Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gig: Parks Canada Centennial Concert

Parks Canada Centennial Concert (feat. Sweet Thing / Malajube / Apostle of Hustle)

Tower Park East. Saturday, May 21, 2011.

It was the day of the Rapture.

And, all things told, a rather nice day for it. It was the first nicest day of the year, and beyond watching the skies to see who got "called home" it was also well-suited to spending an afternoon celebrating the hundredth anniversary of our national parks system. In fact, Parks Canada had set up a whole mini-jamboree at the foot of the CN Tower and I arrived early to take it in, finding a shady spot under a tree to read my paper as happy children ran around, chasing after people in costumes representing various national parks and historical sites. All told, it was a somewhat curious menagerie, with Anne of Green Gables and Colonel By rubbing elbows with a bison and a jellyfish — it's a land of diversity, folks.

As a giant maple leaf-shaped hot air balloon began to inflate over by the entrance to the Convention Centre, K. dropped by, and we went for a wander to check out the interpretive exhibits (birds! snakes!) and score some Parks Canada swag. Then we headed back to the slice of greenspace nestled along Bremner Boulevard to hang out for the musical portion of the afternoon. The giant stage's open structure overlooked the wall of new condos across the way, an interesting and novel perspective on this quickly-changing part of the city. Parks Canada had spared no expense with a large, festival-style set-up — giant video screen and all — that looked ready to play to a crowd of thousands, rather than the couple hundred folks that were mostly well back from the stage or wandering through the site.

The mershy pop of Sweet Thing was first, and didn't merit close attention. Mostly we people-watched and riffed on who was going to get Raptured — and it was a consensus safe bet that the band, whose "sanitized douchebag" look seemed designed to be slightly dangerous enough to impress tweens and teenagers, would not be amongst the elect. Pumping out bland, prefab pop-rock, they were a little easy to make fun of, but they had an excited row of girls up front who were having a great time. And, giving them credit, after their set, they moved over to the sidestage area and hung out with the fans, sticking around until every last one had gotten facetime and an autograph.

Between sets, we watched the cavalcade of families and kept a close eye on mascot Parka the Beaver. He had giant, dead eyes and was sort of terrifying in that way that mascots usually are when seen close up. The Rapture was scheduled for six o'clock local time, and we tried to guess in which direction the CN Tower would collapse when the giant earthquake came.1

But the show must go on, and Malajube was sort of a perfect choice for a federal initiative like this. I'm rather pleased that the franco-rockers have managed the relatively rare feat of carving out a bit of a niche in the rest of the country, parlaying a jaunty album about diseases (2007's Trompe-l'œil) into Polaris consideration. Follow-up Labyrinthes was a little proggier and less easy to grasp a hold of, but the band had settled into a rather pleasing mix of disco and guitar-boogie on the then-new La Caverne.

"Synesthésie" and "Cro-Magnon", that one's opening one-two punch, provided the set's opening salvo. Live, the disco-isms of "Le blizzard" were toned down a bit from the superb album take, but there was still a groovy underpinning. Getting into the spirit of the day, vocalist Julien Mineau kept a running countdown 'til the Rapture was due, thanking the crowd for choosing to spend their last minutes with the band.

The band dipped back to Trompe-l'œil with the nifty "Pâte filo" and then, as the appointed hour struck, were playing "Montréal -40°C", their best-known song. That would have made for a show-stopping soundtrack to the Rapture, but there were no bodies being lifted to the skies to be seen.

In fact, that might have been a case of peaking too early, as some of the mid-tempo-y stuff after that (like title cut "La caverne" and closer "Sangsues") felt less vital, if not borderline-plodding. But still, at their best, this is a pretty good band to wait out the end of the world with.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Given the lack of post-Rapture chaos, the headlining set from Apostle of Hustle went ahead, although the band's very presence possibly caused its own little wobbles in the space/time continuum. Things had been pretty quiet for the band after the end of the promotional cycle for 2009's Eats Darkness. Despite that hibernation, their presence here made sense based on their participation in the National Parks Project, where the band recorded some "Ancestral Top 40" tracks with Tanya Tagaq in Baffin Island's Sirmilik National Park. That must have been a good experience, for singer/guitarist Andrew Whiteman seemed to be in good spirits and genuinely humbled at being asked to celebrate Parks Canada.

The band was in their latter-day two-man incarnation, with Whiteman joined by percussionist Dean Stone, who switched back and forth from the full kit to the cajón. Given they were outside the album promotion loop, the setlist looked back and forth over the whole of band's history. They led off with "My Sword Hand's Anger" from '07's National Anthem of Nowhere, which also provided a terrific version of "¡Rafaga!", with Stone employing a loopstation to enhance his percussion. They dipped back to debut album Folkloric Feel for "Energy of Death" and "Sleepwalking Ballad".

By way of departures, there was one song that I didn't recognize ("shake those chains on the beach" was the refrain) as well as "Wu", a song given to the Amnesty International compilation Peace, and, so far as I know, the last-released AoH track. With a nifty stereophonic effect on the percussion loop and its "stone cold skin and bones" refrain, it fits in with the top tier of the band's stuff.

It looked like the pair could have keep rolling though songs for quite awhile — Whiteman joked that they had seventy-five songs rehearsed and ready to go — but too quickly they were getting the "last song" signal. They closed with "Xerses", which started slow and easy and built up with increasing velocity to encompass a massive guitar solo before Stone cranked it up even faster, the song ending in a flat-out speed race between the two musicians.

Anticlimactically, here was no Rapture, but whatever was pollinating was getting me sneezing a little. And speaking of not with a bang but a whimper, I don't know if this was a last echo for Apostle of Hustle — I don't see any indication of whether the band is particularly a going concern, or on hiatus, or what have you. Whiteman has been focused lately on his AroarA project, though that has also been keeping a low profile. Regardless, as the evening's cool damp chill chased off the day's warmth, this was a worthy day of celebration.2

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 This, in turn, led me to muse, briefly, on Darren O’Donnell's Your Secrets Sleep With Me.

2 And though I didn't know it at the time, this would also serve as my farewell romp with that underutilized slice of parkland at the foot of the tower, now home to a big concrete hole that is taking shape as Toronto's forthcoming tourist-trap aquarium.

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