Thursday, September 15th, 2011
Swordfish Hotkiss Night
Empire Of The Sun and Miami Horror at The Sound Academy in Toronto
Frank YangSome were disappointed when Empire Of The Sun’s long-awaited Toronto debut on Tuesday night was moved from the lakeside Echo Beach venue to the generally loathed Sound Academy for undisclosed “production issues”; it turned out to be a blessing as the weather finally got the memo that Autumn was here and, well, it would have been awfully cold down outside on the water at Ontario Place. Plus, there was the novelty of having the show take place right across the street from where Cirque du Soleil had pitched their Totem tent, and while one technically had nothing to do with the other, it was hard not to appreciate the convergence of solar-themed entertainment. Well I thought it was neat, anyways.
Another benefit of the new venue was the ability to close off portions of it to squeeze the people in, for although those who were there were rightfully excited that the Australian band had finally made it to town – they had to cancel a show last Summer due to scheduling – there weren’t really that many of them; maybe 1500 tops at the show’s peak in a room that could hold twice that, but still better than an outdoor venue where everyone could lie down and make sand angels without touching a neighbour. However it wouldn’t be fair to say that a fraction of that total were on hand when openers and fellow Aussies Miami Horror took the stage at the stroke of eight to kick things off – you could count the attendees on two hands and maybe a foot.
Regardless, it was the scheduled time for the party to start and so Miami Horror started the party. Apparently Miami Horror can refer to either producer/keyboardist Benjamin Plant doing DJ duties or the live band, which we saw this night, and which belonged instead to singer/guitarist Josh Moriarty. While his bandmates remained pretty static tending to their keys, bass and drum duties, Moriarty was living out every kid’s rock star dreams up there, channeling not a little bit of Prince in his guitarsexy moves (points for sporting a reverse-headstock thinline Stratocaster) and solos over a bed of New Romantic-approved synths – there were more than a few plectrums pointed heavenwards, it was just that kind of night – a bit gratuitous but entertaining. Over the course of their set the crowd swelled from a handful to hundreds, most happily dancing their way in from the doors to the party anthems coming offstage and as the vibe improved, so did the material. By set’s end, it was evident that their debut Illumination had a few genuinely solid songs to recommend the band, not just the ability to soundtrack a party.
I am pretty sure that the last time Luke Steele was in Toronto, it was some eight years ago when his old/other band The Sleepy Jackson (who are still technically a going concern even though Personality came out a half-decade ago) at Lee’s Palace opening up for My Morning Jacket – very different company and environs, indeed. That Luke Steele was a slightly pudgy guy with a big mess of curly hair, dubious moustache and questionable fashion sense; that was not this Luke Steele.
No, the Luke Steele who strode onto his elevated stage platform as the scrim obscuring the stage dropped was sleek, space-age and clad in an elaborate blue headdress and cosmic kimono – a cosmic messiah who came to save us all with insanely harmonized guitar solos… though still with a hint of a moustache. Understand that Empire Of The Sun is as much a visual experience as an aural one, with the set costumes and set dressings carefully matched to the elaborate artwork of and videos from their album Walking On A Dream. Going in, I’d wondered if there’d be some kind of narrative to the show to justify the costumes and over-the-top visuals – within a couple of songs, I put those thoughts out of my mind as it was clear that no justification was needed – they were being fantastical for the sake of being fantastic, and that was plenty.
Musically, they were a three-piece – Steele on guitar and keys, Nick Littlemore on guitar (I think it was the prodigal co-conspirator back there – I missed the intro but it looked like him) and a live drummer – playing over many backing tracks. And while the live instrumentation certainly added a dynamicism and volume that the album sometimes lacks, you had to be careful not to listen too too closely; I was standing right in front of their guitar amps at a few points and the rhythm parts being played were… not exactly tight. But stepping back and taking in the spectacle of it all, any human imperfections became insignificant against the grandeur of it all.
As crucial a part of the performance as the band were the dancers, numbering four but with dramatic costume changes and choreography for every song, ranging from the shiny pink jumpsuit outfits for “Half Mast” and “We Are The People” to become furry blonde cavorting swordfish that for “Swordfish Hotkiss Night”, they were arguably the highlight of a show made up of nothing but highlights. Steele also changed outfits a few times, even getting his hair done between a songs at one point, all without missing a beat or a cue in the tightly-produced show, which makes sense considering they’ve been touring almost this exact show around the world for nigh on two years now (though some past festival sets seem to have been even more elaborate in costumes and staging). I suspect that if I went to more or any Top 40/pop shows where costumes and spectacle are de rigeur this might have been less impressive, but I don’t so it was all wow.
It wasn’t all rigidly scripted, though – Steele broke whatever character he was playing a few times to say hello to the enraptured fans and declare how happy he was that they’d finally made it to Toronto; he also brought his daughter Sunny Tiger out on stage to say hello towards the show’s end, and then immediately followed that tender moment by smashing his guitar to pieces and tossing the wreckage into the crowd. It was that kind of night. And it wasn’t over – while they were following standard concert convention in leaving the stage before playing their “hit”, they were putting the time to good use, returning for the encore of “Walking On A Dream” with the dancers dressed in intergalactic geishas and Steele in a dazzling white samurai outfit in front of a fountain of fire video projection; truly a show-stopper. I’m not sure what was up with the giant grim reaper puppet they wheeled out for the song, but if there’s one thing to be learned from an Empire Of The Sun show, it’s to not ask why – just be dazzled by it.
Photos: Empire Of The Sun, Miami Horror @ The Sound Academy – September 13, 2011
Video: Empire Of The Sun – “Half Mast”
Video: Empire Of The Sun – “Without You”
Video: Empire Of The Sun – “Standing On The Shore”
Video: Empire Of The Sun – “Walking On A Dream”
Video: Empire Of The Sun – “We Are The People”
Video: Miami Horror – “Holidays”
Video: Miami Horror – “Echoplex”
Video: Miami Horror – “I Look To You”
Video: Miami Horror – “Moon Theory”
Video: Miami Horror – “Sometimes”
Video: Miami Horror – “Don’t Be Down On Her”
Video: Junip – “Without You”
More screenings of the Sigur Ros live film Inni have been announced, including at Toronto’s TIFF Lightbox starting on October 28 – I am assuming there’ll be more than just one since they say director Vincent Morriset will be on hand at select screenings. The live CD/DVD set for the film is due out in November.
The New York Times, AV Club and Los Angeles Times check in with Nick Lowe, whose new album The Old Magic is out just in time for his two shows opening up for Wilco at Massey Hall this Friday and Saturday nights.