause your band to break up. For this was, indeed, a reunion show, the band having played their last gig nearly a year ago at least year's CMW. Not back in the murky depths of time, I suppose, but I missed the band's heady mix of pop hooks crammed into lightning-quick songs. In more than just a reunion, Randy Lee — who had parted ways with the band as a full-time member several years ago — was back, playing bass for the bulk of the set.6 Otherwise, Matt Beckett has added a moustache, but not too much has changed in the past year.

The band was fairly well-rehearsed, perhaps playing a bit more deliberately than in their prime. Some songs like "Gotta Get Out" were still a giddy rush, and there were a couple missed notes here and there, but on the whole, a very strong set. The first part leaned more strongly from their debut (2006's The Good The Band and The Cuddly), but eased more into its follow-up ('08's Oh No, It's Love) as things moved along. Fourteen songs in a forty minute set covered most of their catalogue's highlights bouncing along in a giddy haze. Whether this is a one-time reunion or not, the band will be missed, but as the song suggests, I know we have to be apart.

Listen to a track from this set here.

And then a bit of a turn-over. As a whole bunch of people were quickly jockeying for positions right up close to see From Fiction, I was among the numbers making their way against the flow. Partially just out of comity, I suppose — I'd gotten to be right up front for the bands I'd most wanted to see, so now best to leave room for someone who was there for From Fiction. Because frankly, I was not. Not my thing, simply put. The only time I had ever seen them play live was at a show where they were quite incongruously slotted as the openers for Wilco at Kool Haus back in aught-and-three, and it just didn't work for me, though even after that I gave their album a spin just to be sure and it wasn't anything I wanted to hear twice. Their not-quite-shouty, math-y stop-start-spasm version of guitar rock has never done anything for me, so this was a one reunion — the band broke up '06 — that I had no emotional investment in.

Taking the stage to Peaches & Herb's "Reunited", the four members of gathered together for a bro-hug before strapping on their instruments and tearing in. Notwithstanding any of my opinions of their music, I could readily see that they were tearing in with gusto and playing the hell out of their songs. The even came with a new material in hand, offering a short-ish, mostly instrumental number.

To my surprise, I enjoyed it more than I thought I might. Some of it was even... okay. Some of their more ponderous stretches didn't do much for me, but I guess I had some appreciation for what they were doing. I liked some of the intricate guitar interplay and the lift from Rob Gordon's drums.7 It was a big hit with the crowd, natch, so obviously in some quarters they'd been missed pretty intently. I left satisfied with my night, and hoped, vaguely, that the Kalimba Kids had a good time, too, and maybe took home something new from this show.

1 I also recognized one of the sax player from Brides, but they're not big on giving names away, either.

2 My understanding is that this was McLean's first Magic Cheezies show on bass, having previously been behind the kit. So that change, and a new drummer in tow, might well explain some of the band's not-quite-smoothness.

3 And it took the most stringent efforts of my inner editor to delete the word "suburban" from that sentence. Not only do I not know where these kids came down from, but I really don't want to be one of those types who effortlessly derides any sort of gaucheness as suburban, as if anyone living on the GO line instead of the TTC, say, is some sort of barbarian at the gate of real culture. Like it's really so simple as that, as much as I'm susceptible to falling into those tropes. Let those of us whose cultural sensibility was born, fully formed, from the forehead of some boheminan, downtown god of cool cast the first stone here.

4 Though she did ask, after, looking sidelong at her bandmates, "is it frosh week?"

5 It's not impossible that the frequent trips to the bar were shifting these kids from sloppy-genial to something further along the boozy spectrum.

6 And, in fact, Lee was the only one who showed up "in uniform", with a small cut-out felt letter B pinned to his shirt. The rest of the band — previously noted for their team-like home-made B-shirts — were all without.

7 Gordon was also on the WL500 stage back on Wednesday night in his new gig with Pony Da Look.

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