Monday, November 30, 2009

Recording: Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi

Artist: Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi

Song: Ndakuvara*

Recorded at The Phoenix, November 15, 2009.

Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi - Ndakuvara

My notes for this show can be found here.

* Thanks to Tamuke for passing along the title.

Gig: Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi

Oliver "Tuku" Mtukudzi

The Phoenix. Sunday, November 15, 2009.

Out on a Sunday night to check out a legend. Oliver Mtukudzi — "Tuku" as he's usually known — is one of the superstars of Zimbabwe, performing since 1977 or so when he came onto the scene in a band with the also-legendary Thomas Mapfumo. Truth be told, I didn't really know much about Tuku's music, but that lineage was more than enough to convince me, along with the word that his shows are generally considered to be "events".

Which indeed turned out to be the case. With quote-unquote World Music1 shows you never know what you're going to get. There's always an interesting mix of marketing and diaspora community-word-of-mouth at work where some shows feel more like exoticism pitched at well-heeled CBC listeners. This time, though, the crowd was dominated by members of the local Zimbabwean community, most well-turned-out like they were going to a fancy party. And out to take part — to dance and sing along, to respond loudly to Tuku's imprecations from the stage — not one of those respectful recital-type shows.

By 9:30, the house was pretty full. In lieu of a full warm-up set, we got a few numbers from Tuku's son, Sam Mtukudzi, playing some "slow jamz" on acoustic guit and accompanied by some percussion. He was definitely a nifty guitar player, but the songs didn't set me on fire. The audience was chatty at first, acknowledging him a bit more and starting to sing along when he played an arrangement of one of his father's tunes. While he was still playing, the band took the stage. And then came Oliver Mtukudzi, in a jaunty fedora and white suit, dancing back and forth, greeting the audience. As the band launched into a groove, he gave every sign of being the proud father ("I was in the States to receive an award, and I invited my son to witness this. But there's one thing — I didn't know he was going to steal the show in Toronto."). Sam would stay on to play guitar and the occasional bit of saxophone, complementing the drums-bass-percussion rhythm section.

But the band was very much in support of the man at centre stage. Filled with the restraint of mature self-assuredness, Tuku was magnetic without resorting to dramatics or pandering. A sweet singer with his husky voice and a gifted melodicist — one song had such a massive sing-along hook that it must be right up there in the list of all-time hits of Zimbabwe. And there were plenty like that, songs that everyone around me knew and were singing along to. The dominant quality of Tuku's guitar work is a relaxed gentleness, and many songs stretched out to eight or ten minutes, simmering at a slow boil of smoothly picked guitar.2 And when the band stayed in the pocket like that, there were some pretty fantastic moments. Some of the slower tunes slid into the realm of mushy schmaltz, and behind the language barrier it's harder to make a connection to them. But it's always interesting to be in the presence of a crowd who knows the song intimately, joining in with great emotion, and this helped to keep me interested during those stretches.

But the moments that were excellent and groovy outnumbered the bathetic ballads. Over the course of a long set (twenty minutes for Sam Mtukudzi at the outset and an hour-forty for Tuku before a single song encore) the crowd circulated a fair bit, people pushing up front to dance for a song or two and then retreating. Exhausting, but quite worth it.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 A term I'm trying to get past. The music I usually listen to isn't from the world? Is it still "world music" when it's made by folks who live in my city? Plus, it tends to lump all sorts of utterly unrelated genres together, binding them only by the fact that they come from outside the circle of Western culture. Let us be more specific with our labels, or less — and just call it "music".

2 From what I can fell, Tuku falls into that category of singers who uses a gentle voice and upbeat rhythms to talk about things much darker than his tone would indicate. Such would be the case with "Todii", as pretty and catchy a song as you could ask for, which happens to be about Africa's AIDS crisis.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Recording: The Reveries

Artist: The Reveries

Song: No Ordinary Love (Sade cover)

Recorded at The Music Gallery, November 11, 2009.

The Reveries - No Ordinary Love

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: D-Sisive

Artist: D-Sisive

Song: Brian Wilson

Recorded at The Music Gallery, November 11, 2009.

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Joe Pernice

Artist: Joe Pernice

Song: I'm Not the Loving Kind

Recorded at The Music Gallery, November 11, 2009.

Joe Pernice - I'm Not the Loving Kind

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Songs for Jesse Presley

Songs for Jesse Presley (feat. Joe Pernice, The Reveries, D-Sisive)

The Music Gallery. Wednesday, November 11, 2009.

Not just yr normal night of noise, this one came with a pedigree. In conjunction with Candice Breitz's Same Same exhibition at the Power Plant, the gallery asked Carl Wilson, T.O.'s thinkingest musical enthusiast, to curate this show. Playing off the exhibit's themes of fandom1 in the earlier work and twins in the new Factum, Wilson came up with the notion of a tribute to Jesse Garon Presley, rock'n'roll's original lost twin.2

For this show, Wilson managed to line up three very different artists who all came up with sets playing off the idea of unreal-mirror-others who make us who we are. The trick, of course, with art is that there's always a tension between the "formative influences and alternate selves" that we manage to choose for ourselves and the ones that are impressed upon us beyond all contingencies.

First up on the night was Joe Pernice, making a relatively rare appearance. I'd arrived figuring that Pernice's presence on the bill might draw a nice crowd, given how rarely he has played since relocating to Toronto, a couple recent appearances promoting his new novel notwithstanding. It tuned out to be fairly thin inside St. George's despite having at least three separate crowds to appeal to (the Power Plant art crowd; the Music Gallery crowd; the pop-oriented music fans). Perhaps that overlap turned some people off (too artsy for the music crowd, too music-y for the art crowd) or maybe word just didn't get around enough, but ultimately the event didn't get the turn-out that it deserved.

Regardless, this was an excellent venue to listen to Pernice tell some stories and play a set filled with musical twins, matching up cover songs with ones of his own they had influenced. With a timely nod to Remembrance Day, Pernice led off with a cover of The Zombies' "Butcher's Tale" paired by his own wartime song "Drew Got Shot"; a "Catholic version" of "Greensleeves"3 preceded "The Empty Faith"; and a story about not meeting Jimmy Webb and a cover of "By the Time I Get to Phoenix" was paired with "I'm Not the Loving Kind" and "Easy to Leave". Albert Hammond's "It Never Rains in Southern California" was revealed as a prime musical source for "Somerville". And "C'mon, Get Happy" didn't seem to have any music descendants in Pernice's catalogue, but managed to make it in there somewhere, too. All of the songs in the forty-minute set were played with a sort of gentle sadness, which is Pernice's characteristic existential stance. A treat to get up close and under the hood of the works of a real talent.

Listen to a track from this set here.

After a quick break, a large change of gears, musically, as local hip-hop artist D-Sisive, looking like a young Peter Griffin in a Holden Caulfield hat, took the stage and turned up the volume. Using a series of stories and covers, Derek Christoff built his set around the idea of inspiration. Christoff's relationship with his father, both in youthful friction4 and in the effects of his passing was one kind of inspiration; a few covers reflected on the more direct musical ones. Kudos for acknowledging not only the "cool" formative influences (like Notorious B.I.G. and Slick Rick) but also those skeletons in the closet — after a verse of "Rapper's Delight", D-Sisive flipped the script and threw down some rhymes from Tom Green's pre-fame group Organized Rhyme, the sort of thing that any kid glued to MuchMusic in the early 90's for a window into the hip-hop world would get inadvertently exposed to.5 The set ended with a run through "Ice Ice Baby",6 but the real emotional heart of the set was "Brian Wilson", and Christoff's retelling of how listening to Pet Sounds one day while doing the dishes was the thing that broke him out of a long spell of writer's block.7

Listen to a track from this set here.

The night was closed out by The Reveries, a band whose instrumentation includes ruler-bass, noseflute, and, most prominently, mouth-speaker8. The Reveries play pop in a funhouse mirror, abstracted with a mushmouthed falsetto. Core members Eric Chenaux, Ryan Driver and Doug Tielli were supplemtented by Jean Martin, playing percussion on top of an old suitcase. In the classic jazz style, The Reveries play "standards", using the framework of the songs as the basis for slightly wobbly improvisation. The source material for this show demonstrated their catholic sensibilities, including a bossa nova, a Sade song, and some Willie Nelson. Warped through all of their collective ambigulations, this is the sort of uneasy listening that is definitely an acquired taste — imagine an LP where the instruments were playing at 16 RPM while the vox were at 45 and you sorta get the idea. The music was full of weird tensions, and a couple times I found myself leaning forward in my seat, my eyes trying to spot the gestures that could decode what I was hearing. In that regard, the set was a success. At the wider level whether I liked it, I'm less sure. But that's okay too, not everything has to come to us so easily. After all of the preceding plainspokenness, it was a bit of a shift to the murky waters where the band's skewed sensibilities hinted at a relationship to their influences that was less reflection and more refraction. Between songs, the band even argued amongst themselves whether it was befitting for them to talk about their music at all. A fitting end to the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Much credit is due to Carl Wilson for putting this together. I think the conceptual frame around the music gave everything an extra skin and I left feeling pretty satisfied, keeping half an eye on my shadow because, y'know, sometimes I think that guy is up to something.

1 Such as in "Legend (A Portrait of Bob Marley)", a multi-channel video composited of numerous Jamaican fans singing the same Marley song simultaneously.

2 Twins, of course, are like the sweetest fruit of the mytho-cultural substratum — even if the idea is easily grasped, it's still filled with mystery and is capable of taking on a lot of meaning-beyond-meaning. As children it's easy to fantasize of the other, of the secret evil twin following you around and foiling your plans; as adults it's easy to start worrying that we were the bad twin all along, and that the good, unsullied one is the myth.

3 Or, given the religious undertones, more likely an instrumental runthrough of "What Child Is This?".

4 A story about youthful exposure to Naughty By Nature ("the first rap song that I thought was really rooting for the police") was directly parallelled in song — "My daddy said, 'pull your pants up.' / Did Treach have to pull his pants up?".

5 "I apologise to everyone for knowing the lyrics to 'Check the O.R.'," D-Sisive slightly sheepishly said at the end of the song. No regrets for our youth, I say. Plus, it coulda been worse — he could have dredged up something by Kish.

6 I must confess, I still knew most of the lyrics. Although it's the sort of thing most of us try to kick under the couch of our past selves, I do recall that I bought To The Extreme down at the mall and listened to it with as much earnest enthusiasm as I gave to any other hip-hop album I picked up in 1991. I saw through nothing, and my gullability led me down every road. And now, I'm that much more sophisticated — I'm somehow not being suckered in by all kinds of stuff that's going to look silly with the hindsight of years? Pfft.

7 It's worth noting that D-Sisive's just-released new album Jonestown is being offered for free download, including in FLAC. Insert "drink the kool-aid" joke here.

8 Explaining the mouth-speakers probably warrants quoting at length from their Rat-Drifting bio:

But the real engines of the waking dream that is the Reveries’ music are the mouth speakers. These are small speakers, taken from the earpieces of cellular phones, hung inside their mouths. Every instrument has a contact microphone on it. So, for example, Eric's guitar can be heard coming out of the speaker in Doug's mouth, Doug's guitar or saw can be heard coming out of the speaker in Ryan's mouth, and anything Ryan does with his mouth can be heard coming out of the speaker in Eric's mouth. Because each Reverie is always using his mouth (either to sing or play an instrument), the speaker signal is filtered in a wild array of wah-wah effects caused by the changing shape of their mouth cavity [...]

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Recording: Girls

Artist: Girls

Song: Laura

Recorded at El Mocambo, November 10, 2009.

Girls - Laura

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Real Estate

Artist: Real Estate

Song: Younger Than Yesterday

Recorded at El Mocambo, November 10, 2009.

Real Estate - Younger Than Yesterday

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Girls

Girls (Real Estate)

El Mocambo. Tuesday, November 10, 2009.

Another Tuesday night, another trip to the El Mo to check out an out-of-town band riding on some buzz and good press. Like the last time I was in this situation, I was here as a rubbernecking spectator with no strong opinion going in, not having heard any music by either of the bands on the bill. For a show that I decided to attend fairly casually, it turned out to be rather a hot ticket, a sign reading "100% SOLD OUT" at the door.

Not quite looking sold out as I arrived a little bit before openers Real Estate took the stage. Lots of room to grab a spot in front of the stage and check out the Jersey-based four-piece, fronted by Martin Courtney, wearing a cardigan and looking a bit like the guy who got kicked out of the math club for having drugs in his locker. The band featured a melodic two-guitar sound, featuring both swirling textures and ringing chords on top. Although at a few points their sound also might be encapsulated as "we've got a flanger and we're gonna use it", the haze of that — and no shortage of reverb — never overpowered the songs. The music brought to mind the more psychedelic end of the classic Flying Nun bands, as well as some of Real Estate's compatriots on the Woodsist label, who happen to be on a pretty hot streak right now. And keeping things from getting too heavy, the band mixed in a couple surf-y instrumentals1 that still managed to fit it squarely with the other numbers. I found myself sucked in at the start and rather enraptured by the end — excellent stuff. This is why it's worth showing up for the opening band — despite all the duds and bores, every once in a while, you get to hear something fabulous. Keep your eye out for this lot: with their debut album just out, they already have a follow-up EP on the way. With that much to say, hopefully they'll make it back 'round to these parts sooner rather than later.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Immediately as Real Estate ended, there was a sudden suction-like burst of movement towards the stage, the relative spaciousness in front of quickly filled with the folks who had been arriving while the openers were on. I didn't want to get too squeezed in and let the crowd build up in front of me — obviously the bulk of the people here were more psyched up to see Girls than I was. The project of Christopher Owens — a young man with a tabloid-worthy personal backstory — was here at what might be the hight of his buzz bubble, with significant online plaudits making his debut album (titled, with the same generic consideration given to the band's name, Album) a big deal du moment.

Backed by a basic guit-bass-drums trio and accompanying himself on guitar, the band had a stripped-down sensibility that it applied to some wonderful old rock'n'roll chords borrowed from some of the canon's immortal tunes. Whether this band would be up to putting new wine in these old bottles, though, was no sure thing. Sounding like they had just started playing together (which, it turns out, was the case) the band was tentative and not particularly strong. The musical problems cascaded into a telling lack of stage presence, as at any given moment, all three players up front were usually looking down at their hands, even in the midst of the most straightforward strumming. Owens' frontman presence certainly hasn't yet caught up to his current level of fame, and the spaces between songs were often filled with silence as he tuned his guitar.

The band started off relatively strongly, with "Ghost Mouth" and "Laura" but couldn't really maintain any sort of consistent groove. Let it be noted, mind you, that I was in the minority here — the bulk of the student-y looking crowd were eating this stuff up. "Hellhole Ratrace" came with an insistently ringing guitar part that brought the retro-minded Scots in Glasvegas to mind — but such a comparison also serves to underline the sort of swagger that Girls is without, instead approaching the song with a wounded vulnerability. It then segued into "Morning Light" in as much of a guitar maelstrom as these musicians could muster, a big hit with the crowd.

All told, there was an interesting sort of revivalism in Girls' music playing itself out simultaneously on two tracks: not just the original rock'n'roll/Brill Building/Goffin-King sort of undercarriage, but also simultaneously an 80's Brit vision that looked back on some of those same sources (say, The Cure or Aztec Cameras). "Oh Boy!", a quiet b-side from the album that was played to lead off the encore was fairly winning, but again, just how exciting one might find it is inversely proportional to how many times you've heard that progression before. The real test for Owens will be how much he can transcend musical pastiche and generic lyrical sentiments.

My reaction isn't merely "the emperor has no clothes" — everyone borrows, and Owens is borrowing from some solid sources. He has a decently emotive voice. It's not like there's nothing there. But for my money, it's a bit too much, too soon. Real Estate were the achievers on this night, and it was their CD that I stopped to buy on my way out. Whether Owens gets a fair chance to grow into his talents, however ample they may be, before he's tossed aside for the next dreamy lad with a catchy tune and a backstory remains to be seen.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 One of which was, despite the title "Atlantic City", not a cover.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Recording: The Vic Chesnutt Band

Artist: The Vic Chesnutt Band

Song: Chinaberry Tree

Recorded at Lee's Palace, November 7, 2009.

The Vic Chesnutt Band - Chinaberry Tree

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Clare & The Reasons

Artist: Clare & The Reasons

Song: Wake Up (You Sleepy Head)

Recorded at Lee's Palace, November 7, 2009.

Clare & The Reasons - Wake Up (You Sleepy Head)

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: The Vic Chesnutt Band

The Vic Chesnutt Band (Clare & The Reasons)

Lee's Palace. Saturday, November 7, 2009.

Despite a fairly longstanding (if somewhat wayward) appreciation of Vic Chesnutt, I had never actually seen him playing live.1 I had even missed him touring 2007's Everything I Say, his first collaboration with the Constellation Records crew — including members of the powerful Silver Mt. Zion & Tra-La-La Band — an album whose sweep had impressed me. So when I saw that he was coming through town with that crew (and guitar hero Guy Picciotto as well) I was sure not to miss it.

So, after making my way up from College St. and my earlier gig, found myself in good time at a still-fairly quiet Lee's Palace. As is frequently the case, the seats around the floor were filled with early arrivals, but there weren't too many folks standing around as the openers took the stage.

Making for something of a contrast with the headliner was the bright folk-pop of Clare & the Reasons. The four-piece, under the leadership and silky voice of Clare Muldaur, was lined up standing across the front of the stage, microphones decorated with small trees. The band shifted instruments frequently and with great skill, often switching between two or three during the course of a song. Wearing hand-crafted arrows on their clothing (in celebration of new album Arrow) the band played intricately arranged tunes — it's rather telling that her previosu album'd contained appearances by Sufjan Stevens and Van Dyke Parks. Especially in tracks like the quiet loveliness of "Wake Up (You Sleepy Head)" they brought to mind a more straight-up version of our own beloved Snowblink.

Despite getting a little goofy on the last night of their tour — especially Olivier Manchon, who started the evening insisting that all stage banter be presented in both English and French, and would later veer off into some riffing on Top Gun — the music was pretty and inordinately well-crafted. For all that, though, while I enjoyed the songs and their presentation, I was sort of left with a feeling of, "Well, it's all nice, but..." — which mostly indicates that this isn't the sort of thing I'm likely to rush home to listen to. But nothing to complain about when hearing it presented live so compellingly, and even less so when the band isn't fighting against crowd chatter.

Listen to a track from this set here.

By this time, there was a good-sized crowd on hand, but it was a relaxed, older crowd, comfortable to sit if possible, or hang back otherwise, leaving the floor in front of the stage relatively open and with plenty elbow room for us down front. But sitting down and hanging back certainly don't indicate a lack of intensity, as the band would go on to show. They took the stage eight deep behind Vic Chesnutt, with double bass, violin, keybs and no less than four guitarists — all able to play with great restraint and a powerful feel for dynamics. Even if that seems like a lot of players, there was never any more parts than any given song required — as necessary, instruments would be put down, and players would leave the stage, always leaving the right amount of noise swirling around the cracked voice and guitar up front.

A singular songwriter with a talent for spotting small, evocative details, Chesnutt fits well as a contemporary inheritor of the Southern Gothic tradition. On this night, he opened playing solo, reaching back to '93's Drunk for "Supernatural" — a song that shows his gifts for grounding the fantastical ("out of body experience / I flew around the little room once / on intravenous Demerol / it weren't supernatural") before the band joined in on "Everything I Say" from North Star Deserter — the night's first epic, clocking in at over ten minutes. Suddenly, all of the virtues of this collaboration were in sharp focus, where even the thinnest of melodic frames could be woven into a menacing thrum, surging in several waves of swelling orchestral noise. Then back again to West of Rome for "Sponge", this one getting the full-on widescreen arrangement before arriving at the new album, starting with "Concord Country Jubilee", perhaps the most optimistic track. Though some artists might tend to build up to that, Chesnutt is fine with starting with optimism and getting increasingly harrowing as the night goes on. Continuing with the new material, "Chinaberry Tree" and "Chain" were particularly fantastic, leading up to "You Are Never Alone", another epic, featuring Vic's self-aware meta-commentary in the song's middle ("okay, now how am I going to get out of this solo? There might be an amazing segueway... any second now... nope — I'm going to have to punt, Canadian football-style.")

In fact, Chesnutt — in a rumpled old suit and grey toque, his guitar slung over his shoulder by a tattered length of twine — exhibited an amusing stage presence throughout the night, whether struggling to open a water bottle or pointing out how palace, where he comes from, evidently has a different meaning than hereabouts. The ninety-minute main set ended with "Flirted with You All My Life", a rebuff to Death's unchivalrous advances, presented with jaunty tapped hi-hat rhythm and e-bow grandeur. Chesnutt stayed on for a solo run through "Where Were You" before the band rejoined him to close things out with "Warm". Generally an excellent show throughout, with the idiosyncratic songwriting complemented by a fine balance between measured textures and justified bombast.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 Although, in point of fact, this wasn't the first time I had a ticket to see him. True story. Back a lifetime ago, on a Saturday night in April '99, I was as eager as hell to see Wilco for the first time. Touring a newly-released Summerteeth, they were arguably at the peak of their powers, and were almost certainly my fave band just then. And, as an added bonus, the opener was Vic Chesnutt, getting his quick moment of major-label exposure. I was going to the show with an acquaintance of mine, whom I happened to have a large, undisclosed crush on. She'd invited me over to her place for a couple beers before the show, so I went over and hung out a spell, downing a few Mooseheads. Under the circumstances, I was having a groovy time, and though I was eager to get to the show, I was also fine with prolonging the deliciously angsty and slightly tipsy moment. Eventually, we got on the streetcar and headed down to the show — which was at the Guvernment, of all places — and I figured I'd probably missed the opener by now, but such is the price of a cool time. When we eventually got there, we were surprised to see a crush of people streaming out of the venue. Stopping someone to inquire, we were told that Wilco had just finished — we had managed to miss the entire gig. Disappointing at the time, but looking back after I realize that I ended up seeing several Wilco shows, but never another afternoon with my friend, who I fell out of touch with, and never pressed anything.

If this relates at all to the show at hand, it might be inasmuch as going in, I was vaguely hopeful that Chesnutt might play "Kick My Ass", which'd probably make me think bemusedly of 1999. But he didn't.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Recording: Islands

Artist: Islands

Song: No You Don't

Recorded at Mod Club, November 7, 2009.

Islands - No You Don't

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Gig: Islands

Islands (Gregory Pepper and His Problems / Toro Y Moi)

Mod Club. Saturday, November 7, 2009.

On a Saturday night that I already had a gig to go to, made a last-minute-ish decision to double up on the evening and take in the early-doors Mod Club show. Not that I was overwhelmingly enthused to go see Islands — I'd already not seen 'em once this summer, and for free to boot. In fact, I was almost entirely there for the opener, Jemina Pearl, ex of beloved food fight/zombie beach party rockers Be Your Own Pet.

Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaanyways, long story short, I get there just before the 6:30 starting time, peruse the scene, and get this hinky feeling when three dudes take the stage. Not what I was expecting. When they introduced themselves as Gregory Pepper and His Problems, I was feeling a bit miffed. Not in the most neutral frame of mind to try and enjoy them instead of the opener I was expecting, but their own qualities didn't make that any easier. Billing themselves on their myspace as writing "dumb, catchy songs" I can at least say that's half right. When Eddie Murphy is who you're cribbing lyrics from/paying homage to ("My girl wants to party all the time") then maybe it's time for a re-think. I'm a firm believer in the wisdom of David St. Hubbins' remark about the fine line between clever and stupid1 and this band simply fell on the wrong side. Faux classic rock grandiousity and an "ironic" lyrical sentiment — mostly reminiscent of the sort of band majors tried to market via mersh radio in the middle-late nineties. I could go on in this vein, but I shan't. Best to take a deep breath and move on.

After that, I figured most anything'd seem like a relief. So I tried to put on a brave face for Toro Y Moi, playing a one-man show with laptop and keyb. A 23-year-old out of South Carolina, Chaz did show musical range, building up from swirly loop-pop to dancier stuff, but none of it particularly struck me.

Which left me in a not-particularly-warmed-up state for Islands, with whom I'd gotten pretty severely out of touch with. I'd seen them touring their first album back in '06, opening for Metric2, but the soggy, proggy lump of follow-up Arm's Way had severely turned me off. I'd passingly heard that there'd been a re-think and an essentially new band this time round. So, open mind, deep breath, etc. etc.

Nick Thorburn came out in oversized sunglasses and a silver-spangled cape, playing every inch the conquering space lord from a sci-fi b-movie. He was flanked by a pair of musicians, switching off between guit, bass and keybs who also looked as if their stage wear was inspired by Plan 9 From Outer Space. I squinted, trying to place them, until I realized that they were Geordie and Evan Gordon of The Magic. The band was completed by prodigal drummer Jamie Thompson — not wearing anything that sparkled — making for a full roster on the stage with no small amount of pop savvy. Playing the last show of their tour, the band didn't seem worn out and eager to be done — rather, we got the band in that "smoothly-oiled machine" phase.

The set started with four tracks from Vapours, establishing the new direction, and my immediate reaction was that going glam was a good move for this band. "No You Don’t" was particularly winning. The setlist mixed it up a bit more after that, with Arm's Way's "Creeper" actually fitting in quite nicely. There were a couple from the first album ("Where There's a Will There's a Whalebone" and "Don't Call Me Whitney, Bobby") interspersed among the new stuff. There were some nice textures in play like the Bowie-in-Berlin icy keybs3 of "On Foreigner" — not, it would seem, a discourse about Lou Gramm. Not everything was a smash — Vapours track "Heart Beat" felt like one trip too many to the same well of inspiration, and "The Arm" is still a little too ponderous for my taste. And towards the end, when Thorburn pulled out his falsetto, I blanked out a bit. But rather effective overall. Not surprisingly, "Rough Gem", in its clap-along live finery led off the encore and it all ended — right back at the beginning — with "Swans (Life After Death)".

So, given that I'd come in with pretty low expectations for Islands, I can easily say they were exceeded. Definitely some good stuff amongst the new material and Thorburn had far more stage presence than I remembered. After the disappointment of the opening act switcheroo, I managed at least to leave feeling like the night had scrapped its way back to a draw.4 And out in good time to head the my main gig of the night.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 He asserted that there was one.

2 A show I mostly remember for being stuck behind a sold wall of mean-looking teenage girls who were smoking furiously.

3 Or, possibly inspired by Real Life's "Send Me an Angel", which could be seen as a bit of a Rosetta Stone to decode the sound of much of the new material. Oh man, did my sister ever listen to that song a lot in 1983 — it's branded in my neocortex. And I forgot how hilarious that video was — scarves! electronic drums! maidens in distress! the wolfman! Still — guit solo aside — fabulous track.

4 And just as a postscript, I sent a note to the promoters after the fact and was satisfied with their response — apparently they were as blindsided by the change as anyone else.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Recording: Postcards

Artist: Postcards

Song: unknown*

Recorded at Rancho Relaxo, November 6, 2009.

Postcards - unknown

My notes from this set can be found here.

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

Recording: The Hoa Hoa's

Artist: The Hoa Hoa's

Song: Modern Men*

Recorded at Rancho Relaxo, November 6, 2009.

The Hoa Hoa's - Modern Men

My notes from this set can be found here.

* At the time of this recording, this was untitled and just listed as "New Song". But more recently it's been showing up on setlists with this title.

Recording: Volcano

Artist: Volcano

Song: No Signal In the Valley

Recorded at Rancho Relaxo, November 6, 2009.

Volcano - No Signal In the Valley

My notes from this set can be found here.

Gig: Postcards

Postcards (The Hoa Hoa's / Volcano)

Rancho Relaxo. Friday, November 6, 2009.

Went down to Cinematheque to see Chris Marker's masterful Sans Soleil, a film that I had no means to categorize until it was included in this series on "The Essay Film". Consisting of documentary-style footage accompanying a voice reading a series of letters, the film is, in fact, a meticulous fiction — the mysterious author of the letters read on the screen is a creation of the director, and the vortex of images and text are carefully constructed to decenter any attempts to pin down what the film is actually about. Arguably, it's a deconstruction of how we make and use memory, although I've always thought it also had something to do with examining the boundaries between magic and associative logic.

Having seen the film before1 I was mostly going in to soak in the heady rush of the whole thing. I brought along some Thinking Juice2 to help me maintain my relaxed state of mind. Jean-Paul Gorin, film-maker, scholar, and the originator of the programme was in attendance to introduce the film and talk about it afterwards. Gorin wore a dashing scarf and had a propensity to speak in scaffold-like paragraphs of mounting ideas, only to perpetually undercut himself — shrugging and asking, 'can we really know this is the point?'.

As the closing credits rolled, Gorin stood up in his seat and roared, "I don't want to talk!", mounting the stage and proceeding to discuss the film anyways. Bursting into his monologue, one young gentleman seemed eager to show off his learnin' and match wits with Gorin, asking, "so, the film is a deconstruction of how we make and use memory, right?" And Gorin immediately cut him down, replying, "no, no! If that's all it were, we could have all fucked off five minutes ago." And batting down each subsequent riposte from the guy. After that, when any questioner made some sort of statement as to what the film was about, Gorin would reply with a yes-but-no sort of response, as if the only epistemological geometry appropriate for the film was a spaghetti tangle of Möbius strips being eaten by an Ouroboros. Which isn't to say he was terse or merely contradictory — various enquiries would lead to stories and amusing tangents and, ultimately, his verbal legerdemain probably was the most appropriate way to consider this work. But when one woman near the back prefaced her question by praising Gorin to the skies, he looked over to where his testy interlocutor had been sitting — he and his companion had fled a couple questions after his smackdown — and muttered, sotto voce, "motherfucker left already." It was vaguely weird, mildly awkward and immensely entertaining.

After this rhizomatic mindbender, I hit the street, unsure of what I was going to do with myself. All things considered, I hadn't particularly planned on heading to a gig — I'd been mildly sleepy and there was nothing fully demanding my attendance. But I was filled with a sort of undemanding mindfulness, everything under the streetlights vibrating and seeming-to-be a bit more than usual. I walked over to Spadina and up, wondering if I should hop on streetcar and just go home when I spotted a Lucky Cat inside a restaurant window wink at me. What the hell, I figured, why not some rock'n'roll?3

So, I made over to Rancho and up the stairs with just a few minutes to spare before things got underway. Enough time to grab a drink and introduce myself to Bobby B., consistently astute observer of things musical, who also happened to have slipped The Hoa Hoa's on his Hottest Canadian Bands ballot.

Soon enough openers Volcano took the stage. This relatively-new local foursome played a short set of swelling, somewhat psychedelic slowburners. The band possessed the assuredness to let the songs unspool at an unhurried pace — two of their five songs stretching over six minutes4 — and to let the tension build without resorting to over-the-top freak-outs. Given that sonic attitude, some might say that the band's name has been misgiven, as one thing they don't do is erupt. But volcanoes (and Volcano) do rumble a lot, and you'd best keep one one on 'em, just in case they do explode.

Listen to a track from this set here.

It's possible that at some point familiarity will begin to breed discontent, but for the moment I have experienced no diminishing returns with frequent exposure to The Hoa Hoa's. Perhaps helped by the fact that they just seem to cause a happening whenever they play — as they took the stage a fairly quiet room was suddenly brought to life with friends and fellow members of the Optical Sounds family suddenly filling the floor. The set opened with "Hey Joe" — not that one, an original5 — followed by "Thinking About Today", a cover by Nederbeat cult heroes The Outsiders, and a rocking run through new album opener "Postcards". The band was playing so powerfully that it seemed for a moment like they might overwhelm the room's sound system, the song ending with a cloud of static-y crackling emerging from the speakers. The set even ended with a new one playing a bit against type with a crafty death disco keyb part from Richard Gibson — and ended with a flat-out rocking version of frequent set-closer "Blue Acid Gumball" in the vein of what fans of The Clean might recognize as "the speedfreak sound". Speaking of rhizomatic mindbenders, The Hoa Hoa's are fully capable of altering your perception on any given night. The band are celebrating the release of their new album on Friday, December 4 at The Silver Dollar, and it is most assuredly not to be missed.6

Listen to a track from this set here.

Though that was pretty much everything I'd come out for, decided to stick around to check out Montréal's Postcards. The four-piece played a lean sort of reverb-heavy rock bringing to mind a sort of northern British '80's feel. After the fullness of the previous set's sound, it took a bit of a perceptual shift to adjust to the spare thinness that the Postcards were working within — like going from lush Technicolor to overexposed black-and-white. After a few songs I started to think there was something here that I just wasn't getting, although I appeared to be in the minority — Lee from The Hoa Hoa's, for example, was joyfully shuffling around the room, grooving to the sounds. Eventually I managed to get into them a bit and dig a few of their songs. I think it helped that the band managed to gain a bit of strength as they went along, moving forward from the plodding plunk-plunk-plunk with which they begun their set. Plus there was some undeniable tunefulness at play. Not a slam-dunk of a set, but I'd say it ended up on the positive side of the ledger.

Listen to a track from this set here.

There was one more band on the night's line-up — local crew Easy Targets — but I was feeling about done and decided to head out before I started getting too sleepy. But all told, a very fine lineup.

1 The Toronto Public Library has the Criterion DVD. I highly recommend it.

2 Let's just say — purely theoretically, just for the sake of argument — that the main ingredients were Orangina and Southern Comfort. Just to give a f'rinstance.

3 Oh, hey — speaking of crazy rock'n'roll times down at the Cinematheque, I note that there's a free screening of Guy Debord's In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni on Thursday, December 5. If you're like me, you might've heard of this flick from Greil Marcus' essential rock tome Lipstick Traces. Otherwise, might be worth it for anyone with an interest in Situationism, contemporary French social theory, palindromes, or crazy experimental movies. I'll see you there, I'm sure — B.Y.O.T.J. (bring yr own Thinking Juice).

4 And it's no slight against Chris Hobson's vox and lyrics to say that the highlight of the set was an instrumental where he exchanged guit for keybs and just let things roll along for a good few minutes.

5 Conceptually at least, this would go well on a mixtape next to Girls' recent "Lust For Life".

6 I got my mitts on a copy of Pop/Drone/Pedals and it's pretty fabulous stuff, so all the more reason to head down and grab a copy.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Recording: Dog Day

Artist: Dog Day

Song: Neighbours

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, November 5, 2009.

Dog Day - Neighbours

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: Immaculate Machine

Artist: Immaculate Machine

Song: Only Love You For Your Car

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, November 5, 2009.

Immaculate Machine - Only Love You For Your Car

My notes for this set can be found here.

Recording: The Balconies

Artist: The Balconies

Song: 300 Pages

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, November 5, 2009.

The Balconies - 300 Pages

My notes for this set can be found here.

Gig: Dog Day

Dog Day / Immaculate Machine / The Balconies

The Horseshoe Tavern. Thursday, November 5, 2009.

Sometimes, you're interested in seeing a band live, but not quite interested enough to go see them. But when you throw a couple bands like together at once, it might be enough to tip the balance. As far as I could tell, Dog Day and Immaculate Machine weren't actually on tour together so much as they both happened to hit T.O. on the same night, and while I've been casually interested in both for awhile, I'd never investigated either too closely. So, a good opportunity.

Plus, truth be told, I was also here as much as anything to check out openers The Balconies (via Ottawa, now local) who have been accumulating some statospheric word-of-mouth over the past few months. Fairly warranted, as it would turn out — this new-wave trio gives the impression of being quite good now and of being on the cusp of more. With two lead vocalists in Jacquie Neville (guit) and Stephen Neville (bass), they sometimes sounded a bit like two separate bands, although perpendicularly complementary ones. Each vocalist approached a distinctly '80's vibe from a different direction: Jacquie a bit more pop, Stephen more college rock — kinda a "you put chocolate in my peanut butter!" admixture of Laura Branigan and The dB's.1 Both are capable singers, although Jacquie has the more immediately compelling vox.2 But when they put their voices together, such as on "Lulu", interesting things started to happen.

The set started with an almost-unaccompanied vocal from Jacquie before the twitchy, new-wave beat kicked in. She turned out be a rather crafty guit player, sometimes sounding like a more user-friendly Keith Levine, while Stephen played a fluid bass, sometimes verging on the too-funky. But their various combinations of smoothness and grit plus their dedication to catchy bite-sized tunes serves them well, and they managed a quickly-moving, dud-free forty minute set. A band to keep your eye out for.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Even without the Kathryn Calder connection, it's pretty tempting to compare Immaculate Machine to The New Pornographers. Both could be described as left-coast bands under the leadership of a singer with penchant for complicating 70's AM pop and a belief in female backing vocals as an all-powerful curative. And while it might be unfair at some level to compare Brooke Gallupe to Carl Newman, given that each is pursuing a different sort of vision, a casual listener trying to decide what is worth listening to might simply shrug his shoulders and conclude that Gallupe is no Carl Newman.

This is admittedly, more or less where I had stood with this band, having sampled '07's Fables album and not having found it especially memorable. But I was certainly willing to see what they could bring live.3 They opened with a trio from this year's High on Jackson Hill, which formed the core of the setlist — "Only Love You for Your Car" being particularly appealing. "C'mon Sea Legs" hit that sweet point of perfect backing vox, suggesting that maybe I should give Fables another spin. The quiet "And it Was" was followed up by the disco-beat of "Sound the Alarms", showing the range of sounds that can comfortably exist under their umbrella. Gallupe was also a fine banterer, recounting stories about living in Victoria and visiting an apartment in Hamburg that The Beatles lived in. Not every song did it for me, but I found some more respect for the band than I had coming in.

Listen to a track from this set here.

I must confess: I have an ongoing problem where I'll often intractably confuse and conflate pairs of bands that I first hear about at roughly at the same time, even if they have roughly nothing to do with each other.4 So, for a couple years, I kept getting Dog Day mixed up with Two Hours Traffic, despite the fact that, east-coat origins aside, they have nothing to do with each other. And the fact that I've found Two Hours Traffic to be vaguely pleasant but not worth thinking about meant that I'd also dismissed his Halifax combo without particularly meaning to. Anyways, once I managed to recognize that the aggressive post-punk band that people were praising was, in fact, Dog Day, I made a mental note I wanted to check 'em out.

The four-piece offers a strong visual counterpoint as its focus, with the lanky guitarist/vocalist Seth Smith bouncing lines off pint-sized bassist Nancy Urich, who was a compelling musical foil throughout. Their musical styles mirrored their appearance, with her plucky, tenacious basslines nudging along Smith's guitar work. Underneath it all was Crystal Thili's keybs, never drawing attention to themselves, but keeping everything grounded. The band also had a new drummer in tow, propelling the songs forward with an unfussy, hard-hitting rhythmical sense.

One song brought to mind Eric's Trip, or, perhaps, even more, Rick White's Elevator work before it got all psychedelic — which made sense when at the end of the track Smith commented that it was from a new EP that had, in fact, been produced by White. But that sort of animated/sluggish post-punk is where the band was pitching itself. The band was apparently largely doing material from their new album Concentration, which seems to be less well-loved by some of the more longstanding fans in attendance — "Love Makes It Mad" from their first EP drew the loudest cheers of the night, and afterwards, I heard some guys on their way out lamenting beloved older tunes left unplayed. Myself, I have no basis of comparison, but I like what I heard. The main set ended with Smith and Urich grinding guit and bass together in a string-on-string shoving match before the band came out for one last one, explaining that they couldn't fill most of the requests for old stuff, as the new line-up only had so many songs down. Forty-five minutes that didn't blow my mind but certainly left me with the impression that this was the sort of thing I like.

Listen to a track from this set here.

1 It's hard to know if the kids today — who have had access to monumental amounts of music that I never could have imagined coming into contact with at that age — actually did come into contact with the things I'm hearing, or if it's something else, or if they just came into it independently.

2 Drummer Liam Jaeger also offered some credible vox, offering plenty opportunities for some inneresting vocal layering.

3 In a revealing sign of the times that we live in, the members of the band were spotted passing around a bottle of hand sanitizer between setting up their gear and starting their set. Which actually makes enormous sense — pandemic worries aside, can you think of many working environments that are filthier and more pawed by gawd-knows-who than a bar's concert stage?

4 Privately, I think of this as the Shout Out Out Out/You Say party! We Say Die! dilemma, as no matter what I do, I keep getting those two bands mixed up. At any given time, I'm often unable to even remember the name of one or the other, so I can't even clearly express who I'm mixing them up with.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Recording: Give Us The Daggers

Artist: Give Us The Daggers

Song: unknown*

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, November 3, 2009.

Give Us The Daggers - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

* The straightforward guess here would be that this one is called "False Hope". Can anybody confirm that?

Recording: Ume

Artist: Ume

Song: unknown*

Recorded at The Horseshoe Tavern, November 3, 2009.

Ume - unknown

My notes for this set can be found here.

* I picked up both the album and the new EP at the show but haven't tackled 'em yet. Can anyone help out with the title to this one?

Gig: Ume

Ume (Patrick Lee / Give Us the Daggers)

The Horseshoe. Tuesday, November 3, 2009.

I'm not a regular denizen at the free Tuesday night shows at The 'Shoe — really, I only tend to end up there on "special" nights where a bigger-than-usual special guest shows up. The billing is usually sort of a mixed bag of diverse up-and-comers, thrown together without undue consideration for thematic unity, so you can either plan just to show up for the band you're interested in and not worry so much about missing out on something, or you can show up early and see if something randomly takes you by surprise.

I didn't have anything particularly interesting going on, so I figured I'd take the latter course, getting to a quiet venue an hour before I needed to. Patrick Lee, a NY songwriter and, apparently, frontman of The Scaters (pronounced "scatters") came on stage a bit after I'd arrived on the scene. No clue who he was, but I was willing to listen up. Playing solo acoustic with his stripped-down lyrical sentiments, I thought maybe at first Lee was going in a Johnathon Richman sort of direction. But there was a weird tang to his music. "This is sort of an alternative dance, but with a bluesy feel to it," he said, introducing his second song. "It's called 'Rhythm of Life'". Uh oh. When he sang, "Get up to your feet / let's dance to the beat", I started to become convinced that this was some sort of conceptual put-on, that he was making some sort of meta-commentary about trite lyrics and the pop process. So I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And waiting. After the song about dancing and some awkward attempts at ingratiating banter, we got one about partying ("party, party / let's party") and it clicked in my head: maybe this guy isn't sending up trite music — he's trying to break into the trite mersh market. Which he later confirmed, saying, "the next song is a hit in my hometown, and I just brought it to CHUM-FM. It's called 'Love Will Lead the Way'" which was about as substantive as the title indicated ("Love will lead the way / back home to you"). Really not my cup of tea, and even at the end I was sorta looking over my shoulder if we were all somehow being punk'd.

When I saw Ume at NXNE, I noted that I'd love to see them in a room with a more powerful sound system than at Neutral Lounge. So it was most pleasing to see them listed for this gig at the 'Shoe, and for free when I'd've been willing to shell out. Although it had been pretty dead in there from when I arrived, like clockwork it suddenly filled in pretty well at 10:45 with the band due to hit the stage. Out promoting the domestic release of their major-label distributed Sunshower EP, the Austin-based trio brought their store of Sonic Youth-y shredders to an enthusiastic crowd. Vocalist/guitarist Lauren Langer Larson is the focal point here, with her phenomenal fretwork imparted with flying-hair physicality. The rhythm section of Eric Larson and Jeff Barrera do a fabulous job of creating the solid ground for the guitar heroics, though they tend to keep a bit too much out of the limelight, remaining quiet between songs while guitars are being exchanged and so on. But while the music is playing, this is totally engaging stuff, with the right balance of hooks and abrasive energy. Patiently building up their profile, there should be a tidy crowd out when Ume get back for a gig where the locals'll have to actually have to buy a ticket just to see 'em.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Tipped to the possibility of some high-quality freeness, K.'d dropped by to see Ume and was now settled in to hang out as local combo Give Us The Daggers got set up. Having some company, I decided to stick around. The beer bottle holder on the bassist's microphone stand was the first indication of where the band was coming from, and when they took the stage with leather and snarls, there was no doubt that they were trying to impart the idea that they're streetwalking cheetahs with hearts full of napalm. The band appears to have crawled, spitting and snarling like rangy tomcats, from the evolutionary sludge that has given us the distinguished rock'n'roll lineage stretching from Brian Jones to Johnny Thunders. So — arguably not concerned with pushing the envelope so much as facilitating a scuzzy good time. True to their forefathers, the band started off loose but under control and managed to unwind like a drunk with a yoyo, ending their set in semi-shambolic fashion. As all of this might indicate, the band was rather entertaining — some of the tunes were decent, too, though they didn't stick with me as much as the attitude.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Recording: Noah and the Whale

Artist: Noah and the Whale

Song: Love of an Orchestra

Recorded at Criminal Records, October 31, 2009.

Noah and the Whale - Love of an Orchestra

My notes for this show can be found here.

In-store: Noah and the Whale

Noah and the Whale

Criminal Records. Saturday, October 31, 2009.

Turned onto Queen Street just a few minutes before the noon start time for this one to find a small queue outside Criminal Records, the doors still closed and the tour bus looming parallel along the curb. So wait for a few minutes, listening to the young women behind me in the line arguing back and forth whether or not the one of them had said last summer that the first Noah and the Whale album was one of her favourites, of, like, ever. Not a dilemma for myself — truth be told, I'd not heard any of their music, and was here on spec. Well, that, plus it was more or less a side-stop on the way to an early matinée, otherwise I'd probably not have bothered.

A bit past the top of the hour, the door opened and the crowd filed in — a good sized showing, filling the space up pretty well. Once the five players had filed in from their bus, we were all urged to sit down to allow everyone a view — which was quite fine by me and ultimately fit the vibe. The band looked a little groggy, but that seemed to fit, too, with leader Charlie Fink singing, "this is a song for anyone who can't get out of bed," on their opener "Blue Skies"1 — and making it feel immediately autobiographical. Gentle, goes-down-easy folk-pop with a heaping side order of mope seemed to be their m.o., and it was all pleasant enough. Don't know how much louder and rougher they bring it when rocking out, but for this appearance they came across like a band that the girls could take home to mother.

Four songs in twenty minutes, and they did manage to build up a bit of a head of steam by "Love of an Orchestra", the final selection. "Are any of you guys coming to the show tonight?" Fink asked, and a few clapped, though certainly a goodly proportion of this crowd wouldn't be of age for it. Myself, I didn't depart feeling like I'd be missing something be being elsewhere on the evening, but it was a pleasant-enough early afternoon diversion.

Listen to a track from this performance here.

1 Um, an original — not related to the Irving Berlin number.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Recording: Cro-Mags

Artist: Cro-Mags

Song: We Gotta Know

Recorded at Kathedral, October 30, 2009.

Cro-Mags - We Gotta Know

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: Fucked Up

Artist: Fucked Up

Song: Crusades

Recorded at Kathedral, October 30, 2009.

Fucked Up - Crusades

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Recording: Rampage

Artist: Rampage

Song: Culminate

Recorded at Kathedral, October 30, 2009.

Rampage - Culminate

My notes for this gig can be found here.

Gig: Fucked Up / Cro-Mags

Fucked Up / Cro-Mags (Rampage / Waste Management / Rival Mob / Mind Eraser)

Kathedral. Friday, October 30, 2009.

I am not, as the expression goes, punk as fuck.1 Even though I once owned a Black Flag t-shirt in my youthful days, I wasn't fooling anybody. Which isn't to say I haven't dug my share of the music in my time, but I've never really had the stance down.

But regardless, even if it ain't where my headspace is so much any more, I was pulled in towards Fucked Up. Admirable citizens of the city's music scene, for me the tipping point came with The Chemistry of Common Life, which did some work expanding what could be a monotonous sound and sorta meeting the non-punks halfway. I saw them live for the first time last year during their annual Halloween weekend when they programmed an "alternative" night, with the likes of Katie Stelmanis, Vivian Girls and Final Fantasy playing. And seeing them live is certainly a powerful convincer, what with a charismatic frontman, pummelling drums, howling guitars and a crowd getting all frenzified in the process.

This year, Halloween fell on a weekend, and throughout the city it looked like people were seizing the opportunity to get as much wear out of their costumes as possible. On a Friday night, plenty folks dressed up on the subway, and extra-long lines of celebrants waiting to get into the LCBO.2 At the gig, more than a few people turned in costume, not least of all Gumby, who was seen throwing himself around in the pit.3 A good night for this show, then, given that Halloween is arguably the quintessential punk holiday, what with that well-worn critique — that society forces us to wear masks to hide our authentic selves — put on living display.4

This was also my first time in Kathedral, though I've taken in shows upstairs at Reverb, which isn't such a bad spot to see a gig. The lower level, though — dive. And not in that "beloved dive" sort of sense that I accord to several of my favoured venues. Just kind of an awkward setup overall, with the stage lumped into one corner behind a couple pillars, really cutting down on the sightlines. And then there was also a sort of unusual antechamber outside the bathrooms, a physically separated space that's not totally practical. Oh well. I'm sure there are plenty folks who have many fond memories of meaningful gigs in this dump, and on this night the crowd seemed happy to be here. It was a pretty mixed crowd — an all-ages show with a large contingent of younger folks, but also a respectable showing of those old enough to be their parents, still wearing the leather jackets. And it was nice to see the DIY economy was in full swing, from stacks of cassettes at the merch tables, to a booth selling cupcakes, to dudes hawking old-fashioned looking photocopied zines.

Given that there was a long list of bands on the bill that I was unfamiliar with, I elected to show up partway through and see if anything impressed me. I arrived with a band finishing up onstage, followed by an announcement that while the out-of-town bands — apparently we were to be treated to a contingent from Boston — had cleared the border, they were still en route, so hang tight. A bit of time to kill.

When they did hit the spot, the first of them humped their gear on stage and was ready to go in pretty short order. It turned out to be Rampage (who were not listed on the bill), launching into what would turn out to be a nine-minute, five song set. The crowd, perhaps a bit pent up from the wait, were quickly moshing intently. I was standing right in front of the sound booth, vaguely worried about bodies caroming off me, but I had a couple rows of buffer. I was sort of surveying to see if this'd be a safe vantage point by the time Fucked Up came on, and it occurred to me if it was this hot and crowded now, it's only be getting moreso. Meanwhile, the band was cranking out rapid-fire hardcore bursts — nothing fancy about it, but very well executed. That it was over so quickly surprised me, but it meant the band made a pretty sharp impact, and were perhaps the most exciting of the bands on the undercard.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Figuring I wanted a bit more of a buffer zone, I surveyed my options and found myself a spot behind the soundboard. There was a railing to lean against and a much less claustrophobic vibe. The view wasn't great — there was a metal grill in front of the soundbooth protecting it from the crowd — but that seemed like a fair trade-off for staking out what should theoretically be the room's sonic sweet spot. So I was settled in for Waste Management, who played a relatively protracted set — eight songs over fourteen minutes. Musically, they were fast as hell and tight enough to handle it — it's trite to note that hardcore requires chops beyond those of the slower/sloppier genres, just to be able to navigate the velocity of the changes. For this lot, the vocalist was more in the high-pitched/screamy mode — not unlike Grover spazzing out — which is less to my taste. But still with a real kick to it, and one called "Get Your Mind Right" worked pretty well.

Standing behind the board also gave me an additional bit of entertainment in watching the sound guy at work. A slightly grizzled sort, he seemed as interested in chugging energy drinks and flipping through the Sun as he was in tweaking the levels — in fact, for a lot of the night, the vox were running pretty hot, and starting to clip in the house system. He'd also chat with the bouncers or acquaintances as they passed by, and, on occasion, if he had a bon mot to share, would lean over to speak to me. That helped to pass the time while Rival Mob played. Actually, there wasn't too much wrong with 'em, they just caught my fancy a bit less. The singer had a propensity to slow down to a Danzig-like croon and the band sometimes fell into uninspired "rawk" tropes, which was less exciting than when the pace picked up, although both poles were present in most of their songs. Playing for almost twenty-five minutes, this felt a bit bloated compared to the preceding bands.

Mind Eraser, which some overlapping personnel from Rival Mob, was working in a pretty similar terrain. A bit more of a grind in their vibe, I guess. With things running almost a half-hour late, the soundman was starting to get a bit cranky, especially as the band decided several times to just do one more song — "oh, yeah, we have time for this, I tell ya..." he started muttering. When the guitarist blew out an amp, leading to a delay ,the soundman was even less enamoured. Meanwhile, describing an upcoming release, the singer noted, "it all sounds the same — a lot of you guys are singin' along to the new songs, and I don't even have lyrics for them yet! I'm just going, 'hurrrgh'" — something that I've often suspected of bands of this ilk.

And then, just before 11:30, Fucked Up took the stage, launching into a blaring instrumental before tearing into a epic song lasting about six minutes, revealing one of their core strengths: the ability to find a groove and stay in the pocket — albeit a rather aggressive one. Their ability to tamper with hardcore's formalities without reducing the music's intensity is their strength, giving them the ability to appeal both to their own constituency (the crowd moshing up a storm, shouting the lyrics to "Generation") as well as musical curiosity-seekers from other realms such as myself. Taking a breather between songs, vocalist Damian Abraham took a few potshots at Metric, whose name had appeared, in jest, on the posters for the weekend's festival, continuing the simmering beef bandied back and forth since the aftermath of F.U. winning the Polaris Prize.5 But that was a sideshow to the intense music, members of the crowd climbing up to shout a line into the microphone before stagediving back, occasionally being slung over Abraham's shoulder as if he were demonstrating a proper fireman's carry. Some fabulous stuff, including "Crusades"6 and "Baiting the Public". Forty powerful minutes, including a bulldozing, no-pause trio to end the set. Fairly invigorating stuff.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Taking the stage to the Clockwork Orange theme, the hardcore O.G.'s of Cro-Mags launched into "We Gotta Know", sending the crowd, if not towards ultraviolence, than at least vibrating like they were on the old Vellocet. Tight, fast and lean — if Fucked Up are remarkable for stretching the boundaries of their genre, than Cro-Mags were more admirable for the purity and strength of their vision. Pure, unadulterated stuff from a lineup made up of original members under the leadership of John Joseph — these guys have been doing this for twenty-five years. One might guess were it any other band blowing them off the stage, Fucked Up would feel shown up — as it were, watching from the side of the stage, they seemed as delighted as everyone else in the room. As a sign of their chops, Cro-Mags tossed off a Bad Brains cover — surely something that less-talented units cannot pull off with any credibility. Intense, and a real eye-opener. By the time the band ended their encore with "Hard Times" I was drained, but totally impressed. I can only imagine how powerful it must've been for those right up front. All told, quite a night. Not what I'd want to go out and see every weekend, but a good reminder.

Listen to a track from this set here.

Special thanks to Ben, who had enjoyed The Bitters recordings I'd passed on to him and had graciously offered to get me into a Fucked Up show.

1 And what, by the way, is actually the scale here? Does it work its way down the ranks of swears, so like "punk as shit" would be next, and so on? In which case, I'd arguably be, say, "punk as shucks".

2 On the way to the show, I happened to duck into Refried Beats, the used music store just over by Yonge/Wellesley. I was flipping through the stock when this desheveled, vagrant-y guy came, music blasting on his headphones and muttering to himself incomprehensibly. Although at first I'd thought he'd just randomly entered the store, he made his way over to the shelves of CD's and started flipping through them. On the other side of the aisle and down a ways from him, the only lucid words I could hear him say in his monologue were, "arble grumble rock'n'roll mumble." After a bit, he pulled something from the shelf, took it to the counter and paid for it, taking the trouble to put his new disc right in his player to accompany him on his way out.

With a couple selections of my own in hand, when I got up to the counter I said to clerk, "I gotta ask — what did that guy buy?"

"Judas Priest," the clerk informed me, which seemed to fit pretty perfectly. The clerk added that the dude was a regular there and a nice guy, despite the poor hygene, muttering, occasional burts of loud swearing etc.

As I exited, I was thinking to myself that I was glad the answer was Judas Priest. Had the clerk said the guy'd bought some Velvets or Feelies or whatnot, I think I would have had one of those disquieting momements where I feel like I'm looking at a future version of myself.

3 Later in the evening, I overheard one of the bouncers chatting with the soundman of some unidentified patron: "Yeah, we had to kick him out — he tried to beat up Gumby!"

4 "I see a lot of hardcore kid costumes," one singer noted, surveying the crowd — no-one is beyond the reach of bad faith in the punk critique.

5 It was instructive to observe some of the reactions when F.U. took the Polaris, one common response from more middle-of-the-road indie types being something like, "sure, they're good at what they do, but it's such a niche genre, they can't ever really grow their audience." It strikes me that anyone (least of all the usually more obscure-than-thou indie rock crowd) saying some other band only has a "niche" appeal is the musical equivalent of calling someone else's political agenda a "special interest". That is, a socially polite way of hanging the "Other" tag on the elements that are Not Like You. It's a conversation ender that says, "we're right and normal, they're weird and not worth talking to."

6 Whose lyrics, should you ever sit down with them, might require some time with the OED to unlock: "Alloyed in a void, I am torn, I am born/ Crusades / Ruderal roots tulleric shoots in cahoots / Making life out of death chthonic breath meristem [...]" showing that Abraham, well-known as a pretty bright customer, isn't just going 'hurrrgh' and making up his lyrics as he goes along.