Monday, December 7th, 2009
Evening Hymns and The Harbour Coats at The Tranzac in Toronto
Frank YangThe Bellwoods crew is certainly setting a high standard when it comes to set dressings. Thanks to them, I’ve now attended shows in the heart of a volcano, an exploding library in the sky and as of this past Friday night, a heavily wooded lumberjack camp. In reality, it was the Tranzac and the occasion was the record release party for Evening Hymns’ new album Spirit Guides; a grand and gauzey statement of gospel-inflected folk-rock which is quite highly-regarded around these parts.
Support for the night came from The Harbour Coats, who on most occasions are a miniature Canadian super-group of sorts with members of Constantines, Snailhouse and Evening Hymns principal Jonas Bonnetta but on this night, due to logistical issues, were just frontman Bry Webb and an acoustic guitar and his own And if the oft-repeated reference point for Constantines is a heavier Springsteen, then Harbour Coats is a nod to the Boss’ more stripped-down side. Decked out head to toe in blue Christmas lights, Webb turned in a short set of tunes rich with images of the Canadian north and proving that he was as compelling and charismatic a songwriter a performer outside the Cons as he was with them.
At one point in the set, Jonas Bonnetta mentioned that this was pretty much his first-ever headlining show and for the occasion, he did it up right. Enlisting many/most of the contributors who played on Spirit Guides, Evening Hymns ranged from Bonnetta solo to a stage-filling 10-piece band including members of The Wooden Sky, Ohbijou, The Magic and The D’Urbervilles as well as a couple of his own siblings. And though all the parts were in place to recreate the expansive beauty of Spirit Guides – the stage even looked the part of the record’s rustic aesthetic – it would prove to more a question of chemistry than mathematics.
Though the show began strongly and remained so as the band’s numbers ebbed and flowed, at one point leaving Bonnetta to perform solo for a few numbers from his first record Farewell To Harmony, to my ears they weren’t quite managing to capture the ineffable specialness of the recorded work. And there’s no shame in that – to catch lightning in a bottle once and commit it to tape is a feat, to be able to do it again and on demand is asking a lot. But as the show progressed, it became evident that things were starting to coalesce and by the time the band’s numbers swelled for what was clearly the climax of the show, for which they’d wisely saved the record’s biggest moments, they were sounding like something much greater than the sum of its parts, in the same way that Spirit Guides is much more than the sum of its influences and reference points. As if cued by the bold organ of “Tumultuous Sea”, the show found a new level and through the encore and its gloriously jubilant readings of “Broken Rifle” and “Mtn. Song”, all crashing chords, thundering percussion and choral vocals, it was finally everything it could have been.
With so many of the record’s performers involved with other bands, it’s a bit difficult to envision how they could take this record on the road and do it the same sort of justice they did on this evening. This is not to say it can’t be just as effective and affecting with a different configuration, and I’m sure that however they end up taking it on tour, even if it’s just Bonnetta solo, it will be its own kind of special but I’m pretty pleased to have been able to witness it with the original cast, so to speak.
In addition to playing the Constantines’ 10th anniversary shows at Lee’s Palace on December 12, Oneida will play an in-store across the street at Sonic Boom at 4PM with what they’re calling an “improvised set”.
Swear I’m Not Paul interviews Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers and learns they’ll be releasing two new albums in 2010 – a rocker called The Big To Do, presumably out first around February, and a “R&B Murder Ballad album” entitled Go Go Boots due out later in the year. There’s also features at Charleston City Paper and Charleston Daily Mail (I think the band might have just played in Charleston).