Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gig: CMW 2010 (Saturday)

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

Saturday, March 13, 2010.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to a track from this set here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to a track from this set here.

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

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

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

Listen to a track from this set here.

Midnight: Black Feelings @ Comfort Zone

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

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

Listen to a track from this set here.

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

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

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

Listen to a track from this set here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 comment:

  1. Excellent coverage as usual my friend. And I gotta say that I'm glad that you went with the Meathead comparison for that Black Feelings bassist. Too funny.