Friday, December 23rd, 2011
One Chord To Another
Sloan, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Ohbijou and Bonjay at The Great Hall in Toronto
Frank YangIt may have sounded like Tuesday night’s grand Fucked Up throwdown at The Great Hall was going to be an untoppable finale to the 2011 concert season in Toronto, but remember – that was just the first of a two-night event and if you were going to try and top a recital of one of 2011’s best albums (that’s David Comes To Life, for the record) then a front-to-back performance of one of the best Canadian albums of the past 15 years is a pretty good place to start. That would be Sloan, by the way, and 1996’s One Chord To Another.
But that’s not why I was there, if we’re being honest. Though 2011 has been a fantastic year for remembering why Sloan were/are great, thanks in large part to their excellent The Double Cross and the attendant 20th band anniversary reminiscences, I figured my Sloan needs had been met by the marathon-length, career-spanning set at Echo Beach in August and anticipating that the Fucked Up show would verily kick my ass (which it did), a night off to recover would be well-advised. But then it was announced that The Rural Alberta Advantage would be added to the bill that already included Ohbijou and Bonjay, and it occurred to me that though The RAA and Ohbijou are acts I’ve loved and followed since their humble local beginnings, I hadn’t seen either live in over two years – a consequence, I guess, of having seen them so much in their salad days that now that they were filling much larger rooms, the experience would just feel odd. But to catch both of them, plus Bonjay, plus Sloan, for just $20 in support of worthy causes and in a cozy setting the likes of which they’ll rarely if ever play again? Duh. Tickets were purchased, and THEN came the One Chord announcement and any remaining tickets vanished lickety-split. And I may have high-fived myself just a little.
I can’t be sure I’ve ever seen Bonjay live. Certainly I’d seen singer Alana Stuart’s other band (or one of them) – the electro-poppy Everything All The Time, but what’s presumably her main gig and I had yet to cross paths. I had heard them before, though, so had a sense of what to expect even though their set opening up the night would essentially be a first impression. Though formally a singer-DJ duo, they had a live drummer with them for most of this performance helping make their electro-reggae/soul concoction even funkier and heavier than I expected, and an ideal backdrop for Stuart’s dynamic stage presence; something that her EATT performances didn’t do justice. Amidst their own compositions they dropped a couple of covers – Feist’s “Honey Honey” and Caribou’s “Jamelia” that they managed to deconstruct completely and make their own in impressive fashion. They’ve currently only got the Broughtupsy EP to their name as far as releases go, but are putting the finishing touches on their full-length debut for next year. Expect to hear much more of them in 2012.
Much of the narrative around Ohbijou’s Metal Meets revolved around how working with producer Jace Lasek of The Besnard Lakes helped them grow their orch-pop roots into something bigger and more electric for their third album. I don’t know if that was it, or if it was just a result of the endless touring and simply getting better as a live act but in the time since I last saw Ohbijou in June 2009, they’ve become a much more impressive live act. This isn’t to suggest they weren’t before, but in the past much of their appeal came from the delicacy of their sound, even though they were usually plugged in on stage even then. But there was undeniably something more to them this time out, and it primarily came from frontwoman Casey Mecija. She was exceptionally charismatic on stage, singing and playing with heretofore unseen fervor – the intensity of the set-closing guitar solo and attendant noise squalls quite suited her – and perhaps taking her lead, the band played with more weight and conviction than I’d could recall. It was grand to hear the new material and old favourites rendered in a way that reminded that expressing emotion and demonstrating strength are hardly cross-purposes; after all, the heart is a muscle.
What I said earlier about not having seen The RAA since November 2009 isn’t technically true – they played the Tranzac New Year’s Eve thingie I went to last year, but since that was a personal and non-blog event and thus wasn’t covered, it didn’t actually happen. In any case, contrary to the Ohbijou experience, The Rural Alberta Advantage show was still largely and comfortingly the same as I remembered. Not entirely surprising considering how distinct and deliberately bare-bones their aesthetic is, but the combination of Nils Edenloff and Amy Cole’s sandpaper-and-sugar vocals is as potent as ever over top acoustic guitar and keys – I think the Moog pedals were new, though – and of course Paul Banwatt’s madman virtuoso drumming. Months on the road had made them tighter, certainly, but more polished? Not so much, and that was a good thing – it’s their rough edges that endear. This was my first time hearing much of the Departing material live – plus their seasonal cover of “Little Drummer Boy” – and yeah, I loved that record. And I love this band.
The full album recital thing isn’t a new phenomenon, but not a lot of Canadian bands have taken up the trend because, I imagine, not a lot have the combination of longevity and catalog of classics that could make such an effort feel like a genuine occasion. So that Sloan were able to do this for not one but two of their albums – Twice Removed got a few performances last year – is a real testament to how impressive their career has been. Someday, after they’ve finally called it a day, the country and the world will probably come to appreciate just what a musical treasure they’ve been but until then? We get to savour shows like this one.
If we had a national archive of audio clips, then I would submit the “Will you please… welcome to the stage… SLOAN!” intro from “Good In Everyone” for inclusion. Indelibly familiar to an entire generation of music fans, it’d have been unthinkable that it wouldn’t also kick of this night’s performance and while it was unlikely that they’d have dug up one-time CFNY DJ Brother Bill (I believe it was him on the album) to do the honours, surely someone would. And of course that someone was the MC of the past two nights, Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham. He did a fine job of recreating the cadence of the original and as for the screaming crowd noises – the audience had that covered.
With the obvious exceptions, I don’t think I’d ever heard a lot of these songs live before thanks to more than a decade-long gap in Sloan experiences, dating from a Twice Removed-era show in first year university (I found the set list!) to one in early 2007 for Never Hear The End Of It. And I suspect that it had been some time since the band had played most of the as well; in this piece about prepping for the show at The Grid, Patrick Pentland confirmed that “Junior Panthers” had never been played live and it had been at least ages for many other songs. So yeah, expecting perfection wasn’t realistically on the table, but then this was a Sloan show so technical perfection wouldn’t ever have been on the table anyways. For example, Pentland’s guitar crapping out during his solo for “Can’t Face Up”. It was just gonna happen.
But like for Fucked Up’s show, what we got was arguably better than a perfect performance. Sloan, rocking out like young(er) men again and seemingly having a blast of it, once again making a case that they truly were Canada’s Beatles. Melodies and hooks for miles, equal facility with doing it hard or soft and always more creative and all-around weird than you’d expect from initial listens. Interestingly, much of the audience – particularly those up front – looked like they hadn’t been out of grade school when One Chord originally came out a decade and a half ago, but they sang along with every song just as well as those of us who’d lived with it since the day it was released. Also interesting was being reminded that once upon a time, it was Pentland who was the band’s sharpest popsmith; this was before he decided he wanted to be the hard rock guy and handed that title over to Jay Ferguson, but hearing him step up on the likes of “Good” and “Everything You’ve Done Wrong” – complete with horn section, of course – in the context of the album as a whole, you had to tip your hat. Going through the main set seems pointless – they played One Chord To Another, people, and somehow needed a set list to do it – sufficed to say that it was everything that we could have wanted, and if that had been the end of the evening, there’d have been nary a disappointed face in the house. But it wasn’t.
The encore started with Twice Removed‘s “Snowsuit Sound”, which besides being just a great song also gave Ferguson another opportunity to step up to the mic, but it took a few chords for my brain to register that the second song was, in fact, what I thought I was hearing. “500 Up”. Quite possibly my favourite song from Smeared, I’d never heard it live before, assuming that there was some logistical issue with the rotating vocals that made it too much trouble to play. Which there may well have been but they did it anyways and again – not perfect, but arguably better for the sloppiness in it. “500 Up”. Man. And then – THEN – Damian Abraham retook the stage and duetted – if that’s the right word – on a cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” that featured, among other things, plenty of horseplay, hip-hop posing, and Abraham picking Murphy right up off the stage and just… I don’t even know. Let’s just say it was bananas. And if that wasn’t quite enough, one Can-rock star tagged in another with Feist coming out onstage and getting back in touch with her inner rocker by playing guitar on a gloriously pounding “She Means What She Says”. Amazing.
I mentioned as much in the writeup of night one, but it’s worth noting again: those who know me have probably heard me complain about the state of all kinds of things in Toronto, be it political or personal or all points in between – come on, who doesn’t have a complicated relationship with their hometown? – but nights like these ones, where the people, the community, the art, the everything that makes it special, comes together so perfectly? Yeah, I love this town.
Photos: Sloan, The Rural Alberta Advantage, Ohbijou, Bonjay @ The Great Hall – December 21, 2011
MP3: Sloan – “Follow The Leader”
MP3: Sloan – “The Answer Was You”
MP3: Sloan – “Unkind”
MP3: Sloan – “I’m Not A Kid Anymore”
MP3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “North Star”
MP3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Stamp”
MP3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Frank, AB”
MP3: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Don’t Haunt This Place”
MP3: Ohbijou – “Anser”
MP3: Ohbijou – “Niagara”
MP3: Ohbijou – “Black Ice”
Video: Sloan – “Unkind”
Video: Sloan – “Witch’s Wand”
Video: Sloan – “Emergency 911”
Video: Sloan – “All Used Up”
Video: Sloan – “The Rest Of My Life”
Video: Sloan – “The Other Man”
Video: Sloan – “Friendship”
Video: Sloan – “Losing California”
Video: Sloan – “She Says What She Means”
Video: Sloan – “Money City Maniacs”
Video: Sloan – “The Lines You Amend”
Video: Sloan – “Everything You’ve Done Wrong”
Video: Sloan – “The Good In Everyone”
Video: Sloan – “People Of The Sky”
Video: Sloan – “Coax Me”
Video: Sloan – “500 Up”
Video: Sloan – “Underwhelmed”
Video: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Tornado 87”
Video: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Muscle Relaxants”
Video: The Rural Alberta Advantage – “Stamp”
Video: Ohbijou – “Niagara”
Video: Ohbijou – “New Years”
Video: Ohbijou – “The Woods”
Video: Bonjay – “Stumble”
And to wrap up with some stuff that’s a bit time-sensitive for the season…
As previously mentioned, Cat Power will mark Christmas Eve with the release of a new charity single/video – details on the what are now up on her website.
Summer Camp love them some holiday tunes – they’ve made a new, grammatically questionable Christmas song available to stream.
Emmy The Great and Tim Wheeler tell The Guardian how they wrote “Home For The Holidays” from their This Is Christmas album and also offer a video performance of said tune. Clash also interviews Emmy about the project.
And on that note, happy holidays, y’all. I’ll be in and out through next week, but posting will be light. This year, more than most, I need some time to defrag the brain. Enjoy whatever time off you have.