Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Currente calamo: Wavelength THIRTEEN Festival (Part I)

THIRTEEN: The Wavelength 13th Anniversary Festival

While it's all fresh in my mind, a few notes from this year's WL Fest. Longer, more comprehensive reviews will follow down the road a piece.

So — what is Wavelength at thirteen? Easy cracks about the venerable concert series entering its awkward teenage years notwithstanding, the main theme that was evident from this year's anniversary celebrations was of an organization with a mature self-confidence. In its post-weekly-series incarnation, the collective has definitely found certainty in a new organizational principle that is based around the tentpoles of the February festival and summer ALL CAPS excursion. With the assurance that they know the ins and outs of running a multi-night festival, there was a general feeling that everything was running smoothly, meaning that instead of behind-the-scenes drama and worry, the element of chance and risk was left to the artists on stage.

Another thing that really sets the festival apart is its ability to not only showcase bands that are still new and unheralded, but reach back to some of the previously-unheralded success stories that played WL in their formative years and are willing to keep coming back. That meant that veteran bands (like, say, Do Make Say Think, who recently played The Opera House) could serve as a drawing card to get a new audience in front of the emerging groups — and both could radiate a palpable sense of joy at being part of the WL experience. Given how this was a success in terms of programming, execution, affordability and accessibility, this WL festival was also a challenge for other music presenters in the city to raise their game.

Night 1 — Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Shop under Parts + Labour — feat. Slow-Pitch / This Mess / Fresh Snow / Ell V Gore / Lullabye Arkestra

The Venue: Parkdale's Parts + Labour is about the furthest afield that many regular show-goers can be cajoled to get out to — and some avoid it for reasons beyond its location at the western fringes of coolness. The low-ceilinged basement space can set off feelings of claustrophobia, especially when it gets packed. It also has a rep for less-than-high-fidelity sound, and indeed, it's at its best when playing host to rough-and-ready DIY'ers with a naturally scrappy sort of sound. Last fall's renovations to the room (flipping the bar to the opposite long wall) have actually done a lot to improve the flow of the space, but you'll never mistake being there with the feeling of, say, wandering through an open meadow. But sometimes you want to experience the opposite of wandering through an open meadow.

The show: Festival regulars (or astute observers) will notice that the WL formula isn't quite that "there is no formula", as once again a punk-ish night at the basement bomb-shelter of Parts + Labour began with a stylistic curveball. Slow-Pitch is a new nom de guerre for Cheldon Paterson, known for his work with production unit iNSiDEaMiND. He is also known as Professor Fingers, but the separate musical identity is a clear signal to expect something different on stage than the hammed-up fun ProF brought to the Wavelength festival three years ago. Here, the vibe was noir-ish, almost austere, and the sounds were all live and improvised. That meant for a set of atmospheric, ambient-leaning tracks, with as many surface crackles as beats being looped as Paterson flipped records on and off the turntable.

The sounds were generally compelling, but as with many kinds of music being built up in front of your eyes, there were a few static stretches where I was ready for the next layer to propel things forward. That itch was scratched with a couple turns near set's end from local improv sax master Colin Fisher (of Not the Wind, Not the Flag, Elfin Choirs, etc, etc, etc) who used the beatscapes' structures to launch a couple inquiries of his own. As with any improvisation, there were a couple spots where the two sonic modes didn't quite jibe, but there were more parts (a slowly roiling fog here, a skittering scuff to match the needle's scratch there) that intrigued. And, as something that many in the crowd weren't expecting, a nice way to lead off the festival.

Listen to a song from this set here.

SST-inspired hardcore-ish trio This Mess were a bit closer to what one might hear coming down the stairs to P+L on any given night. Celebrating the release of their first full-length States (available on tape or for download), the trio jumped right into their quickly-growing catalogue of songs — usually coming in hundred-second bursts. That works best when the band can careen right from one song to the next, but here the band had some trouble attaining escape velocity — guitarist Matt N-L regretting his decision to change his strings right before the show as he stopped to tune a couple times. Once Matt and John swapped off on guitar and bass, things began to settle in and they charged through the remainder of the set with their usual momentum. By the end, drummer Adham Ghanem was leaning forward over his kit like a sprinter approaching the finish line — before he hopped off at the conclusion to switch back into his role as WL's production manager, keeping things running admirably on time in a whole other capacity.

Listen to a song from this set here.

The pre-festival word from Fresh Snow hinted that a broken-handed bass player would necessitate some sonic shuffling. The promised "synth apocalypse" manifested in the form of a V of keyboards at the front of the stage area, but the players would be visually upstaged by an old-fashioned tube TV1 at their apex which was playing an analogue-fuzzy live visualization, rippling away in time to the music. The stage was otherwise pitch black as the band set into a slow-building piece based around a sampled autohypnosis recording for use in lucid dreaming. The fantastic track, which dominated the set, certainly contained some oscillating, mind-altering properties.

There would only be one other offering in the shortened set before the lights went back up and the band offered the TV to anyone in the crowd willing to drag it home with them. This was a more minimalist presentation than their previous forays into band-obscuring projections and the like, but it was intriguing to see them go with something different. Musically, this was potent stuff, so I imagine that the band at full-strength would be even more of a force.

Listen to a track from this set here.

In contrast to Fresh Snow's blackout, Ell V Gore frontman Elliott Jones was soon fiddling with the lights above the stage to speed up their cycling colours to near-seizure-inducing velocity, which would make for an appropriate pairing with the band's no-wave speedswamp style. The band's rotating drum chair is now occupied by Jay Anderson, which hasn't lead to any major changes in the rhythmic approach, but does give a firm platform for Jones' aggressive knife-slash guitar work. There's a fierce underpinning to the music, whether Jones is leaning back, legs wide to play, or craning forward to engulf the microphone in his mouth. The strobelit flash in the neocortex lingers afterward more in the subconsciousness than in memory — akin to the experience of waking up on an unfamiliar mattress in an alley, sore in unusual places, and with a creeping suspicion you were up to something wrong.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Lullabye Arkestra, who closed out the first night, have famously played nearly all of Wavelength's anniversaries: The actually met at the first festival in 2001, and their absence from last year's fest was necessitated by their daughter's birth.2 Even if drummer Justin Small would characterize Valentine's Day being to real lovers what St. Patrick's Day is to real drinkers (completely missing the point to those that practice it every day), the timing of this post-parental-leave return to action was still a reminder that Small's romance with bassist/vocalist Kat Taylor-Small is at the heart of their churning rock'n'roll. Showing few signs of rust, the pair knocked out a fairly ferocious set.

Starting with "We Fuck the Night", they'd be joined by Nick Taylor on guitar for a few songs, giving shades of the LAST time the band played the festival. Just as they were storming into "Ass Worship", the power cut out on the PA, but with pounding drums and shout-along spirit, they seemed hardly derailed. Maybe because the very idea of the band is so compelling — oh, and the knock-you-down rock-storm of their live shows — I've come to rather appreciate Lullabye Arkestra, and it was a good feeling to have them back among us.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Night 2 — Friday, February 15, 2013

The Great Hall: BLK BOX — feat. THIGHS / Blonde Elvis / Blue Hawaii / Cadence Weapon / Doldrums

The Venue: Formerly known as the Theatre Centre (which has decamped down the street), the lower level of The Great Hall has been re-branded with an unfortunately abbrviatd name. To the good, however, there has been a bit of work put into the space. Somewhat disorientingly, the layout of the floor (the room is a sort of analogue of the Great Hall above, with a circular balcony running all the way around the room above the main level) had been flipped one-hundred-eighty degrees, with the seating risers removed and a new stage in their place.

That does serve to open up the room and improves the flow with the main stairway (that was formerly behind the stage) now the main access between levels. Sadly, the benefits of that are currently somewhat minimized as the entry doors that go right out to street level on Dovercourt aren't being used — to stay in the neighbours' good graces, I hear — meaning it's a bit of a up-one-stairway-and-down-another winding trip to attain ingress.

But most importantly, there is a brand-new powerful PA in place. The sound crew were just getting used to it at this show (there were a few spots in the room with mushy sound, indicating they haven't figured out all the nuances yet) but there were moments that hinted this could be a worthy space to hear a gig in. My understanding is that the room will be marketed mostly to the DJ/electronic music crowd, so we'll see how many chances there will be to hear bands there.

Most noteworthy at this show were the visuals: a cut-out Toronto skyline animated by pulsating projections supplied by Live Action Fezz. Definitely a visual representation of the living, vibrating city animated in part by Wavelength.

The Show: At the start of the night, I wasn't sure if that new PA was going to get put to the test by THIGHS. When I've seen 'em before, they were noteworthy for their wall of amplifiers which acted as their own sound system. That wall was indeed in place in front of the stage as they got the night started — its an arrangement that's pretty effective at putting the band right up against the crowd. That's especially true for vocalist Mark Colborne (also of Pants + Tie) who will generally range as far as his mic cord will allow.

The floor was loosely filled this early in the night, and looking down from the balcony above, there was no clear demarcation between the band and the crowd — as if it just happened that these four guys had wandered up first and grabbed the instruments. Such casualness would be belied by their locked-in focus, and if the spectacle of what the band does is reduced a bit after seeing them a couple times, it's made up for the by the force of the blow the music lands with.3

Listen to a song from this set here.

Things moved up to the stage proper after that for Blonde Elvis. Fronted by Jesse James Laderoute (in a dapper turtleneck/gold chain/white pants combo), the band serves as the let's-have-a-good-time id to the consider-the-consequences superego of his main project Young Mother. Having only played a handful of gigs, this is a band that's still finding its sound — there was more tasty guitar work than when I'd seen them previously, for example — but the underlying message is generally along the lines of "it's Saturday night, let's have a drink!" Even if they come off as a group that you might find passing around a flask in a stylish back alley, that doesn't conceal that they're building up a repertoire of well-crafted pop songs.

Listen to a song from this set here.

After that, it felt all at once like there was suddenly a whole different crowd in place in the suddenly-packed room. In terms of anticipation and the level of excitement in the room, Blue Hawaii were the night's de facto headliners. Raphalle Preston-Standell is known for her work in Braids, and surely some of that band's buzz was rubbing off on this project. Here, providing vox and manipulations, she's in a duo with Alexander Cowan, who was manning a big table of electronics. The songs were beat-driven but not particularly pop-structured, and sounding positively great in the room — this was definitely a proof-of-concept for what that new PA system could do.

That said, I must confess it wasn't doing much for me, and by the end I was mostly reduced to an indifferent shrug. The impression that the live set gave was that Preston-Standell was drawing from the least-interesting elements in Braids' music, delivering repurposed Björk-isms over generic beatscapes. But I shouldn't quite let that be my last word on this act, and would offer two caveats: first, this was proclaimed by almost everyone I talked with to be one of the highlights of the festival; and second, I have heard that the pair's recorded output relies more on textured nuances that might win me over a little more. We shall see.

Listen to a song from this set here.

Just as Rollie Pemberton (who records as Cadence Weapon) is now oft-mentioned as being from "Montréal-via-Calgary", his music has always thrived on keeping his feet in different camps — a rapper who travels in indie rock circles. It means that he has a wider range of pop culture references to draw on (I have no data, but I can't imagine a lot of other rappers can be so blasé as they slip in a Richard Hell reference) and a wider range of scene politics that he can riff on. But most importantly, in a live setting he can bring it as an MC, relying on stage presence and verbal dexterity to keep a show moving without getting caught up in the indulgences that weigh down a lot of hip-hop music. The set drew from last year's Hope in Dirt City but wasn't limited to profiling it, reaching back for a few older cuts ("Real Estate" was sounding pretty good) as well as debuting a new one. Pemberton took care to talk about his links to Wavelength, sending a shout-out to Spiral Beach while recalling playing to eight (or so) people at his first time through T.O. — this is how WL brings things full circle.

Listen to a song from this set here.

The real legacy of Spiral Beach is only now starting to be felt, with all of its members currently involved in noteworthy bands. I've been seeing Airick Woodhead developing as Doldrums for almost three years now, so it's been interesting to see the project continually metastasizing and mutating to the point of congealing into the brand-new Lesser Evil album. Playing with a rotating cast of musicians (though his brother Daniel "Moon King" Woodhead and Steven Foster — both on stage here — are often in the mix), in a live setting his music has always sailed on the choppy waters of indeterminacy, the performance buoyed by the fact that things could get weird or go wrong at any moment.

So, a few technical hiccups here (with one song being stopped and patchcords being puzzled over before it got a do-over) seemed downright professional from an artist who, as a relatively-unknown bottom-of-the-bill performer at the WL festival two years ago pressed play on a Madonna track and jumped off the stage to go grab a mid-set beer. In any case, given how Woodhead's amorphous pop sensibility had been slowly sublimated into actual songs — and damn good ones — it was amusing to see that ol' randomness intruding back on them once again.

Listen to a song from this set here.

1 Do you have ANY IDEA how old it makes me feel to have to distinguish what I always thought of as a "regular TV" in that way? Sigh.

2 Sometime while Burning Love were playing, by Justin Small's calculation.

3 THIGHS will be celebrating the vinyl reissue of last year's cassette (alongside DAS RAD, also celebrating a new album) at The White House on Friday, March 1, 2013.

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