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Monday, April 20th, 2009

This Tornado Loves You

Neko Case and Crooked Fingers at Trinity-St Paul's in Toronto

Photo By Frank YangFrank YangIt was the sort of pairing that seemed so perfect, that the reality almost seemed fated to disappoint. Two nights of Neko Case at Trinty-St Paul’s church, arguably the city’s best combination of intimacy and acoustics, in support of her new record Middle Cyclone – her first shows in Toronto in over three years. And to sweeten the deal, if that were at all possible, the support act would be Crooked Fingers. Was there any way it could meet these loftiest of expectations? In a word, yes. In two words, hell yes.

This was Eric Bachmann and company’s second visit to town in the past little while, following their October 2008 support slot for Okkervil River, and while I obviously have no shortage of love for the artists who bring Crooked Fingers on the road with them, there’s a small voice in the back of my head that cries out at the unfairness of an artist of the calibre and longevity as Bachmann still having to open up for others. In a just world, he would be playing his songs of gorgeous, wistful gruffness in beautiful church venues to rapt audiences… which, I guess, he just did.

I’d commented in my review of the Phoenix show that their set suffered from poor mixing – this show more than made up for that, being acoustically sublime and with songs perfectly selected from the entire Crooked Fingers discography (as well as Bachmann’s 2006 solo record To The Races) to suit the setting. Put simply, they delivered a set of staggering beauty, and one that didn’t go unappreciated by the audience who, presumably, were not nearly all as huge fans coming in as I was. Each song finished to enthusiastic applause that was far from just polite, but more akin to the sound of hearts simultaneously melting, breaking and being won over. It’s difficult to pick a high point from a set so flawless, but “Sleep All Summer” would have to be it, with Bachmann and Miranda Brown dueting over weepy steel lines contributed by guesting Neko guitarist Jon Rauhouse. Tears would not have been out of place.

And this was just the opener.

In all the times I’ve seen Neko Case live, she’s taken a decidedly dressed-down approach to stage attire so a double-take was in order when she strode onstage in a stunning red gown. As if we needed another indication that this show was an occasion. But even glammed up, Neko was still Neko, yukking it up with backing singer/comic foil Kelly Hogan and, oh yes, singing like an absolute force of nature.

Having debuted at #3 on the Billboard charts, Middle Cyclone is unquestionably a breakout record for Neko Case. But artistically, it’s not the huge leap forward that Fox Confessor was – that record took Case, the alt.country torch singer, and reinvented her as a superb and restlessly creative songwriter whom you could certainly still classify as country if you had to file her somewhere, but whose reach and vision went far beyond just the genre. Cyclone reaffirms this while delivering some of Case’s purest pop moments outside The New Pornographers and while it hasn’t supplanted Fox Confessor‘s special place in my heart, it’s still a superb record in its own right.

And damn, does it sound glorious live. If you’ve never heard Neko Case sing live, then you haven’t experienced one of the seven musical wonders of the world (a list I just made up and whose other six spots are open to nomination). I had thought that experiencing it from a couple feet away in a tiny club like the Rivoli would be an unbeatable experience, but seated in the gallery at Trinity whilst being enveloped by her voice wins. Backed by the stellar band with whom she recorded Middle Cyclone and in front of a screen displaying projected films matched to each song, Case was spellbinding in delivering songs old and new to the packed house, some of whom – like myself – I’m willing to bet hadn’t set foot in a church in many years in any religious context but on this evening, when faced with a talent as unearthly as Case’s, were finding God.

Following an hour-long set, Case returned for an extended encore that, had the fans had their way would have never ended but as it was, ran the show to a good 90 minutes. And as undeniably special as the whole performance was, they managed to take it just that little bit further when Garth Hudson joined them on accordion for the final two songs. A fitting finale to an unbelievable night of music. And if you were one of the many who weren’t able to get tickets to the show, take heart – Neko announced during the show that they’d be returning in July for another show at Massey Hall. No, the Old Lady of Shuter Street isn’t as intimate as Trinity, but it’s hosted a good show or two in its time. Expect even more magic.

Acoustic Guitar and Chart have interviews with Neko. Her North American tour continues through this week. I think it goes without saying that you should go if you can.

Photos: Neko Case, Crooked Fingers @ Trinity-St. Paul’s – April 18, 2009
MP3: Neko Case – “Middle Cyclone”
MP3: Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
MP3: Neko Case – “Hold On, Hold On”
MP3: Neko Case – “Star Witness”
MP3: Neko Case – “If You Knew”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Phony Revolutions”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Call To Love”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Big Darkness”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “Devil’s Train”
MP3: Crooked Fingers – “New Drink For The Old Drunk”
MP3: Eric Bachmann – “Lonesome Warrior”
MP3: Eric Bachmann – “Carrboro Woman”
Video: Neko Case – “People Got A Lotta Nerve”
Video: Neko Case – “Maybe Sparrow”
Video: Neko Case – “Furnace Room Lullabye”
Video: Crooked Fingers – “Let’s Not Pretend (To Be New Men)”
Video: Crooked Fingers – “New Drink For The Old Drunk”
Video: Eric Bachmann – “Man O’War”
Video: Eric Bachmann – “Lonesome Warrior”
MySpace: Neko Case
MySpace: Crooked Fingers

Toronto has been waiting some time for Fleet Foxes to come back to town. Their only appearance so far was a year ago at the El Mocambo as support for Blitzen Trapper, just before their buzz meter went through the roof, and while well-attended it wasn’t nearly a sell-out. They were supposed to return as support for Stephen Malkmus at the Phoenix in July but cancelled due to exhaustion and haven’t made up the date, being far too busy topping almost every critic’s year-end list for 2008. The point of this ramble being that I’ve been playing a little game with myself trying to guess what size room they’ll play if/when they finally did return and, well, let’s just say the winning venue had never even crossed my mind. Fleet Foxes at Massey Hall in August. Yeah, seriously. Details still forthcoming, but wrap your head around that. There’s interviews with the band at The Times-Standard and The Times.

MP3: Fleet Foxes – “Mykonos”
MP3: Fleet Foxes – “White Winter Hymnal”

Spin talks to Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy about their new album – still title-less and release date-less – and Washington City Paper talks to the folks who put out the just-released Ashes Of American Flags DVD. Locals may note that there’s no Toronto on their just-announced Summer tour, but note that the July 19 date at Lewiston, New York is barely 90 minutes away if you’re one of those speed limit-observing types, just across the border north of Niagara Falls. So you can go, like, outlet shopping and then Wilco watching on the same day. Something to consider.

There’s a track up from Sonic Youth’s next album The Eternal, set for release June 9.

MP3: Sonic Youth – “Sacred Trickster”

Iron & Wine will release their double-disc compilation of rarities Around The Well, on May 19 and SubPop has wisely chosen “The Trapeze Swinger” as the MP3 to provide gratis to generate interest. Wisely, because this song which originally appeared on the soundtrack for the 2004 Topher Grace vehicle (you’ll not likely ever hear THOSE words again), In Good Company is one of Sam Beam’s greatest musical creations and really, one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in the past, well, maybe ever.

MP3: Iron & Wine – “The Trapeze Swinger”

Pitchfork has info on how to get a copy of the long-awaited, previously tour-only The Mountain Goats/John Vanderslice collaborative vinyl-only EP Moon Colony Bloodbath.

I think I’m all out of adjectives for the day.

Monday, May 15th, 2006

Takk

Time heals all. My two relatively minor regrets from my trip to Europe last Fall were missing shows by The National and Sigur Ros. Well lo and behold, eight months later both acts have returned to town – The National in March and Sigur Ros on Saturday night.

This would be my third time seeing Sigur Ros at Massey Hall, though the first in three and a half years. I missed their legendary show at the Palais Royale in April 2001 but can still hold their show from September of that year, for which I was in the front row, as one of the most amazing musical experiences I’ve ever beheld. The second time in October 2002 was less impactful, but as I commented at the time – “how many times can a band change your life?” Well while Saturday night’s show wasn’t life-changing, it was very much life-affirming – and I mean that in a completely non-schlocky sense.

My night got off to a bit of a rocky start as I realized after settling into my seat that my camera battery was still happily charging at home. Thankfully I only live one subway stop from the venue so I made a mad dash home to retrieve it – unfortunately, this meant missing most of Amina’s set. I only caught about two songs total but what I did hear was pretty and tinkly like a fairy tale jewelery box. This wouldn’t be my only opportunity to see them perform though, as they were an integral part of Sigur Ros’ band as well.

I’m no good with song names on the best of days so I won’t even bother with Sigur Ros’ foreign and cryptic titles (witness the set list – thanks, Erik). Sufficed to say that the richly orchestrated, Amina-enchanced tracks from Takk somehow made the () material sound almost raw and stripped down – certainly not adjectives one would normally use to describe Sigur Ros. The contrast in emotional content between the material Agaetis Byrjun, () and Takk is far more evident in the live setting – it’s remarkable that albums as laboured over, meticulously recorded and arranged as theirs are, still pale in comparison to the power of the live performance. Not meant as a slight against the albums, but as a point of reference in trying to describe how amazing they are on stage.

The wonder isn’t just aural, either. The show opened and closed with the performers hidden by a sheer white curtain and backlit to create eerie silhouettes the height of the stage, but for the rest of the almost two hours, it was just eight slight young Icelanders against a massive backdrop of projections and lighting effects. The coreography of the visuals with music, though subtle, was amazingly precise – especially during “Smaskifa” off of the Sigur 1/Sigur 9-era single where the silhouettes of birds on a wire, seemingly coming and going at random, all flew away the instant the last note was struck. And if the projections weren’t your style, you could always just close your eyes and let your imagination do what it would with the soundtrack. The closing number, as I believe it was four years ago, was “The Pop Song” from (), and it was as epic, terrifying and tremendous as I could have hoped.

Yeah, using this sort of language to describe the show might seem a little over the top, but the band doesn’t take any half-measures in what they do, it’s only fair to do likewise. I can’t think of another act today that is capable of channeling such pure, universal emotionalism through music. Whether singing in Icelandic or Hopelandish, I’m actually thankful I don’t understand any of it – that way it means exactly whatever I want it to. And the whole show, top to bottom, sound, sight, everything – was just beautiful. And the only thing better than second row seats? Second row seats with no one sitting in the first row directly in front of you. Hence the absence of heads in les photos. I’m glad I made the dash home for the battery, the lighting made for some dramatic shots. To whomever paid for those seats but couldn’t be bothered to show up, I thank you and you missed a hell of a night.

Here’s the closing song of () and of the night – long, but if you haven’t heard it before you really should.

MP3: Sigur Ros – “Untitled #8 (a.k.a. popplagio / the pop song)”

New records coming our way this Summer – a long time coming, The Hidden Cameras’ new one Awoo will be in stores August 15. A couple of veteran UK frontmen will be releasing their first solo efforts – Manic Street Preacher James Dean Bradfield will release The Great Western on July 24 in the UK and head Radiohead Thom Yorke has an album called The Eraser also due out July 11 – Billboard has details about that. And Luna’s The Very Best Of will be in stores on June 20, the same day as the Tell Me Do Miss Me documentary DVD. And as a footnote, congratulations to Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips who have a) completed work on their second album and b) gotten married.

Popmatters pays tribute to the late Grant McLennan.

The Cleveland Plains Dealer discusses the “emo” tag with Rainer Maria, in town at the Horseshoe tonight with Ambulette.

A most promising show will be going down at the El Mocambo on June 27 with DeVotchKa and Norfolk & Western. Both have just released new EPs – Curse Your Little Heart for the former, A Gilded Age for the latter. Also, The M’s have been tapped as support for the second half of Wilco’s Summer tour, including the July 7 Massey Hall show.

Billboard talks to Amy Millan about making Honey From The Tombs, out May 30. She reveals there’ll be touring to support in the Fall before heading back into the studio to work on the new Stars record, hopefully for a Spring ’07 release. She’s playing a special album release show June 10 at the Mod Club, Fembots supporting.

Last night was the final episode of The West Wing, and I am sad. I’ve watched the show faithfully since its inception seven seasons ago, and is – I believe – the longest relationship I’ve ever had with a television program. Despite a shaky fifth season in the wake of creator Aaron Sorkin’s departure, the series finished incredibly strongly and actually left me wanting them to carry on with the Santos administration but am probably glad they’re not. Always leave them wanting more, right? The final episode had many nice touches, not least of which was Martin Sheen’s brief scene with real-life daughter Renee (“Tell your mother I’ll see her soon”) – that was sweet. But man, especially after watching the repeat of the pilot before the final episode? I miss John Spencer. Read some farewells to the series from The San Jose Mercury News, The Chicago Sun-Times, the BBC and The Washington Post. Yeah, it may have been just a make-believe White House, but compared to what we’ve got today… What was that about Karl Rove?

np – The M’s / Future Women

Tuesday, May 9th, 2006

Summer Doesn’t Count (Unless You’re Here With Me)

The 2006 edition Over The Top Fest (in conjunction with ALL CAPS) culminated in an 8-band matinee show at the Drake Hotel and hordes of concertgoers scurrying from the Underground to the rooftop patio to try and take in all the performances. I didn’t get down there till later so I only caught three of the acts, Toronto’s Wyrd Visions and Bicycles as well as the big draw (for me, anyway), Saturday Looks Good To Me.

Wyrd Visions was assigned to play the Drake’s fancy-shmantzy rooftop patio, the bright Spring afternoon a bit of an odd setting for his one-man, drone-folk creations. He started his set in an oversized hoodie that made him look more than a little like a Benedictine monk with an electric guitar, which is actually how he sounded as well. Each of his songs were extended repetitions of the same (or very similar) intricately fingerpicked guitar figures with a single fantasy-themed lyric repeated overtop like a mantra. It was quite hypnotic for the three songs I stayed for, but I then began to get a little antsy with it all and headed for darker environs.

The Bicycles I hadn’t seen in some years – I couldn’t call myself a fan of their overly cutesy pop, a little too deliberately twee for my tastes. But while the recorded output still sounds overly precious, their live act has really improved in the interim. Yeah, they all wear matching “B” t-shirts and even have life-sized cartoon cutouts of all the band member as the stage backdrop, but they’ve also gotten hella tight and even kinda ballsy – it’s amazing what a healthy dose of fuzz on the guitars can do for a band. Though still far too sugary for prolonged exposures, I will admit that with their sharp banter and goofy charm, they were a good deal of fun to watch. The band will find out how they fare away from home next month as they go on tour across North America with The Boy Least Likely To.

I will confess that I had hoped that with Betty Marie Barnes in town the night before with PAS/CAL that there might be a special one-off revival of the Every Night lineup of Saturday Looks Good To Me for this show – alas, not the case. The band continues on with the stripped-down four piece configuration that I saw at SxSW in March and in keeping with that, the set consisted almost completely of new material. While reinvention has long been a staple of SLGTM’s existance, it did make for a bit of a difficult set to really get into, even for longtime fans (though the cover of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland 1945” was a nice bone to throw). Also, while some of the new material sounded like the classic Spector pop of the past, much of it also hinted at a more experimental and rockish direction. It’s no secret that Every Night is one of my favourite records of the new century so while I’m a little disappointed that Thomas seems intent on moving away from that sound, it’s also understandable that he wouldn’t want to try and top it. So while I will always come out in favour of artistic growth, it’s a shame that they’re road-testing the new stuff so far in advance of the new album coming out (Thomas joked about it coming out sometime in ’09) – I’d have loved to hear more of the familiar stuff, though that would have required certain extra band members… and we come full circle.

While the Bicycles’ set was quite full, it was a pretty sparse crowd for SLGTM, ostensibly the headliners on the day. Of course, they were running an hour late at that point so it’s entirely possible people were just worn out on the day and had gone home for some supper. But either way, it was a fine afternoon and finale to another terrific edition of Over The Top, certainly one of the annual highlights of the Toronto concert season. Photos here. Dear Drake – please buy some non-magenta gels for your stage lights. Thank you.

To learn more about the bands mentioned in today’s post, visit your local library. Or visit their MySpace pages (SLGTM, Bicycles). Wyrd Visions’ MySpace page is his website, so instead I direct you to Are You Familiar and Said The Gramophone, both of whom recently ran features on the man and the myth. And of course, you can download some MP3s:

MP3: Saturday Looks Good To Me – “Lift Me Up”
MP3: The Bicycles – “Longjohns & Toques”
MP3: Wyrd Visions – “Bog Lord”

Chart finds out what’s next for Billy Bragg. Maybe a Mermaid Avenue Vol 3?

And speaking of Wilco, Glenn Kotche gives Pitchfork a little news on where they are on their new album. Still no official word on the presale for their July 7th show at Massey Hall, but I’m guessing tomorrow 10AM… or at least I hope so. It’d suck beans if Massey Hall subscribers got first crack at noon…

The Toronto Star considers the advent of digital-media DJing to be the death knell for vinyl. Of course, according to the sidebar kids are starting to rebel against MP3 culture by discovering thrift store LPs, so who knows?

24: Okay, I have to ask. WHY IS THE FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS NOT MAKING COPIES OF THE RECORDING? Post it on Soulseek. Send it to bloggers labeled as a new Arctic Monkeys track. But no – the most urgent thing is to CLEAN UP THE AUDIO? It sounded fine when Jack heard it and the Heller heard it, why does the Attorney-General need it cleaned up? Is he an audiophile? Is evidence recorded at under 192kbps inadmissable? WTF? Ah. I want to strangle fictional characters. Not a good sign for my mental health. Anyway, at least the the plane chase was pretty damn good. Three more hours to go.

np – Crooked Fingers / Crooked Fingers