Thursday, June 30, 2011
Giant Hand (Winchester Warm)
Imperial Pub Backroom. Thursday, January 6, 2011.
The 50 River concert series was started with an admirable idea — not just to present quality acts in the intimate space of the Imperial Pub's backroom, but to curate and contextualize the experience by having well-written previews and Q&A's with the artists available online beforehand. And to do it all with an enthusiastic, personal touch — as I rolled in to find a half-filled room on a rather snowy night, I was greeted by the effusive Holly Andruchuk, lighting the candles stuck in the tops of old liquor bottles that were decorating the tables.1 It's always so nice to come across a genuinely nice person, the sort who will ask a virtual stranger how their day was, as if she were genuinely curious.
That quietly earnest quality pervades everything about the 50 River concert series — and there was something similarly earnest to openers Winchester Warm, an Ottawa duo of Jon Pearce (acoustic guit/vox) and Matt Godin (drums). Godin was wearing a John Deere hat, which felt like a telling detail and fit right in with their Heartland folk-rock. Pearce's voice brought to mind, say, Buffalo Tom's Bill Janovitz or perhaps J. Mascis' less-croaky moments as he reeled off a series of songs from their debut album Sky One Room. Music like this stands or falls on the quality of the songwriting, and there were some encouraging signs here, like the agreeable "Cracks and Clues".
And this kind of music is definitely enhanced in such a homey space, where between songs the band was close enough to the audience for Pearce to sniff the air and ask, "does someone have fries?" There was a bit of mid-tempo sameness in the songs, but thankfully, following a series of mellower tunes in the middle of the set, Pearce commented, "we'll pick it up a notch" before tackling "Surf's Up"2. And on "Like Hell" he even had had the audience singing out the title phrase along with him.
True to the band's name, there is something warm and agreeable here. Sometimes there was only a subtle shade of difference between this and something more generic, but the songs were largely good enough to keep it worth paying attention to.Listen to a track from this set here.
Whatever your opinion of his work, Kirk Ramsay (who performs solo under the bandonym Giant Hand) isn't at as much of a risk of being labelled a generic singer-songwriter. With a slightly quavery voice as distinctive as his lyrical stance, Ramsay seemed to arrive fully-formed with the songs that made up his debut album Coming Home.
The real trick is whether he can grow and expand upon that original template, and at this point there were definite encouraging signs. This was no rehash of what I had seen nearly a year previously when I had first encountered Ramsay. Not only was he now playing an electric Gibson instead of an acoustic guitar, but he was playing better — a latecomer to his instrument, his original technique was pretty bare-bones, and while still no virtuoso, there was a wider palette here. He was also expanding his sound with pedals and more technology as well — set-opener "Down By the River"3 came with some textual synth sounds. "Now I'm going to invent a bandmate," said Ramsay before "Bones Are My Home", which employed an understated backing track, including canned backing vox from Rolf Klausener of the Acorn.
The setlist was titled toward the songs that Klausener produced and played on for Ramsay's then-forthcoming EP Starting As People, including "Another Step Down". But, just as the last time I saw him, Ramsay was also already looking beyond his released material, and he was joined by Winchester Warm's Matt Godin who added drums on one new one.4 And adding percussion with a drum machine loop, Ramsay closed with another unreleased track — I can't seem to find a title anywhere — that's one of the best things he's done, a limping man's catalogue of defiant self-loathing: "don't look at me like that / I ain't no sewer rat / oh, don't look at me like that / I ain't sleeping with the maggots yet". Definitely words to live by as the short set ended and I headed out to the snowy street.Listen to a track from this set here.
2 This was, in fact, an original and not a Beach Boys cover.
3 Also not a cover, but rather a song written from the perspective of a young polar bear who happens to be just as existentially agitated as the rest of Ramsay's narrators, musing, "if no one will remember me / then what was I alive for?"
4 Another benefit of seeing shows in the Imperial Pub's backroom is that there are frequently some random moments as regulars in the front bar wander back and forth past the stage to get to the outdoor smoking area. At this show, a nattily-dressed gent took a seat by the stage on his way back from having a smoke and considered Ramsey closely for about half a song and telling him, as he finished, "you look like Elvis Costello." Ramsey was mildly flustered, commenting, "that's weird." And that led to a semi-awkward back and forth on whether, following from that observation, Ramsay should be more inspired by Elvis Costello.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011
Tranzac New Year's Eve (feat. Octoberman / Sandro Perri / The Wilderness of Manitoba / The Rural Alberta Advantage / Light Fires / Hooded Fang / Sister / I Am Robot And Proud)
The Tranzac. Friday, December 31, 2010.
Deciding where I was going to go for New Year's Eve was pretty much a no-brainer. Instead of going to a bar and feeling dour, for the past couple years I'd enjoyed the friendly-faces vibe in the Tranzac's shabby living-room surroundings — the fact that there was good selection of local bands playing is almost just a bonus.1 At least that's the sensibility I tried to approach the evening with, as more of a fun and social time than a musical event to be observed and documented. That the notes below veer in and out of thoroughness is a sign of my mixed success at the endeavour — try as I might to just hang out, my brain usually gets caught up in the gig at hand.
Pre-show festivities out meant that I got into the Tranzac around 9:30 — early for a gig, never mind New Year's Eve — but it did mean that I'd missed an early set by Laura Barrett. As it was, just managed to catch the end of Octoberman, which is essentially a vehicle for the songs of Marc Morrissette, as far as I can tell. Sometimes he plays solo, but here he was backed by a group of friends — I recognized some of the people with him on stage, including violin player Randy Lee. I didn't have more than a passing notion about the band going in, but the vaguely Wilco-y material that I heard intrigued, putting the band on my radar for a fuller accounting.
Listen to a track from this set here.
Popping into the main hall, caught a bit of the end of Sandro Perri's set2, but didn't stick around too long, heading back to the smaller Southern Cross Lounge to snag a spot for The Wilderness of Manitoba. As the acoustic guitar and prayer bowls sounded the extended opening to "Hermit", I wondered if the NYE crowd would stay quiet to listen to this. But though the chatter picked up a bit as the set went on, it was far better than I expected.
Like a lot of local bands, The WoM had played some of their earliest gigs in this room, and their homespun, rootsy sounds still felt quite right here. Fairly packed with people, despite playing opposite The Rural Alberta Advantage, the room was boilingly hot by set's end, which was acknowledged with the otherwise-unseasonable "Summer Fires". A nice capper to a successful year for the band, the set drew mostly from their full-length When You Left the Fire, but dipped back for the older "Evening" (by now a clap-along standard to the audience). And mixing up the setlist, the band played the brand-new "Chasing Horses", a sign that there's more to come.
Listen to a track from this set here.
And then back to the main hall — where the big digital clock projected above the stage was at about quarter to eleven — for the end of The Rural Alberta Advantage's set. Didn't feel too bad about missing out on the rest, having caught them at Lee's a couple weeks before. It was surprisingly roomy for a set by a band that'd sold that much bigger venue not long before, with a small cadre of folks up front, and a lot of elbow room and people chatting further back. And it was rather unusual to see Paul Banwatt to the rear of his bandmates in the "usual" drummer alignment instead of being lined up with them at the front of the stage — though that was explained as singer/guitarist Nils Edenloff thanked Hooded Fang for sharing their gear before they wrapped up with "The Dethbridge in Lethbridge"
I only saw a song-and-a-half of RAA, which is okay, as on this night I was more looking forward to Light Fires, who I'd been interested in seeing for awhile. I'm generally interested in anything new from Reg Vermue, for whom this has become an outlet for something different than Gentleman Reg, his "name" band. But though usually considered as having come from the troubadour school, he has long shown an interest in electronic music — the electronic stylings of "We're in a Thunderstorm" having been presaged by some other dancefloor dabblings. Further giving this a distinct identity, Vermue performed the set as Regina Gentlelady, his drag persona, foregrounding all the brash fabulousness he can muster.
He was backed up on stage by the more subdued James Bunton, best known for his work in Ohbijou. Here, the drummer was working with an entirely different set of rhythmic tools, standing barefoot behind a table of electronics working the beat in real time.
As they got ready to play, Vermue teased the crowd with a few a capella lines of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance", and if I were a more with-it observer of popular culture — in fact, I had to google the lyrics to figure out what song it was — I'm sure I could whip off some astute observations on the aspirational connections at play here. Instead, though, I'll just have to let Vermue's pithy, slogan-worthy choruses speak for themselves, and the most memorable of the lot — "If you're bored, make it up!" — does the job nicely.
Working in this beat-driven domain, Vermue boiled his lyrics down to easy-to-grasp catchphrases, like in "The Better" ("the riskier the better / the butter makes it better") where his words were warped with an aggressive autotune effect. I liked the buzzy upbeat groove of "Let's Get Divorced", after which Vermue had to slow things down for a song that was less dance-y and more synth poppy — and actually one of the best songs they had. Meanwhile, as the pair moved through a full set (nine songs, all told) the crowd was keeping busy batting around the dozens of balloons that had been dropped from above. A good way to ease out the year.3
After that, a quick changeover so
Guy Lombardo Hooded Fang could be on stage and ready with a couple minutes to spare before the giant digital clock hit midnight. As the crowd counted down to the new year, D. Alex Meeks greeted it with a drumroll and the horns kicked into "Auld Lang Syne", the rest of the band picking it up with an amusing slight lurch before veering off into an equally unsteady cover of David Bowie's "Let's Dance". As singer/guitarist Daniel Lee read the lyrics from his notebook, Nicholas Hune-Brown pulled a sweet 80's new wave vibe from his keyboards. It had an appropriately "let's get ripped and dance" sort of feeling.
After making notes that Matt Beckett (ex-Bicycles) was sitting in for bassist April Aliermo and considering the merits of a pleasingly ragged run through "Highway Steam", I remembered it was New Year's Eve, and reckoned I should try and have a happy and sociable time to try and start the year off on the right foot, so I made the unusual move of wandering around, and treating the music as background, so I don't recall what else went down in much detail, though there was an unprecedented second cover (even one is rare for Hooded Fang), with a sprightly clap- and dance-along version of New Order's "Age of Consent".
During HF's last song, moved over with a bunch of friends back to the Southern Cross lounge, which was running a little late. We managed to step in to catch pretty much the whole set from Sister, who I'd been waiting to see again after enjoying the first time I'd encountered them. They were still playing the snappy "Wishbone" as we entered, and I thought this might be another set where I'd be paying half-attention, but my friends settled attentively in right up front, so I ended up back in my usual mode.
So named for the connection between singer/guitarist Carla Gillis (also a local music writer of note) and her sister, drummer/vocalist Lynette, the trio (rounded out by Pete Johnston on bass) were mostly playing songs from their EP, as well as some that haven't been released yet, like "Imaginary Love Notes". A bit more considered and "classic rock" than the Gillises past work in well-regarded East Coast fuzz-poppers Plumtree, Sister's songs tend to stretch out to four or five minutes. Letting the groove cook a little, the journey is just as important as the lyrics, fitting for a band whose songs employ no shortage of travel imagery, from the "Off Ramp Up Ahead" to the train in "Orion". On the latter, Geoff Miller once again joined the trio on keyboards, adding a tasty saturation to the sound before the set closed with the jaunty "Feather on the Ocean Floor".
After that, a lot of the crowd started to make their way out, so by the time that I Am Robot and Proud were getting started around 1:30, enough bodies had left that I could grab a seat. And though there was still some boozy rambunctiousness afoot, it was staggery and muted, and this felt more like a regular Tranzac gig. All the moreso with the players on the stage being no strangers to this room. The brainchild of Shaw-Han Liem (on keybs and laptop), the live band is rounded out with Robin Buckley (drums), Mike Smith (bass) and Jeremy Strachan (guit). Those musicians can be found with Liem in a series of overlapping bands, stretching back from the Sea Snakes to more current projects including Tusks and Jim Guthrie's band.
The vibe for this instrumental project is technofuturistic optimism, smooth and sleek. This is the sort of music that should come with projections behind the band — perhaps computer-animated footage of an endlessly unfurling highway ahead, or an anime superhero flying off into the horizon. On studio recordings, the band is more strictly defined by Liem's keyb sounds, sometimes sounding like distant kin to Richard D. James Album-era Aphex Twin. But with the band behind him, there was more "rock" (even of a restrained, arranged sort) in the sound, and tracks like the fab "Making a Case for Magic" could easily fit in on a Sea and Cake album, with Strachan's sustained tone bending up against Smith playing the highest notes of his bass. The songs stretched out enough that there were only played five titles in the half-hour set, including a new one called "Circles" and finishing off with "Center Cities" from The Electricity in Your House Wants to Sing, a title which also sums up the band's vibe pretty well.
Casting a warm spell on the humanoids dispersing from the cozy Tranzac, the music gave me a shield of protection against the hell-is-other-people parade of Bloor Street at two a.m. on New Year's Eve. Goodness, was I ever glad I was in the Tranzac all night and not out with those people.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 And, of course, the night was also important as another in the series of fundraisers to help get the Tranzac back on a stable financial foundation.
2 A., also searching for a non-bar NYE excursion, came out for the night. Having seen Hooded Fang before, I think he was under the impression that all the bands would be upbeat, poppy fare — y'know, something to dance to on New Year's Eve. That something as artfully askew as Sandro Perri could be featured on the main stage, even relatively early in the night perplexed him, and as we headed out of the room he asked me, "is there any music here that won't make me me want to kill myself?" With HF and Light Fires it mostly ended up a draw and he survived the night.
3 Light Fires are a natural pick for Pride, and will be playing the Alterna-Queer stage (Alexander Parkette, next to Buddies in Bad Times) on Sunday, July 3, 2011 at 3:15 — well worth ducking away from the parade for.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
With the frightening immediacy of NXNE out of the way for now, I'll soon enough be returning to my more usual place in the gig/time continuum. (Coming next week — reviews from 2011). While I get caught up on sleep and put the finishing touches on the next couple posts, how about some filler?
Despite my natural inclination to want to retreat to my wilderness cabin, remote from humanity, and peck away at my manual typewriter to craft my manifestos, keeping this thing running tends to put me in contact with folks. And as it turns out, one of the most satisfying parts of the whole operation comes when I can pass a recording back to a band:
And sometimes they show up in interesting ways:
I have a lot of respect for the people who faithfully document the music scene on video — they have a lot more stuff to worry about when they're at a show than I do. I've considered it a badge of honour to be able to help out with a couple of the city's best, including published author Colin Medley:
And I've also pitched in with Graeme Phillips and his army of camera operators:
These guys work in the present tense — a lot of this stuff I haven't even caught up to yet. Hopefully there'll be more to come!
Monday, June 20, 2011
NXNE 2011 (Saturday, June 18, 2011)
While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so there'll be a fuller accounting of the night by and by that'll include all the details on the boat cruise and the hallucinations.
8 p.m.: Cartoons @ Comfort Zone
Thought I'd check out a band called Mode Moderne at Supermarket, but it looked like the venue was running late. When I dropped in right on the hour, an unbilled previous act was still on stage. Not wanting to wait around, I ducked in to CZ to find Cartoons already on stage. As it would turn out, being five minutes late meant I missed about a third of their very brief set. Points for not overstaying their welcome. And while I found the local trio's abrasive, AmRep-styled guitar-skinning to be pretty invigorating stuff, a long set might have been too much of a muchness. On a similar path to METZ, if you're looking to situate the sound a little more. Overheard lyrics: "You're stupid!", "Kill the hostages!".
9 p.m.: Ivan & Alyosha @ Lee's Palace
With that set ending a little early, I figured I could enjoy the evening and walk a bit. I was also adjusting my plans on the fly — a couple things I was interested in were farther afield, and with all of the east-west streetcar lines being fairly unreliable due to downtown events, I wasn't sure I'd be able to get anywhere and back without missing something. I knew I would be headed to Lee's down the line, so I figured I might as well get in there while it was still quiet and see whatever was playing the early slot there.
That turned out to be Seattle's Ivan & Alyosha, a folksy combo that initially made me snidely think that this was the sort of earnest acoustic stuff that I was deliberately avoiding. Four guys lined up across the front of the stage, with an electric guitar, two acoustics and a single floor tom for percussion.1 Musically, this would fit next to the northwestern rootsy, harmony-laden adult-alternative band of your choice.2 That might sound like I'm consigning them to "generically bland" status, and yeah, that was kinda my feeling at first. But as the set went on, they mostly won me over on the strength of their likeable songs. There were some nice touches as well, like the echo-y ruffles during "Easy to Love". They were also genuinely gracious on stage, glad to be sharing their songs, even if it was to a thin early crowd.
10 p.m.: Guards @ Lee's Palace
There was a lot more of a crowd coming in for this NYC group as they set up for what looked to be a more theatrical set. There was a large backdrop with a freemason-ish logo, a lamp on stage topped by a stuffed bird and a smoke machine obscuring everything. The music had a similarly theatrical heft, dabbling in atmospherics of menacing gloom that were mixed with jaunty shots of light.
The most unique element of the band's sound were the little trills provided by an omnichord simmering under everything. It sounded so much like a key part of what the band was doing that I was surprised when vocalist/guitarist Richie Follin casually mentioned the player had never performed with the band before. Along the way, there was also a cover of MIA's "Born Free", and a closer that simmered along nicely, loping in place without becoming too static.
11 p.m.: Wild Nothing @ Lee's Palace
And then a really full house for Wild Nothing, showing how once again I'd missed the boat on a buzz-y band. Which is strange, as this was the sort of thing that I do enjoy — the jangly roll of The Smiths, but with its morose-y vibe replaced by a more upbeat, optimistic delivery. Conceptually not so far from, say, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Originating as a recording project from singer/guitarist Jack Tatum, he's now backed by a sympathetic three-piece band.
The pleasingly bouncy "Our Composition Book" won me over and from there I enjoyed the set pretty well. The music is mostly situated in a fairly narrow stylistic patch, but there were enough variations to keep things interesting. (Although that wasn't always to the good — "The Witching Hour"'s slower tempo dragged a bit and pushed Tatum a bit out of his natural range.)
The songs were all new to me, but the full-length Gemini album, out for more than a year, has apparently been around long enough that Tatum already had a couple new ones to mix into the set. The one that he closed with (key lyric: "she falls down, she falls down") was a keeper. On the whole, a good introduction, and I grabbed a copy of the album on the way out the door.
Listen to a song from this set here.
12 a.m.: Peelander-Z @ Comfort Zone
Walking into a Peelander-Z set already in progress is like picking up volume seven of a manga series, leaving you wondering how the particularly strange scene in from of you came about. Stories of the band's gleefully absurd live shows are legion, so I thought I knew what I was going to get as I hustled down into the Comfort Zone — but this was more than I was expecting. Within the first couple minutes of my arrival there were on-stage costume changes, an invasion by inflatable monsters, tin bowls and sticks passed out to the crowd for percussion and a sort of limbo contest where a rope was passed over the crowd at about shoulder level, forcing everyone to duck.
The band was formed and based in New York City, but all the players hail from Japan, and it's that antic pop-culture frenzy that informs the band as much as their no-hold-barred speed-punk tunes. In some sense the music was secondary, or at least designed to facilitate the sensory overload and participatory games. Oh, and there was human bowling.
The set ended with the band picking out members of the crowd to replace them on stage and there was so much going on that I couldn't even begin to account for it all here. But next time they come around, don't doubt and don't get hung up on words like "gimmick" — just go.
12:40 a.m.: catl @ Comfort Zone
And the sensory overload didn't end there, as catl's side-stage mini-set started as Peelander-Z's last notes were still fading. "Side-stage" is actually a rather generous description, as the trio were simply set up on the floor in the wing leading towards the bathrooms. Always a sweaty dancing celebration of the greasy get-down blues, the band was in fine form, having already played a full set upstairs earlier as well as three previous between-sets quickies. Though a good chunk of the packed house fled after Peelander-Z finished, there was a good cohort of folks ready to boogie. Playing loose and ragged, this felt just superb, a rejuvenatin' burst that gave me a second (third?) wind that carried me through the rest of the night.
1:00 a.m.: Biblical @ Comfort Zone
I'm an enthusiast for all things Steamboat-related, but I'm sure that even I can't claim to have seen all of the band's many offshoots. Because pretty much everything that these guys touch turns to musical gold, I'd been meaning to see Biblical, even if it's a bit outside my usual musical zone. Although the band includes Steamboat's Jay Anderson (drums), Matt McLaren (here on guit) and Andrew Scott (guit/organ) there's no traces of the feel-good soulful grooves that band brings. Instead, supplemented by Nick Sewell (of The Illuminati) on bass and most lead vocals, the band brings chugging hard-rock grooves, like local stoner-metal titans Quest For Fire amped up a couple notches and veering occasionally from Hawkwind-like drift (thanks to Scott's organ work) into Ace of Spaces velocity. That's intensified with Sewell's throaty growl and meaty bass-playing. Splitting the difference between cough syrup and trucker-grade speed, this was a bad-news boogaloo that had just the right evil late-night lurch.
Listen to a song from this set here.
2 a.m.: Bad Cop @ Silver Dollar
I had seen Nashville's Bad Cop before — well, sort of — but it was hard to really get the measure of the band that time, as lead singer Adam Anyone hadn't made it over the border, and the set consisted of instrumentals from the remaining pair. Making it across for NXNE, and bringing an adjusted four-piece lineup, this was a whole different story.
Even after the first song, basically a garage-y rocker, I wasn't sure what I was going to be getting, but as the band got warmed up, the set leaned increasingly to no-frills punk. And getting more exciting from song to song, mostly animated by Anyone's stage presence — as the vernacular goes, he gave good face, with animated eyes and constant motion. In fact, it was after he put down the guitar he'd been playing for the first few songs that things really took off. This would have been a perfect match with Teenanger, who'd played the same stage earlier in the night. It turned out to be an exciting and worthy set, so hopefully they'll be able to get back into the country again.
Listen to a song from this set here.
3 a.m.: B-17 @ Silver Dollar
Given the length of the day, I don't know if I'd have been able to maintain much enthusiasm for anyone playing a 3 a.m. timeslot, but this was one of my most-anticipated bands of the night. Perhaps a bit unusual for a band playing their debut performance, but these were all familiar musicians to me — Action Makes vocalist Clint Rogerson on bass, alongside Nick Kervin (of the Easy Targets) on drums and a pair of Hoa Hoa's (Calvin Brown and Richard Gibson) on guitars.
I got the impression here that instead of just getting together to jam out some covers, these guys decided to work out the fundamental building blocks of some of the bands that influenced them and come up with some new songs. The Stooges might be the key source — "Real Cool Time" was the one non-original the band tackled — but there was a lot of other ideas thrown in the mix (closer "Sabbataph" gives away where that one was leaning). Gibson handled some of the vox, but mostly handled the more tuneful guitar parts while Brown threw down with some ace feedback-drenched wah-wah.
Six originals, all told, and they all sounded pretty good. And well rehearsed — this was clearly done as more than just a whim. Let me be the first to close my review of this band with this all-too-obvious cliché, which, once used, can now be retired forever: let's hope that B-17 make another run over the Silver Dollar soon.3
Listen to a song from this set here.
1 It turned out that the usual drummer wasn't present (possibly due to those omnipresent border issues) so the bassist was covering.
2 Number of beards on stage: 2. (There was also a moustache as well.)
3 And, in fact, it looks like this will be happening: B-17 will be closing out the night at The Silver Dollar with Rayon Beach, John Wesley Coleman and Odonis Odonis on Monday, July 11, 2011.
Sunday, June 19, 2011
Saturday, June 18, 2011
NXNE 2011 (Friday, June 17, 2011)
While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so there'll be a fuller accounting of the night by and by that'll include all the details on the in-store show and ambivalent feelings of getting to skip past the lineup.
8 p.m.: Persian Rugs @ Silver Dollar
Broke my informal embargo on bands that I've seen before to check in with Persian Rugs. Felt a little jarring to roll into the Silver Dollar so early, with daylight leaking in through the back door out to the smoking area — it's like seeing Joan Rivers without makeup or something like that. It was pretty quiet in the room as the band took the stage, but it did fill in some as the set progressed. Drummer Matt Rubba faced the situation with humour, calling out the band's name and inventing a fictional new hometown after almost every song.
Starting off with some fuzzy, jangly fun, the band exhibited a very cardigan sort of sound, just like the light blue one singer/guitarist Ian Jackson was wearing. The musical maturity that I was looking for after the last time I saw 'em was certainly on offer, and it felt like there was more coherence to the band's sound, with the songs now feeling more like they're facets of the same general underlying shape. Hopefully the band has a few more songs ahead of them of the calibre of "Phone Call From the Lake" and "Always All", and in the meantime, seeing them live feels like time well-spent with some Sarah Records band you hadn't previously discovered.
9 p.m.: The Young Things @ Comfort Zone
Ducked downstairs after to check out this NYC quartet with a scrappy, somewhat-retro garage sound. The first song had a Beatles-y melodic sense, and that would come out a couple more times — as would a decent talent at arranging harmonies. That would be tempered by an equal enjoyment for a scuzzier kind of rock, as evidenced by "All My Friends Are Junkies". That tendency in their sound was faced head-on — and perhaps a bit too on the nose — with a Strokes cover.
This was all enjoyable enough, though when the band left the retro-y sensibility behind, they veered too much toward a safe, homogenized radio-ready pop sound. Obviously, that's no more or less original than the garage-y stuff, but it's nowhere near as compelling. In the long run, this is a band that needs to get more primitive in order to progress.
10 p.m.: The Vandelles @ Comfort Zone
The Vandelles were also up from the Big Apple, and one could tell that somehow or another they've got a bit of that palpable buzz around them, as the area in front of the stage was suddenly filled with photographers. And when they started playing, one could see the immediately charming elements in play, including reverb and "Be My Baby" drumbeats. The following songs were a bit less overtly forged from that template.
This was good enough, but I couldn't help comparing the band in my mind to Chains of Love, who I'd seen the night before — a comparison that showed The Vandelles' limitations. CoL dove more forcefully into the pool of their musical influences and went deeper into their shtick, going full out in their stage appearance. meanwhile, Vandelles vocalist Jason (no last name given) played in sandals and cut-off jeans. Bassist Lulu (also no last name given, and fighting a bad back by playing while braced against a tall chair) looked more the part. And musically, the band were willing to get a little sloppy and could even hint at some JAMC velocity, but it felt too much like these were all ill-fitting clothing draped over songs that really didn't invest themselves fully in the sensibility they were playing at.
11 p.m.: New/France @ El Mocambo
Went to this on the thinnest possible hunch, finding something interesting in a blurb mentioning that the band featured "ex and present members of local stalwarts Groovy Religion and La Casa Muerte". The Groovy Religion connection interested me as much as the very notion of a band mixing together musicians from different generations, and it turned out that it was no less than William New on vocals. Perhaps this linkage of players (who didn't immediately look like they all belonged in the same band) arose from the same ethos New displayed as a founder of Elvis Mondays — an essential community-building role in T.O.'s 80's indie scene. Guitarist Roy Pike looks to be of the same vintage, but I can't dig up much about him — and he lacks an index entry in Have Not Been The Same.
Regardless, he did an ace job trading corrosive riffs with Bo Frantz (the Casa Muerte connection, making the band's moniker a bit of a play on words on its two founders' last names) in a stereo back-and-forth of bracing minimalism. The sound was tied together by Jenny Charlton's Mo Tucker-ish drums, played standing up with mallets. There were some superb moments here, with that guitar give-and-take and New tersely delivering his lines while staring down the crowd. There were also a few points where things were a bit out of sync and the drums skipped a beat, but on the whole, this was a rewarding bit of no wave-ish menace.
Listen to a track from this set here.
12 a.m.: OFF! @ The Horseshoe
With a plethora of good bands playing at midnight, I figured I'd be heading for one of my Plan B's — so much so that I was more than mildly surprised when I managed to get into a packed, sweaty 'Shoe just minutes before OFF! took the stage. Though I don't have an immense background in hardcore, I do like me some once in a while, and this new group of veterans has been building a ferocious rep.
The band is fronted by Keith Morris — original Black Flag vocalist and founder of the Circle Jerks — and he's certainly the focus on stage. Even with a slim catalogue of songs to their name, the band had no problem filling out their timeslot when Morris's raps and introductions were considered. Highly entertaining (if a little erratic), Morris discoursed on post-9/11 politics with as much direct intensity as he welded in considering what to do with the errant show that had been flung onto the stage.
When the songs started, he gave a theatrical performance while flanked by Steven Shane McDonald (bass, famed for his work in Redd Kross) who kept stoically still in a wide-legged stance and guitarist Dimitri Coats who bounced around a little more. Each blast of music was accompanied by a fairly frothing moshpit. Both parts of the performance — banter and music — were equally entertaining and just standing back in the crowd watching this drained me. Great fun.
Listen to a couple quick songs from this set here.
1 a.m.: Heavy Cream @ Comfort Zone
Another band that I'd seen before, but when I'd first seen this bouncy Tennessee crew at CMW they were suffering through a set with terrible sound. I was able to get the impression that this was my kind of thing, but it was hard to really appreciate them. And though they were battling with some issues here as well — as the last band of the night, they were suffering from a drumkit that was coming apart at the seams — this was a much better showing. Sort of like a meeting of the minds between Be Your Own Pet and The Ramones, this was a constant blur of energy, especially from vocalist Jessica, who bounced and shimmied without missing a note. Even if the songs might sound a little silly ("Summer Bummer" was one title here) the band was seriously into it. The set was over in a flash, leaving a most pleasant aftertaste.
2 a.m.: No Joy @ Silver Dollar
Another "secret guest" that was pretty widely advertised in advance, I was pretty eager to get a chance to see Montréal's No Joy, whose Ghost Blonde album had really impressed me. Live, the four-piece brought a bit more animation to their shoegazey tunes than I was expecting — the title track, which lead off the set, got some more "push" from the drummer that isn't there on the album.
Singer/guitarists Jasmine White-Glutz and Laura Lloyd (the co-founders of the band) were shoegazers in the most literal sense, playing doubled over, their long blonde fair almost constantly obscuring their faces. Sort of the Thurston Moore school of guitar playing, and there was certainly a bit of Sonic Youth in the band's music. They weren't much for banter or crowd interaction, coming and leaving the stage without saying a word. Regardless, this made a solid impact on me.
Listen to a track from this set here.
Friday, June 17, 2011
NXNE 2011 (Thursday, June 16, 2011)
While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so there'll be a fuller accounting of the night by and by that'll include all the details on the lack of sleep and just who was hanging around smoking in front of Comfort Zone.
7 p.m.: Snowblink @ Music Gallery
A good crowd down at St. George The Martyr for this early mini-showcase put together by local label Out of This Spark. Because of other commitments in this busy city, I'd missed out on all the celebrations surrounding the re-release of the band's Long Live album, though I had last seen 'em back in this same room in January. As Daniela Gesundheit and Dan Goldman took the stage the pews were filled up — and by set's end there'd be a healthy crowd of standees behind. After playing a song in their usual duo fashion, they were joined by drummer Dan Gaucher1 in an unusual three Dan, three DG alignment. Gaucher and Goldman were wearing matching red ball caps — and Goldman had red socks on, too, as if the band were trying to maximize their fashion score on Exclaim!'s festival report card.
New to the setlist was "Listen and Profit", a song composed by Gesundheit in the Cape Breton Highlands as a part of the National Parks Project, as well as a cover of MGMT's "Hot Love Drama".2 And, as always, the band sounded great, especially in this space, voices and ringing bells filling the church-y environment. The set closed with "Ambergris", the trio building up to a big finish.
I do adore the other bands (Evening Hymns, Forest City Lovers) that were playing on this bill, but in a festival setting I figured I'd better move on to find something unfamiliar.
Listen to a song from this set here.
8 p.m.: The Lying Cheats @ Comfort Zone
This local band's bio blurb suggests that they "take the Jesus and Mary Chain's debut as their bible", and that was enough to get me down into the murky blacklight depths of the Comfort Zone. Truth be told, live I didn't totally hear that coming through, but no worries, as I totally enjoyed this five-piece regardless. With three guitars on stage, the band didn't just pour on more noise on top of noise — the roles were well-arranged and the lines fit on top of each other nicely. A closing cover of The Kinks' "Milk Cow Blues" hinted a bit more at where they were getting their sensibility from — controlled rave-ups and, yeah, an underlying hint of bluesiness. Though not groundbreaking, this was rockin' in a way that suits me fine, and I'd gladly see this band again, especially if they can come up with more originals like "Cowboys and Indians".
9 p.m.: Different Skeletons @ Rancho Relaxo
What do you do if you're playing a big rock festival and your gear betrays you? You can roll with the punches and gut it out stoically or freak out and try to control your temper tantrum. Different Skeletons sort of went through all of that when a pedalboard conked out during the band's second song. Looking to be a new-ish band, this trio don't share a lot of information about themselves beyond their rock'n'roll aliases (Danger Dean, Thunder Dan, Jimbo Jones). But when a wah pedal cut out the bassist/guitarist/singer — let's call him WRONG after the classic Nomeansno t-shirt he was wearing — decided to take out his frustrations on it, picking it up and spiking it to the stage floor several times, and then kicking it around.
The band also led off in a slightly unrepresentative direction, with WRONG handling guit and vocals for the first couple songs, before four- and six-strings were swapped and his bespectacled bandmate took over most of the singing. WRONG had a bit more of a hoarse-voiced shouty thing going on, and for those first couple songs, I was wondering if I was going to stick it out for the whole set. But after the vocal switchover — and taking that problematic pedalboard out of the loop — things improved considerably. After that, WRONG seemed to just want to have a mildly disruptive good time — jumping down to the floor to play, slumping against his guitarist etc.
Musically, the band delivered competent smash-and-clatter rock'n'roll. There was one song with a driving surf-y beat that brought Elk to mind, and an Eric's Trip cover. Ultimately, this was enjoyable enough, and there's signs that this band could cohere into something interesting. And while I'm guessing that not every set ends with a wah-wah pedal being tossed down a flight of stairs, there's signs that they're going to be fun to watch.
10 p.m.: Child Bite @ Sneaky Dee's
A good-sized crowd on hand over at Sneaks, where the drinks are cheap and a night of scrappy guitar noise seemed to be at hand. Later on METZ — fresh from playing Yonge-Dundas Square — would be holding court, but I dropped in to check out this Detroit crew. Promising a mix of "The Jesus Lizard, Devo, and Dead Kennedys", I was more picking up a very particular amalgamation of Pere Ubu and hardcore. Which, all told, I rather liked quite a bit. Behind a keyboard decorated with inlaid xmas lights, the vocalist leaned forward to leer at the audience, singing as if he were making conversation laced with strange and vaguely salacious insinuations. Meanwhile the bass/guit/drums behind him split the difference between dance-y chug and spazzy lurch. Really top notch.
Listen to a track from this set here.
11 p.m.: Chains of Love @ The Silver Dollar
The appeal here is pretty self-evident and conceptually brilliant — a wall of sound (here fabricated with rock'n'roll clamour) delivered by a pair of female vocalists with, um, gams. In a crammed Silver Dollar that was so hot and damp it felt like it was generating its own fog, this Vancouver combo, a half-dozen members deep, plays with the elements of early 60's rock and roll. The Pipettes, in their original incarnation, come to mind a little here, but Chains of Love bring far more raunch and scuzz to their musical attack, as if the JD's have taken over the sock hop. Really good stuff — I reckon we'll be hearing more from this band.
12 a.m.: Crocodiles @ The Silver Dollar
A jam-packed house for the local debut of this San Diego five-piece, whose nightly headlining slots are the jewel in the crown of Dan Burke's festival-within-a-festival. A core duo of Brandon Welchez and Charles Rowell rounded out with a touring rhythm section, I didn't know too much about the group going in — just enough to be able to situate them in the current wave of murky, reverb-loving semi-revivalists. Vocalist Welchez is married to Dum Dum Girls' frontwoman Dee Dee Penny, and while there's a bit of musical overlap there as well, it's more instructive to consider how Crocodiles take some of the same influences and pare away the pop sheen, leaving a flattened and repetitive smear of sound. And there's an additional layer of postpunk influences at play as well — if you imagine an early Echo and the Bunnymen single slowed down to about two-thirds the speed, you have an idea of what's going on here. Plus, even when there's a catchy chorus, if you listen more closely, you realize the band is singing, "I wanna kill tonight". O, darkness!
At the start of the set the sound was entirely mushy and impenetrable, though that was more about the kinks in the sound mix being worked out, as the band gained clarity as the set moved along. And by the last three songs or so, this was pretty compelling stuff. With that worked out, I'd guess that by Saturday night the band will be worked up into pretty dominant form.
Listen to a track from this set here.
1 A drummer in a lot of awesome Tranzac-y improvising bands, Gaucher has also been keeping things busy with some local folk/roots/songwriters lately, including Doug Paisley.
2 This is far less random than it might appear on the surface, as MGMT were friends and choirmembers in an early California-based incarnation of Snowblink.
Thursday, June 16, 2011
NXNE 2011 (Wednesday, June 15, 2011)
While these shows are fresh in my mind I want to get some quick notes down. I'm a nerd for not wanting to throw my full reviews out of sequence, so there'll be a fuller accounting of the night by and by that'll include all the details on the burritos and existential worrying.
8 p.m.: Loom @ Rivoli
Brooke Manning's folk/drone project took on a different cast than when I had seen last her playing in February. On that occasion, she had a couple musicians sharing the stage with her, including Maya Postepski's icy, ambient keyboard work. Now playing on her own, the music was even more spare. And also something closer to folk than to the vaguely Broadcast-y feel of the previous versions.
That said, this was still very good stuff. It helps that there's some crackerjack songs here. Plus, Manning took the stage with far more confidence tonight, even daring to smile and look confidently relaxed. At one point, she took a picture of the audience with a disposable camera, instructing everyone to close their eyes and think of something they loved. Manning seemed to be following her own advice while playing, eyes closed and fingers spinning out her slow, fragile dreams.
9 p.m.: Megan Bonnell @ Rivoli
This was more of a "well, I'm here" sort of set than anything I was particularly eager to see. And while I can sometimes be swayed by purveyors of piano pop, it's more often the case that I find it hard for anything to really stand out for me in a crowded field. For this set, Bonnell was joined by a drummer, as well as a cellist on several songs. The latter certainly enriched the sound, but sadly there were some persistent problems that added some unwanted buzzings and harsh overtones to the strings. Even Bonnell's vocals were sometimes creaking in the mix. That'd certainly be no fault of her own, as she gave every indication of being a good singer, gifted with a powerful voice that she used with admirable restraint.
Her smoky timber occasionally recalls Chan Marshall, but the way she employes her voice is different. Regina Spektor is an easy point of comparison. Unfortunately, the songs didn't do much for me, so I spent more time thinking about how she fits into the field of her genre than I was being pulled into the music.
10 p.m.: O Voids @ The Horseshoe
From there, it was just the shortest of walks, past the front bar of The Riv (packed with people eyeballing the Stanley Cup final) over to the 'Shoe (where the front bar was similarly jammed). It was quieter in the back as O Voids got ready to play. This showcase was presented by M for Montréal, and I dropped by in time for some aggressive volume that was in sharp contrast to what I had seen so far in the night.
I didn't know much about the band, but they had a convincing blurb and a likeable track on on offer in their festival listing, so I gave it a go. As could be expected, loud guitars and bellowed vocals aren't a bad way to get my attention. The guit/bass/drums trio tend to fish around in the long history of louder postpunk music, and could be considered a power trio in the sense that Mission of Burma are a power trio.
Having a bit of trouble getting everything balanced in the mix, the band settled for the solution of turning the guitar up louder. That actually did clear up some initially-murky sound, but also made it ear-splittingly loud in the room. Musically, I mostly enjoyed what was on offer here, with pummelling instruments and vox buried down somewhere. The music occasionally veered toward something catchy in the manner of, say, early Superchunk, but lots of little post hardcore ruffles around the edges kept this off the easy track.
11 p.m.: Red Mass @ The Horseshoe
I'd been aware of Roy Vucino's rock onslaught machine for quite awhile, just having missed seeing them at a couple previous festivals. Now, it appears that they've slimmed down from their previously outsized formats to a comparatively-managable five piece. But that's still enough people to raise a helluva racket. The set started with some bait-and-switch, with some live violin being played against a manipulated tape-recorded violin, but that was soon set aside as the group settled into an aggressive hard rock groove, sort of like a bad-trip version of the MC5. And then, about halfway through the set, "Weird Mess" hit like a sonic reducer, and suddenly the band was rather excellent.
Sadly, it was just at that moment that the band was really nailing it when Vucino broke a guitar string. The rest of the band played on while he hurredly changed it, creating an unplanned lengthy instrumental excursion. But that punkish snarl triggered something, and the rest of the set was similarly intense, indicating that the band was just getting warmed up. Sadly, this was a half-hour set, so we got about three songs of the really good stuff before their time was done.
Listen to a track from this set here.
12 a.m.: Parlovr @ The Horseshoe
The night's "special guest" headliner was an open secret, it seemed, and I decided to stick around to see how things have progressed for this trio. It was actually back at NXNE two years ago that we'd last crossed paths. Things certainly seem to have gone well for the band, who are now garnering a pretty large and enthusiastic crowd. And they've definitely managed to thicken their two-guitars-no-bass sound a bit. Vocally, at first I though there was a bit more yowling going on than previously, but I note that when I first saw 'em I was a bit weary of "slightly howl-y adenoidal vox".
All three still play with manic energy, though, and their wired-up deportment is definitely their strongest suit. The songs, however, still don't do much for me. That put me firmly in the minority, as there were a lot of people really into it. During "Pen To The Paper" I noticed the couple in front of me singing it to each other in a manner suggesting it was "their song". Clearly this hits in just the right spot for a lot of people, and if I don't get that, I can at least admit it's energetic as hell and fun to bounce along to.