Friday, January 4, 2013

Gig: The Big Sound

The Big Sound

The Great Hall. Friday, July 8, 2011.

Allow me to list some things that I'm not particularly fond of:

  • dance nights
  • crowded places
  • cover bands

It was quite possible, I thought to myself as I entered The Great Hall, that I had headed to the wrong show.

This was then a brand-new venture, launched by Chris Sandes and Aaron Knight and combining an idea from each of one of their projects. Sandes' "Loving In The Name Of" is a large-scale covers night, featuring an all-star band of local musicians playing "the greatest hits of all time". Knight's Shake A Tail DJ night has been filling dancefloors with hits of the '60's for over half a decade. The Big Sound was conceived as a tribute to Motown's "sound of young America" with a night filled with classic sides as well as a big-band live experience.

As is usually the case, The Great Hall was plenty hot when I arrived, and that was just as the place was starting to get well-filled in. Soon, the non-stop cavalcade of hits from Knight had the floor packed in with dancing bodies, and as I was boiling I was beginning to feel claustrophobic and mildly regretful.

Looking around, I was struck by how damn young the crowd was. In my own youthful era of Boomer/Big Chill backlash, Motown was by no means considered all that cool, and I could never have even conceived of going to a night like this. I think it's easier for this generation to get right into it without all that baggage. Which is good, because the music is wonderful.

My disposition improved somewhat when the musicians started quite literally filling up the stage, and I saw a cavalcade of familiar faces. Boasting "seventeen of Toronto's finest musicians" — and that's not counting the vocalists — this was a lineup to deliver a no-shortcut wall of sound. Alongside Sandes, there were several members of the Steamboat axis, including Jay Anderson, Andrew Scott, Mike Smith and Matt McLaren. There were horns (including Jeremy Strachan and Jay Hay, a couple of the city's finest improvisers), a full string section, and Eric Woolston on vibes.

And in front of all of that, the rotating cast of vocalists, each of whom would sing lead on a couple songs and provide backups on the others. Looking for singers with soul, there was a mix of folks from different scenes, with some who were quite familiar to me (Drew Smith, Alex Lukashevsky, Maylee Todd) with some that I didn't know (Tanika Charles, Todd Simmons, Saidah Tali Baba). Charles started the set with "Dancing in the Street", and she was the first revelation of the night — the sort of pure, powerful voice that makes one ask, "how did I not know about this?"

Even familiar faces brought something new to these songs: I knew that Alex Lukashevsky was a nimble vocalist, but I would never have considered him in this context. It turns out that he was perfectly cast here, nailing The Contours' "Just a Little Misunderstanding". Todd Simmons (who also, it appears, performs as Rodd Skimmons) did an ace David Ruffin turn on "Ain't Too Proud to Beg".

Looking over everyone across the stage, I was dumbfounded to think that groups used to do this before proper stage monitors existed. Here, it looked like everyone could hear each other, though it surely helped that the band seemed pretty well rehearsed. I can only imagine that a show like this must have been a real challenge back at the mixing desk. It certainly sounded decent in the hall — at the start, Sandes' keyboards were on top of everything a little bit, but once it was all balanced out it was quite impressive.

The high point was surely seeing Maylee Todd absolutely tearing into "I Want You Back", nailing the youthful Michael Jackson's high notes and bringing down the house. Tanika Charles had another star turn on "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" before an Alex Lukashevsky/Maylee Todd duet on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" to close the superbly-executed forty-minute set.

In the end, the accumulation of things I liked was mostly enough to overcome all the things I didn't. And, at any rate, while it's well-befitting to be generally suspicious about cover bands, that doesn't mean you can't, y'know, make the occasional exception. Hell, I even made it back for another instalment. A roaring success, The Big Sound has become a regular event. the next edition (which will be Volume IX) will be going down at Great Hall on January 25, 2013.

I'd posted a song at the time of the event here, and now there's another one to go with it here.

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