Monday, January 5th, 2009
(Here's To) New Beginnings
Amos The Transparent, Whale Tooth, Bellewoods at Rancho Relaxo in Toronto
Frank YangThough concert season is always light during the end and start of the year, this year’s layoff of 19 days seemed exceptionally long. And so when I finally got back out on the club circuit last Friday night, I was mentally unprepared for the sheer crush of humanity that awaited me. Okay, that might be a bit of an exaggeration but Rancho Relaxo – not exactly a large room under any circumstances – seemed extra packed with punters.
Now I’m sure that some of them were just folks out looking for something or anything to do on the last weekend of the holidays, or just Two-Way Monologues regulars, but it’s also not unreasonable to assume that the draw of Amos The Transparent had grown to the point that the usual haunts wouldn’t be able to house them much longer. Since first discovering the band at Pop Montreal in 2007 (also the same evening I first saw Woodpigeon – that’s called a good night), they and their debut album Everything I’ve Forgotten To Forget have not only become fast favourites, but easy candidates for the title of best unknown band in Canada. And maybe it’s just as well that they’re shedding the “unknown” part of that accolade because their before too long, either of their bill-mates on this night might be ready to lay claim to it.
Leading off were Bellewoods, a Toronto five-piece who built widescreen, slow-motion soundscapes on a strong foundation of countrified hurt that reminded me of Whiskeytown at their more bottle-bottomed moments. Though their material is a touch monochromatic, they evidenced enough sonic ingenuity in their songcraft and arrangements – and some nice guitar excursions – that I expect there’s promising things to come. A full-length album was completed last Fall and details on a release should come soon.
Taking Bellewoods’ stately pace and ratcheting up about a zillion percent were middle act, Toronto’s Whale Tooth and their highly danceable, feel-good pop led by Elise LeGrow and Norm Maschke’s terrific vocal chemistry. LeGrow’s jazz training was evident as soon as she opened her mouth but she rather than overpower things, she demonstrated exactly the right amount of style, verve and charisma to be a magnetic frontperson – bouncing around the stage like a superball also helped. Their songwriting is definitely on the breezy side, maybe a little too much so for some, but there is no denying that live, they’re a good time and a half.
Perhaps I was spoiled in having my first Amos The Transparent show feature a cast of thousands (or at least seven or eight), but in the times I’d seen them since their four-piece configuration never quite seemed to do the richness of Forgotten‘s material justice. They were all great shows, don’t get me wrong, but I always noticed the absence of manpower – or should I say, the woman power. Some of the finest moments on the album were the duets between frontman Jonathan Chandler and vocalist Ana Miura (and on one track Amy Millan), and that was something that the all-boys lineup just couldn’t recreate. So I was very pleased to see that the Amos live experience is now a six-piece, with recent additions Dan Hay on guitar and Kate Cooke on vocals. Cooke’s voice is decidedly bolder and brassier than Miura’s sweeter, more forlorn presence on the record, but after a mental adjustment of expectations she filled the vacancy admirably.
As for the show itself, it was typically excellent with great enthusiasm and intensity, though the Rancho’s little stage forced the band to be rather stationary. The set was made up mainly of Forgotten material but with a smattering of new songs to whet the appetite for the next album. And it seemed that people were ready for some new material because a surprising amount of the audience was singing along with the old songs, loudly and lustily. All these people who were filling Rancho – they were fans. I don’t say that with incredulity, just to be clear, but satisfaction.
It actually struck me while watching them that they reminded me not a little of Wilco, able to take their strong pop sensibilities and folkish roots and from there, grow their sound upwards and outwards, respectful of the traditions that informed them without being beholden to them. Or maybe I just noticed Jonathan Chandler’s Wilco t-shirt. But watching the band and their musical abilities and combining that with the restless creativity of the songcraft… I don’t think it’s a left-field comparison. A lofty one, yes, but not overly so.
Metro has an interview with Amos’ Chandler, who according to their MySpace, will be back in town for a show at Sneaky Dee’s on January 23.
Photos: Amos The Transparent, Whale Tooth, Bellewoods @ Rancho Relaxo – January 2, 2009
MP3: Amos The Transparent – “Title Track”
MP3: Whale Tooth – “Hibernation Song”
MP3: Whale Tooth – “Sleepwalking”
MP3: Whale Tooth – “6 Billion”
MySpace: Amos The Transparent
Also out January 20 is Noble Beast, the new one from Andrew Bird. NPR is currently streaming the whole thing and Bird was the subject of a feature at The New York Times this weekend. He has an April 3 date at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. Update: You can also stream the instrumental bonus disc – via Pitchfork.