Saturday, February 23, 2013

Currente calamo: Wavelength THIRTEEN Festival (Part II)

THIRTEEN: The Wavelength 13th Anniversary Festival (Part II)

While it's all fresh in my mind, a few notes from this year's WL Fest. Notes from the first two nights of the festival can be found here. Longer, more comprehensive reviews will follow down the road a piece.

With four night of fairly diverse sounds on offer, it's good that Wavelength offers some integrating factors to pull the whole thing together. First and foremost of those is Doc Pickles, the series' long-running MC, who hosted all four nights. Although he would modestly claim, in his introductions, to be "setting the bar low" for the bands to follow him, there's a craft and a method to his discourse. Daring to fling associational logic into a cookie-cutter world, there's always a wry humour at play — and, more importantly, a sense of a shared existential awkwardness to be confronted and overcome. Step forward: you are part of this.

Another fundamental WL experience tying things together are the swirling General Chaos visuals, provided by Steve Lindsey. Hand-crafted and carefully selected to enhance the mood of each band, there's a warm analog feeling to the visuals — and if you watch Lindsey's customized projectors spin (and occasionally fail) you can get a sense of what an elaborate juggling act it is. When you come in and see that living painting twisting behind the stage, you know where you are.

Night 3 — Saturday, February 16, 2013

The Great Hall — feat. Bernice/ Doom Squad / Sarah Neufeld / Evening Hymns/ Do Make Say Think)

The Venue: Although it's increasingly becoming a go-to spot for midsize shows, The Great Hall is somewhat divisive among concert-goers. The large, open ceiling imparts a sense of space that you don't get at similarly-sized venues, but it does also affect the sonics. Which is to say, there's probably more variability here than in most venues — move a few steps away from a spot where everything sounds great and you can suddenly be in a murky dead zone. That said, the Great Hall is unfairly maligned in a few quarters — compared to a couple years ago, there's been a fair amount of effort put in to making bands sound good. It also has a rep for somewhat erratic rules — drink prices change from night to night (and from one bar to another!) and sometimes you're allowed to go lounge on the balcony and sometimes not — and when the place gets really packed, the floor can be uncomfortably jammed. Also: the bathrooms are inadequate (and frequently rather dodgy by night's end), one feature that really needs to be updated in this heritage landmark.

Wavelength's night at the Great Hall corresponded with a sudden (and somewhat surprising) snowfall, making surface travel almost impossible. (I ended up walking down from Ossington Station.) That meant the room was a little slow to fill, and for the first part of the evening, there were the powerfully-appealing smells from the pop-up dumpling stand wafting through the room. Balloon creatures — making an encore appearance from last summer's ALL CAPS show — bobbed and floated overhead.

The show: I was sad to have missed the start of Bernice — for me, this was one of the more-anticipated sets at the festival. A vehicle for Robin Dann's songwriting talents, shows were fairly thin on the ground as Dann decamped to England shortly after the 2011 release of what was that. It's an enchanting album, but to a neutral observer the most vivid element might be Thom Gill's smooth production — making it tempting to conclude that he's the man behind the curtain.

Now back on this side of the Atlantic, seeing Dann on stage put her personality front and centre and firmly established that she's the animating force here. Just like her songs, Dann presented a somewhat shy but playful presence — as well as a wonderful voice. She was supported in that department by Felicity Williams, local MVP trophy winner in the backing vocals category, and generally a guarantee that the band on stage is one you should pay attention to.1 They were flanked by Colin Fisher (on mellow wah-wah guitar) and Thom Gill (on keybs and electronics). Gill was actually running a bit of interference here, adding some textured blips and gurgles that lifted the sound from retro softrock to something more subtly contemporary.

But it was the songs and voices that made this a winner. A lot of the set was new material, and it sounded like good stuff. That bodes well for the future of this project, and I'm definitely still eager to hear more from this unit.

Listen to a song from this set here.

When I caught Doom Squad in a church a few months ago, it felt like a somewhat disjunctive spot for the band, given their pagan vibes. The band's music comes with a sense of ritual — the very old rituals of sex and death, where you can enjoy the dancing if you don't peek too closely at what's happening on the altar. It didn't feel like they were totally connecting with the crowd here, although I get the impression that anything less than deep in a forest on a moonlit night is a second-best way to see the band. Their own set of joy-dirges was supplemented by a reinvention of The Doors' "Riders on The Storm" that fit right into their aesthetic while revealing new affinities. It's quite possible that this is the band at the festival that will become most bragged about in a I-saw-them-when sort of way by the very people who were mostly busy ignoring them.

Listen to a song from this set here.

That semi-interested crowd would be a bit of a factor throughout the night. Any time a WL show is headlined by a band with its own non-overlapping fanbase, there's going to be a contingent who come out to treat it as a show by "their" band, with a bunch of other bands they have to suffer through. However, this is as much a feature as a bug on nights like this. Although Wavelength is a celebration of an established community, it's also a proselytizing front to ameliorate people's taste. Which is to say: when a horde of Rock Guys come to see their band, some small number are going to be illuminated about some kind of music they hadn't really cared about before — and they're maybe the most important people at the show.

The downside is a lot of them are going to be less-than-rapt for the music they know nothing about — a slightly awkward context for a solo violin set. That Sarah Neufeld held the crowd as much as she did is a testament to her on-stage presence. Her name value might help as well — "member of Arcade Fire" is a good way to get people to pay attention.2 I'd not checked out her solo material, but I'd heard some mention of loop-based violin composition, so I had shades of, say, Final Fantasy in my mind going in. The first part of the set, however, turned out to be straight-up violin, with no technological props. With Neufeld stomping along on stage, there was a lot of energy in the songs, the music ranging from Celtic-y reels to hints of Bach-style elegance.

The most intriguing material, though, came at the close, when she was joined by unannounced special guests Colin Stetson (on bass sax) and The Magic's Geordie Gordon on keybs. Stetson's contribution here was reminiscent of his own solo work: basically a low droning soundfield to add gravity below Neufeld's ascendant figures. Gordon's synth basically fulfilled the same function — at times the two merged into one another — and that gave a thick fog as Neufeld also added some wordless vocalisations. This was definitely intriguing stuff.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Those same chatterers were mostly content to continue their conversations as Evening Hymns took the stage — problematic as at the start it was just Jonas Bonnetta and Sylvie Smith leading off with a hushed "Arrows". Behind them was a circular screen with an image that I took to be a full moon — though as the music began, there was slow movement on the screen and I realized it was a shot of trees. Jared Raab's projections would mostly stay in the forest, shifting along with the songs — and soon the duo on stage would expand into a full band.

Evening Hymns is always Bonnetta, usually Smith, and otherwise whichever friends are at hand. Here we had some members of The Wooden Sky as well as Shaun Brodie and Mika Posen. Bonnetta commented that they'd be "playing all the classics", and standing on the big stage with the arch rising over his head — and Gavin Gardiner tearing out guitar solos — this felt more like the Opera House in '09 than last summer's album release spectacular. By the end, as the group closed with "Mtn. Song", the visuals were rapidly spinning behind them.

That's all to say this was a retrospective moment for a band now at the cusp of transition and renewal. With Bonnetta publicly retiring some of his more emotionally weighty songs from last year's Spectral Dusk, there's going to be space in the setlist to fill. I'm actually hoping he follows through with hints of a step sideways into "ambient drone material" — that sort of stuff would be perfect at an intimate, sit-down Wavelength night.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Although it was getting late — it was now past one a.m. — there was still a full house waiting for Do Make Say Think. Coming back from a mini-hiatus, this band was also in the mood for a journey through their back catalogue. Just as when I had last seen 'em, the band were in their "original five" configuration, playing without the horns and strings and guests that expand their songs from widescreen to Imax. And though there were a few spots where I could hear the horn section in my head punching the songs into the stratosphere, this was still plenty big, even in this alignment.

With double drummers at the back and multi-tasking musicians up front, there was a lot going on. Ohad Benchetrit, Justin Small and Charles Spearin would each juggle guitars and bass with horns and keyboards, often with the latter at the beginnings of songs before cracking things up for the guitar-rockin' conclusions. Small (who, as always, was the main speaking voice of the band between songs) talked about the importance of the "rock'n'roll nap" before such a late set. He also apologized that none of the band's new material was ready to be played yet, but they made up for that with some deep cuts, including & Yet & Yet closer "Anything for Now" — which they had never done live before — and going all the way back to their debut for "If I Only…". Playing for nearly and hour and a half, I wasn't expecting a set nearly that long, but it was most welcome, even if it meant a late end to the night.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Night 4 — Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Garrison — feat. Cell Memory & Castle If / Legato Vipers / Henri Fabergé & the Adorables / The Magic / Cookie Duster / Dusted

The Venue: Back at the site of the final phase of Wavelength's weekly incarnation, The Garrison feels like home. All the more so, given how ever since its opening, it's been evolving and getting that "lived-in" vibe. Now as much a taco-totin' local hang-out as a place to see a show, the incremental changes to the room — the wall of seats, the new bar at the back — have re-shaped it into a more comfortable space.

The Show: With six bands on the bill, things got started only minutes after the doors opened, with Cell Memory & Castle If taking the stage as early-arrivers were showing up. Though remaining cloaked in mystery, I knew a bit about the band from when I saw them playing in December. Here, though, the duo that I had encountered there were rounded out by a drummer, and that definitely gave more propulsion to the music. Although that shouldn't be mistaken for an undue concern with forward drive — the mode here was sheer motorik drone, and the songs built tension from holding still as much as possible while racing along nowhere Faust. Insistent synth patterns burbled underneath floating clouds of guitar (there was some e-bow action here) — this is the sort of stuff I dig a lot. Jess Forrest's vocals were buried underneath it all, half-comprehensible phrases rendered more mysterious for being delivered in German. That was a propos for this highly expressionist music — I almost expected to see Mabuse lurking back in the shadows somewhere.

In twenty minutes, the band only tackled two long songs. I would have gladly heard more, as this was maybe my favourite set of the festival. Although the band doesn't seem to be eager to share too information about themselves, they are present online, so keep an eye out for future shows.

Listen to a song from this set here.

There was a full one-eighty after that, with the night switching over to full-on party mode. You might not know the members of Legato Vipers by name, but this is a crew of some of the best players in the Guelph/Toronto axis. You might recognize 'em if you've seen, say, Del Bel, Bry Webb, Skeletones Four or Biblical lately. Or, in this case, you might not have noticed them at all, as for this set they were accompanied by The Harlettes, who performed live burlesque routines to the band's surf-rock originals. Using the power of a smile (as well as leaving something to the imagination) the performers each brought their winning personalities (and, um, spinning pasty tassels) for an empowered, sexy spin on the old-fashioned sleaze. This was enormously fun. Oh, right: there was music, too. It was pretty good.

Listen to a song from this set here.

No band could ever contain Henry Fletcher (or, shall we say, his alter ego Henri Fabergé). Even when The Adorables were in full force, there was never really a sense that was going to proceed in the usual manner. There was an album, but after the collective burst that that emerged from dissipated, there were only murmurs. A lot of the players on that went to to renown in their own projects, while Henri Fabergé would emerge in multimedia spectacles dedicated to profiling the details of his fake autobiography.

And here he was, putting the band back together. For most of those assembled on stage, this looked like a gleeful opportunity to have a fun time — in particular, it looked like Laura Barrett and Maylee Todd were having their own private sock hop — but it was a more world-weary Fabergé that came out in his leiderhosen, Mardi Gras chain around his neck and trumpet and canteen near at hand. He sang his songs of unrequited love (and suggested onanistic solutions to same) as the group sing-along spectacle exploded behind him. Eventually, of course, he'd rip off his shirt and dive into the crowd as the band called out, "fuck you, Henri!" — this is just how these things go.

The crazy-quilt of contributors was not a purist representation of the 2006 Adorables line-up (if such a thing could exist anyway). Besides older hands like Dana Snell and Andy Scott I spotted Robin Hatch on keybs and The Wuar Wuars (who are often seen dancing at Maloo shows). The music was a similar hodgepodge, with songs from the Adorables album mixed with more recent pageant pieces. But the sum total was quite exhilarating and rather a success. Word is that there's a new transmedia spectacle in process, so keep an eye out.

Listen to a song from this set here.

That's exactly the sort of spontaneous party that one would expect to break out when The Magic play — but this time out, they couldn't quite match that level of anarchic glee. Although this is a band that can generate a get-your-dance-on spectacle when they want to (such as this summer's album release party that arrived as a full-on Midnight Special tribute) there are signs that the band may be taking tentative steps towards "maturing". There's certainly a deeper appreciation of songcraft from frontman Geordie Gordon, and hints that he wants to produce something a bit more resonant than disco-fied anthems. The band itself has also been in flux — co-vocalist Sylvie Smith, for one, though back in the fold for this show has been busy touring with Evening Hymns and away from the band for awhile. Hitting on both those themes, Andrew Collins (of Skeletones Four) was playing keybs, and injecting some darker tones.

That's not to say that the band is suddenly dour or anything — Geordie Gordon emerged in a cape, after all, over his western shirt. And the songs still have an ebullient spirit. So even if this wasn't the band at their ragged-gold-standard best, it was a fun time, and they remain a band I'd go see pretty much any time.3

Listen to a song from this set here.

The night's star power would come from Cookie Duster's headlining set. Though billed as their live debut, my understanding is that the new/old project from Brendan Canning did actually play a handful of gigs in its original incarnation, before his attention was sidetracked by the success of Broken Social Scene. Rebooting itself with last summer's When Flying Was Easy, they were a six-piece here, with supplemental star power in the form of Change of Heart's Rob Higgins on bass and Matt Murphy on guitar.

Perhaps befitting that old/new dynamic, the band did feel a little out-of-time, as if they were drawing from a set of influences completely out of step with anything else out there right now. There were some hints of early 90's funk rock in there — not, like, at Bootsauce levels or anything — though Big Audio Dynamite came to mind a bit. That was leavened with a spiky power-pop sensibility, and some of the songs wouldn't have sounded completely out-of-place on his Something for All of Us... solo-via-BSS effort. Cutting against that, the best curveballs came with Jeen O'Brien's vocal contributions.

Given that everyone at hand is an old pro, this went pretty smoothly for a first gig. My sensibility, mind you, lies a bit in the other direction — so I wouldn't mind at all if, once this has gelled as a live thing, the band set to scuffing up these songs a little bit more. In any case, one gets the impression that having these musicians bouncing ideas off each other could push this from feeling old/new into something new/new.

Listen to a song from this set here.

The night closed out with a set from "secret guests" Dusted, who had (in a bit of almost-perfect symmetry) played at the pre-festival in-store show a few nights before. Although the band is based on a solid idea — gussying up some of Brian Borcherdt's solo songs into something more sonically adventurous than the regular singer-songwriter fare — I must confess that I didn't particularly "get" the project the first time I saw it live. Backed by Leon Taheny on drums and keybs, Borcherdt's laments (and guitar tone) are swathed in layers of reverb — and if that's pushed too far it can consign everything to pool of sonic mush.

Subsequent samplings — including this set — have kept the ratios correct, and now I see why a lot of folks got excited last year for their Total Dust album. With a fragile smile (but looking like he could be knocked over with a feather), Borcherdt evinces the same weary vulnerability that he essays in his songs, while Taheny adds more subtle textures than could be expected from someone playing two instruments at once. Even after ducking into the backstage area to find a replacement guitar, this was a fine sounding set, its echoing weariness a proper sort of nightcap for the festival.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Overall, a really great festival — you should start planning your next Family Day around FOURTEEN. And Wavelength isn't just a once-a-year thing — besides the upcoming ALL CAPS excursion, the next few WL nights (March 21, March 29, April 16) are already listed.

1 Williams can be seen on stage with Hobson's Choice, THOMAS and Bahamas, and probably umpteen more bands.

2 Though for my money, it's far more interesting to think of her as a member of Bell Orchestre and, more recently, The Luyas.

3 I'll certainly be there when they'll be appearing beside Hooded Fang at The Bicycles' album release party, coming up on April 4, 2013 at Lula Lounge.

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