170. The Shape I’m In: Etc #7 2008-2011 with Rush, Austra, Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Cyndi Lauper, John Hiatt, the Levon Helm Band, Carole Pope and comedian Margaret Cho.
NOTE: Over the course of this series, I will occasionally be publishing compilation pieces that are a collection of encapsulated reviews covering gigs I am not writing full entries for. This 7th iteration of the Etc. round-ups is appearing first, owning to my back entries not yet having caught up to Etc. #1. That one will be coming up as no. 29.
In retrospect, the Rush/Hiatt/Helm gig should have been an entry on its own, but … oh well.
So, in sequential order …
Margaret Cho with Liam Kyle Sullivan aka Kelly, Southam Hall, National Arts Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Sunday October 19, 2008, $57.
In this series, my focus is on live music rather than the broader spectrum of in-the-flesh performances I attend, such as theatre, but I’m throwing in this Margaret Cho show regardless. Besides, Margaret’s like a rock star anyway: she lives for it, she’s at home on a stage, often over the top, has attitude to spare, and is transgressive in all the right ways.
If you don’t have a developed/askew/sometimes outright silly sense of humour, we’re probably not going to get along. Humour and comedy have a variety of appeals for me — and I perhaps see it in inappropriate places far too often. That said, I’ve never much been one for Stand-up and its surrounding culture. Ms. Cho is one of the exceptions.
Cublet and I had laughed catatonically through her first two live movies/videos: I’m the One That I Want and Notorious C.H.O. But by the time of Revolution, her act was getting stale and repetitive — from her parodic-yet-loving impersonations of her mother through her great-but-we’ve-heard-it-several-times-already championing of sexual minorities. We lost interest in watching the vids after Assassin.
When her first Ottawa date was announced as part of her Beautiful tour in 2008, we went hoping that we’d get a Margaret that was as genuinely fresh and unexpected as she was sharp and risky.
We got our wish. I was physically sore the next day from laughing so hard the night before.
A bunch of us met up ahead of time at the Heart and Crown in the Market and, after a few pints, slunk over to the NAC on a cooler-than-normal October night. We settled into our comfee seats, sitting next to our friends Mr. Bear and S as things got rolling with opener Liam Kyle Sullivan. He’s best known for his Kelly character but also has a gaggle of satiric internet videos featuring his larger cast of created personalities which he largely portrays on his own. I’ll be honest: I find most drag a drag, and fairly predictable, but Sullivan’s performance and personas are more in a vintage John Waters vein: something closer to “drag terrorism” as Waters might put it, rather than another boring Bette fucking Midler pastiche.
As for the night’s star, Cho was relentless from the moment she hit the stage in front of a packed NAC. While she evoked her key themes such of gender, race, and sexuality — and the small and large “p” politics around them — the material came off as fresh once again. The entire night was one long chucklefest although I particularly lost it during the bit about her going to see The Passion of the Christ and yelling at the screen “Jesus, use your safeword!,” or the bit about the woman who owned the anal bleeching salon and had a framed picture on her desk of her showing off a client’s spread anus like a prized heifer.
Margaret’s returned in 2011 but unfortunately we had to miss last time around. Next time, Margaret, I promise.
A YouTuber has assembled highlights from Cho’s Beautiful show. NSFW or for the prudish.
Cyndi Lauper, Queen’s Park, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, Saturday July 3, 2010, Free Concert.
This show was a textbook example of a blown opportunity.
I mean, think about it: gay icon Cyndi Lauper putting on a free, open air concert at, ahem, Queen’s Park, which sprawls out like a large sylvan blanket in front of the Ontario legislature in downtown Toronto on the Saturday night of the Pride weekend (one of the three or four largest Pride’s in the world), at the moment when everything is building towards the 1-2 fever pitch punch of the late-into-Saturday-night partying and Sunday’s massive parade, possibly the largest attended, single-day event here in Canada. Weather-wise, it was a hot, clear, sultry evening, truly one to be outside on.
The right singer at the right place at the right time with the right conditions at a more-than-right price. So, how come this was such a trying disaster for so many?
Cyndi as part of Pride weekend festivities is a no-brainer. While I’ve never personally been a big, big fan, I was still looking forward to seeing her as part of a fun night out, particularly in this context. I’ve always liked Cyndi, especially that first blockbuster album, She’s So Unusual. My Cublet, 80s dude that he is, loves Cyndi, and it was a given we were going to make our way over for the shindig.
So, apparently, was everyone else.
Based on chatting with many we’d run into over the course of the previous few days, it was clear to us that a multitude of revellers were planning to descend upon the provincial parliamentary grounds to hear Ms. C — something that should have been a surprise to no one with half a clue.
Clearly, whoever was responsible for the logistics of this gig didn’t get that memo.
Cyndi Lauper’s She’s So Unusual (1983) and Memphis Blues (2010). One of these CDs is up on our shelf.
Arriving at around 7:30 pm, our group expected to find a wide open expanse in front of a stage in advance of the legislative building. Instead, we were greeted by The Longest Lineup I Have Ever Seen, peopled by naively optimistic folks with hopes of gaining entrance to the woefully inadequate penned-off area demarcated to hold the crowd. This seemingly endless snake of humanity extended so far back that for the longest time we couldn’t see where it actually ended, spending several minutes walking until its conclusion was in sight.
We speculated that admittance had perhaps been delayed, and that the lineup would start flowing forward fast once they began letting people in. However, within minutes of waiting in this stillborn lineup — and following a recon initiative from someone in our group to find out what the hell was going on up front — it became clear that the overwhelming majority of folks who had turned out wouldn’t be getting inside.
As the hour rounded up to 8, the queue fractured as punters dispersed across the park’s lawn, nesting in the grass and awaiting the consolation prize of at least being able to hear the show. Or something close to it. Once Cyndi started, it became clear that even this back-up plan had its limitations as the sound system barely reached beyond the intended confines. I guess that was because of noise regulations, downtown Toronto being so pin-drop quiet’n’all (rolls eyes).
What we were party to outside the fence was more an of an echoey, bass heavy xerox of what those inside the pen were hearing at a somewhat-audible volume. We, along with hordes of others, tried moving to position ourselves so that we could at least see a portion of the raised Jumbotron. Emphasis on “portion.”
So this is what the gig looked like. Lauper performs “True Colors” for thousands during the 2010 Toronto Pride weekend, while thousands more couldn’t even get in to the inadequate audience space. Whoever was in charge of the logistics behind this one … nice goin’! (YouTube)
Then there was her material. Lauper was promoting a then-new album, Memphis Blues, and while I like blues, Lauper would be one of the last names that comes to my mind to put on if I wanted to listen to it. I prefer the wacky, chirpy, pop-wise Cyndi. Suffice it to say, playing earnest-yet-rococo blues tunes to a E/booze/whatever-feulled, orgiastic patchwork of celebrants resulted in an anti-Cynergy.
It’s not like people were booing or anything. Polite-but-disappointed would probably describe the mood of many that night based on what I witnessed in the shut-out throngs surrounding us.
We left after about a half-a-dozen or so numbers, as did many others, deciding we could better use our time as the evening hours began to tick, but did end up having to walk past Queen’s Park about a half hour later. We were then able to hear reverba-echoing versions of a few of the big pop hits we’d hope to have gotten earlier, while those inside the pen cheered.
Toronto tends to throw its support behind Pride (the current pestilence that is Mayor McCheese and his twisted cronies are an exception) and do a great job, but this was a pretty stupid miscalculation for what could have been a really special night for all who tried to attend. Oh well. I ended up partying until dawn amidst the bacchanalia, so it was hardly a dull night.
Hopefully Cyndi will come back sometime and it’ll be done right next time.
Rush, John Hiatt, & The Leon Helm Band, Ottawa Bluesfest, LeBreton Flasts, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Sunday July 11, 2010, $19.17.
This Sunday was the mid-way point during the 2010 Ottawa Bluesfest and the end of two weeks off from work. A big chunk of Week One and the early part of Week Two was spent in Toronto for extendo-revelry around Pride (including that Lauper fiasco — see above) only to return to Ottawa during a punishing, muggy heatwave that was enveloping Ontario and region. Cublet and I kicked off that year’s Bluesfest shows on the Thursday with The B-52s, Hole and Joan Jett on the Friday, and then The Flaming Lips’ overwhelming set on the Saturday night.
I ventured out on this fourth consecutive evening on my lonesome to see John Hiatt and ex-Band man Levon Helm and his group. Theoretically, this more laid back milieu should have been just what the doctor ordered after two weeks of going out almost every night and living it up.
It was one of those serene summer Sundays, gauzy and glistening. I arrived around the dinner hour so as to have a bit of downtime away from the action at the site, with my notes reading that “I’m sitting on the back lawn area of the Subway Stage, overlooking the flowing Ottawa River. The humidity has largely gone and it’s a beautiful, perfect, warm summer evening, with blue sunny skies, while an occasional breeze sweeps off the water, soothing the crowd. People are laying in the grass, some on the riverbanks on the other side of the fenced perimeter, eating, chatting, and in repose. For a few seconds, it feels like Seurat’s Bathers at Asnières.”
Ottawa Bluesfest 2010?
I noted that “Tonight is just the kind of proposition I want and need after 3 nights of craziness and volume. Some more laid back, songwriting stuff.”
But I was antsy. I also wrote “I’m still reeling from The Flaming Lips’ jaw-dropping show.” Whereas an extended period of kinetic activity should have wholly depleted my energy silos, priming me for a more aesthetically “slippers and Ovaltine” type of experience, the ceaselessly chugging, fidgety, unbound adrenaline that table-clothed the bedrock of exhaustion underneath wouldn’t quit. While one interior voice was screeching “for the love of God, slow down!,” and even louder one was pummelling the first into submission with a helplessly automated “go, Go, GO!”
Hiatt appeared on the Subway stage at the expected 7:30 to a greeting as warm as the night itself. This was my first time seeing him solo. While I’d been aware of Hiatt’s name since the ‘70s, it was with 1987’s career-changing Bring the Family that I really discovered him, as did many others at that time. It remains a gold standard example of soul-baring writing, effortless tunesmanship and an inviting vein of Americana courtesy of a to-die-for cast of backing musicians: guitarist extraordinaire Ry Cooder, new wave’n’roots legend Nick Lowe on bass, and famed session drummer Jim Keltner.
Bring The Family (1987)
Recorded on the cheap for small UK indie Demon records just as his also-ran career had sunk right to the bottom of the tank, the hastily-yet-tightly recorded Bring the Family unpredictably turned everything around for him, slowly building as a word-of-mouth favourite among plugged-in music fans and driven by a wave of press raves, changing his fortunes and visibility. Bonnie Raitt later scored a big hit with her cover of “Thing Called Love” from this disc.
It’s also another “time and place” album in my life: almost everyone I knew owned and was listening to, talking about, and cheering its success on in 1987. Family is a memorable part of a soundtrack to that important, shifting year for me.
Hiatt had a run of well-received albums following Family, with its core band reconvening as a proper group for 1992’s highly anticipated but disappointing Little Village project (I saw them on their one and only tour at Toronto’s Massey Hall, coming up as no. 74). That period of success enabled him to build and sustain an ongoing career, cultivating a dedicated fan base. Admittedly, I haven’t heard much of what Hiatt has done since the early 90s and hadn’t thrown on Bring the Family in some time, a practice I rectified in the days before this gig. I was pleased to discover that it sounded every bit as wonderful as I’d remembered.
Hiatt came out of the gate with Slow Turning’s “Drive South,” sliding into a number of tracks from more recent albums such as the then-new The Open Road and the The Tiki Bar Is Open, … but owing to that unyielding adrenaline, Hiatt just wasn’t happening for me. He himself sounded fine, but whether it was that still-coming-down-from-the-Lips euphoria from the previous night or the unrelenting vibra-nerves of two sustained weeks of out’n’about’n’indulging, it turned out that I needed less subtlety and something more visceral at that moment. I may have reasoned that laid back is what was good for me, but my id and body had other ideas.
And so it was within this context that I made an unthinkable impulse decision and hauled my ass over to the main stage at 8 pm to see Rush.
While I have been aware of Rush dating right back to the time of their very first album in 1974, I’ve never cared for so much as a single note of music they’ve produced. The styles they’ve traversed in through the years — lumbering Zeppelin-copycat-style hard rock, dweeby prog epics, squarely mainstream RAWK anthems — all hold little to highly negative appeal for me.
However, I’d place them among a diverse personal collection of musical acts that would also include The Tragically Hip, Melissa Etheridge, Frank Zappa, the Barenaked Ladies, and Lady Gaga: artists I have respect for even if I don’t particularly like what they do. Not only have they carved out and nurtured their own niche, I’ve also known a number of people who, throughout the years and in a variety of circumstances, have encountered select members of Rush, with each of those folks reporting that the pertinent Rush-er was friendly and grounded without the standard Rock Star prima donna-isms.
And let’s not forget the great job Alex Lifeson did Guest Starring in my favourite episode Trailer Park Boys episode ever, Closer to the Heart.
Let’s see now … Roxy, Rundgren, Sade, Santana, Satie, Scaggs, Schubert … nope, no Rush on our CD shelves (Photo by VA).
As much as I’d been looking forward to Hiatt, I needed something more immediate than he at that moment. Figuring that this was the one and only time I would ever see this legendary band and that they better fulfilled the “high energy” quota, I decided to check them out, plopping myself down near the ascending back end of the assembled mob, sparked one, and sat back, taking in the first hour of their three-hour set.
I can’t say they made me a believer or that I ran out to start playing catch up with their catalogue, but will admit, given that right moment and headspace, I enjoyed taking them in as a live band. For one hour, they worked for me. Opening with the everybody-knows-it (especially up here where Rush and Rush fans are ubiquitous) “The Spirit of Radio,” the trio played material during that first third that was either recent or obscure as I didn’t recognize much of it. While the dopey, filmed intro played before their stage entrance was eyeball-rolling worthy, the band themselves seemed engaged and charming, playing their first ever open air gig in Ottawa to an enormous, excited audience.
John Hiatt, “Have A Little Faith In Me,” from Bring the Family at Bluesfest, one of the songs I missed because I’d wandered over for this …
That pre-set opening video was/is brutal (Both videos via YouTube) .
Me being at a Rush gig was such an inexplicable occurrence in my life that I phoned up a friend on my cell during the set with a “You’ll never believe who I’m watching right now …” call, as Geddy Lee’s helium wail pierced the surroundings.
At some point during their set, my previously sequestered inner-voice which had been lobbying on behalf of my latent exhaustion gained control of the floor, stealthfully vanquishing my compulsion-powered energy vapours. With my Rush curiosity satiated and my stamina gauge free-falling into the dead zone, I made my way back to the Subway stage to see legendary Band man, Levon Helm.
The Band are truly one of The Great Groups for my money, not to mention having grown up with a stong sense of regional pride shared by many from my originating neck of the woods as all members, save Levon, came from in and around my Southwestern Ontario stomping grounds (Garth Hudson grew up in my hometown of London, Ontario, and attended my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario).
I don’t know if this was the case elsewhere, but I grew up with a succession of hit singles by The Band heavily played all over the AM radio of my childhood, with Levon’s signature drawl on songs such as “The Weight” or “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” imprinted upon my mental hard drive forever. Sadly, a cancer from a few years ago zapped much of Levon’s voice: sadly not only for Levon himself, but also for his audience. Because of that, The Levon Helm Band is short on Levon but long on Band (his own backing band, that is).
The B-side of my “Rag Mama Rag” 45, “The Unfaithful Servant”: my all-time favourite Band song. Both tracks appear on their classic, eponymously titled sophomore release from 1969 (Scan by VA).
It’s not Levon’s fault that his voice is now basically gone. Still, that’s small comfort for an audience there to see and hear him but instead finds Helm a bit player in what’s billed as his own starring show. The musicians and singers who dominate the proceedings are all technically skilled but, as with the Brian Wilson concert I saw in 2011 wherein key Beach Boys favourites were disappointingly sung by group members with little involvement from head B Boy, the result is a disappointing anti-climax. It was little more than a perfectly competent corner-bar covers band doling out Classic Rock favourites. No thanks.
The vibe of all this resulted in a faint-echo-of-The-Band-meets-yuppie-casino-entertainment nexus. Once again, it was all very … proficient. But I wanted magic, not proficiency, and after days of getting alchemical gold, three or four of these Birkenstock Vegas numbers were about all I could take before I fled for home and bed and quiet. The Arcade Fire, (a stunning) Crowded House, The Hold Steady, and a sonically-live screening of The Night of the Living Dead all lay ahead of me during the following week.
The Levon Helm Band at Bluesfest doing “The Shape I’m In.” Levon’s drumming well … but still … (YouTube).
Carole Pope, Dyke Stage on Church Street During Toronto Pride, Ontario, Canada, Saturday July 2, 2011, Free Show.
Carole Pope performing in Toronto on July 2, 2011 — still taken from MarkinToronto’s video posted on YouTube.
Carole Pope was the gender-button-pushing lead singer and face of Rough Trade, the grossly underrated Canadian new wave band of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s that had one of the first overtly lesbian-themed hit singles anywhere in the world, with “High School Confidential” — still a radio staple.
Carole emerged onto the stage looking amazingly fit and well-preserved. I had to wonder: is there an aging Dorinda Grey painting hidden in a closet somewhere at home? She and her band charged through a set of originals peppered with Rough Trade favourites, such as the opener “All Touch” (Top 10 here in 1981).
As the stage was located in the parking lot just behind Zipperz on Carlton St., Carole and the band were competing with the thumping vibra-building that housed the club, just yards away. “Turn that shit down,” shouted a fist shaking Carole. “Don’t make me come over there, motherfuckers!” she cheekily joked.
But once the band launched into a song, they sonically owned the surrounding molecules, delighting the fans congregating in the late-afternoon sunshine.
I’ll be writing about Rough Trade and Carole a few times during my series (they’re coming up fairly shortly), so I’ll save the in-depth career recap for that time. For now, I’ll just remark on how much fun this late Saturday set was during this past Toronto Pride weekend.
And full sartorial points go to the woman in the audience wearing the vintage T. Rex t-shirt with The Slider cover shot.
Carole opens the show with “All Touch.” Cublet’s face and my shaved head and sunglasses are visible for a millisecond (YouTube).
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks with Holy Sons, Ritual, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Thursday September 22, 2011, $27.25.
Ahhh, the 1990s! All that fin de siècle jollity! Post and Pre the uptight and socially regressive 1980s and 2000s! Identity politics! A leftward shift! Indie cinema exploding! Alterna-rock, Britpop, and Electronica hit big! Cable channels make TV bearable once again!
And during that decade — one that started with the Berlin Wall’s decimation and ended amid century’s-end, global Y2K hysteria — my favourite band was probably Pavement; my favourite solo act, Beck.
I was drawn to each’s creative mix of peculiar aesthetics, hooky tunes, cockeyed lyrics, and distinct sonic trademarks. I even came thisclose to seeing both of them on the same bill, during the final Lollapalooza I attended (in 1995, coming up as no. 85). Pavement, who had a notoriously hit-or-miss reputation as a live band, were definitely in “hit” mode that day, delivering a brilliant set of their quirky-yet-rockin grooves. Alas, we didn’t arrive early enough to catch Beck (or Elastica for that matter).
Frequent visitors to VA’s CD player in the 90s: Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain (1994), Brighten the Corners (1997), and Terror Twilight (1999); and Beck’s Mellow Gold (1994), Odelay (1996), and Mutations (1998).
Pavement ended in tandem with the decade/century, as lead vocalist and principal songwriter Stephen Malkmus launched a solo career with his backing band, the Jicks. Pavement reformed for some very successful shows during 2009-10, but stayed true to their word that the reunion would not be permanent (although they never said it wouldn’t be intermittent).
As for Beck Hansen, after 2002’s superb, introspective Sea Change, he settled into a string of meh releases for the rest of the noughties.
Well, here we all are in ‘10s and those alterna titans of yore have joined forces, with the latter producing the former’s new one.
Actually, Beck’s been on one helluva roll in the producer’s chair as of late with Charlotte Gainsbourg’s I.R.M. (which he also largely wrote), Thurston Moore’s Demolished Thoughts (which strongly recalls Sea Change on a number of tracks), and Malkmus and the Jicks’ career best, Mirror Traffic. Based on these very strong releases, especially when measured against his last few patchy discs, Beck can simply carry on wearing his producer’s hat until he feels truly inspired again to be an artist in his own right as far as I’m concerned.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks, Mirror Traffic (2011)
I’ve followed Malkmus’ solo output to varying degrees, liking what I’ve heard but only occasionally being as bowled over as I was with Pavement. I guess the Beck connection and the strong buzz preceding its August release compelled me to scoop up this new one at my local gramophone shop upon its appearance. In a year saturated with five-star albums (as I wrote in my 2011 recap over on my OpenSalon blog), Mirror Traffic jumped out to me as one of the finest and is still in regular rotation on my personal jukebox.
How splendiferous, then, that it’s with this tour that Malkmus made his virgin visit to the National Capital.
Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks + crowd at Ritual, Thursday September 22, 2011 (Photos from the show by VA). Below: The cover of local weekly XPress, from the week of the gig.
“It’s my first time in Ottawa,” he remarked to a packed, enthusiastic house. He’d spent some time earlier on walking around the Market area where Ritual resides, in that section’s northern peak. Noting how the Rideau Canal divides the middle of downtown Ottawa between the Market and the business district, he commented that “I didn’t realize it was a thriving metropolis. I guess they keep the trash over here on this other side of the river,” which was fine by him. “That’s how I consider myself,” he jested. Or maybe not.
Stephen and band had hit the stage around 11pm to a boisterous reception, following an earlier opening set from a post-rock-esque band that I believed was called Holy Sons (and were good). As for the headliner, given my focus on Mirror Traffic, I was pleased that the lion’s share of the gig focussed on playing most of this new album, although older numbers thrown into the mix too, such as “Ramp of Death,” a personal favourite, which turned up as one of the encores.
Good natured hijinks and buffoonery during the Ottawa show last September, with Malkmus and bassist Joanna Bolme chuckling along.
“Senator,” the album’s single, got a particularly big response, whereas I was particularly pleased when I heard the opening notes of “Share the Red,” a mid-tempo highlight from the new one. I had been talking pre-set with a transplant from New Brunswick and fellow Malkmus/Pavement fan who was excited to be seeing him in any capacity for the first time, and was similarly championing “Red” as Traffic’s finest moment.
Meanwhile, the attendees jostled to be heard between numbers. “I want the penguin song,” shouted someone loudly amid an aural blur of hopeful appeals. But Malkmus was faux-unmoved. “All requests must be emailed 24 hours in advance,” was his deadpan quip.
Drummer Jake Morris thanked the faithful “for coming to our house party” during the four-song encore, with the foursome finishing out the night via an off-the-cuff cover of the Looking Glass’ “Brandy,” suggested by keyboard player Mike Clark who lead the band through it. Malkmus got creative with the lyrics when he couldn’t remember the originals. Following a spirited run through of “Jenny and the Ess-Dog” from his debut — and head Jick playing a few licks from Rush’s “The Spirit of Radio” — they were done like dinner, off and away.
Upon Pavement’s reconvening a couple of years back, I’ll admit that I’d hoped the reunion would produce some new material, and was disappointed that, instead, Malkmus went back to the Jicks. While I’d still love to see Pavement reform more than once, albums like Mirror Traffic and shows like this make me miss Pavement a tad less.
Someone posted a short clip on YouTube of one of the first numbers of the night, “Spazz,” admittedly not one of my favourite tracks on the new album. This, however, is: “Share the Red” (below).
Austra, Ritual, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, Saturday December 3, 2011, $13.
Having just endured an imperious Prince delivering a truncated set that I wasn’t able to see from overpriced seats with an obstructed view at the Palladium, er Corel Centre, er, Scotiabank Place, way out in the perpetually exciting environs of Kanata earlier in the evening, this set by rapidly-up-and-coming Austra in a small, packed, sweaty club to an enthusiastic downtown audience was just the anecdote I needed.
We’d purchased tix for this Austra show a couple of weeks before the announcement of Prince’s Ottawa gig, so some logistic planning was required in order to see two shows in one night in completely different parts of the city (thanks to VA Jr for the taxiing, and thanks to Austra for being late and not starting until midnight, moments after we arrived, allowing us to see their set in its entirety).
The evening was also a flashback of sorts, as we moved from seeing an ‘80s icon to a clever reinterpretation of an ‘80s-based sound. At times I was half expecting to turn around and see a woman in leg warmers drinking a can of New Coke while over-applying mousse to her big hair — accessorized with a rat’s tail, of course.
In one year, the electro-focussed Toronto unit have gone from obscurity to Polaris and Juno nominations and a swiftly rising visibility — particularly in Europe, but now also here at home in Canada — with their excellent debut disc, Feel It Break. It landed on a variety of “Best of 2012” lists (including mine), snagging the Album of the Year huzzahs from the Toronto Star and New York Magazine.
Austra, Feel It Break (2011)
Opera-trained Katie Stelmanis was centre stage with her dramatic, swooping vocals, rocking a look that could be described as a blonde Nico in a Hansel and Gretel dress, while twin sisters Romy and Sari Lightman bookended her, dancing, singing and flailing in doomy black unitards to terrific dramatic effect. In some ways, the theatrical-synthpop-with-operatic-touches, and the onstage symmetry of the front person flanked on either side by dramatically gesticulating backing vocalists, brought to mind the late, great Klaus Nomi’s performance in Urgh! A Music War.
While synths, played onstage by Ryan Wosniak but on record by Stelmanis, are the primary instrumental focus on recordings, the bass and drums, courtesy of core members Dorian Wolf and Maya Postepski respectively, are sonically forefronted when Austra appear in the flesh. The musicians collude into a full, dynamic live sound, providing a grounded counterpoint to Stelmanis’ soaring voice. Meanwhile, the two parallel rows of three persons created a sharp visual on the crammed stage.
“Hate Crime,” “The Noise,” and “Lose It” were enthusiastically received high points of the night, but it was the best known single, “Beat and The Pulse,” that had revellers going looney. “You recognize that one,” chimed in Stelmanis as excited cheers greeted its opening notes.
Encore “The Future” rounded out this night which wrapped up a successful five week tour of Canada. “Thank you for coming and celebrating with us,” enthused Stelmanis, before she and the rest of Austra headed off for a second trek through Europe, where most of the venues had to be upgraded to accommodate ticket demand.
Austra: Icy and engaging in all the right measures. I’ll be looking forward to next time.
“Lose It.” Even the vid is retro.
Terrific live-in-the-studio version of “Beat and the Pulse,” on CBC’s Q
Next On Stage –> Bluesfest 2010 continued with a much-anticipated performance by the Arcade Fire, weeks before the release of their third album, The Suburbs …
… and I kick off my 2012 concert-going season via a magnificent performance by returning hometown hero, Katherine Edwards …
© 2010-12 VariousArtists
Comments From The Original opensalon.com Posting
And John Hiatt is one of the true musical loves of my life. Saw him at the Bottom Line at the release of “Bring the Family” and stayed thru 2 shows. I dusted off “Riding with the King” and played just last week, reliving the mesmerizingly endless version he did at the Bottom Line. Your energy and scope continue to amaze me. I am just happy when I can say “me too” here in these chronicles, and live vicariously.