Friday, April 30, 2010

Hot Docs 2010: April 30 (Friday)

Reviews of screenings from the 2010 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Toronto, Canada.

Darwin’s Nightmare (Dir: Hubert Sauper)

Originally Relased in 2004, this entry in the Ripping Reality retrospective series tracks the unanticipated outcomes in the social ecosystem of a change in the natural ecosystem. In the 60's, Nile Perch were introduced into Tanzania's Lake Victoria, soon crowding out the indigenous species. Now, a thriving commercial fishery ships copious amounts of food to Europe — in the middle of a famine. And so we see how globalism's every gesture has both intended and unintended effects. There are jobs for fishermen — but many on-the-job fatalities. There are beautiful fillets for Europeans to eat — and disgusting fish carcasses for Africans. There's a thriving plastics industry to supply the fish plants with packing materials — which are also give a cheap high when burned by street kids, orphaned children of dead fishermen. And on and on. Plus, all those giant cargo planes flying away filled with fish? They just might be bringing in a deadly cargo of armaments to supply Africa's wars.

With non-invasive observation of many different intersecting lives affected by the Perch trade, Sauper slowly rachets up the complexity of the whole situation. The film is generally elegantly constructed to point out facts without being didactic. It did drag a bit from around the two-thirds mark and could have been tightened a bit, though. Plus, this one wasn't ideal as a big screen experience. There was a lot of video footage shot at night that looked awfully grainy blown up to for theatrical presentation. This one would be fine on TV or a computer screen.

Babies (Dir: Thomas Balmès)

Following the first year or so of life for four babies in very different environments — San Francisco, Tokyo, Malawi and Mongolia. With no narration and some elegant choreography this film surprised by rising far above mere froth. Balmès kept the cameras at the babies' level — parents were often represented as just a disembodied arm or leg in the frame. And so we get to consider the universal and particular elements of each family, often accompanies by deft (but never rushed) cross-cutting. Quite delightful in the little moments of triumph, ending in a cavalcade of first steps.

With so many docs focusing on strife, conflict and the darkest edges of humanity, this might have served best as the last thing I saw at the festival, to rekindle some brightness and hope. But even near the start in was enjoyable bit of work, even for this "non-baby person".

Balmès was on hand to take questions afterwards and was reasonably informative.

And Everything Is Going Fine (Dir: Steven Soderbergh)

Revisiting the very tightly entwined life and works of the late Spalding Gray, Soderbergh has created a straight-forward autobiographical story from Gray, achieved by cutting back and forth between a wide range of monologues and other resources. A labour of love taken on between his big name projects, this film does a good job of showing us Gray's unsurpassed talent of using his own life experiences as grist for his art.

Given that everything we see comes straight from the source, as it were, the film ends somewhat ambiguously, and I'm not yet sure whether that's a strength or a weakness. Viewers coming to this without any previous knowledge of the subject would leave without learning of the sad dénoument, though for anyone who does know the story the last measures are painful to watch. When, in an interview conducted late in his life, Gray finishes off his always-present glass of water, there's a sad sense of the curtain falling.

It was a heady rush of words from Gray, a testament to his skills as a "poetic journalist". Quite glad I saw this film, though I don't know if this would be the ideal introduction to Spalding Gray.

Recording: Woods

Artist: Woods

Song: Rain On

Recorded at The Horseshoe, March 14, 2010.

Woods - Rain On

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: Real Estate

Artist: Real Estate

Song: Out of Tune

Recorded at The Horseshoe, March 14, 2010.

Real Estate - Out of Tune

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: Easyboy

Artist: Easyboy

Song: unknown*

Recorded at The Horseshoe, March 14, 2010.

Easyboy - unknown

My notes for this gig can be found here.

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

Gig: Woods

Woods (Real Estate / Easyboy)

The Horseshoe. Sunday, March 14, 2010.

As a chaser to CMW, out for the last of five nights in a row — aie! But this time in more of a regular concert setting. A double header of acts from the Woodsist label, recently on their game with a string of fine releases.

The early opener was one-man band Easyboy, the solo project of Eric Farber (also in Truman Peyote). Starting things off to a pretty vacant house, Farber was set up with a Roland keyb sitting above a shelf full of electronic gear. Although his short set would explore a variety of different sounds, he started off with his best foot forward, his keybs sounding like the introduction to a particularly fiendish level of Zaxxon before his quavery vox kicked in. This was likable stuff, and Farber wasn't rushing his first impression, letting the song slowly unfold for about seven minutes, including extended intro and ending. This seemed promising, but the remaining material couldn't maintain that level.

Playing guitar for the next number accompanied by a stripped-down drum machine wooom-kick beat, the song sounded a bit like, say, a Tall Dwarfs out-take, while the following song used what sounded like a looped Shirelles sample for its backing but never quite attained escape velocity. After that the set never quite held my attention as much. It didn't help matters that Farber has a limited vocal range that he pushed the limits of and that his interaction with the crowd was pretty much non-existent. There are some ideas here, and the first song worked — but on the whole this felt like an undercooked appetizer.

Listen to a track from this set here.

The place filled up surprisingly fast for Real Estate. Which was rather encouraging — I'd fallen in love with the band from the moment I'd first heard them, playing as support to a bigger-buzz headliner that got blown off the stage by the New Jersey quartet. But on that night they were playing to a fairly sparse crowd. Word has apparently gotten around, as on their return they had a full room to play to, even if they were second-billed again. As it would turn out, it was almost like a co-headliner type of gig, and all told Real Estate played just under fifty minutes, about an equal set time as Woods.

Leading off with "Beach Comber", the first track to their excellent self-titled album, it wasn't long into the set before I realized I was enjoying this immensely. The band's unforced, delicious languidness serves them extremely well on stage, and fortunately the crowd seemed prepared to go along for the ride, listening pretty attentively. There were even a few people singing along to "Suburban Beverage"'s refrain of "Budweiser, Sprite, do you feel alright?"

For all the talk lumping Real Estate into whichever lo-fi ghetto you care to name, people miss some of the more obvious touchstones for the bands' gently shimmering guitar interplay. The second song — a new one called "All Out of Tune" brought to mind a version of a flanged-out, later-period Fleetwood Mac, albeit with Lindsay Buckingham riding in the groove than stretching out in a solo. "Art Vandelay" has something of an 80's college rock feel. The band also threw in a cover of Ariel Pink's "My Molly" — discuss amongst yourselves if this reveals something about their musical roots or is just a tip of the hat. Quite a few songs came from beyond their album, such as "Basement" from their Reality EP. Another new one was followed by the closing one-two punch of album standouts "Atlantic City" and "Fake Blues". Entirely satisfying and excellent sounding — one of the best sets of the year.

Listen to a track from this set here.

I wasn't only here for Real Estate. Woods had also impressed the last time I saw 'em, and I'd come to rather enjoy their Songs of Shame album. They're also a fairly unique live experience, with distorted vocal and other effects making each show uniquely muddy in its own little way.

I'm actually glad that I'd been right up front the previous go 'round, or I'd have been driven crazy this time trying to figure out where all the sounds were coming from. I was in about the third row of people from the stage, but even from there I hardly caught a glimpse of G. Lucas Crane, sitting on the floor with his rack of cassettes and effects and generally complicating the sound.

The band led off with psychedelic instrumental "The Creeps" before sliding into the highly tuneful "Blood Dries Darker", which sounds like a second cousin to Neil Young's "Powderfinger" after some peyote and a couple days in the sun.1 I think that the reason that Woods works so well is their leavening of sonic weirdness and catchy tunes, so although Jeremy Earl's warble is usually distorted by design and Crane's tape manipulation and eerie backing vox are undermining the songs' centres, tunes like "To Clean" and "Get Back" still have an resolutely hummable core. The band also slides back and forth with ease from quick, nugget-like campfire songs ("Down This Road", "The Hold") to extended jams ("The Dark") without making either seem out of place. Playing for about the same length of time as Real Estate, Woods' set wasn't quite as impressive but was still really good stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

By way of encore, the band re-emerged with the members of Woods to convene as Real Woods, everyone rotating one spot to take over a new instrument for the grand finale cover of Blind Melon's "No Rain", recognizable from the first guitar lick to a huge cheer. The singalong choruses extended into a jam — a weirdly mellow inspiration for some folks to start crowdsurfing. It was mildly goofy but rather good fun. And all told, a really good show.


1 This is from their forthcoming album At Echo Lake, though its been in their live repertoire for a while.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hot Docs: Picks and Possibilities

Hot Docs is one of my favourite times of the year, and I'm going to try and cram in as many movies over nine days as I can. Hopefully regular visitors to this site won't be put off by some capsule reviews that I intend to throw up at the end of each day. And in case there's anyone looking for recommendations, here's an outline of where I might end up. For now, this is largely based on trying to decode the programmers' blurbs — some stuff will change as reviews start to come in and so forth. Plus, how many I end up going to is subject to the limits of my endurance, and so on.

Do remember that weekday daytime screenings for students and seniors are free. Say hello if you spot me in a line-up, looking dazed!

Friday, April 30

Darwin's Nightmare

Part of Ripping Reality, a special retrospective of the best docs of the past decade.

Babies

Hopefully more than cutesy-pooness. We'll see what the reviews say on this one.

And Everything Is Going Fine

Has it been six years since Spalding Gray left us? Steven Soderbergh assembles a biographical retrospective from Gray's monological films. If that doesn't mean anything to you, go to wherever you get your movies from and grab yourself Swimming to Cambodia.

Citizen Boilesen

"This jaunty and thorough investigative biography pieces together [...] the insidious connections between the business community and Brazil’s military dictatorship. An energetic, vibrant history of Brazilian politics in the 1960s and early ‘70s." The word jaunty sells me on this.

Saturday, May 1

Eat the Kimono

First of the retrospective series of works by director Kim Longinotto. The director retrospectives are always a highlight of Hot Docs and highly worth checking out. Longinotto's last two films (Rough Aunties and Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go) were highlights at the festival for each of the last two years. Both of those, plus eight more, are being screened for this look back. Try and catch as many of these as possible.

Disco and Atomic War

Estonians wanted to watch Dallas, and eventually the iron curtain collapsed.

Sunday, May 2

Gasland

There's always a fair number of enviro-themed docs and it's hard to tell the wheat from the chaff, but this investigation of the natural gas industry sounds good. Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner.

La Belle Visite

What a drag it is gettin' old.

How I Filmed the War

Could be great or terrible, depending on how you feel about descriptors like "riveting experimental doc", "fascinating deconstruction", "haunting electro-ambient soundscape" and the word "truth" in scare-quotes. But the source WWI footage sounds fascinating.

Ladies in Blue

What are the teenage girls who were screaming at their pop idol up to fifty years later?

Monday, May 3

A Man Came and Took Her

The aftermath of a child abduction in small-town Poland.

Chemo

Daily life in a Warsaw oncology ward. (My original blurb: "Apparently the man who threw tobacco in the macaque's eyes at the zoo is meant to directly represent Stalin." Too obscure?)

Osadné

I'm still waiting on that perfect documentary about "endearing rural awkwardness" in Eastern Europe. Could this succeed where Village of Socks failed?

The Devil Operation

Peruvian locals try and stick it to The Man. The Man in this case being a multinational mining corporation.

The Day I Will Never Forget

Outstanding Achievement Kim Longinotto

Enemies of the People

Filmmaker gets an interview with Pol Pot’s second in command.

The Peddler

Adventures in low-budget movie-making in rual Argentina.

Regretters

Swedish men who became women and decided to change back. (I hear that this will also be screening at Inside Out.)

Budrus

Ghandi in Gaza?

The Mirror

It's like Who Shot Mr. Burns?, but in reverse.

Congo in Four Acts

Omnibus with four "powerful short films that examine social issues in an impoverished African nation".

My Perestroika

How things are turning out for "the last of generation of Soviet children".

Tuesday, May 4

Pride of Place

Outstanding Achievement Kim Longinotto

12th & Delaware

The makers of Jesus Camp look at America's ongoing batlles over abortion.

Sona, the Other Myself

From the director of Dear Pyongyang, the story of a girl growing up in North Korea.

Wednesday, May 5

Freetime Machos

Examining the state of manhood in Finland with "the world’s third-worst rugby team".

Thursday, May 6

Autumn Gold

Stars of Track and Field — the later years.

AISHEEN [still alive in Gaza]

"a compelling, impressionistic journey through a devastated Gaza" following the 2009 war.

Space Tourists

In Kazakhstan, living off the scraps of the space race.

Au Chic Resto Pop

Part of the "Focus On" spotlight on Canadian filmmaker Tahani Rached.

Feathered Cocaine

A look inside the secretive world of falcon smuggling.

The Fabulous Fiff and Fam

This mid-length doc about two 90-year-old best friends sounds right down my alley.

Divorce Iranian Style

Outstanding achievement Kim Longinotto

American Radical: the Trials of Norman Finkelstein

Professor Norman Finkelstein was fascinating and infuriating in last year's Defamation. High on the list of films most likely to cause a shouting match at the post-screening Q&A.

Eyes Wide Open - Exploring Today's South America

"soberly reviews the toll the neo-liberal agenda took on the social and economic well-being of Latin America and explores how these countries are now restructuring public power."

We Don't Care About Music Anyway

A look inside Tokyo's avant-noise music scene.

Friday, May 7

Kings of Pastry

This will appeal to two not-necessarily-overlapping constituencies: those who want to see it because it's about French gastronomy, and those that want to see it because it's directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker.

Sisters in Law

Outstanding Achievement Kim Longinotto

These Girls

Focus On Tahani Rached

War Games and The Man Who Stopped Them

A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.

Neighbors

Focus On Tahani Rached

Saturday, May 8

Gaea Girls

Outstanding Achievement Kim Longinotto

Thieves by Law

Russian mobsters!

Land

Ugly Americans look for retirement properties in Nicaragua.

Listen to This

Music class at Jane & Finch.

In The Name Of The Family

Lifting the veil, as it were, on honour killings in Toronto.

Casino Jack and the United States of Money

The sleazy world of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Sunday, May 9

Secrets of the Tribe

From the director of Bus 174.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Recording: Action Makes

Artist: Action Makes

Song: Berlin*

Recorded at Comfort Zone, March 13, 2010.

Action Makes - Berlin

My notes for this set can be found here.

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

Recording: Black Feelings

Artist: Black Feelings

Song: Torch Bearer*

Recorded at Comfort Zone, March 13, 2010.

Black Feelings - Torch Bearer

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Thanks to a commenter for passing along the title to this one.

Recording: Elise LeGrow

Artist: Elise LeGrow

Song: Too Darn Hot (Cole Porter cover)

Recorded at Bread and Circus, March 13, 2010.

Elise LeGrow - Too Darn Hot

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Ostrich Tuning

Artist: Ostrich Tuning

Song: Floor*

Recorded at Comfort Zone, March 13, 2010.

Ostrich Tuning - Floor

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Thanks to a commenter for providing a title to this one.

Gig: CMW 2010 (Saturday)

CMW 2010* (Saturday) (feat. Alfie Smith, Ostrich Tuning, The Bats Pajamas, Elise LeGrow, Easy Targets, Black Feelings, Action Makes)

Saturday, March 13, 2010.

7:10 P.M.: Alfie Smith @ The Silver Dollar Room

It goes without saying that we fail to observe our own blind spots. Having combed through the schedule with an eye to finding different acts — and different kinds of acts — to check out, I thought I did a good job of looking outside my usual boundaries. But when I was going through some of the stuff I was thinking of going to see with a friend, she said to me, "hey, you should check out Alfie Smith." Flipping through all my notes to find who she was speaking about, I was flummoxed until I realized that he was playing in the Blues showcase — which I suddenly realized had been pretty much totally outside my perceptual framework. It's funny how out of habit your brain can just edit stuff like that out without you really noticing. So, after the in-store show at Criminal Records, I found myself making the tromp northward through the grim, lousy rain to The Silver Dollar to dive into something that's generally off my radar. Well, plus there weren't a lot of other options anyways.

It felt strange to go in there with the juxtaposition of the familiar surroundings and completely different crowd than I was used to. By and large the Blues crowd is middle-aged and more sedate. A couple women jumped up to dance as soon as the music was fast enough to justify it, but otherwise folks stayed in their seats. Also a more well-organized crowd, with a table from the Toronto Blues Society handing out newsletters, which seems charmingly quaint.

On stage was Alfie Smith He stayed seated throughout, starting off playing solo on a resonator guitar, with nimble slide runs and a voice that was gravelly, but soulful. Likable stuff, and I think the solo segment was closest to overlapping with I appreciate more about the blues. After a couple songs on his own, he brought up his band (bass, drums, electric guitar) and they tackled the standard "Sittin' On Top of The World", done with a sort of bluesy Bo Diddley beat. And then from there, the sound got incrementally more energized. Smith's own compositions played with the band leaned more toward blues-rock, but again, with a soulful edge. Not entirely my thing, but full credit to him for playing originals to a crowd that would have been completely fine hearing songs they recognized.

I was getting a sense of diminishing returns as the set went on, and yes, I was starting to think of the music as more Blueshammer-y as I headed out with enough time to make it for my eight o'clock pick. Not my scene, but I can appreciate what the crowd was getting out of this — something dependable, something you can dance to a bit, and in an environment where you can sit down and appreciate the show. I suppose that no matter our age, we tend to think that people older than us don't really know how to have fun anymore, but that probably says more about our own age-related insecurities — I've still got it, right? Right? The crowd here wasn't looking for the cutting edge, but they seemed to be enjoying themselves just fine.

8:00 P.M.: Ostrich Tuning @ Comfort Zone

My original pick from this slot was Ottawa's New Teeth, so I made my way over to Neutral. Getting there a couple minutes before eight, there wasn't much gear on the stage, and there were musicians wandering around, crouching and looking at various cables. Looked like it would be a fair few minutes before anything got started. Not in the mood for dead time — and seeing as I'd arrived here as much from the result of a coin toss than a deep curiousity — I decided to move along, and wandered back over to where I'd just left, this time ducking downstars into the Comfort Zone.

Stepped into the room with Ostrich Tuning just about to start. There were five players on stage1, two guits/bass/keybs/drums, and there was some switching up throughout the set but the music never stopped, with droney segues bridging songs and the spots where folks were passing 'round instruments. There were "songs", I guess, but the band was almost working more as a sort of sonic installation, not rushing anything along, finding a groove and sticking to it. With the General Chaos light show on site, this totally had a space-out-and-drift kind of vibe to it.

Oh man, you have no idea how much this is exactly my sort of thing. Imagine the first Velvets' album being played as slowed-down shoegazer anthems and you get the idea.2 There were vox, but they pretty buried and more textural than anything. A top-notch set — one of my favourites of the festival.

This was the first set of the night's Optical Sounds showcase, and from the outset there were some Hoa Hoa's and other members of the OS family in attendance, sitting down and digging the sounds. As I think I've said before: part of what is making Optical Sounds such a powerful force on the local scene is that they are a community of fans and friends as much as anything else. When they bring out a band, it's because it's a band that they want to hang out and listen to. Were I looking to settle in at one spot for the night this would have certainly been it. And with the cold rain continuing outside, it indeed took an act of will to leave and move along.

Listen to a track from this set here.

9:00 P.M.-ish: The Bats Pajamas @ Velvet Underground

Headed down to the Velvet on Queen Street, to see Ten Kens, a local act that I've been meaning to check out for quite awhile now. Walked in at about five minutes to the hour and was a bit to confused to find a band onstage. Someone was running rather late or starting early. I managed to work out that it was The Bats Pajamas3, who were the scheduled eight o'clock band. So — what to do? Unsure if this lot had just started, or were just about to wrap it up, I pulled out my pocket schedule to consider my options. There wasn't anything nearby that I had put in my maybe pile, so I figured I might as well stick around. You never know, right? The ideal for a festival like this is that you randomly walk into a set by some band that you've never heard of and end up finding a new favourite.

Which was not to be in this case. The Bats Pajamas were, it turned out, decent enough, but not especially compelling for me. If I were to pick a point of comparison for this local trio, I'd probably go with early 90's Primus with the funk toned down. I hung around for about fifteen minutes and decided I was ready to go. On the way out, noticed a small, hand-lettered sign indicating that the bands had all been moved up an hour. Timely information, that.

9:30 P.M.-ish: Walkin' in the Rain

Not in any particular hurry to get where I was going, I decided to walk back towards College rather than grabbing the streetcar. A questionable decision, given that there was still a persistent cold rain coming down. But a little pause in the middle of it all to wonder at myself about my approach. Looking at my watch, I realized I could wander up to Rancho and find a lot of friendly faces and check out The Brother Kite — hotly tipped, and probably the sort of thing I'd have easily dug. But I was feeling a resistance to that. Somehow my stringency had slid up a notch: Not only was I looking to avoid bands I knew and liked, I even seemed to be steering myself away from the broad stylistic path I'd normally head for. To what end? Had I moved past challenging myself into some sort of vague masochism? Most importantly, I wondered to myself: who the hell was I trying to impress, anyway?

[Deleted: thirteen more sentences pondering the relationship between what shows one goes to, self-perception and the image of ourselves we project. And some vaguely rambling material considering the existence or non-existence of "the panopticon of proper taste" and "cultural self-policing".]

For just a moment, the grim trudge in the night felt like a bit of a metaphor for the whole thing.

10:15 P.M.: Elise LeGrow @ Bread and Circus

Perhaps adding to my slightly unhappy mood was the my immaculate bang-bang timing was off, and I arrived at Kensington's Bread and Circus early. Enough to just catch the end of Anne-Lise Dugas' set, which was — ummm... — more or less the opposite of what I like, musically speaking. Also, it seemed like I'd found where the "industry" people were unwinding, as there were quite a few sitting around with with swag bags and fancy threads. Enough to put me in vaguely grumpy and oppositional state of mind.

I was here for something completely opposite to pretty much everything else I'd been seeing. Going through stacks of myspace samples when thinking about who to check out, hearing Elise LeGrow taking a page from Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O'Day was a bit of a ray of sunshine, making me curious enough to take a chance. LeGrow, in an elegant blue cocktail dress, was joined on stage by double bass and guitar and also accompanied by Asher Ettinger, playing the piano at the foot of the stage. The bulk of the songs were standards, and all of the musicians were up to task, from opener "Now Or Never" (popularized by Billie Holiday) to a speedy run through "Take Another Guess". Ella Fitzgerald would definitely seem to be the template here in term's of LeGrow's musical approach — and if we're obliged to passingly say that LeGrow is no Ella, the proper follow-up is to shrug and note she's pretty good.4 Never sounding rote, she approached each of the songs with gusto and wasn't trapped in a completely narrow range of music, throwing in a slowed-down take on the Motown classic "My Guy". There were also three or four originals mixed in — which again, maybe can't quite stand up to the standards, but it was nice to hear them regardless.

I enjoyed this, though admittedly there was a part of me that was resistant. Maybe just because the set flirted with Diana Krall territory, and, y'know, some part of me is standing on guard against me losing my edge and so forth — no matter how much I'll rail that there are no guilty pleasures and we enjoy what we enjoy and so on. But this was fun and entertaining and a generally pleasant time.5 The set started about quarter after and was still going strong when I left just before the top of the hour, which was probably bad news for anyone taking my place in the venue expecting the next band to be starting on time.

Listen to a track from this set here.

11:00 P.M.: Easy Targets @ The Silver Dollar Room

What was that about ignoring the sort of bands I usually go for? Well, you can't do that all the time. Headed back to the Dollar for the first act on the Dan Burke bill, and the first after the end of the Blues showcase. As such, a bit of a weird mix to the crowd, as most of the seats were still filled with the remnants of the earlier attendees. It was interesting to see some different reactions from those folk to Easy Targets — one woman, who had been dancing in front of the stage when I'd been there hours earlier was still at it, and looked like this suited her just fine. Meanwhile, a couple guys sitting at the bar, who probably had a deep respect for the skills and chops of the blues musicians could be heard audibly complaining to the room at large that these guys on stage were completely talentless, were only playing the same two chords, etc. etc.

And, well, maybe they were technically correct on that last point, but they were missing the big picture. On taking the stage, the band started with a couple minutes of psychedelic raga, not doing much but slowly building up. In fact first song "Secret Door" would go on for about ten minutes of let's-take-a-trip goodness. The band had an appealing monochrome sort of sound, helped along by some mildly droning sax, and although it was a good set, that first song was excellent enough to make the rest suffer a bit in comparison. The more straightforward songs that followed were good, but didn't push as hard as that first one. Perhaps it was meant as a statement of intent that served to define their turf, and the rest of the music operated inside that perimeter. At any rate, the other songs did show some different faucets to their sound, including "Hungry All the Time", which touched on folk rock, and their last one, which sounded like Syd-era Pink Floyd after an extra mandrax. The set only went five songs — the last one also stretched out a bit. Something I'd see again, for sure.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnight: Black Feelings @ Comfort Zone

Headed back down to Comfort Zone, and immediately felt comfortable, running into some friendly faces. The biggest band of the night, The Hoa Hoa's, had just finished their set, and the crowd was a little on the thin side as Montréal psychedelic-doom-krautrockers Black Feelings were getting set up. Their set started with rolling drums and waves of pitch-altered vox before the weird howling fell into place in more of a song structure. After the first song, singer/drummer Owain Lawson asked "does anything sound really fucked up? 'Cause we didn't have time to do a soundcheck or nothin'." I was pretty unclear here — the band's basic sonic territory seemed to be pretty fucked up to begin with.

The trio gave a sense of filling their physical space — while bassist Brian Mitchell (a dead ringer for Meathead-era Rob Reiner) stayed fairly rooted, guitarist Kyle Fostner felt free to range out into the crowd. And all the while Lawson, wearing a wireless hands-free mic, wobbled like a weeble on his drum stool while yelping out largely incomprehensible lyrics. Neither quite all-the-way spazzy nor noisy, the music oozed around enough to be hard to pin down and generally moving at a quick-enough clip to keep it interesting. There was a dark undertone to the music, but also a goofy spiritedness throughout — it all added up to sort of a Saturday morning cartoon version of a bad trip. Although there were a couple bursts of aimless meandering when the band didn't find their groove, on the whole this was entertaining stuff.6

Listen to a track from this set here.

1:00 A.M.: Action Makes @ Comfort Zone

And then, in the rock'n'roll spirit of things, I guess, I broke all my rules and stayed put to hang out with friends and enjoy a band that I had seen before. Action Makes had been kick-ass good at the Hoa Hoa's album release party in December and suddenly it seemed like an eminently good idea to bask in their heavy vibe. Which worked out well, because Action Makes are one of the most exciting live acts in the city right now — not so much, perhaps in their songs or musicianship, but just in the energy they generate, and how their music puts a bit of an evil charge in your spine. Sorta like in those social hygiene films from the 50's warning of the dangers of rock and roll, it didn't take long before audience members were making their way up to the front of the stage to dance — and, in one case, to vogue even, which was unexpected — as if the music was appealing to some base instinct.

At first, Clint Rogerson's vox were almost completely buried in the mix, but that sorted itself after a few songs, and the band powered through nine numbers with a Stooge-y amphetamine propulsive blast. And just like the last time, the set ended with drummer Ryan Rothwell coming over his kit — good-night CMW, there will be no encore.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Although I'd been at it for hours, I must admit I felt like a bit of a slacker not to keep going. There were actually venues with sets going on til three a.m., but that was it for me. Stood around for a bit afterwards in that "so where are we going now" mode as the room cleared out. We got swept upstairs and did step into the Silver Dollar for a couple minutes, where Give Us The Daggers were on stage. But once I had stopped moving forward, I hit the wall quickly, and got out to make my way home.


* A note on nomenclature: for years both the industry showcase and music festival components were known as Canadian Music Week. But as of 2009, this was deemed to be too simple and straightforward, and the music portion was "rebranded" as Canadian Music Fest, under the aegis of the larger Canadian Music Week. I see no reason to put up with this and will simply refer to everything as CMW — although there was a part of me that also considered using the slightly cumbersome "Canadian Music Fest presented by Canadian Music Week" throughout.

1 The band seems to have something of a flexible membership — their myspace lists five (or possibly nine) members.

2 And indeed, their name refers to the specifically droney tuning that Lou Reed favoured in the Velvets' early days. For the curious, Reed's "ostrich tuning" was D-D-D-D-d-d.

3 And, yeah, [sic] throughout on their name, something which probably doesn't help endear the band to me.

4 Interestingly, this is only one facet of LeGrow's musical work — she's also a member of local rock combo Whale Tooth.

5 My enjoyment did sag a bit when some drunken dudes, pitcher in hand, came and plunked themselves on the floor near me, feeling free to chat amongst themselves and sing along, as if they were in their living room.

6 If you want to investigate further, the band are offering a "tape" for download at the Free Music Archive.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Recording: Easy Targets

Artist: Easy Targets

Song: Secret Door *

Recorded at The Silver Dollar, March 13, 2010.

Easy Targets - Secret Door

My notes for this set can be found here.

* Thanks to a commenter for passing along the title to this one.

Recording: Leif Vollebekk

Artist: Leif Vollebekk

Song: Don't Go to Klaksvik

Recorded at El Mocambo, March 11, 2010. (CMW 2010)

Leif Vollebekk - Don't Go to Klaksvik

My notes for this set are here.

Recording: Elk

Artist: Elk

Song: Sometime Together (No No No)

Recorded at Comfort Zone, March 11, 2010. (CMW 2010)

Elk - Sometime Together (No No No)

My notes for this set are here.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Recording: Dan Mangan

Artist: Dan Mangan

Song: Tina's Glorious Comeback

Recorded at Criminal Records, March 13, 2010.

Dan Mangan - Tina's Glorious Comeback

My notes for this set can be found here.

In-store: Dan Mangan

Dan Mangan

Criminal Records. Saturday, March 13, 2010.

Now this is what buzz looks like. A day previous, I'd thought the crowd was a bit incommensurate with the level of hype around the bands playing at Criminal Records. This time, however, there was a rather healthy crowd on hand, filling up the store quite nicely. I arrived not long after the end of the opening in-store set by Aidan Knight, and in the brownian motion of people moving out and moving up I managed to snag a nice spot. Despite worse weather — blech — than the previous day, there was an obvious charge in the air with folks excited to see Dan Mangan. The changeover was fairly quick, as there was some personnel overlap, including Knight joining Mangan on guitar.

"On a personal level and on a musical level, I love Aidan Knight so much that I forced him to play with us."

"The joke's on you — I don't know any of the songs," Knight replied.

That deadpan exchange was typical of the low-key looseness at hand for this show and Mangan's stage presence was one of his foremost charms. Apparently not one to take himself too seriously, he killed time trying to think of a joke while everyone else finished their preparations. Once everything was ready to go, the four-piece launched into "Road Regrets", followed by "Sold" — and in the middle of the latter Mangan paused the song to tell the joke he'd been thinking of during the soundcheck. That was followed by a new song that Knight and drummer Kenton Loewen hadn't previously heard, but they pulled it off well. Musically, it was a straightforward sound, with Mangan on acoustic, Knight throwing in some unshowly fills on electric guitar, and Michael Owen-Liston adding backing vox while playing stand-up bass.

Coming in without really having checked out his stuff previously, I found it generally enjoyable. In this sort of situation I probably paid less attention to Mangan's lyrics than I would have if I were listening to his album. I liked "Tina’s Glorious Comeback" and his closer, an insidiously catchy one about Robots, which I'm guessing is the "hit". With Hannah Georgas stepping up to add some vox, it turned into a delightful singalong with Mangan holding the mic out over the audience. That's one that can get stuck in your head for a week or two.

Mangan has the gift of coming off as totally, unimpeachably genuine. Plus a great look — slightly cuddly like he could cook you a nice pasta dish, but rugged enough with that beard to indicate that he could chop some logs for the fireplace — someone you could take home to mom and dad, in other words. And though that makes it tempting to damn him with the faint praise of his breakthrough album title — Nice, Nice, Very Nice — even in a short set like this, one could see why Mangan is winning a larger audience. Is it the worst thing in the world to consider the possibility that nice sells?

Listen to a track from this set here.

Were I a slightly more diligent sort, I migth have stuck around for the last of the in-store sets, to see how Hollerado have come along in the year since I saw them in these exact circumstances. But there was a thick, younger crowd jockeying for position, and I figured I'd leave my spot to someone who'd appreciate it more, and headed back out into the rain.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Recording: Fergus Brown

Artist: Fergus Brown

Song: John, She Was Never Only Dancing

Recorded at Rivoli, March 12, 2010. (CMW 2010)

Fergus Brown - John, She Was Never Only Dancing

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Dexateens

Artist: Dexateens

Song: Anna Lee

Recorded at Comfort Zone, March 12, 2010. (CMW 2010)

Dexateens - Anna Lee

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Giant Hand

Artist: Giant Hand

Song: Catacombs

Recorded at Global Village Backpackers, March 12, 2010. (CMW 2010)

Giant Hand - Catacombs

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: CMW 2010 (Friday)

CMW 2010* (Friday) (feat. Julie Fader, Brian Borcherdt, Giant Hand, Gemma Ray, Dexateens, Sydney Wayser, Phantogram, Fergus Brown)

Friday, March 12, 2010.

8 P.M.-ish: Julie Fader @ The Music Gallery

Leaving the in-store at Criminal Records there was a cold wind to go with the persistent rain. Looking for the quickest path to shelter, trudged up to The Music Gallery with young T. to catch what we could of Julie Fader's set. This was one of those "limited wristband" events functioning more as a regular gig (for Wintersleep side-project Postdata) than a showcase, so we were mildly worried about getting in, especially as by the time we got there a warm and dry sanctuary was much needed. But the place wasn't too crowded — perhaps more of a "we're coming for the headliner" mentality was keeping the early numbers down, so we slipped in and managed to catch about five songs or so of Fader's set.

Long known for her support work to other artists (including Great Lake Swimmers and Chad VanGaalen), I'd been digging Fader's solo debut Outside In and waiting on a chance to see her playing some of this stuff live. This was certainly the right environment for it, with the loosely-packed crowd mostly sitting on the floor taking the drum-less combo in under the churchy arches. A stripped-down sort of sound, but rich in little touches from Randy Lee (violin) and Graham Walsh of Holy Fuck — Fader's producer and former band-mate. It was a pleasant surprise — but not a big shock — when "my friend Tony" that Fader called up to the stage was Tony Dekker of Great Lake Swimmers, adding some backing vox in a reversal of the situation I've probably seen Fader most frequently in. Pleasantly low-key and lovely — I could definitely stand to see a full set, and hope we get another chance in such fitting surroundings.

8:30 P.M.: Brian Borcherdt @ The Music Gallery

With time to kill before the next stop on the itinerary, stuck around to catch the first few songs from Brian Borcherdt, with the Holy Fuck-er working his singer/songwriter side. Although some of the songs — including the Kim Mitchell cover — were familiar to me from his solo set at the ALL CAPS Island show, what I heard this time 'round was a bit more filled-out and engaging, especially when he was joined by Walsh and Lee. Perhaps his solo stuff was growing on me — however, after a handful of songs it was back out into the rain to trudge down toward Spadina and King.

9 P.M.: Giant Hand @ Global Village Backpackers

A large festival sometimes plunks venues in somewhat unlikely places, so I guess it's not on the face of it absurd for acts to be playing at a "Hostel Party" stage. But there was a sort of weird disconnect for that to be the site of an acoustic singer-songwriter gathering. Even as I headed in to the venue, which turned out to be in the lounge/poolroom part of the hostel, I was worried that I was going to be feeling like an old man surrounded by dreadlocked/drunken young backpackers, busily out seeing the world. And, indeed, the long wall of the narrow room where the musicians were playing was adorned by a gigantic Jägermeister banner, and there were clearly more people using the space in its usual function than there were wristband-wearing masses out hoping for peace and quiet to hear the music. But, still, I've been in worse. Set off to one side in a semi-separate room, the "stage" was at least somewhat unique, a loosely-demarcated zone at one end of the room with a red wall behind the performers covered with a grid of white xmas tree-type lights.

"Hey everyone, I heard it's karaoke night, so I'm going to sing some Giant Hand songs," said Ottawa's Kirk Ramsay, who operates as a solo performer under that bandonym. Blessed with an attention-grabbing back story1 and, more importantly, a solid debut album, Ramsay has been building up an audience through the time-tested tools of good tunes and DIY persistence. A guy and a guitar, the songs often unwound as two-chord vamps behind his quavery voice, all serving his persistent imagery of monsters and caves and dark places, decidedly non-metaphysical tussles with God and Satan, and an overwhelming fear of death and/or being forgotten.

Besides some of those Daniel Johnston songs that sent him off on this whole adventure, the artist that Ramsay brings most to mind is cartoonist Charles Burns — and not only in how the spareness of his music is along the same lines of Burns' stark monochromism. "Books", a new song, mines the same childhood fascination and dread as Big Baby while Ramsay's treatment of mythic themes — an extended metaphor connecting monster-dread to existential terror — aren't too far from, say, Black Hole.

The musical simplicity — at some level his songs might sound like stripped-down variations on America's "A Horse With No Name" — is an effective companion rather than a limitation, but it was also good to see him reaching a little further, using a looping pedal and some basic beats on his final track. It's worth noting that a third of his set was stuff not on his album, suggesting that he's writing new songs and advancing quickly.2 An interesting guy, and worth checking out.

Listen to a track from this set here.

10 P.M.: Gemma Ray @ The Silver Dollar Room

With nothing strongly suggesting itself to me in this slot, I went with Bobby B.'s recommendation to check out Gemma Ray, over from London, and a completely unknown entity to me. Playing solo with electric guitar, the set started with a less-than-rosy opening, the artiste informing us, "my voice is completely gone, so I'll try and do one or two songs... maybe three". As she played her opening track, it was apparent she was struggling to reach the higher notes. But, though sounding somewhat froggy, she did work around it, dropping into a lower register and even a dramatic whisper at a couple points.3 And too bad, as it sounded like she was on to something interesting here — a pop sensibility shining through noirish twangy tunes. Visibly disappointed with losing her voice, Gemma Ray took shelter in — or, perhaps, revenge on — the music, turning in a roiling set that reflected her unhappy state. The heart of what she did play — and in the end, by stretching out her songs, we got something close to a full set's worth — was a series of covers4, starting with Etta James' "I'd Rather Go Blind".

It turned out that knife tucked into her guitar wasn't just for protection, as by the second tune she pulled it out to saw on the strings, adding loops of their howls to the songs. She was, in fact, equipped with a solid stock of pedals and gear to complicate her sound, including an entire second set at a second mic to add effects to her voice. The peak of it all was the finale, a run through Mudhoney's "Touch Me, I'm Sick" stretching out past seven minutes, the song turning into a deconstructed blues dirge over a drum loop. Obviously venting some frustration, the song ended in a haze of backwards vocal loops slipping into noise, with some gear getting pulled down along the way. I definitely felt for her, fighting her way through the set — and if there was an element of disappointment in that it only hinted at what she is capable of, it was tempered by being witness to a raw experience, and hopefully a set like no other for Gemma Ray. Let's hope she comes back this way to demonstrate her full range.

11:30 P.M.: Dexateens @ Comfort Zone

With the set ending early, I had a bit of extra time on my hands to play with. Looking at the schedule, I decided to switch things up and make a longer run afield, heading over to The Drake to check out Vancouver's Brasstronaut. So, hop on the streetcar, change at Queen and poke along westward to get there in decent time to catch the start of the set... only to be told at the door that the room is at capacity. Ugh. Well — no way I was going to wait around for people to leave, and there wasn't anything immediately scintillating nearby, so, minutes after arriving, I was retracting my steps almost right back to where I started.

Fortunately, Comfort Zone was starting its sets on the half-hour, so I got back there just in time as Dexateens were about to start. Hailing from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the five-piece featured a three-guitar attack, but delivered with ferocious energy that suggested their roots included as much punk as Southern Rock. As a live unit, the focus was on the energy and rockin' more than the words and songcraft — they might be penning anthemic, well-spoken lyrics, but in this environment it was all full-speed ahead, no-bullshit rock, snarling guitars played with a grin.

The bandmembers were certainly wearing their roots on their sleeve, and everything about them said, "damn right I'm Southern", whether it was their overalls or switching gears mid-song for a mini hoedown. Bracing stuff, and though I didn't stick around for the end of the set, it gave me my second wind to keep going on the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnight: Sydney Wayser @ Global Village Backpackers

With my rock quota fulfilled, made my way back down to the hostel to try my luck there again. A few hours on, the ambiance of the place was, unsurprisingly, boozier and blearier — less crowded, but those that remained were louder and drunker. Taking a gamble on an act whose myspace samples sounded a cut more interesting than anything else going on, hit the venue a bit late as Sydney Wayser was still getting ready to play. I must admit I was a bit worried about the singer/songwriter fungibility problem5 but the point of the wristband was to push myself a little — generically this was a sort of music that I have an interest in, but that I'd usually not go out and see.

New York-based Wayser — dressed in what appeared to be pyjamas — turned out to have a warm, inviting voice. Playing mostly on keybs, she was joined by Adam Tressler on guitar and backing vox, but the sound was generally spare throughout — "I keep it on the quiet side, usually," she commented to the sound man as she turned her volume down between songs. Showing some variety, she switched over to ukulele to sing an adequately dreamy song inspired by Before Sunrise, and on the next one added some glockenspiel (which required a jury-rigged sound setup, the mic dangling over the back of a chair). Singing over the background chatter and the occasional loud shout from the players at the pool table in the next room, it was generally a pleasant set. Perhaps not necessarily at the thin end of the fungibility bell curve, but solidly entertaining. Plus, Wayser was engaging enough on stage, getting some of her personality across, to make it a worthy live set.

1 A.M.: Phantogram @ Supermarket

Wayser's set ran a little long, and I was enjoying enough that I didn't feel any need to bolt before the end. As such, when my made my way down to a crowded Supermarket — where apparently no-one was working at the door, for I walked in without anybody wanting to see my wristband — to check out the next band on my "hey, why not?" list, their set was already underway. This was Phantogram, from Saratoga Springs NY — another band I knew pretty much nothing about, but had been twigged to by something on their myspace, or perhaps a stray mention I'd caught somewhere.

Whatever it was that's sent me this way, oh goodness but I wasn't feeling it. The duo were playing a synth-heavy kind of downer dance-pop, and it just wasn't something I was in the mood for. To be sure, I stuck around for about two-and-a-half songs before I bailed, walking over to the convenience store for some orange juice. On this night, electrolytes > Phantogram, though I am willing to affirm that might just have been my mood at the moment.

2 A.M.: Fergus Brown @ Rivoli

But I did feel like I had one more set in me, so I headed down Spadina one last time to Queen, and popped into the Rivoli. By this time of the night, it was pretty quiet in what had been a night-long Australian showcase. Many of the remaining patrons looked like they might have been playing earlier and were now mostly hanging at the back and enjoying the facility's extended licence hours. Which is to say there wasn't a large crowd on hand that looked like they'd dropped in just to hear Fergus Brown play. But Brown took to the stage as if intent to gain a few converts regardless. Starting off backed only with bass, he was joined by various members of fellow Australians Dead Letter Chorus, who were also from Sydney, Australia, but whom he met in an airport in Nova Scotia. The addition of a rhythm section and Gabrielle Huber's harmony vox brought "Nerds in Love" to life, but the songs done solo (such as "Little Pinks or Blues") worked nicely as well.

Once again, there was that problem of singer-songwriter fungibility, as I sat listening for that one little thing that separated this guy from the horde of guys doing music like this. And I actually found it, to some extent, with "John, She Was Never Only Dancing", a sly sort of much-after-the-fact answer song with some crafty references ("She talks like Susie Sontag / she walks like Siouxsie Sioux"). And though a couple of his songs sort of felt a bit too much like typical fare, on the whole Brown pulled it off with an undercurrent of slightly-subversive/slightly goofy wit.

Listen to a track from this set here.


* A note on nomenclature: for years both the industry showcase and music festival components were known as Canadian Music Week. But as of 2009, this was deemed to be too simple and straightforward, and the music portion was "rebranded" as Canadian Music Fest, under the aegis of the larger Canadian Music Week. I see no reason to put up with this and will simply refer to everything as CMW — although there was a part of me that also considered using the slightly cumbersome "Canadian Music Fest presented by Canadian Music Week" throughout.

1 In short: man watches The Devil and Daniel Johnston, decides to get a guitar and make up a few songs, and within months is playing shows.

2 I'm guessing some of these will surface on a new EP being recorded with Rolf Klausener of the Acorn.

3 It would turn out that what she referred to as her "man voice" wasn't just a product of a bad cold, but the onset of laryngitis, which would cause her to cancel her other CMW appearance.

4 She has apparently just recorded an album's worth of covers, charmingly titled It's a Shame About Gemma Ray.

5 Which is to say, I guess, that like light-hitting left fielders that cover a lot of ground, there's a massive oversupply of singer-songwriters, and it's hard sometimes to work up the enthusiasm to try and separate the merely good-enough from the excitingly engaging ones. When a loud rock band isn't quite doing anything original, they can still captivate with volume and performance, but when it's more on the words and performer, there's a lot less to hide behind — so, one might conclude, other things being equal, a marginally interesting singer-songwriter is less entertaining than a marginally interesting band rocking out.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Recording: Ghostkeeper

Artist: Ghostkeeper

Song: Well Well Well

Recorded at Criminal Records, March 12, 2010.

Ghostkeeper - Well Well Well

My notes for this set can be found here.