Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Zola Jesus, Cult of Youth @ Garrison, Toronto (April 20, 2011)

  Zola Jesus @ Garrison: photo by Michael Ligon

Update [May 2, 12:01 am]: Review now up.

Goth was a music subgenre that I could really never peg. The 80's had bands like The Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and The Banshees, bands all musically divergent from each other, that I associated with that youth subculture of black-clad wearing Goths, that scary-looking group of kids that hung out at the back of the cafeteria. But even back then I in fact had a certain affinity to these bands even though I didn't dress the part. And now fast forward to the present, my interest in listening to The Cure and Siouxsie and The Banshees has been rekindled, I've rediscovered bands like This Mortal Coil who I never listened to much to begin with, and I've found my musical tastes leaning towards artists like UK's new-goth described Esben and The Witch and even Toronto's own Austra whose stark operartic vocals provide a certain goth aura over her supple electro beats. It was a double shot of goth-inspired fun that took over the Garrison for a midweek show on April 20.

Brooklyn four-piece, Cult of Youth, opened to a relatively thinner crowd earlier in the evening. With a heavy hand on bass, strummed acoustic guitar, primal drumming, baritoned vocals and the addition of violin for just a little bit of etherealness, the band's music did present itself with a dark tone reminding me a bit of Nick Cave. On their song, the southern-gothic sounding "New West", the band were particularly appealing. It was a short set overall, but gave enough reason to pick up one of the band's releases at the well-stocked merch table, if one so choosed.

Zola Jesus, the stage name of Russian American singer/songwriter Roza Danilova, has played Toronto several times and she seems to have a particularly affinity for the comfy surroundings of the Garrison. However, after this most recent sent, she may have to reconsider larger venues. It was difficult for me to gage how popular she is in Toronto but by the time she hit the stage, the back room of the Garrison seemed to be at just about capacity. With little stage lighting, and flanked by two keyboardists, a member responsible for electronics and programming, and one drummer, the petite vocalist sauntered gently onto the stage barefooted, wearing white leggings and cloaked in a orange Gregorian-monk inspired hooded garment. It was an austere entrance and for much of the set she remained like that. It was particularly frustrating at times that there was never a proper spotlight on her, the only lighting being the video projector that seemed to only illuminate the bottom half of her body but never her face, except when she crouched down a few times. Otherwise, the lack of lighting did add to the vibe of her dark, scintillating synth pop.

Zola Jesus' tunes straddled between atmospheric, synth soundscapes, and danceable, beat-laden electro pop, all tunes carried along Nika's stark, dramatic vocals. As I'd sampled on some of Zola Jesus' live clips on YouTube, Nika's vocals can sometimes be lost in the reverb-laden mix, as was the case at times during this set, but as the night went on, the sound mix seemed to clear up a bit. While Nika's presence on stage was usually austere and cloacked in darkness and light, on tunes such as "Night", amped up for this live set with more beats, Nika was in dance mode. The lack of banter during the show and interaction with the crowd [except for that one time that Nika jumped onto the floor to sing amongst the crowd before climbing back onto the stage] didn't seem to matter much with the crowd who were enjoying every bit of the set. The crowd cheered for an encore which we got for one song and then we clamored for a second encore, the outcome which ended up with Nika coming back onto the stage just to tell the crowd thank you very much(without playing another song), an odd move that left a few befuddled. But other than that somewhat awkward conclusion, it was a satisfying night overall. And not one vampire amongst the crowd - at least that I know of.

Photos: Zola Jesus, Cult of Youth @ Garrison, Toronto (April 20, 2011)
MySpace: Cult of Youth
MySpace: Zola Jesus

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

First Wave Of Acts For NxNE (June 13-10, 2011) Announced

First wave of acts for this year's North By North East (NxNE) taking place June 13-19 in Toronto have been announced. Notable acts participating this year include Devo, The Pharcyde, Digable Planets, Twin Shadow, Evan Dando and Juliana Hatfield(!!!!), Wild Nothing and so on. And Men Without Hats. This coming June, we will dance if we want to.

For passes and tickets, click here.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Old 97's, Teddy Thompson @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (April 6, 2011)

  The Old 97's @ Horseshoe Tavern: photo by Michael Ligon

Update[April 18/2011, 12:31 am]: Review now up.

While I'd barely caught on to the No Depression movement during its first wave except for hearing Uncle Tupelo's song "Whisky Bottle" off a promo cassette including with an issue of Alternative Press [back when it was a good magazine], I really started digging the alt-country scene in the mid-to-late 1990's with bands like Wilco, The Jayhawks, and a little ol' band called The Old 97's. I remember coming across a used copy of the band's debut major label album (but 3rd studio effort) entitled Too Far To Care in a Cash Converters. I'm not sure exactly what it was that convinced me to pick it up but I was immediately blown away by it's raucaus lead-off track "Timebomb" and by melancholy tear-jerker country ballads like "Salome". It was 1997 since that album came out and while Wilco, and to a lesser extent The Jayhawks had gone on to greater popularity, The Old 97's remained in relative obscurity, eventually their major label deal with Elektra records ending three albums in with 2004's Drag It Up and the band recording with the LA-based New West Records ever since. A fellow concert-goer reminded me that it was strange how the band never went on to greater popularity if but on the lady-killer looks of it's frontman Rhett Miller. I don't recall how often the band have played Toronto but the last opportunity to catch a configuration of the band was back in November when The Old 97's Rhett Miller and Murry Hammond were scheduled to play the El Mocambo and it got cancelled, so rather than let another opportunity slip away, there I was at the band's show at the Horseshoe Tavern on April 6.

I arrived a little into opener Teddy Thompson's set. It was only after I started researching that I found out he was the son of musical couple Richard and Linda Thompson and with such a pedigree, you'd expect some musical talent, and Teddy does definitely have it. With a competent although rather unspectacular rhythm section accompanying him, they performed a selection of originals mixed in with a cover of Buddy Holly's "That'll Be The Day" illustrating Thompson's supple guitar playing and melodic vocals. Thompson's music, a mixture of country, folk, and jangly Byrds-influenced pop music, hits all the right notes in terms of authenticity and I found myself impressed with his songwriting but at the same time, it felt somewhat faceless, like I've heard it before. Already five albums into his career, his most recent being this year's Bella released this past February, Thompson continues to promote his musical wares, although ironically even part of Thompson's banter was a self-deprecating reference to his stalled musical career.

The Old 97's are vastly underappreciated in my opinion, but I fully expected a full-house for The Old 97's show at the Horseshoe a week and a half ago. As it turned out, there was a good loyal crowd on-hand but not the sell-out as I'd hoped. A mixed crowd of young-uns and older fans, the band consisting of Rhett Miller – lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Murry Hammond (bass guitar, occasional lead vocals, backup vocals, Ken Bethea (lead guitar) and Philip Peeples (drums and backup vocals) tore through a set including encore that lasted almost two hours by my count. The setlist included a bunch from their most recent album The Grand Theatre Volume One but with their indie album Wreck Your Life and their major label debut Too Far To Care getting multiple representation with some scattershot songs from a few of their albums plus a cover of Merle Haggard's "Mama Tried" also being included in the setlist.

Guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples were the more energetic of the foursome, tearing ferociously at times through their guitar and drum arrangements, although frontman Rhett Miller was no slouch at the mic, often his arm in mini-windmill motion against his drum strings. Bassist Murry Hammond was the most laid-back of the bunch but when he took to the mic accompanying himself for a rendition of "Valentine" it was one of the finest moments of the night. The Too Far To Care songs seemed to be the most popular of the night so when approximately nine songs into the set twang-inflected "Barrier Reef" finally showed up, the crowd perked up.

My only criticism of the night was that overall, the crowd while appreciative, was just too mellow. So while crowd faves like "Doreen", "Four Leaf Clover", "Rollerskate Skinny", "Big Brown Eyes", and "Timebomb" were everything an Old 97's could have asked for, I wished the crowd showed more energy. Especially, during encore closer "Timebomb", I'd have hoped the crowd would have been ALL OVER THAT and have collapsed in a bucket of sweat, but it did not happen. Such a reaction, or lack thereof, I won't necessarily blame on a Toronto apathetic music audience but really more on old age. But, hey if Rolling Stone fans of the elder generation can still bust a move during their shows, why can't older Old 97's fans do the same?

Photos: The Old 97's, Teddy Thompson @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (April 6, 2011)
MySpace: Teddy Thompson
MySpace: The Old 97's

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Cults, Magic Kids, Superhumanoids @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (April 4, 2011)

  Magic Kids: photo by Michael Ligon

Update [April 12/2011, 11:40 pm]: Sorry for the delay. Review is now up.

I didn't know exactly what sort of turnout to expect for the show at the Horseshoe Tavern last week on Monday night. Its headliners Cults, and middle act of the night Magic Kids have both had their own share of buzz and press, but I heard nary a peep about this show from the local press leading up to it. And with that night bringing some nasty weather, I thought that would have scared a few people away but in the end I was pleasantly surprised that at least by the time the second act of the night Magic Kids hit the stage, the 'Shoe had a healthy turnout.

The bands bookending the night(first openers Superhumanoids, and headliners Cults) were bands that soundtracked my last night of CMJ in New York City last October. Los Angeles four-piece Superhumanoids were the tightest band of the night in my opinion, and while they may have protypical melodic indie sound propelling their songs along with boy-girl vocals, guitar, bass and keys they do it well. They don't quite fall into dream-pop territory but there was a certain dreamy quality to their songs, mostly with the vocals of lone female member Sarah Chernoff and her keyboards, while the guitars(courtesy of male vocalist Cameron Parkins and the rhythm section(bassist Max St. John and drummer Evan Weinerman) had a bit more muscularity to even out things. It was a sparse crowd at this early point in the evening which is a shame that more people didn't catch them. Next time Toronto.

Memphis, Tennessee buzz band Magic Kids were up next and while headliners Cults were the band most people were there to see, there also seemed to be some palpable excitement for Magic Kids as well. The band's 2010 single, the Brian Wilson-influenced "Hey, Boy" was one of my favourite songs of last year and although I never really got around to listening to the rest of their debut-full-length Memphis, if the rest of the album was anything like that single, I'd expect it to be a good set. The quite young-looking outfit led by lanky frontman Bennett Foster dressed in ripped denim jeans, and slim denim jacket buttoned up and the rest of the band were dressed comfortably, with a certain hipster, geek-chic quality, The band ripped through a fun set of pop music, bowing to the alter of Brian Wilson melodically, with a lot of 'oohs' and 'aahs' in the vocals, melodic keyboard arrangements, ramshackle guitar and bass and overall played looser and more casual than I'd heard them on record. With two keyboards setup in the middle of the stage for later use in the set, main keyboardist Will McElroy was set up at stage left with violinist/vocalist Alice Buchanan beside him, with drummer Ben Bauermeister at the back of the stage, and frontman Bennett Foster, guitarist Alex Gates, and bassist Michael Peery taking up center to stage right. With Bennett, Alex and Michael lined up the right side of the stage together, it was an interesting configuration to see all three approach their mics at the same time to sing together. I've read the band described as a budget Beach Boys which is somewhat apt as although the band does possess a similar melodic sensibility, vocally and instrumentally they are a lot less precise. But they who says they were trying to be. Fun, fun, fun.

Somewhere along the lines between the first time New York group Cults played in Toronto last August at the Horseshoe and this show, the band has garnered a following. I'd already picked up on that when I saw them during CMJ last October, although part of the excitement in the crowd that time also had to do with they were a hometown band. But yes, Toronto has taken a liking to them. According to their Facebook page, Cults is offically the project of vocalist Madeline Follin and guitarist/vocalist Brian Oblivion, but as a touring act at least for this show were rounded out with a drummer, bassist and second guitarist. The band straddled between Motown-ish pop influences ("Go Outside", "Most Wanted") with a more blues-y, rock sound and wasn't afraid of a bit of reverb. The band(other than vocalist Follin) were perceivably and actually young but at least felt like a band and were up to the task as musicians. On the other hand, while vocalist Follin did impress with her strong vocal dexterity, her way-youthful appearance and wholesome stage presence formed a bit of a disconnect with the rock n' roll frontwoman presence she perhaps was trying to achieve. Vocally, FOllin excercised her vocal pipes with an abundance of melodic and blues-y tones, with the emotions that coincided visible in her facial expressions, but part of me also wished she'd cut loose physically in a fit of euphoric release a la Janis Joplin. Aside from such criticisms, it was a brief but enjoyable set and for the night overall, a more than satisfying indie triple-bill.

Photos: Cults, Magic Kids, Superhumanoids @ Horseshoe Tavern, Toronto (April 4, 2011)
MySpace: Superhumanoids
MySpace: Magic Kids
MySpace: Cults

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Mountain Goats, Megafaun @ The Opera House, Toronto (April 3, 2011)

  John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats: photo by Michael Ligon

Update [April 8, 12:18 am]: Review now up.

The Mountain Goats of Claremont, California are a band I've been meaning to see live for some time. I'd discovered the band back in the mid to late nineties when I was big in to zines and mail-order indie releases and had ordered one of The Mountain Goats' earliest releases, their cassette only album "The Hound Chronicles". I say 'their' when actually back then it was only John Darnielle alone recording under The Mountain Goats moniker. Underneath its truly lo-fi recording aesthetics, I could hear the songwriting talent of Darnielle. I'd lost track of the band after that, all the while The Mountain Goats recording for a variety of indie labels until they made the big jump to 4AD in 2003. However, it wasn't until about five years ago that the band crept back in to my consciousness, and so I started picking up many of their releases, both pre-4AD and 4AD, casually listening to them but never fully grasping their greatness. It was the live show that I heard and read was the thing that could convert me, and with the Goats playing shows in Toronto at Lee's Palace both in 2006 and 2007, I had a few opportunities to see them but ended up bailing on / missing both. It's now 2011, and it was time to remedy that.

Despite the wickedly wet weather or maybe because of it, The Opera House was already near capacity when I arrived a little in to the set of Durham, North Carolina openers Megafaun. An amiable trio of fellas, brothers Brad and Phil Cook and fellow Eau Claire, Wisconsin native Joe Westerlund, their vocal harmony-laden, folk-rock singalongs, augmented with guitar, drums, and banjo at times, held the crowd's attention for he entirety of their set. This was no better illustrated than with the spare acoustic traditional-soundingn "Lord, Ease My Mind" which had the band simply singing and strumming acoustic guitar and guided along by simple handclaps which the crowd eventually joined in on.

From reviews I've read, The Mountain Goats last visit to Toronto in 2007 was as a duo consist of Darnielle and bassist Peter Pughes but for this most recent visit at The Opera House the band was no actually a band rounded out with drummer Jon Wurster (of Superchunk), and keyboardist Yuval Semo. The band was in town to promote the newest Mountain Goats album entiled All Eternal's Deck. Walking onto the stage with soundbites of "Hello, America" and heavy metal music playing through the speakers, the crowd was enraptured as if Darnielle was Elvis. The four members, dressed smartly in dark suits, the band wasted no time and lept into cleverly-titled new album track "Liza Forever Minnelli".

My unfamiliarity not only The Mountain Goats' newest album but with the catalogue in general made piecing together the set list difficult, but there I tried, jotting down lyrics and song-title guesses on my iPhone in between songs. Even post-show, trying to piece together the setlist by looking at the setlists from some of recent shows turned out to be unreliable as it soon became apparent that Darnielle was not content on playing the same setlist every night. Googling the lyrics I'd jotted down, my sleuthing revealed that while The Mountain Goats played at least a few songs off the new album, including "Liza Forever Minelli" and "For Charles Bronson", and playing fan favourites including "No Children" and "Southwood Plantation Road" from Talahassee and a variety of songs spanning other albums, it was 1995 album The Sunset Tree which seemed quite prominent, with the band playing at least six songs off that album.

In fact, it was The Sunset Tree songs which were the crowd faves and provided most of the show's most memorable moments. The crowd shouted out requests throughout the night and The Sunset Tree's "No Children" was called out multiple times and so the crowd was enamored when the band finally played it. The song "Broom People" was preceded by Darnielle's recounting of a girl name Marci(three years older than him) he dated when he was in high school who he tried to break up with by letter after meeting another girl. An audience member supportively yelled out "Marci Sucks" but Darnielle came back in her defense and said something like "Fuck You" and expressed that given his douche-bag action he thought he at least owed her a song. When the band finally ended the first encore with "This Year" joined onstage with openers Megafaun and the combined membership chanting the chorus "I am going to make it through this year if it kills me", I had a lump in my throat.

Darnielle falls in line with some of the best musical artist / storytellers / banterers I've experienced like Neko Case and Stephen Merritt, although Darnielle's quips and storytelling felt quite more spontaneous in my opinion. When Darnielle solo performed the opening four chords of new song "You Were Cool", a few audience members yelled out "woo", though Darnielle retorted that they wouldn't necessarily know what song he was playing. Ironically that songs lyrics started out "this is a song with the same four chords I use most of the time, when I've got something on my mind" a truly hilarous, self-deprecating comment if I ever heard one. In response to a random question from audience about why he wasn't wearing shoes, he asked the audience if they wanted to know the story then lept in to it anyway, mentioning it was practice by musical artist Amy Grant who did the same thing to be more comfortable on stage. When Darnielle and band came back from the end of the main set for an encore, Darnielle quipped about doing a Grateful Dead-like lengthy second set but then instead, and more realistically offered a six-song encore set as consolation. For a surprise 2nd encore, Darnielle returned to peform a cover of Franklin Bruno's "Houseguest". I've not much to add except to say that it was a spectacular evening and am looking forward to see Darnielle and company in the future.

Chromewaves and The Panic Manual both have reviews of the show. Mechanical Forest Sound has an MP3 live recording of "No Children" from the show.

Photos: The Mountain Goats, Megafaun @ The Opera House, Toronto (April 3, 2011)
MySpace: Megafaun
MySpace: The Mountain Goats