Thursday, March 29, 2012

Review -- Canadian Musicfest (Thursday March 22, 2012)

  Cold Specks @ The Music Gallery: photo by Michael Ligon

The second night of this year's Canadian Musicfest had even milder weather than the night before, so nice in fact that on top of me not having to work the next day, it made me long even more for summer to come. Surprisingly, though I wasn't working the next day, I surprisingly had a very light Canadian Musicfest planned for the evening. My night was centered around the Cold Specks show at The Music Gallery at 9 pm and I'd also planned on checking out Chinese singer-songwriter Helen Feng's electro dance-pop solo project Nova Heart at 11 pm at Comfort Zone but had nothing else on tap for the rest of the evening.

I figured after work I'd head down to Sonic Boom for their Canadian Musicfest instore sessions. I was almost certain that I'd miss most if not all of Miss Martha Wainwright's set (which in fact I did miss all of it) but coming up next after her was a set by Upstate New York's Simone Felice of The Felice Brothers, a band I'd vaguely heard of and had heard good things about but had not ever heard. With a few hours to kill before the Cold Specks show I headed to Sonic Boom and arrived just a little in to Mr. Felice's set. From Mechanical Forest Sound's account, there'd been a good crowd on hand for Martha Wainwright, so it was a real shame to see how sparse the audience was for Mr. Felice. With two drummers, and members on backup vox and slide guitar, and Mr. Felice on acoustic guitar, the group performed a good set of melodic, country-rock tunes. Felice's backup vocalist Simi Stone (who also performed with Felice in his more recent band project, the more glam / soul influenced The Duke and The King) was a particular highlight, especially on the last song of the set, with her expressive, bright, vocal style. And as the last song winded down, and Felice and Stone smiled and made eye contact with each other, I couldn't help feel how terrific that was. Too bad more people weren't there.

I figure I had another half hour or so before heading down early to The Music Gallery for Cold Specks so I decided to stick around for Toronto's Great Bloomers who were up next. I'd never seen the band live although I'd had an opportunity several years back when they performed at an NXNE kick-off party at the Distillery District which I'd not stuck around for. In my mind, I'd pegged them as a country-rock act (I think based on reviews I may have read about the band in the past) akin to say Oshawa's Cuff The Duke but that isn't entirely an accurate description of the band's music. Although they were all new songs to me, Great Bloomers' vocalist Lowell Sostomi did inform the crowd [which had inflated to a healthy size almost without me noticing] that much of their set night were new songs. There was certainly a countrified pop sound to some of it but also a certain heaviness - this ain't no bluegrass. While the band looks young, they were surprisingly tight and competent musicians and even moreso was I impressed with the songwriting and melodies. I also loved that they performed a cover of Television's "See No Evil". I look forward to seeing the band live again and with their recent signing to Canadian indie label Dine Alone Records who are set to release their sophomore full-length this year, I wish them much success. Look out for Sostomi on the streets of T.O. - he said he lived in the neighbourhood and offered some advice of how well plopping a hundred bucks on some records can help one feel better, rightfully giving props to the store for sponsoring the festivities that day.

I decided to head down a little early to The Music Gallery to secure a place in line for Al Spx aka Cold Specks. With the 23-year old recent signee to Arts & Crafts, who'd been hyped up by the British music press and has already performed live on Later With Jools Holland in the UK, I was expecting the show to be one of the hotter tickets (well actually it was a wristband-only show, but you know what I mean). Having arrived at the venue about a half hour before the 8:30 pm doors, I was surprised to find a small random group of people loitering around the courtyard. A proper line hadn't even formed. As 8:30 approached more people did arrive and as the buzz of the crowd arriving seemed to louden, they let open the doors letting people in finally. We we corralled in the lobby area of the building to enjoy a drink or two, seemingly until capacity for the show was reached and then we were let into the church to fill the pews, waiting with anticipation for the show to start. With only a few samples available on the internet, I'd like what I heard, her old-time, gospel/spiritual influenced blues. I hadn't expected it but she had a bad in tow, including a drummer, guitarist, cellist and a saxophonist. Full-sounding at times, but at others skeletal fragments of percussion and strings, what remained most impressive overall was Cold Specks soulful, spiritual vocals made all the more stunning within the pristine acoustics of the church. This is what shows at The Music Gallery are made for. Although her banter was minimal, she was also charming and humorous at times, even hamming it up for the crowd with a surprisingly soulful yet still playful version of "The Theme From Fresh Prince of Bel Air". She finished off the night with a quick encore done accapella, solidfying her as my highlight and perhaps the highlight of many others in attendance, of this year's Canadian Musicfest. Having performed a good amount of songs throughout the hour-or-so long set, I'm guessing these will appear on her debut full-length in the future.

Nothing may have been able to top that set that night but the set by Nova Heart at the Comfort Zone was a worthy closer to my evening. Led by vocalist Helen Feng, with a guitarist, a bassist and pre-programmed dance beats, it was an enticing set of sinewy guitar, pulsating bass lines, and sultry vocals and dance beats. While it was a small crowd on hand, it was a little less noticeable perhaps given how dark it was inside the venue, with only a bit of blue/red light illuminating the trio onstage. Of all the frontpersons of the acts I'd seen during this year's festival, Feng practically outshined all of them with her energy and stage presence, her writhing to the beats, her at-times cooing vocals and other-times banshee-like screams. Book-ended on either side of her were her guitarist and bassist, the guitarist who seemed to be in perpetual shoegaze stance and her bassist in robotic bass plucking mode. It was the latter playing off the dance beats quite nicely which provided the groups' songs their groove. Quite a disappointment that there weren't more people on-hand for this. I'd have imagined they'd have rocked the Wrongbar crowd had they been booked at that venue instead. Props to Dan Burke for bringing them to Comfort Zone anyway.

PHOTOS: Canadian Musicfest (Thursday March 22, 2012)
Myspace: Simone Felice
Myspace: Great Bloomers
Myspace: Cold Specks
Myspace: Nova Heart

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