“The siren works with this,” electro-rock artist Lights said, as an ambulance speeded past the Toronto venue. She was tuning her guitar to perform “Suspension,” just one of the many Siberia Acoustic songs on her set list that day at the Pepsi Pop Up shop. Although Queen St. is an expectedly noisy and busy street, it was surprising to hear loud voices seeping through the quieter parts of Lights’ acoustic set.
Lights, alongside cellist Kevin Fox, played to a small, sweaty, and a partially disinterested crowd. Battling through the unbearable heat, the artists glided almost effortlessly through the set, although Lights claimed her whole face was sweating. Lights moved between her guitar and a grand piano, starting with “Flux and Flow” on the guitar. It’s the most powerful ballad on Siberia Acoustic, with Lights’ hard punctuation on the “flows.” It was a surprising start to the show, however, Lights was able to carry the rest of her songs powerfully without losing too much energy.
Between songs, Lights gave anecdotes for the inspiration behind her songs, noting a small Toronto earthquake that gave her the idea for “Peace Sign.” Switching to the grand piano after “Suspension,” Lights played “Pretend” off of her album The Listening. This choice seemed a little out of place compared to the strong lineup of Siberia songs. “And Counting” would have been a brilliant substitution — it’s a touching, tear-jerking song with a backstory linked to themes like longing and change. However, “Pretend” is a staple in Lights’ long list of songs about bravery and adventure. When she sings it acoustically, it’s not simply a string of empty words and strokes of the piano keys to fill a spot in her set list. Music is her gift to the world, and songs like “Pretend” remind us of the messages she creates.
Before finishing with her single “Banner,” Lights rounded off her performance with a cover of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” by U2, which she told the audience was her favourite song. Unlike her cover of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” which she has previously performed during her electro performances, Lights covered this song in a way that made it her own. Away from her synth and millions of buttons, it’s as though Lights was able to focus on her voice and soft strokes of the guitar strings. This is the epitome of Lights’ acoustic performance, which is an essentially stripped down version of what’s usually weighted with electric pops. Her acoustic performance is definitely proof that a danceable, radio-friendly performer can take her own songs and re-work them to the point where they become something new and even more special.
TO Jazz Fest: Steve Martin w/ The Steep Canyon Rangers and Edie Brickell @ Nathan Philips Square – June 29, 2013
Steve Martin – actor, comedian, writer, banjo player and singer. Wait, banjo player? Singer?! Yes, really. In 2009, Martin released an album called The Crow, and has been playing banjo since he was a teenager. He went on to collaborate with North Carolina-based bluegrass band, the Steep Canyon Rangers, on 2011’s Rare Bird Alert.
Closing out the 10-day Toronto Jazz Festival on the Nathan Phillips Square stage, the sold-out show was supported by Toronto-based bluegrass quartet Slocan Ramblers. The young foursome (banjo, mandolin, guitar and stand-up bass) roused the crowd with their toe-tapping tunes and was met with loud cheers and applause.
The cheers and applauses got louder once the Steep Canyon Rangers took the stage, and finally, Steve Martin. Movie star status aside, Martin played banjo like a skilled musician rightfully deserving accolades (and he has Grammys to prove it!). Between every song, Steve Martin the joker and comedian presided. He poked fun at the members of the Rangers – of lead singer Woody Platt’s name, Martin asked, “Is that even your real name? Every night I introduce you, I wonder if it’s real. Woody Platt, the bluegrass singer. Sounds too perfect. I bet you got it from the ‘Bluegrass Singer Name Generator’ website…”
After several songs in, Martin introduced singer/songwriter Edie Brickell to the stage. Brickell, best known for “What I Am,” with her band Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians in the late 80’s, recently released a collaborative album with Steve Martin called, Love Has Come For You.
In her introductions for most songs, Brickell is evidently a songwriter who draws upon personal experience, but also random happenstance. For the song “Sarah Jane and the Iron Mountain Baby,” Brickell recalled the instrumental banjo tune Martin had sent to her. “I kept singing ‘Woo-woo!’ which reminded me of a train,” she said. After searching Google for American historical stories about trains, she found herself inspired by a story of a man who found an abandoned baby on a train. “His wife’s name was Sarah Jane. I can’t deny my luck that ‘Sarah Jane’ rhymes with ‘train’!” she laughed, before launching into the song with Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.
Highlights of the show included original Steve Martin-penned songs such as, “Atheists Don’t Have No Songs” (a lament for how different religions have worship songs, but not atheists), “Jubilation Day” (the elation of ending a relationship with a terrible person) and “Pretty Little One,” a new song sung with Edie Brickell (a murder ballad with a twist). Though the songs are in a traditional folk/bluegrass style, a careful listen to the lyrics show Martin’s wry, sharp humour.
The closing show-stealer was Nicky Sanders, fiddle player of the Steep Canyon Rangers. “Auden’s Train” featured a repeated train-like sequence from Sander’s fiddle, with extended periods in the song that demonstrated his virtuosic ability. He inserted a bar or two of recognizable songs, which drew cheers of appreciation, including “Norwegian Wood” (by the Beatles), “O Canada,” the Simpsons’ theme and “Ode to Joy.”
For the encore, Martin joked that the word “encore” means, “You have not satisfied us. Please play more, so we can get our money’s worth,” in French. After several more songs, the crowd applauded, cheered and stood up in appreciation. Even before the encore set, I’d say that the crowd wasn’t so much unsatisfied, but wished it could go on forever.
Not every band is able to catch noticeable attention from the first and only song they’ve put out. But recently formed Toronto-based ‘duo’, Weaves — who played their first show together only 2 months ago — seemed to have done just that with the strength of “Hulahoop,” a noised-up blues number of their self-defined genre “soul-grunge.” And all implications of impending hype aside, Weaves’ packed NXNE performance at the Black Box was proof enough that they’re worthy of whatever buzz buzzes their way.
Down-and-dirty basslines and harmonic to thrashing guitarwork made up the meat of their songs, with warbly vocals by frontwoman Jasmyn Burke. On “Hulahoop,” Burke’s noisy, processed voice gave an added texture to the lullaby-like melody of the song. If blues-folk singer Karen Dalton had ever crossed paths with Jamie Hince (of The Kills), their collab might sound something like the southern blues twang vs. New York grunge style of “Hulahoop.”
Underneath the raucous energy of their live show, their songcraft for pop music shone through. Evidenced on tracks like “Motorcycle” and “Mrs. Buttercup,” the latter, which featured a chorus consisting of screams and wails and line, “I’m Mrs. Buttercup / I wanna take you to my blood,” yowled throughout the ear-worm of a track. Watch Weaves’ performance of “Mrs. Buttercup” below to get the full effect. (Warning: you may end up breaking the replay button.)
The moment I heard Bleeding Rainbow play, I thought to myself, “Wow! It’s like I’m hearing the 90’s.” With their distorted noise-pop, 90’s-influenced sound, Bleeding Rainbow can boast that both Dave Grohl and Krist Novoselic have expressed their appreciation for their band. Yes, that’s right – the two surviving members of Nirvana are fans of this band. Take a moment to process this. If this means nothing to you, then just… nevermind.*
Hailing from Philadelphia, PA, the four-piece Bleeding Rainbow is fronted by Sarah Everton (guitar/bass/vocals) and Rob Garcia (guitar/vocals). Their vocals complement each other perfectly in boy-girl harmony (my favourite kind of harmony!) on most songs; while in others, Everton’s voice takes the reins. Al Creedon and Dominique Montgomery round out the band on guitar and drums, respectively.
The Drake Hotel Underground was disappointingly sparse during Bleeding Rainbow’s headlining set, but those who were there seemed to be enjoying themselves. The band closed their set with a cacophony of distortion, screeching and squealing guitars and relentless drumming. In a larger crowd, head-banging and maybe even a bit of moshing wouldn’t have been out of place. But alas, the small crowd could only muster up some enthusiastic head nodding and foot tapping.
With a breathless thank you after the band’s last song, the Underground’s music immediately started blaring again – not sure why this is, but I’ve never seen a single band do an encore set at the Drake. I feel like Bleeding Rainbow might’ve fared a better audience at The Garrison or The Shop at Parts & Labour. Next time!
*Yes, this is an actual corny reference to Nirvana’s album, Nevermind.
Warm electronic sounds flooded the room of the Hard Luck Bar for NXNE’s third evening of music. Akua Carson (AKUA), a Montreal-based songstress, was the soul behind these tunes which melded together elements of R&B, new age, and electronica, all with a minimalist styling.
Akua’s approach to building soundscapes fits right in with the musical scene of her homebase. Her self-activated vocal loops, drum samples, and buoyant synth lines make Akua a clear companion to a DIY-before-your-eyes trend that’s been visible for a while out of Montreal. But her distinct voice and lyrical succinctness set Akua apart from other acts in her lane, even within the emerging R&B trend that’s happening across the board.
Tracks like “Gravity” and “Push” best showcased Akua’s lyrical and vocal sensibility. On “Gravity,” her sultry voice easily shifted from brooding to lively in time to catch the hook. The strength of “Push” was in its breezy word-flow, which was momentarily broken up by the song’s pre-chorus where things started to smolder.
But the most sublime of Akua’s songs was, of course, the simplest, a truly minimalist number called “If.” Driven by a cutesy vocal sample and sparse piano chords, the song gave Akua’s voice ample room to shine with its light melody and effortless vibe. In its simplicity, it recalled equally sparse song, “Time Flies” by Lykke Li.
It sounds like Akua’s enchanting music could quickly gain a good following, bringing her from small lounge bar to the mainstage. So if you didn’t catch this short show, you may have missed something special. But luckily, you can relive one of the show’s best moments below.
Bubbly, bouncy and teeming with life, Mozart’s Sister’s energetic set, on NXNE’s first night of tunes, was not one to miss.
A one-woman band turned duo (or at least for live shows), the off-kilter musical persona of Mozart’s Sister sounds closer to that of Kate Bush than fellow Montreal pop-star Grimes, whom she’s at times likened to. But in a live setting it’s easier to see why they attract comparaisons, as frontwoman Caila Thompson-Hannant makes use of every knob and pedal to build upon her hard kick beats, layering them with vocal loops and bouncing around the stage in a theatrical manner not unlike Claire Boucher. But having a discernible point of reference isn’t always a bad thing, especially since Claire has praised Caila and cited her as one of her “biggest inspirations” in a recent blog post. It’s nice to see that the pop stars of the indiesphere don’t get pulled into the ridiculous catfights many of today’s pop divas are forced to encounter.
However “diva” could still be an apt word to describe Caila’s performance style, and not just because at one point she lamented the difficulty of playing the keyboard with freshly manicured nails, but because her vocal work and theatricality is sometimes reminiscent of a few pop powerhouses in particular.
On self-titled track, “Mozart’s Sister,” Caila bemoans her vexation of always feeling second best and in the process turns her sourness sweet with a soaring chorus recalling the eccentric nature of Kate Bush. She pushes this ‘Bushy’ eccentricity further with the “goo goo ga goo” baby noises that end the song. The R&B tinge of new song “Lone Wolf” saw Caila evoking some Mariah Carey-style vocals (complete with dramatic hand gestures) at the song’s breakdown. This was also the track best suited for Mozart’s Sister as a duo, as Caila and her bandmate criss-crossed around each other’s vocals, creating a lively chorus for another lyrically grim song.
“Don’t Leave It To Me” seemed like the most cathartic performance of the night for Caila, as she wailed lyrics of heartbreak over a crunchy beat and jumpy synthline. “You know I love you baby,” she hushed breathlessly as a last call of desperation, before bursting into the song’s climatic hook.
Interest in Mozart’s Sister was certainly at a good level, as evidenced by their ability to draw the largest audience of the night, which was noticeably less intact for Gentleman Reg’s set around midnight. But the smaller crowd was better suited for Reg’s more intimate set as he played a mix of tracks from last year’s independently released album (meaning, “No one’s heard it”) Leisure Life and 2009’s Jet Black, as well as a cover of Sheryl Crow’s “If It Makes You Happy” with lead vocals by keyboard player Kelly McMichael. Songs like “We’re In a Thunderstorm” and “To Some It Comes Easy” were highlights from the ‘09 release, but more noteworthy was Reg’s delicious shade (i.e snub) thrown to Arts & Crafts, the label that released Jet Black, rather meagerly, back in 2009.
“That album was released by a label called Arts & Crafts. You guys know Arts & Crafts right? Anyone at the Arts & Crafts’ 10th anniversary show? I wasn’t… Well I was, but I was watching from where you guys were,” Reg facetiously told the crowd, with a smile that proved he wasn’t too bitter. But it seemed within reason, considering a quote from Metric’s James Shaw in the April issue of Flare Magazine where he laments the way things turned out for Jet Black, saying “When that record comes on, it’s a bruise. You feel like you let people down.” Despite any wrongdoings, Reg laughed off the hard feelings and named a few artists off A&C’s roster that he loves. Sometimes it’s just fun to throw a little harmless shade.