Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Gig: Owen Pallett

Final Fantasy Owen Pallett (Snowblink)

Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Thursday, April 8, 2010.

On one of those erratic early-April days with rain and gusting winds moving on through, headed down to the CNE for the largest show I'd been to in a spell.1 With this one being a general admission ticket, showed up fairly early to get a seat up close and try get my money's worth. Looking things over, as the mostly-younger crowd waited for the inner doors to open, it was kind of a night to be proud of for a resolutely independent local artist made good — one could look at this bill and think, for a second, that it was a Blocks Recording Club night being held in the Southern Cross Lounge at Tranzac. And yet, here we were in a much larger space.

For the opening act, Owen Pallet tapped his friends Snowblink2. I was interested to see how the duo — who I've rather come to appreciate — would fare in this large space. On the one hand, their delicate music requires an attentive and quiet audience — which was present here, as the seated crowd was admirably silent once the lights went down.3 But the band is also at its best in more intimate quarters, where the boundary between musicians and audience are at the fuzziest and can be blurred further by singer/vocalist Daniela Gesundheit's participatory ideas, including handing out bells and other noisemakers to the audience.4

In front of what one would assume was a largely unfamiliar crowd, the pair had the smart sense to lead off with their strongest song, "Rut and Nuzzle", which established the warm and soft mood as they moved through some more of their compositions, with Gesundheit and partner Dan Goldman supplementing voices and guitars with a variety of looped effects. Thomas Gill came out to join the band for their sweet, slowed-down cover of Michael Jackson's "Human Nature", while Gesundheit tried to overcome the physical gap between the band and audience with her banter — "is there anything we should talk about?" she asked the crowd while Goldman was tuning.

Sadly, the pair's efforts were undermined by subpar sound. There was a low rumble of distortion throughout, especially on Gesundheit's effects vocal. This was pretty obvious to my untrained ears right from the start and was something that the sound tech should have fixed right away — not doing so gave an impression of a sort of disdain towards the openers. But hopefully a few people were moved enough by the underlying sounds to investigate Snowblink further and find a chance to get closer to them.5

By the time that Owen Pallett took the stage after a reasonably quick break there was a good crowd on hand. Not a full house — the upper reaches of the theatre were pretty empty — but still a good turn-out. But it remained, thankfully, a nicely attentive crowd.6

Dressed in a suit like a proper theatre-playing showman, the former Final Fantasy presented his ornate pop songs via his usual method of looping his violin, keyboard and voice. He led off with "E Is For Estranged" from the recently-released Heartland disc before throwing the local crowd — arguably with a larger share of long-time Has a Good Home-loving fans than at further-flung destinations — a bone with "This Is The Dream Of Win And Regine". That there were some hardcore fans in the crowd was displayed by the cheer that went up at the start of the unreleased "Scandal at the Parkade". Leading into "That’s When The Audience Died" Pallett said, "this is the last old song I'm going to play, I'm sorry. Hope that's all right." Hearing Pallett interpret his older material with his new and improved rig is an interesting chance to really observe how much he has developed. If a few years ago audiences were impressed by the very existence of his one-man-string section looping pedal technique, it's now necessary to listen a little closer to his increasingly-complicated polyphonic playing to appreciate how much his technical skills have grown.

Then came a run of Heartland material, five songs in a row, including the album's opening trio in order. The newer stuff was filled out by the multi-instrumental Thomas Gill (whose solo project is known simply as "Thomas") adding guit, vox and drums. "The Great Elsewhere" and "Lewis Takes Action" were especially fine, the latter enhanced by Gill's backing vocal line.

Easing off from Heartland to some more varied selections, Pallett said, "I don't use any pre-recorded sounds — except this one," triggering a bumpin' drum loop for a very new/previously-unplayed track7. Cover song "Independence Is No Solution" got a pretty warm reception, as did old standby "Many Lives → 49 MP" before the main set ended with a nice rendition of "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt".

Re-emerging, Pallet encored with "What Do You Think Will Happen Next?" ("I used to play this one song at the end of every show for, like, so many years... I haven't played it in a long time, so I re-learned it for tonight") complete with dramatic pause in the middle, Pallett commenting, "I'm not stretching this out — I'm just trying to remember how it goes". "This Lamb Sells Condos" included a fine whistling solo by Gill and there was one more dip back to the early days for the second encore's "Better Than Worse", giving a nice full-circle kind of sense to the show. Pallett might have his limits — "The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead" might have been aired elsewhere on the tour but not in Toronto — but overall he gave the home side a beautiful-sounding mix of his old and new stuff. Decidedly worth the trip.

A couple tracks from this set on offer: check out something from Heartland or, for something different, a cover.

1 One might note that in the year or since since I'd been there last, not a lot had been done in regard to putting up signs, etc, telling people where the theatre is — as evidenced by the constant string of slightly-confused people we saw as we made our way over from the streetcar.

2 Snowblink had also played at Pallett's thirtieth birthday party.

3 The band's customary "Shhh..." sign was nowhere to be seen, but it wasn't required this time 'round.

4 The "theatre-sized" version of this idea — presenting the front row of the crowd with a bell-festooned rope to jangle — didn't really work out. It's a very tricky thing to try and think of how to scale up participatory devices for a crowd beyond a relatively small size, for music no moreso than for democracy.

5 In fact, a great chance to see Snowblink in an exactly perfect environment may be on the horizon in the form of this year's Poor Pilgrim Island show, currently slated for Sunday, July 18, 2010. Mark your calendars!

6 In fact, the most disruptive thing during the main set was the venue's zealous security people, who were hectoring audience members recording video with their cameras for more than about five seconds.

7 "Don't Stop on My Account", ran the chorus, and it has been identified as "Don't Stop the Party on My Account" on the net.

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