This is the first of two posts. Look out for another coming soon, featuring reviews of Bombay Bicycle Club, J Mascis (of Dinosaur JR), Protest the Hero and more…
Canadian Music Week, or Canadian Music Fest—honestly, at this point I’m not sure which is which—is a blur for media and musicians alike. For five days, starting last Wednesday and ending tonight, Toronto is taken over. Bars, concert halls and even the prestigious Royal York Fairmont Hotel are held captive by dudes with beards, girls with bad haircuts and eager but demanding publicist types.
This year I decided to take it easier than I have in years past, and rather than blindly stumbling from bar to bar, I decided to pick and choose my spots. For me, Canadian Music Fest started on Thursday with the Wilderness of Manitoba who were, for lack of a better term, fucking awesome.
I’d only been exposed to them through a few videos posted over on the forums, but I liked what I heard. I liked it even more live.
Playing a relatively short 35 minute set, it’s pretty surprising how many sound shifts they went through. They started with cello accompaniment, and brought a lot more ambient sounds than you’ll typically hear in the Toronto folk scene. The drums were pretty overpowering—they were thunderous and crashing, again not something you’ll usually hear in folk. Not just in their first few songs but throughout their set there was a real sense of texture to their music, and it really started to click when the cellist traded up to a banjo and “Orono Park” got a bit of a stomp going. This is when they really won the crowd over. You could tell they were ecstatic to be playing Lee’s Palace, the legendary venue they claimed was just a short walk from home. One thing that defined their set was their dynamic use of multi-part vocals. At times it felt like they sang exclusively in four-part harmonies, and a track written by guitarist Will Whitwham’s mom in the 60s featured a three-part whistling harmony. They closed their set with “Changing Courses,” which had an undeniable Ryan Adams’ vibe going for it and “Dreamcatcher,” which added their virtuosic vocals to a sound that bridged itself somewhere between Neil Young or Bob Dylan’s electric years. Above it all, they endeared themselves to a crowd that was more than likely only there to see Young Galaxy, and the amount of enjoyment they got out of performing really won the crowd over. Even after their set, vocalist Melissa Dalton had a hard time holding back an ear-to-ear grin. And who could blame her?
After Wilderness of Manitoba I was off for a brief stop at Sneaky Dee’s and walked upstairs just in time to catch Brett Caswell and the Marquee Rose’s first song. Their set was really the tale of two halves. They started out somewhere between Blue Oyster Cult and Led Zeppelin with a modern touch, and the violin was surprisingly well incorporated. The first chunk of their set was filled with lots of groovy, balls out blues influences riffs. The second half of their set? It was a little different, with a bouncier vibe that fell somewhere between Elton John and Randy Newman, mostly because they traded in their guitar dominant sound for piano and horn driven sections. I can’t say how much of this is usual for their shows, but Caswell did make it a point of continually emphasizing that they rarely get to play with a horn section. It was fun, and people dug it, but I’m definitely a bigger fan of how they started. Regardless, they got the crowd moving.
Up next was Huron, the band I’d come to see. Unfortunately they came on a bit late and I had to mosey over to the El Mocambo, so I didn’t see much, and even more unfortunately, I wasn’t hugely sold on what I did catch. Their sound is pretty easy to describe, and that’s the problem—for the most they only do one thing, and though they do it well enough, I guess. They’re mostly known for their love of riffs, and they’re in no short supply, but their Iommi-meets-Sloan barrage of guitars can wear out it’s welcome pretty quickly, and while it was cool to see them briefly incorporate a lap-steel, I’m not entirely sure it was necessary. This being said, I only caught three or four songs before splitting.
And on I went to end my night at the legendary El Mocambo. I made it a point to get there early, and early I did get there, managing to catch the last half of the Parlotones, a South African import who looked like Alkaline Trio but sounded more like the Killers. It’s not usually my thing, but they did it well. They had much of the crowd in the palm of their hands, and I even saw a fan or two wearing the same style of eye make-up as vocalist Kahn Morbee. I don’t imagine it’s long before they start filling stadiums.
Up next was the band I’d waited years to see. I can’t even count how many times I’ve missed Amos the Transparent, but it’s nearing double digits. Add to that the fact that they’ve been in the studio the last little while and this, their first gig in ages, was a definite must-see for me. Thankfully it was worth the wait and worth the hype.
Opening with a spaced out organ and drum jam that turned into “Stale Scent of Old Beer,” Amos and its 6 members had all eyes on them as soon as they plugged in. With a new singer in tow—I don’t know her name, but it wasn’t Katie Cooke—and a stage big enough to play around on, they didn’t take long to break into their usual vocal acrobatics. One of the draws to Amos the Transparent is that they don’t really have a lead singer. Much the same, their sound is just as hard to pin down, as it’s always a little bigger than folk-tinged indie rock. Their sound, and the show, was all about contrast, flipping effortlessly from out-grown punk rock gang vocals of “Greater Than Consequence” to the soothing four-to-five part harmonies of “(here’s to) New Beginnings”. There was no shortage on showmanship. Not only did the band bring up a contingent of media-members and fans for the climax of “Greater Than Consequence” but one of their long anticipated new songs featured balls out dual-drumming, with guitarist-turned-keyboardist-slash-vocalist Mark Hyne smashing away on a floor tom and hi-hat. Another of their new songs featured a bit of a reggae back-beat, a definite up-stroke in the least, blended with just the right amount of fuzzed out grooves.
All in all, Amos the Transparent were fucking incredible. Had I known the words, I’d surely have lost my voice. Had I been drinking, I probably would have made them up. If you see their name in your local listings, go see them. And hey, why not have some more pictures?