Monday, August 30, 2010

Recording: Robyn Hitchcock

Artist: Robyn Hitchcock

Song: The Ghost Ship / Robyn Speaks

Recorded at the Drake Underground, June 11, 2010.

Robyn Hitchcock - The Ghost Ship

Robyn Hitchcock - Robyn Speaks

My notes for this show can be found here.

Recording: Sunbear

Artist: Sunbear

Song: Time That Goes Nowhere

Recorded at the Drake Underground, June 11, 2010.

Sunbear - Time That Goes Nowhere

My notes for this show can be found here.

Gig: Robyn Hitchcock

Robyn Hitchcock (Sunbear)

The Drake Underground. Friday, June 11, 2010.

I probably go to enough shows not to get too worked up about any particular one of them; or, put another way, I go to too many shows to get too excited that often. This was one that I was excited for.

Like the way I'm sure a lot of people feel about their own favoured "cult artists", I've long felt a bit of tension about Robyn Hitchcock — utter confusion that, based on his talents, he's not far more well-known than he is, tempered by a sort of possessive happiness that the result of that is that I get to see him close up and unspoilt by a mass audience.

With something like seventeen albums to his name1 — a few classics included — Hitchcock has a body of work that might appear daunting to the uninitiated. And yet, he is something close to brilliant — his mix of classic songwriting and beautiful melodies with suggestive lyrics that carry the songs' emotional depth despite (or more likely because of) their surrealist wanderings, as if capturing life in all its squishy, confusing glory. That penchant for abstract whimsy has long blinded some people to his merits, but for my money he's one of the best, and well-worth heading out for.

Though I knew this to be an early show, on what turned out to be a rather lovely evening out, I couldn't be in a rush to get down to Queen Street, and ended walking down on a rambling, indirect route. Climbed down to the Drake's basement at about 8:45 to find the opener already on stage. This was, quite sensibly, set up as a seated show, and as I got there, the place was less than half-filled. Managed to snag a fine seat, second row centre.

That opener was Sunbear, the project of local folksinger Kate Boothman, who was playing solo on this night, though a traipse through her myspace2 shows that she often is backed by some choice local musicians — her new one Moonbath3 gets by with a little help from Ian Russell ($100), Nick Taylor (Steamboat) and Melissa Boraski (Eiyn Sof).

On her own, Boothman featured mostly fingerpicked guitar, and her music was "proper folk", in that slightly stiff, vaguely formalistic way. A little austere, like a cold wind, but also with a welcoming purity to it. Between songs, mind you, Boothman was genial in chatting from the stage. Looking around as the place filled in, there was an amiable, out-with-friends kind of crowd, who listened attentively, laughing along.

Listen to a song from this set here.

It felt weird to behold such an utterly bare stage — not even an amp to be seen. And no merch to speak of, either.4 One imagines Robyn Hitchcock to be a streamlined touring operation — one man, arriving by streetcar, guitar in hand is my mental image. That kind of minimal set-up meant for a quick turnaround and when the soundman brought a cup of tea up to the table on the stage, one could figure that the time was near.

Taking the stage in a jaunty shirt5, he opened with "The Ghost Ship" (the 1988 b-side to "Balloon Man"), an unexpected choice and rather something of an obscurity, showing the depth of the catalogue that he has to draw from. Even for things that aren't obscurities, the well's so deep that songs like "Mexican God" (from '99's Jewels for Sophia) are unexpected — and a good way to be reminded of the virtues of songs like this that could easily be overlooked.

Given that there are so many songs to choose from, a musician has to come prepared. And, far from just throwing songs out there, Hitchcock was working from a neatly-lettered, carefully delineated setlist. But the idea that the course of the show was so decidedly predetermined was undermined by his verbal asides, always an essential part of his live performances, where the audience gets some real-time samples of his off-kilter worldview. That banter is truly of a piece with his songs.

Stuff like "I Often Dream Of Trains" might seem rather like folk to the casual observer, Hitchcock took pains to comment, "You can tell that is is basically rock'n'roll and not folk music — but I can't explain how". Well — discuss amongst yourselves, I guess. It was nearly a half-hour into the show before he got to something from his new album (the agreeable Propellor Time), playing "Luckiness" as well as "Ordinary Millionaire", a co-write with Johnny Marr6.

And then, just continuing the journey, mixing older songs with more recent ones and "hits" with deeper cuts. Before the main set's finale of "(A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs", there was a bravado burst of banter, wherein Hitchcock gave a five-minute discourse on Magnum Force, the song's inspiration.

That made for an eighty-minute set, which was followed by "a couple songs in my record collection", a four-song, all-cover encore, visiting some kindred-spirited inspirations, touching on Syd Barrett (a slowed-down and mellow "Terrapin") and The Incredible String Band ("Nightfall") as well as The Doors and Nick Drake. The closing reading of "River Man" was a rather lovely note to go out on. A fabulous show, and done early enough for some further adventures on the night.7

You can check out a couple tracks from this show here and here — and because the banter is such a big part of the appeal, I've included a snippet of that along with the latter.

1 Not even counting his compilations of rarities, demos and out-takes, which out-number & out-perform many artists' main discographies. Or live releases, of which there are several. And that's not even mentioning his early work with his pre-solo band The Soft Boys, which is worthy and influential on its own. His discography is so deep that it's gratifying to find an online database to aid in navigating through it.

2 There are several Sunbears out there, but Boothman is this one.

3 Which is getting a release party at The Horseshoe on Thursday, September 16, 2010, with Eiyn Sof — who has also just released a fantastic album — as one of the openers.

4 On not having merch, he later commented that there might be some available at the next afternoon's in-store performance: "I have no idea if they have it... they may have this record in stock... but there's millions of records, really — y'know, if you bought a Sister Sledge record, it's essentially the same stuff. The message is fine-tuned. Or you may listen to Local Natives... essentially it's all the same stuff — it's all a cry for help." The latter reference hints that Hitchcock probably has more of a grip on contemporary music than most of his audience.

5 Another sign of his awareness of how things work in today's techno-obsessed society, Hitchcock realizes that spontaneous moments on the stage tend to have an afterlife these days. At one point, pausing to adjust his hair between songs, he commented, "you see these things on YouTube and your quiff isn't together — God help Kennedy if he was assassinated these days." [long beat, looks at his fingernails] "Wouldn't've been in one take, that's for sure."

6 You should check out the stop-motion video for this one, which visually fits quite nicely with Hitchcock's style very well, as well as featuring Marr's lovely shimmering guitar.

7 And testifying further to the depth of his catalogue, he played a completely different set on the next night's show of the two-night stand. Had I not been occupied elsewhere, I'd have had no reluctance to buy a ticket for that second show as well — and there's not a lot of people that I can say that about.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Recording: Pocahaunted

Artist: Pocahaunted

Song: You Do Voo Doo

Recorded at Wavelength 504 - Summer Courtyard Series (Night 2), The Music Gallery Courtyard. June 5, 2010.

Pocahaunted - You Do Voo Doo

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Doldrums

Artist: Doldrums

Song: Euphoria

Recorded at Wavelength 504 - Summer Courtyard Series (Night 2), The Music Gallery Courtyard. June 5, 2010.

Doldrums - Euphoria

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Recording: Wet Nurse

Artist: Wet Nurse

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Wavelength 504 - Summer Courtyard Series (Night 2), The Music Gallery Courtyard. June 5, 2010.

Wet Nurse - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Does anyone know the title to this one? Please leave a comment!

Gig: Pocahaunted

Wavelength 504, Night 2 (feat. Pocahaunted / Doldrums / The Deeep / Wet Nurse)

The Music Gallery Courtyard. Thursday, June 10, 2010.

A pleasant June evening for the second of a set of four shows in the Music Gallery's lovely courtyard. Co-presented with Wavelength, this night promised an out-of-town headliner supported by three relatively new local acts, each playing a short set. Good crowd out for this, young-ish, and skewing more artsy than rocky, with folks settling down on the lawn for the first couple sets.1

The evening began with a four-song set from Wet Nurse. The gauzy scarf draped over the microphones was an apt metaphor for the veil of obliqueness projected by the band. Perhaps as part of that, there isn't a lot of information about the duo online2 but a bit of looking around indicates that the players are Rebecca Fin Simonetti (who seems to be involved with several semi-amorphous musical projects, on top of being a noted visual artist3) and Alexandra Mackenzie (also of Romo Roto, and a visual artist as well).

Those familiar with Romo Roto would recognize the sort of pummelling thrust Mackenzie brings to the music from her stand-up kit, but Simonetti tugged that in a different direction with her roaring, reverb-y guitar. Both added their shouting/howling voices, and there were some noisy backing loops, too — one track had discordant ringing bells underneath everything. Definitely an experimental/noise sound that appeals to the weird rock crowd with a penchant for uneasy listening. I dug it for its vitality, but it's not sort of thing I'd go out of my way for too often. Thankfully, there were enough flashes of tunefulness to keep me mostly on side.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Next up, in front of a macramé-styled sculpture, was The Deeep,4 a collaboration between Isla Craig (vox, twisting knobs) and Wolfgang Nessel (electronics). The set had the work-in-progress feel of a band still refining their tricks, but also as if they were tiptoeing further along a ledge just to discover how far they could go.

A rub-a-dub bassline filled the air as Nessel fiddled with his gear, and then the first song started with a speed-adjusted loop as Craig sang heavily-reverbed wordless phrases. As a spastic thwipping noise fuzzed in the background, Craig created loops of backing vocals. Not much to grab on here hook-wise, but obviously that's not the kind of excursion that this pair want to take you on.

The second song hit the mark more firmly. With a steady beat provided by a sample from Neil Young's under-appreciated "Mideast Vacation"5 Craig had something to hook her pipes to, providing a lovely vocal, again with a cloud of looped backing voices beneath her. At one point, she paused mid-vocal to say "have some fruit," and, indeed, she passed down a bowl of strawberries that made their way through the crowd. The third and final song took a tinny half-bar drum loop and an alternating two-note synth part for the bassline, all slowed down enough to provide a sense of languid ambiance.

All three of the songs were around the seven-minute mark, each of them a little excursion more innerested in exploring the sonic, er, depths than in providing any kind of concise pop buzz. The music essentially used the tools of dub reggae to create something decidedly un-reggae like. With an experimental edge, the music sometimes exhibited an uneasy formlessness, although some queasy uncertainty might well be the point here. At a couple points it was too amorphous for easily likability, especially in the first selection, but otherwise, this had a worthy sense of torpid drift, similar perhaps to a river of mud slowly crushing a forest.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Perhaps to keep one step ahead of those already jaded enough to think that a cassette-only release is no longer an event, Doldrums were playing this gig as a celebration of their first release: a VHS mixtape. Or maybe it's not just an empty celebration of an obsolete format — not only are they obviously fond of analog fuzz, it was clear that the visual part of the package is important to Airick Woodhead and his bandmates, as they delayed their set a bit trying to get a recalcitrant digital projector up and running.6 Rolling with the punch, they gave up and focused on their spazzy/psychedelic experimental pop music. Most of the crowd were still seated on the grass as Woodhead, standing at a table full of gear, let out alternating bursts of Jay-Z and buzzes to get people up on their feet.

I had seen Woodhead perform on his own in a more freak-folk kind of set earlier this year, but here, backed by members of The Miles and Heartbeat Hotel, the music was pretty much at the other end of the spectrum. The set started with a minute-long intro of looped vocals before the band kicked in, throbbing dual drums and more manipulated layers of vocals. The second song had a bit more of a melodic throughline, but the band wasn't going to let it go just at that, keeping things quaveringly off-centre. All of the songs sort of brushed up against pop structure, but were then twisted around with electronic manipulations and drums. This was another quick set, four songs/seventeen minutes, interrupted by Bill Cosby doing an anti-drug PSA. Homespun weirdness carried through by the band's artful enthusiasm, it'll be interesting to see where the band goes with this.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Closing out the evening were L.A. tribal-drone specialists Pocahaunted. The band — who have just recently announced their dissolution — have a complicated discography, full of limited-edition cassettes and singles. Here, however, they were mostly playing material from their recent album Make it Real. That focus possibly follows from the fact that the band went through some personnel changes and stylistic adjustments after the departure of co-founder Bethany Cosentino, now making waves with her band Best Coast.

There were a few moments where the music came across like a slowed-down version of The Slits, given the overlapping vocals and dubby sensibility. There was also a hippie-ish undertow throughout — you can fish around for whatever kind of "experimental" comparisons you want, but this is also a band that is descended from the musical excursions (though not so much the lyrical concerns) of The Doors. Starting slowly, the band built up in intensity, establishing the template on "Threshold", which then picked up a notch on "You Do Voo Doo" — mildly-drone-y psychedelic keybs from Leyna Tilbor decorated the collective, often wordless vox led by founder Amanda Brown, who ranged out into the crowd on the lawn as far as her microphone cord would let her. "You Do Voo Doo" was voodoo-y in a way that cocaine-era Miles Davis would understand, with bassist Diva Dompe hitting a Michael Henderson-esque repetitive groove.

Drummer Ged Gengras, meanwhile — the bumper sticker on the kick drum reading "ZZ TOP FOR PRESIDENT" — got shirtless in a hurry, perhaps a sign that the band were feeling comfortable in these surroundings. With General Chaos' visuals smoothing out the masonry's corners above them, it felt like a fitting environment — Brown commenting that this was the most beautiful venue of their tour. Vaguely space-y, mildly psychedelic jam-rock being popular with the youth of today, the crowd was all over this stuff. The band hit its sprawling peak on the final two songs "U.F.O." and "Save Yrself (It's Nice)", each of which stretched out to the eight-minute-ish mark. Both of these pushed the tensions of their songs to the limits — or, perhaps to those less into it, got caught up in some musical navel-gazing. I wouldn't go that far — by and large it had a good balance of being static enough to be pleasantly hypnotic while bring groovy enough to stay interesting.

Listen to a track from this set here.

A well-constructed night of facepaint and wilful artsiness and enjoyable times under the open sky.

1 There's often a slight moment of cognitive dissonance on looking around at Music Galley shows and remembering, "oh yeah, this is a church!" Which felt all the moreso with people relaxing on the lawn with their beers. It's also mildly strange that a church courtyard is the site of one of the relatively few gigs where people could smoke freely — which was fairly unpleasant given how it's sort of a confined space. Isn't it time that we moved ahead and banned all smoking at any sort of concert, whether inside or out?

2 As far as I can tell, for example, there are a couple other groups called Wet Nurse on myspace, but not this one.

3 Her solo show WHEN I GO DEAF showed at The Music Gallery earlier this year.

4 Although at this show the band was billed as "The Deep", they are, in fact, properly known as [sic]-inducing "The Deeep". I am assuming that the extra "e" is for extra deepness. They also don't seem to have much of a web presence on their own behalf, but the curious can find some audio here.

5 Those innerested in the idea of using Neil Young as the source material for sample-based musics should look here.

6 You can check the whole thing out on youtube.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Recording: Golden Triangle

Artist: Golden Triangle

Song: Blood and Arrow

Recorded at The Shop @ Parts and Labour, June 5, 2010.

Golden Triangle - Blood and Arrow

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: White Wires

Artist: White Wires

Song: Ha Ha Holiday

Recorded at The Shop @ Parts and Labour, June 5, 2010.

White Wires - Ha Ha Holiday

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Useless Eaters

Artist: Useless Eaters

Song: Telepathic

Recorded at The Shop @ Parts and Labour, June 5, 2010.

Useless Eaters - Telepathic

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Zebrassieres

Artist: Zebrassieres

Song: Beach Fight

Recorded at The Shop @ Parts and Labour, June 5, 2010.

Zebrassieres - Beach Fight

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Golden Triangle

Golden Triangle (White Wires / Useless Eaters / Zebrassieres)

The Shop @ Parts and Labour. Saturday, June 5, 2010.

This was the second night of the opening weekend for this brand new Parkdale venue. Just a couple doors down from Mitzi's Sister, Parts and Labour is a swish-looking new restaurant — the sort of chi-chi place that sophisticates would call a "boffo new resto".1 Downstairs in The Shop was another story.2 Looking equal parts bomb shelter and rec centre basement, the room is a low-ceilinged rectangle, the entrance at one end and the stage area at the other. And "stage area" is the operative term here, as the bands perform on the floor, house-party style.3 The long walls feature some gymnasium-styled benches on one side, and the long bar, running almost the length of the room, on the other. Pretty spartan, although there's a dome-hockey table nestled in one corner and a few detourned workplace-styled signs on the walls.

There was the sense on this opening weekend of a mostly-completed project, still the faint scent of freshly-painted walls in the air, and a work-in-progress feel to the sound system. The tiny soundboard was sitting on a crate beside the stage area, the monitors demarking a rough boundary between musicians and crowd.

But still, the very existence of the place is something of a testament to local DIY/punk promoter Mark Pesci, now using this as a home base for his shows. Reflecting that, and the Parkdale ambiance as a whole, there was a mixed crowd on hand with hardcore kids, crusty old punks, indie types and Vice magazine trendsters all rubbing shoulders. Occasionally, a well-dressed couple, apparently slumming it after having dinner upstairs, would pass through.

And meanwhile, there was a show going on. Opening the night was Zebrassieres, "half from Ottawa, half from Calgary", playing some rambunctiously rangy punk. Quick songs, several in the minute-and-a-half range, Ramones-on-the-beach style. The slightly new-wave edge of Sarah's keybs4 elevated them above a generic guit-bass-drums sound, adding just the right extra flavour to songs like "Beach Fight". Playing songs with titles like "Man Pageant" and "Party Ghost" from a just-released album, it's clear they're not taking themselves too seriously. A new one called "Magazine Seducer" blasted past The Ramones into even more of a new wave-y direction, so that may be where they're headed. All told, this was good fun, and is totally the sort of thing I dig. A rockin' twenty-minute burst to start the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Useless Eaters offered less fun and more intensity. The trio is fronted by Tennessee singer/guitarist Seth Sutton, the lone full-time member and perhaps something of a peripatetic sort. Like Jay Reatard (with whom he had played) his music is adaptable to different supporting players, recruited on a temporary basis. The basic template here is white-hot punk music with an underlying melodic core. Some songs featured later in the set, notably "Telepath", gave the impression that Sutton is pushing his musical boundaries a bit beyond a sort of angry shoutyness that comes with an appropriated British accent. He was also a no-nonsense type while playing, not interacting with the crowd much as the group tore through nine songs in nineteen minutes.

Listen to a track from this set here.

There had been a good crowd on hand up to this point, but as White Wires set up, there was more of a tight cluster building up near the band, and a bit of a headliner vibe in the air. Clearly this Ottawa trio had a lot of fans and friends on hand. Although they were just as fired-up as the previous bands, they came at their punk-rock energy from another vector. Despite lyrical sentiments like "Pogo 'Til I Puke Tonight", the band's changes hearkened back to the purest of rock'n'roll greaser spirit, hinting that there's as much Eddie Cochrane as Young Canadians in their lineage.

In that vein, songs like "Just Wanna Be With You" brushed up against the great spirit of rock'n'roll radio. Their cover of the 1971 Motown beat obscurity "That's the Way a Woman Is" by The Messengers hinted at their historical awareness, but there was still plenty of sweat as the the band pumped out song after song. With lotsa catchy/uncomplicated stuff like "Girly Girly Girly", by the end of the set the crowd was pretty fired up. With things getting loose, there were bodies dancing right into the band and the mics got disconnected a couple times. Meanwhile there were impromptu lyrics about the other bands as the musicians struggled to keep everything plugged in. Pretty good sweaty fun!

Listen to a track from this set here.

I'd first checked out Golden Triangle at 2009's NXNE without really knowing much about them, and had left impressed. Under the reductive description of "imagine if The Vivian Girls had convened as a surf band", they nailed a sweet spot that hit me just right. So they were on my radar to check them out again. I'd missed them on a return trip to the city last fall, but was glad to take this chance to see 'em. A different kind of musical attack than the night's previous acts — except for in a DIY sort of sense, one wouldn't call 'em particularly punk, and with six members up of stage, there's no tightly-wound minimalism here, either. But in terms of producing a clamourous bit of fun, they fit in just fine.

The larger crew did need some extra time to get set up, and it seemed as if they were taxing the limits of the venue's sound system ("It sounds like a refrigerator up here," was one comment from the band while they were soundchecking.) The early-days, slapped-together nature of the sound system was a bit of a problem here, with the vox a bit buried and smushed together during the set. But, once things were more-or-less tied down, the band led off with the first couple songs from their Double Jointer album, "Cinco de Mayo" sounding pretty muffled at the start. Things did improve from there, though, such as on "Blood and Arrow", with the band at their most psychedelic, the snaky, woozy guitar line breaking through to hover over the song in an echo-y haze. So it certainly wasn't hi-fi in the room, but it was good enough, especially with the band playing some catchy stuff like "Neon Noose".

Reaching beyond their album, the band threw in "Jungle Jim" from their split 7" with The Fresh & Onlys. Except maybe for a guitar solo sounding like it was related by a drunk friend trying to describe "Over Under Sideways Down", that one was cut from similar cloth to the rest of their material. Just like on their album, the songs came in short burts. And also like the album, the set ended with "Arson Wells", their one lengthier excursion, giving the opportunity for an extended freak-out groove to end the night. Arguably not as good as the band could sound, given the technical limitations they were playing with, but one is less focused on technical imperfections when you're pressed in with a heaving, sweaty crowd. An auspicious start for The Shop — it's not somewhere I'll go all the time, but hopefully it will have a good run filling its particular niche.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 N.B.: Take note that I actually have no idea what sort of patter sophisticates actually use — they may not, in fact, talk like nightclub patrons in 30's films any more.

2 Also note here the distinction in the naming — that, technically speaking "Parts & Labour" is the restaurant upstairs and "The Shop" is the venue downstairs. In practice, though, this is less iron-clad, and people (not to mention promoters, tickets and show posters) will often just refer to the whole place as "Parts & Labour".

3 This has all those theoretical virtues of not placing the band above the crowd, etc., etc., and allows people to get right up close — or for the band to range out into the crowd — which well-suits the DIY anti-rock-star ethos of the venue, but it also means that if you aren't right up close you won't have much of a view. Woe to those who aren't so tall, or who don't want to get too much into the sort of bump-around-jostling that bands playing here tend to bring out in people.

4 There are no last names supplied in any of the band's info I could find.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Recording: Ethio Stars Band

Artist: Ethio Stars Band

Song: Aykedashem Lebe [Tilahoun Gessesse cover]*

Recorded at The Gladstone Hotel, June 4, 2010.

Ethio Stars Band - Aykedashem Lebe

My notes for this set can be found here.

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

Gig: Ethio Stars Band

Ethio Stars Band

Gladstone Hotel (Melody Bar). Friday, June 4, 2010.

Another free, early Friday night show at The Gladstone, again put together thanks to Nadine McNulty of Batuki Music.1 In fact, it seems that we have her to thank for the Ethio Stars Band existing at all — they first played at a special "Tribute to Tilahun Gessesse" show earlier this year, and we're fortunate that these fine artists have continued to work together. In the true "all star" tradition, any of these musicians could front a band of their own — and some, in fact, do just that. They also can be seen being pulled into ad hoc units put together when leading Ethiopian musicians pass through town on tour, especially saxophonist Girma Wolde Michael. The band also includes Ermias Assebework (vox), Gezahegn Mamo (keyb), Waleed Abdulhamid (bass) and Daniel Barnes (drums).

With an upbeat but relaxed crowd on hand, the band played two sets, the first starting off slow, slinky and groovy, with bass and keybs locked into the rhythm, leaving lots of room for the saxophone as the lead instrumental voice. From the outset, it was clear how much having a live drummer adds, having seen some Ethio-pop shows with just rhythm tracks provided by a keyboard player. However, this music requires a deft touch, as there's more pull than push, and the rhythms tend to twist themselves inside out a bit. In the hands of a lesser player, it could go awry quickly, but the steady Barnes — who is more usually found playing in the city's jazz scene — was excellent throughout the night.

After an instrumental that a bit brief by the night's standards — songs would usually go about seven or eight minutes — Assebework emerged, leading off with another slower number. With the less-frenetic start, the crowd was staying in place, mostly sitting down, but full of appreciation at the recognition of each song. Assebework turned out to be a top-notch singer, with a wide range and a tone that recalls Mahmoud Ahmed.

The band's repertoire is drawn from the vast pool of Ethiopian hits, from the "golden age" of the 60's up to more current sounds. I don't know enough to really be able to distinguish the classics from the newer material, but it's not hard to pick on on the shift in tone and musical approach from song to song. One, for example, had a jauntier groove to it, and the rhythmic complexity was toned down to the point where Barnes sounded not unlike those programed drum machines. Mentally, I filed this as "new school", but who knows? After the previous stuff — I mentally tagged at least one as Mahmoud Ahmed, and I'm sure there was some Gessesse in there as well — it felt a bit less vital. But it was a hit to a lot of the people in the crowd.

There was a also a ripple in the room when Kemer Yousuf, local notable in the Ethio music scene, came in through the front door a couple songs in. Although Assebework and the rest of the band aren't big on chatting or showmanship — something that you can get in abundance at one of Kemer Yousuf's shows — he clearly recognized their formidable talent as he hopped up on stage to stick $20 bills on the performers' foreheads. My endorsement is one thing, but you can take that as a iron-clad guarantee of quality.

After seven tracks in forty-five minutes, the band took a quick break before coming back for their second set. By now, it was starting to get dark outside, and the crowd was more boisterous, standing up and dancing. The band responded with a steady steam of uptempo stuff. This is where the band really shines, and there was a party atmosphere as the area in front of the stage filled up with moving bodies.

I wish I had more of a vocabulary to be able to describe some of this — though there's a certain set of tricks that seem to be cut across the different kinds of songs at play here, not in the least something like the reggae drop out (often on hitting the chorus) where for a moment there'd only be the drummer and vocals playing before the rush of everyone else coming back in. I also wish that I could identify more of these songs. There were a couple that I was nodding familiar with but couldn't put names to. Still, I know enough to dig this a lot. Talent transcends language or style, and a funky groove makes such distinctions irrelevant. We're fortunate to have a group like this playing in our midst — hopefully they'll have some more shows together coming up.2

You can check out a couple recordings from this set here and here.

1 The next of these shows, featuring roots reggae from House of David Gang, will be on September 3, 2010. To repeat — free! early! These shows are a great way to "get your feet wet" with some music that you might not check out otherwise.

2 Looking ahead a bit, I have already seen these guys a second time, and I can report that this show was no fluke — these guys have the goods and you owe it to yourself to check them out next time they play.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Film: Rubber

Rubber (Dir: Quentin Dupieux, 2010, France, 85 min)

Screened at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

So — you go with a goofy blurb and sometimes you're a-gonna get burned. The description "Killer Tire Horror" in the festival schedule was unusual enough for me to give it a go. Well... ugh.

In essence, there are two movies here. The first is that killer tire horror story, wherein one day a tire in a dump comes to life and rolls off, finding delight in squishing the things it can roll over. And when it comes to something too big to roll over, it has the telekinetic power to make it explode. Okay — there's some fun to be had here. There's some skill in humanizing a tire enough that it can express emotions — a jaunty roll here, a perplexed rocking motion there. And there's something pleasing in the Svankmajer-like images of the tire rolling through the desert. And it makes people's heads blow up! That's fun right there, for a while at least.

But the rest of the movie — the part involving humans interacting with each other — is execrably bad. First, there's a painful break-the-fourth-wall element, where the tire's adventures are watched by an audience, commenting on its progress. Then there's the meta-plot elements — This is really happening to us! No it's not! — of people doing random things and engaging in visual non-sequiturs. There are certain people who find whimsy-for-the-sake-of-whimsy uproariously funny — a guy behind me laughed throughout, including at such things as a woman pouring orange juice on her breakfast.

The film starts with a monologue about how things happen in movies for "no reason", and it's here that the movie suffers from a failure to think things through. It leads to a clash between two kinds of humour — with the sentient tire, taking a ludicrous situation and pushing through the scenario with an internal logic (call that the John Cleese school of humour); in the rest, it's just, "hey, this goofy shit's going on!" (call that the Napoleon Dynamite school of humour). Cross-cutting between the two styles undermines both. And I'll admit, that second kind of humour doesn't work for me at all, even when it's handled well.

The other problem is even the relatively worthy stuff was stretched out far too long. At eighty-five minutes, this movie was padded to the gills. If the chorus of observers and the No Reason shenanigans were cut, this could have been a clever ten- or fifteen-minute short. There's some visual flair here, but the narrative failure marks this as one to pass. Outside of specialist audiences of stoners and twelve-year-old boys, this is best avoided.1

Preceded by: the twelve-minute Pleasure Dome (Dir: Alison S.M. Kobayashi), part of the series of all-Canadian shorts running before features at the fest. Speaking of toxic whimsy, this comes off like the work an experimental film-maker drunk on Wes Anderson, describing the eccentric inhabitants of the mysterious Pleasure Dome. Not a narrative piece — just a bunch of goofy stuff that stretches out past its welcome.

1 To be clear, based on audience reaction, this was a minority opinion at the screening I was at, so your mileage — ahem — may vary.

Film: Black Death

Black Death (Dir: Christopher Smith, 2010, UK, 102 min)

Screened at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

The trailer for this one gave the impression of The Wicker Man set against the backdrop of Monty Python and the Holy Grail1 — which isn't wholly inaccurate in a broad sense, though don't expect any postmodern, self-aware irony here. This is an old-fashioned dramatic quest, and, given the setting, is pretty grim.2 With the bubonic plague stalking the land, Ulric, a renowned witch-hunter (Sean Bean) and his mercenary band are dispatched to investigate a distant village where, it is claimed, no one has suffered from the black death. Suspecting only ungodly witchery could ward off plague, Ulric enlists Osmund — a novice monk unsure of his vocation due to his continued dalliances of the flesh — as his guide through the local swamps and forests.

Cue a joyless travelogue through a believably spooky and depopulated ravaged landscape, where we begin to delve a bit deeper into the motivations of Ulric and his band. When they eventually reache the village — a peaceful, matriarchal oasis ruled by Langiva (Carice van Houten) — young Osmund is forced to choose between competing faiths and desires.

Although it is undoubtedly a bit of a tough slog, this film looks very good throughout, filled with spooky forests and menacing countryside. The grainy look hearkens back to films from the 70's, though that is countermanded by a very contemporary shaky-cam style, with sudden shifts to veering hand-held shots at moments of tension. These feel like they were lifted from an early NYPD Blue episode and don't serve the tone of the film entirely well, especially when they ratchet up to fully juddering bursts of erratic camera movement. That, plus a flash-forward coda that feels less satisfying than the open-ended resolution that the movie could have closed on, are only minor blemishes on an otherwise decent film that maintains its momentum throughout. A talented ensemble cast and engrossing atmosphere can go quite a long way.

Preceded by: the fifteen-minute The Other Side (Dir: Robin Veret), part of the series of all-Canadian shorts running before features at the fest. First World War-set mini-drama about a trench commander obsessed with a sniper on the enemy lines. With the production value of a decent 80's tele-novel, this failed to excite and lacked the touch of the uncanny that would make it feel fully at home at this festival.

1 Especially during a scene in the trailer with some villagers attempting a witch-burning, I had to suppress a desire to shout, "she turned me into a newt!"

2 Do, however, keep an eye out for Tim McInnerny, best known as Blackadder's Percy, who brings a bit of flouncy brio to his small part.

Recording: The Silt

Artist: The Silt

Song: Fruitless Endeavour

Recorded at The Music Gallery, June 3, 2010.

The Silt - Fruitless Endeavour

My review of this show can be found here.

Recording: Lisa Bozikovic

Artist: Lisa Bozikovic (feat. Felicity Williams)

Song: Waterfall*

Recorded at The Music Gallery, June 3, 2010.

Lisa Bozikovic - Waterfall

My review of this show can be found here.

* I'm not one hundred per cent sure on that title. Can anyone confirm that it's correct? Leave a comment!

Recording: Gabe Levine

Artist: Gabe Levine

Song: Shake Out Your Shoes

Recorded at The Music Gallery, June 3, 2010.

Gabe Levine - Shake Out Your Shoes

My review of this show can be found here.

Gig: Lisa Bozikovic

Lisa Bozikovic (Gabe Levine / The Silt)

The Music Gallery. Thursday, June 3, 2010.

On a pleasant June night it was slightly stuffy and warm inside the Music Gallery — a reminder that it was near the end of the indoor music season. Though that would bring with it the promise of upcoming outdoor shows, there was still some music to hear in this lovely space. I was rather glad to have seen this show announced, as I'd missed Lisa Bozikovic's album release show at the same location a few months prior. On this night, she'd be a most gracious host, surrounding her set of direct songs with a couple more, um, tangential avant-folk acts.

The first of those was Gabe Levine1, starting off the evening. Best-known for his work with Constellation-affiliated Black Ox Orkestar, his past efforts were linked to Montreal's experimental-type scene. Currently Toronto-based, he was playing material from his forthcoming solo album Long Spun Thread2, produced by Sandro Perri, who is no stranger himself to working in the different worlds of experimental/non-experimental musics. bearing that in mind, it's interesting to see what he brings to this more song-based music.

And, indeed, to the casual observer, the net effect here leans more towards conventional song structures and arrangements, but with a subtle undertow of sonic complications. The music was mellowish overall and in a singer-songwriter kind of mode, and even gave an impression not unlike some of the Mountain Goats' stuff at their most folk-poppish. Levine sang with a steady confidence in a smooth voice, backed by Jessica Moore (banjo, backing vox) and a drummer as a unit "for the first time, ever". Perhaps one of the ways in which those experimental music backgrounds came out was how seamless the players were together.

Given that Levine's music is decidedly non-forceful, perhaps it's no surprise that it didn't immediately knock me down. But it was an intriguing half-hour and left a pleasant aftertaste. Given the cast of local notables contributing to his forthcoming album, it should definitely be worth looking for.

Listen to a track from this set here.

It's arguable that Lost August, the debut album from Lisa Bozikovic, hasn't yet gained the renown it deserves. With a fabulous voice and sympathetic backing from a large supporting cast (including members of the Ohbijou and Steamboat camps), the album wraps a good set of compositions in even more-impressive arrangements, adding texture and depth to what could have been a too-plain, folkie affair. I was interested in seeing how much of that aural expansiveness would be brought to the live show. Unsurprisingly, things were a bit stripped down, but Bozikovic (herself fully capable on keybs, guitar and accordion) had the sympathetic backing of Mike Brooks (electric guit, pedal steel) and Tyler Belluz (also of Kite Hill, on stand-up bass) with Jessica Moore and Gabe Levine returning from the opening set to add additional colour.

The set opened with "This Whole House", one not on her album. Bozikovic, on guitar, fought off a little bit of feedback at the start of "New City" but overcame that to present a delicate interplay with the pedal steel. An enthusiastic collaborator, Bozikovic seemed less at ease being the centre of attention — a bit nervous-looking throughout, and tuning at length, almost as if to steady herself down. She was also very time-conscious, cutting a song from her own setlist so as to not cut The Silt short. Anti-diva, perhaps — or perhaps some of the aching vulnerability hinted at in her album was just floating up to the surface.

But that certainly didn't subtract from her ability to express the emotional undercurrents in her songs, getting at the feelings that are more complicated than the words could convey. After describing her ex-lover's lips with an unabashed sensuality at the start of "Wanting the Wanting" — shades of Lucinda Williams at her best — it felt like a knowing, self-deceiving lie when she sang "I feel nothing for you now/ maybe I felt nothing for you then," on the chorus. These are the layers of self-undercutting contradictions that real people feel and that songs don't normally grasp at.

Bozikovic looked more at ease when she moved over to the piano, leading off there with a forceful "Take and Take". She was joined by Felicity Williams3 who added her admirable voice to another unreleased tune, possibly called "Waterfall", their intertwining voices adding a lovely hue to the song — the lilting "whoa-oh-oh"'s more gentle brook than waterfall, bringing locals Snowblink to mind. Very good stuff, so it felt sad that the set, just seven songs, zipped by in a too-quick half-hour.

Pared down that much, some of the album's standouts — like the sublime "New City" — were left unplayed. What we got was very good, though, and it's worth noting that Bozikovic is not out of songs after her stellar album, with three of the selections here not coming from that release. Bozikovic has the talent to justify both a more assertive presence on the stage and a longer set length — hopefully these will be the rewards of some more exposure and more shows.

A couple tracks from this set: you can hear one from the album here and one that isn't here.

The final set of the night was from The Silt, another one of those recombinant forces from the local improvised/experimental scene. This unit consists of Marcus Quin, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli. Each of these guys serve in a number of other formal and ad hoc music groups — I've seen the latter two in multiple capacities, both playing their own stuff and backing others, as well as playing together in mouth-speaker soul-weirdos The Reveries. Those who know that band would have one means of comparison, as The Silt occupies different coordinates on the same terrain, less self-consciously "weird" and more straightforwardly song-based. But relatively so, of course. Like Gabe Levine in the opening set, what we have here are capable improvisational musicians playing around with song forms. But this crew was a quite a different angle, their music more strongly abstracted.

There's also an oblique sort of rootsyness here, some songs coming off like right-angle encounters with the blues. Which is to say if you were constructing a continuum of weird-rootsy/experimental music, you could put this left of the dial to acts like FemBots (y'know, a little weird) or Rock Plaza Central (a bit more off-kilter) — but still capable of occasional bursts of poppish ebullience.

Anyways, these guys have been playing together as The Silt for a decade (releasing three albums in the process) giving them an intuitive ease. As Driver and Tielli swapped off lead vocals, each in their own high, keening manner, Driver moved between piano and an old analog synth. Quin spent most of the set doing double duty on simultaneous bass and percussion, but sometimes just limited himself to playing his bass with a slide. Tielli added guitar lines that could slide quickly in and out of abstraction.

Perhaps appropriate to this band's round-about-ness, I can say that I didn't not like this. But I wouldn't be so bold as to remove that double negative. I get a certain sense on listening to music like this similar to what I get after watching a certain kind of arthouse cinema — the experience is more edifying that pleasing, perhaps I could say. Or interesting without really grabbing me emotionally. It is fascinating to sort of mentally reverse-engineer these songs to see the crazy way they constructed them — almost like one of those shows where engineers have to build a car out of junkyard debris.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Those looking him up should look here, and not confuse him with the other Gabe Levine, who is in a Brooklyn indie band called Takka Takka.

2 The album release show for this is now listed on Friday, October 1 at the Music Gallery, and promises a very tasty-looking group of supporting players. Plus, the always-fabulous Mantler is opening.

3 Williams, perhaps best-known right now for her work in THOMAS, is also a notable frequent collaborator with many local artists.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Film: Centurion

Centurion (Dir: Neil Marshall, 2010, UK, 97 min)

Screened at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Stuck at "the asshole of the world" — the Hibernean frontier of the Roman Empire — the homesick troops are almost as unhappy with their presence there as are the locals, who have kept up a twenty-year low-intensity campaign of guerrilla warfare. Trying to break the stalemate, the Governor sends in General Titus Virilus (Dominic West) to capture the Pict King. Led by the mysterious Etain (Olga Kurylenko), en route the Legion rescues Centurion Quintus Dias (Michael Fassbender), sole survivor of a forward post overrun by the Picts.

Filled with some decent-enough slash-and-gouge set-pieces (billowing CGI blood a-plenty, if you like that sort of thing), director/screenwriter Neil Marshall has pared down the Roman Imperial Adventure Epic to something a bit more manageable. Without computer-enhanced, screen-filling armies, the Ninth legion looks like a realistic frontier fighting force — formidable, but not impregnable, especially up against an enemy that won't fight face-to-face in the gentlemanly way. The movie has that going for it, plus some winning big-screen vistas of the rugged, mountainous terrain.

But in terms of plot and characters the movie falters badly. By about the midway point, the film has basically devolved into an old Western, as if someone had search-and-replaced "Comanches" with "Picts" and pretty much let it go at that ("they hardly eat, they barely sleep... they will track you forever until they find you!").

In fact, the mute tracker Etain, foremost of the Picts in the film, might as well be wearing a cardboard sign around her neck reading "The Other", as she is the most animalistic of what is shown to be a dirty, unkempt paganistic tribe up against the shiny, rational Romans.1 Granted, the Roman characters aren't particularly well-rounded, either. With the exception of West's General Virilus (a soldier's soldier who arm-wrestles and drinks amongst his loyal grunts), no one else makes much of an impact. Fassbender's Centurion Dias — who we spend the most time with — is a bit of a wet blanket, espousing some platitudes about honour and so on, but not much else. Even the winsome Arianne (Imogen Poots), who we encounter later on in the movie doesn't come off as much more than a set of pillowy lips and gorgeous eyes, despite her presentation as a sort of proto-feminist freethinking witchy woman.

So: some nice countryside shots, some okay hack-and-slash, cardboard characters and a kludge-y plot flavoured up with some unnecessary voice-overs. Not an unmitigated failure of a movie, but really nothing special. Marshall, who showed so much promise with his imaginative first two features (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) hasn't proven here that he has the ideas to breathe life into a bigger-scaled feature. This seems fated for direct-to-DVD release in North America, but I wouldn't say this is one of those cases where a worthy film is slipping through the cracks.

Preceded by: the twelve-minute Sock Tease (Dir: Aaron Kopff), part of the series of all-Canadian shorts running before features at the fest. Goodness... what to say here? Sort of an after-school special ("Dad... how can I tell if she really likes me?") with a sock puppet as the main character. It gets weirder. Possibly destined for cult status.

1 Not that the Romans aren't also shown as cruel tormentors, as well. But while the Picts are presented here as something more that brutal savages, you'd think that the last century of anti-imperial/anticolonialist thought — or even an Asterix comic — might be grounds for a more nuanced view.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Film: Phobia 2

Phobia 2 (Dir: Poolvoralaks, Pisanthanakun, Purikitpanya, Sugmakanan & Wongpoom, 2009, Thailand, 127 min)

Screened at the 2010 Toronto After Dark Film Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Yow! Although I was looking forward to this follow-up to the original Phobia (a.k.a. 4bia) which was the highlight of the festival two years ago, there was also a little bit of that worry that comes with sequels — can they pull it off again? In this case, the answer is almost unreservedly yes.

It helps, I suppose, that this isn't really a sequel, properly speaking, so much as a companion anthology of short films. We have gone from four segments to five, but otherwise, there isn't much of the "same, but bigger" ethos that haunts many a sequel. We do get a shared preoccupation with ghost stories and the supernatural, which serve as compelling metaphors for the tensions between modernity and tradition in Thailand today.

The ghosts are front and centre in the opening segment "Novice", where a young man running away from a misdeed is reluctantly joining a monastery. I don't know a lot about Buddhism, but I think I'd know enough to leave ceremonial offerings to the "hungry ghosts" alone. 'Nuff said. A nice entry into the film, this was deliberately paced at first, but had some effectively spooky payoffs.

"Ward", the story of a young man spending a unquiet night in a hospital room next to an elderly comatose man, has an nicely creepy undercurrent. The excellent "Backpackers" takes the action to the countryside, where a pair of young Japanese tourists suddenly find themselves facing any hitch-hiker's worst nightmare — and then it gets much worse than that. For fear of spoiling the fun I will say no more except a) there was one particular moment in a scene with a totally dark screen that had one of the best bits of sound design that I've heard in awhile and b) this segment got loud cheers and wild applause from the TAD crowd as it concluded.

Anything might seem like a letdown after that, but "Salvage", while decent, would probably be viewed as the weakest link here by any measure. Taking the idea of a ghost story in a different direction, this plays out rather like a Twilight Zone episode. Set in a used car lot that specializes in selling vehicles refurbished after grisly accidents, a saleswoman's lost child is just the start of a cavalcade of spooky revelations.

The capper and crowning achievement came with the final segment, Banjong Pisanthanakun's "In The End". It's here that the movie feels most like a sequel, with the return of the hapless Ter, Aey, Shin and Puak from the first Phobia's "In The Middle". Here, they are part of the crew shooting Alone 2, a fictional sequel to Pisanthanakun's real-life breakthrough film. Filled with meta-humour riffing like this, the characters are savvy in the lore and twists of horror movies but are still scared stiff when they find themselves smack-dab in the middle of just such a scenario. When a dead actress returns from beyond the grave to finish shooting her scene, "the show mud go on," as one character malaprops. Hurtling along with a goofy charm, this sends the film out on a high note — just be ready for the twist.

Overall, a very good time. Effectively shot by all hands, the segments are well-ordered for pacing. Fully worth seeking out.

Preceded by: the six-minute Game Night (Dir: Geronimo Deadly), part of the series of all-Canadian shorts running before features at the fest. Done for a 100-hour film-making challenge by local comedy collective Geronimo Deadly, whose Bumrush appeared at the 2008 Toronto After Dark. Quickly-paced story about a board game gone awry, this will serve as a reaffirmation for anyone who believes clowns are creepy and evil. Gets genuine laughs and moves quickly.1

1 You can catch this one on youtube here.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Festival: P.S. Kensington (May)

P.S. Kensington (May) (feat. RatTail and Tripping Hazard @ Wavelength Stage; Speaking Tongues, Planet Creature and The Diableros @ Pitter Patter Stage; Mr. Something Something)

Kensington Market. Sunday, May 30, 2010.

A boiling hot day on the season's inaugural Pedestrian Sunday in Kensington Market. With liquid sun pouring down, the streets were still pretty full as I made my way down to hang around and check out some music. It's actually impossible to avoid on Pedestrian Sundays — up and down the length of Augusta and Kensington, there are groups and soloists set up every few feet creating a symphony as varied at the market itself, with everything from folkie miserabilism to hippie-barefoot-dancing didgeridoo funk. And although this gives the chance for some random discoveries, I was actually folding that around a more structured plan, with a couple beloved indie institutions each running stages at opposite ends of Augusta Ave.

Up at the top of the street just off College, Wavelength was set up at the Faceless Knifefighter stage, in the shadow of the convenience store and right up beside the fancy new bike rack/sculpture. Or, almost set up, as there was a last-minute scramble for equipment underway as I strolled by, members of the afternoon's bands trying to catch some respite from the heat on the shadowed steps near Neutral's doors. But given that this was more of an all day drop-in thing, not being rigourously on top of any sort of schedule wasn't too much of an impediment.

Anyways, once things were set up, the day was initiated by local trio RatTail, who had impressed me back in January. The set featured the main ingredients I remembered from then — a solid and melodic rhythm section creating the foundation for Jasmyn Burke's efforts, both vocally and on guitar. It seems like RatTail's repertoire is growing quickly, with several songs in the setlist that they didn't play when at that last show, including "In Bloom" (not a cover, though Burke did dedicate it to Kurt Cobain). Lots of catchy stuff like "Gasmask", with Burke playing more of a static rhythm part and Ryan Mounsey's bass carrying things along. And also some variety, such as "Go Green", which went for a slower burn. The seven-song set ended with "George Mounsey", the catchy title track to the band's newly-released 7" E.P.

Besides the small-ish clump of friends splayed out on the steps across the street, there was the usual sort of random band-on-street crowd, with passers-by occasionally nodding a bit as they moved past, as well as some kung-fu mutterers taking things in.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Next up were Tripping Hazard, a name that I'd seen listed for shows here and there but had never caught up with. Poking around, they prefer to swathe themselves in mystery on their myspace page, so I can't fill in much information about them, but they look to have been around for a little while. The band's predominant sound was mellow but not necessarily soft — back when the classic rock stations used to play forty-five minute uninterrupted sets, you'd hear something mildly jazzy like this stuck in about two-thirds of the way through, before things would crank up to higher velocities.1

But with co-ed vox, and the keyb central to their sound, this was cut with a college-rock sort of sound, which added a winning element to songs like "Thumbsucker". There was a relaxed sense of languor to their songs, although they also kept 'em short — with this sort of sound, you could imagine the band slipping into side-long simmering jams, but they kept things two-minutes-and-out concise. Well-suited to a day like this, where you can appreciate the groove, but it's too hot out to move around too much.

At set's end, as Doc Pickles oratorical outro entertained some musings on the new bike rack, I went for a wander. The Wavelength stage was ongoing throughout the afternoon, but as it turned out, I spent most of the rest of the day down at the other end of Augusta Street, where a small stage had been set up in front the The Boat's doors, with some bands playing in conjunction with the Pitter Patter Festival.

Setting up as I ambled by were local duo The Speaking Tongues, rocking out with a pretty straight-ahead blues-rock sound. There were a few hints of garage-y scuzz nibbling at the edges, mostly in the rough-hewn stripped-down rawness evoked by the the two-man set-up. With some respectable originals and a few covers — including an apt go at Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" — the band did a nice job of keeping the beat moving for the length of their set, but didn't do a lot to distinguish themselves. Okay enough, I guess, but not especially grabbing. This was undemanding stuff, more suited for casual listening than close examination.2

Filling in the between-set time, I moved up the street a little bit where local Afro-Beat force Mr. Something Something3 were hosting their pedal-powered dance party, with volunteers' bikes hooked up to the generator that was powering the sound system. As I found a vantage point, the band were launching into "Di Bombs", a critique of globalism in the form of a funky ten-minute jam. Clearly taking musical and social cues from Fela, there was a big crowd on hand dancing away to this. Good fun. "What are You Waiting For?", the following song and closer for this set, was more ballad and less funky. Still nice, but less grabbing. A big crowd gathered around to enjoy this.

Back in front of The Boat, Planet Creature were leading off with a quiet song. It'd been awhile since I'd last seen 'em4 and now sporting a re-tooled lineup, it sounded like the band had honed in on their sound a little more. Perhaps from rubbing shoulders with their fellow Optical Sounds bands the group has learned how to lean into a groove a bit — evidenced here by a smokin' instrumental especially, but on evidence throughout the set. Brooke Gagne (guit) and Kristina Koski (keyb) seem to be focusing on sleeker lines — it's as if the songs are being pushed forward by a higher-efficiency engine. Excitingly, one that the band called out as a new one was as good as anything I've heard from them.

Out on the street, the sound wasn't totally ideal, with the vocals rather buried throughout. I remain eager to get a chance to hear this lineup again in higher fidelity.

With the sun a bit lower in the sky, there were more shady spots on the pavement as The Diableros closed out the stage for the day. Going all the way to the far end of their discography, they started with "Working Out Words", the opener from their '05 debut You Can't Break the Strings in Our Olympic Hearts, chasing that with "Any Other Time" from its follow-up Aren't Ready for the Country. It seems as if every time I see this line-up of the band they've re-inserted one or two more songs from the back catalogue.

Meanwhile, the newer stuff was represented as well. The superb "Heavy Hands" from last year's Old Story, Fresh Road EP was a standout. Plus, there was a glimpse into some brand new material — includuing one called "Thunder Tracker". The band was in fine fettle throughout, with Keith Hamilton's fuzzy bass playing off Jordan Walsh's keys. The vocals were buried a fair bit for this set, too, and it sounded like a Brazilian drum corps had settled in down the street. Their percussive bursts kept wafting over between songs, which added a strange undercurrent to the quieter closing strains of closer "Old Story, Fresh Road".

Listen to a track from this set here.

Ran into K. in the crowd during the set, and at its conclusion we decided to retire from the street to a nearby patio to close out the evening with some beers — proper hydration being all-important on days like this.5

1 Riffing on that jazzy undertow in the music, while keeping things going in one of the the little between-song gaps, the band threw down with an impromptu bit of the Super Mario music.

2 Which isn't to question the band's work ethic or their admirable efforts to spread their music — not only were they offering free live CD's to the audience at this show, but they also recorded a Third Floor session, which you can grab for free here.

3 The longstanding crew has four albums to their credit, stretching back to 2004.

4 Coincidentally, that show was just a few feet over — and one floor up, at another gig at The Boat with The Diableros.

5 The next Pedestrian Sunday is on August 29th. Go!