Friday, November 19, 2010

Poor Pilgrim Island Show 4: The Legend of Snake Island (Part II)

Poor Pilgrim Island Show 4: The Legend of Snake Island (feat. Tasseomancy, THOMAS, Daniel Romano, Alex Lukashevsky Trio, Drumheller)

Toronto Island. Sunday, July 18, 2010.

Read about the acts from the first part of this day here.

Organizer Matt Cully, keeping one eye on the weather forecast, had been shuffling contingency plans back and forth, worried not only about the possibility of rain, but of keeping things on time so everyone made it home on the last ferry. Although it would have been possible to stay inside at the church following Snowblink's set, it looked like the rain was going to hold off enough to confidently move on to Snake Island. Located between the yacht club and Algonquin Island, I'd never crossed the bridge over to the somewhat-obscure island. One of the less-developed areas, there was only a fairly rough path that led northward, opening up at a beach with a fantastic view across to Toronto's skyline. And by design, as THOMAS began to set up against a bluff of trees, the day's light began to fade. Magic hour.

Geez, context means a lot. Given how lukewarm I was towards Thomas Gill's group the first time I saw them, I was rather surprised by how much I was digging it here. Gill, with his guitar, was standing slightly apart from his band — this time out with sax, two keyb players (one of whom appeared to be playing his instrument through an old radio) and Felicity Williams. Perhaps its the presence of the latter that has done something to win me over, as I'm sort of astounded every time I hear her singing and have come to recognize Williams as a member of that class of enthusiastic collaborators who shows up with a lot of different artists and always makes them sound better.1

Whatever it was, suddenly, the whole thing made a lot of sense. Playing softer-than-soft rock, Gill sang in a breathy voice floating on his gentle guitar lines and the fluffy synth tones — and sitting on the sand as the sun went down, it worked. Already doing material beyond that on his Self Help album, the group played one of the shorter sets of the day, just four songs including a KD Lang cover. But enough to have changed my mind.2

Listen to a track from this set here.

And then, the whole audience basically rotated ninety degrees to look over the water for Tasseomancy. The duo (twin sisters Sari and Romy Lightman) were sitting on a picnic table, a beach fire on the ground in front on them for the crowd to settle in around and a spinning dream machine-like sculpture giving some light. Behind them, there were occasional bulbs of lightning blinking in the far distance of the postcard view of the city visible over their shoulders.

Well-established under their former moniker Ghost Bees, the pair have recast themselves with a name that better expresses the elliptical, mysterious darkness their music explores. And though with that name change has come with a shift toward a more nuanced, layered sound — check out their recent 7" now featured on their myspace — here we just had the stripped-down pair. The surroundings did help to add some textures to their songs, however — during the first song, a plane came in behind to land, its buzzing hum adding a surprisingly-fitting low note that was perfectly timed with a pause in the music. Their hushed songs had an adequately spooky edge for this environment.

As they wound up, Matt Cully passed the hat, asking for some change to give in thanks to St. Andrew-by-the-lake church for their earlier hospitality. It has to be noted that this was the only time, all day long, that the issue of money came up. To restate that: Matt Cully put on this show for no compensation, not even asking anything to cover his expenses3, and ditto for all the artists, who paid out of their own pockets for the ferry and everything to play for free. It's admirable and mindblowing when you think of it.

The next set was billed as a solo spot for Daniel Romano, but it was very much a collaboration with Misha Bower's indispensable backing vocals.4 Romano — of rock unit Attack in Black and folk music triple-threat Daniel, Fred and Julie — had recently released his very fine solo album Working for the Music Man, and the world-weary folk/country vein he has been mining there was front and centre for this set.

With planes still landing in the background, the pair lead off with the hauntingly sad "She Was the World to Me". Although his album was still pretty new, Romano was already playing newer material, including one possibly called "Lost as Long as I Live". If there's a model for what Romano's doing (the mournful tone, the consideration of the wages of sin, the pining for some lost love), it might well be Gram Parsons' "Sin City", which isn't a bad place to start from, influence-wise. Those not enamoured with the country music form might find this a bit too much of a lament-fest, but the darkness did give way to a crack of light, the set closing on a positive note with "Never Grow Cold", a George Jones/Tammy Wynette tribute to persevering love. In formal terms, this might have been the least audacious set of the day; that didn't stop it from being one one the best.

Listen to a track from this set here.

And, interestingly, while the Alex Lukashevsky Trio used the same tools as the previous set (a single guitar, female harmony vocals) they were employed in a strikingly different way. Lukashevsky, an agile guitar player with a singularly-skewed lyrical vision, always brings to his songs the feeling of a worldview slightly torqued out of sync with everything around him — "does anyone have an extra guitar to throw on the fire?" he asked as he looked at the flames in front of him. His accompanists for this set were Daniela Gesundheit and Felicity Williams, both of whom, like Lukashevsky, had performed earlier in the day.

The set was originally planned for Ward's Island Beach, which probably meant that Lukashevsky was planning his set with a south-facing view in mind, but with one trip being cut in the interest of time, he made do with the Snake Island surroundings. Overcoming a few weird bursts of distortion coming from the mic at the start, the focus was mainly on newer songs from this year's Prints of Darkness album. But the stripped-down format gave room for a lot of inventiveness in the vocal arrangements, with the singers standing in for the string sections and other adornments found on the recorded versions. There were some dibby-dibby-doo style vocal harmonies, like an avant-garde Andrews Sisters, but the voices were used more creatively that that, tossing in little bird-calls and other animal noises here and there. Even with Lukashevsky's world-weary lyrics, the songs felt bright and cheerful.

The set closed with the aqua-appropriate "I Smoke by the Ocean" from the Deep Dark United catalogue, the three voices joined by stereophonic seagulls screeching in the background, and then it was time to head out from Snake Island, the rough path now cloaked in inky darkness.

Listen to a track from this set here.

From there, the day's last walk was over to the Ward's Island dock, where Drumheller played while the assembled crowd waited for the last ferry back to the mainland. With rain once again feeling immanent, and flashes of lightning growing closer, the band weren't sure if they should try and cram inside the little gazebo by the bike parking, but in the end just played in front of the gazebo, with a minimal, quick set-up — Nick Fraser had just a snare plus a cymbal sitting on the ground.

Including a couple musicians seen earlier in the day, this illustrious collective5 plays jazz that is both straightforward and undercuttingly deconstructionist. The straight-up elements are undermined, say, by Chenaux's spindly guitar figures but the sound is never too analytical not to swing. And having played together for quite awhile — since 2003, in fact, releasing three albums along the way — these guys knows how to work together and how to serve the compositions. Instead of a standard solo on lead-off "Porch", all the other instruments dropped out as West and Tielli meshed on an interlocking, decelerating dance. Things came together very strongly on "Drip Drop March", and it felt like they could have cooked for awhile.

The band managed three full songs, and was a couple minutes into their final one when the ferry arrived. As it pulled into the dock, the roar of its horn was echoed by a blurt from West's sax and things were quickly wound up as everyone headed over to get on the boat. Still, we got about twenty-five minutes worth of delicious music, ending the day in style. I'd been aware of this show for a couple years, but for one reason or another hadn't followed through. Now I can't wait for next year's edition.

Listen to a track from this set here.

And what a day it was! Looking back, I would have to say this was one of the best shows of the summer. Massive praise is due to Matt Cully for putting this together, as well as all the artists who took part.

1 The material on her myspace, part of her "Al Purdy project" setting that poet's words to music is pretty inviting too. Do check it out.

2 THOMAS has a couple local shows coming up, November 25 (with Donlands and Mortimer and Charlotte Cornfield) at The Garrison and December 9 (with Sunparlour Players) at The Music Gallery.

3 On top of that, Cully also served as soundcrew and roadie all day, humping around the PA system on a cart behind his bike.

4 The busy Bower is also Cully's bandmate in Bruce Peninsula.

5 There's an interesting chart to be made showing who else each of these guys work with, but for now, here's the straight facts:

Brodie West - Sax

Nick Fraser - Drums

Doug Tielli - Trombone

Rob Clutton - Bass

Eric Chenaux - Guitar

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