Friday, October 22, 2010

Tour de Fancy

The wedding's back on. I recently wrote a post about a certain miss Jenny Lewis and her slide from girl-crush goddess into mediocre demi-back-up-singer, but after her show last night, I'm back on board. It reaffirms my belief that some performers are better live, while others need the support of a recording studio to bring their A-game. And it underlines my theory that Toronto hipsters woke up one day nine or ten months ago with a memo from the Fashion Fairy (a chain-smoking, vodka-tonic-swilling little sprite who had been up all night hitting on models and expounding about digital cameras) and all dutifully went out to buy plaid. Seriously, the Canadian tux was in full effect last night.

Anyway, Jenny Lewis and her partner in life and onstage, Johnny Rice, were great. The show had Band of Horses headlining, which we skipped because the crowd was insufferable, and the openers were the Besnard Lakes, which we loathed. The Lakes looked like Sloan and sounded like an even more boring Flaming Lips, and their stage show was irritating. At one point, they turned on super-bright LED light displays, and my sister and I simultaneously made the same face a cat will make if you spray it with water.

But the Jenny and Johnny portion, and yes, I'm biased, was great. Most of their setlist was from their recent collaborative album, but they capped their set with a song from Lewis's 2008 album Acid Tongue, "The Next Messiah," a nine-minute-long Southern rock jam that builds to a confetti-cannon finish. Rice was charmingly deferential to his special lady, who knows how to work a room and has a smile that could melt ice caps. And the bass player, for an added treat, was hilarious, all windmill and blond David Lynch haircut. It was fun, which is how live music is supposed to be.

Jenny and Johnny are one example of musicians that just need the energy of a room to get them to the next level. A few weeks ago, I went to a Murder By Death show and the same experience held there: the band was rollicking and sweaty, musically tight and having fun. Listening to their album at home, it's clear that the band was wearing their Sunday best to the studio; that sense of loose, jammy playtime isn't present. When I saw the Beastie Boys a few years ago, the guys were fun and funny, but the show had been obviously been produced. There were costume changes and synchronized AV displays, and the show had been scheduled down the the nanosecond.

If I had to hazard a guess, I would say that maybe the difference is between being a touring band and a recording band. Jenny and Johnny, Murder by Death, Ted Leo, Basia Bulat - the number of days they spend on the road far outstrips the time they spend in the studio. While a group like the Beasties can afford to spend more than a year enveloped in the recording process, to be offset by a year of touring, smaller bands need to grow their grassroots support by getting out there and playing the tiny clubs and jam spaces. Murder By Death recorded their 2003 album Who Will Survive, And What Will Be Left of Them? in a scant eleven days, and their touring schedule for 2010's Good Morning, Magpie had the band hitting 26 venues in 29 days. They get so good at playing live shows because that's what they do as a band. They don't need the glitzy production of an arena show because their music doesn't fall apart if they play fast and loose with it. They've built in a live sound to their shows, and have much more flexibility than a band who relies on banks of technical equipment to reproduce the vibe of their albums out in the world.

Hearing a band give a performance reaffirms my belief in live music. Oh, sure, not everyone can be wicked awesome with an audience, but my favourites seem to be folks who can move a room, who are comfortable enough with their musicality to play with their songs, not just play them, and who throw off twitchy, musical charisma. You can keep your Gwen Stefanis and your Muses - gigantic shows that are all Autotune, forty-foot video screens and fireworks over Webley Stadium. I like the world's biggest sound in the city's tiniest rooms.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


Nothing makes me feel more Canadian than sitting on a coffeeshop patio, overlooking Toronto's downtown vista, sipping on a hot apple cider. The autumn months are so gloriously necessary in a region that goes from boiling hot to freezing cold: they're like a palate cleanser, easing us into the cooler season.

As I rediscovered this summer, to my great dismay, I'm not really a summer person. Oh, sure, I enjoy the long days and the direct sunlight, but Southern Ontario is such a moody girl when it comes to temperature. Last summer featured a number of days in a row where just up and dying was probably the best option: humid, shadeless days that hit temperatures like 45 Celsius without even blinking. Since I rarely sweat, my cooling mechanism is deficient. It's a tricky line to walk when the slightest midday exertion creates an internal furnace that's been cranked to its highest setting. When I was reading The Windup Girl, the recent future-set novel by Paolo Bacigalupi about the food apocalypse, the Thai kingdom and weird sex - it was a barnstormer, let me tell you - I identified with the titular character, whose pores had been created too small for tropical Thailand and she would overheat. When I read that, I was like, "Aha! It does happen!" and then remember that, no, not really, it doesn't. Fiction is tricky that way.

In any case, while there are elements of the summer I enjoy, the heat is definitely not one of them. So switching to fall mode, where the days are cooler and the colours on the trees come out, is a nice breath of fresh air. I know it's a prelude to winter, which we're contractually obligated to hate, but the light is amazing and the pressure is off to have as! much! fun! as! possible! Summer is all about the 75-day sprint between Victoria Day and Labour Day: barbecues, bike rides, splashing in the water, drinking all night, free concerts in the park, run as fast as you can. I love it, but I also love the slower pace of the transition seasons. Spring is all about emergence, but in a way, so is fall. After the hustle-bustle of summer, autumn is a great time to take stock and settle into routines: the kids go back to school, people stop taking Fridays as sick days to drive four hours to the cottage, tights are reintroduced under dresses, and the underlying structure of our daily lives comes back into focus. It's nice.

I mean, sure, there are downsides to every season. The transition months in spring and fall are loaded with allergies, and there's that whole Daylight Saving thing that ruins everyone for a while. My favourite fruits disappear from the grocer and the patio is hit-or-miss. But in terms of terrible moments, fall's sort of great. Unless it rains the whole time. Then it's more of a bummer.

While I'm not really excited about winter weather, I'm jazzed to see how this one goes, brain-wise. I'm one of those folks who hibernates, getting fatter and more reluctant to leave the cocoon of the house, but I'm tired of that routine. I'd like to keep this veneer of normalcy up, in the hopes that it solidifies into real healthiness. Summer, while busy, recharges our batteries; winter drains them. Spring and fall are a happy compromise, asking for and giving little except the sun on your face and the knowledge that things are nice for a while. That's all I really want.