Feeling it Break: Austra at Sugar Nightclub

14 10 2013

Austra’s early show at Sugar Nightclub on Saturday night came as a blessing.  Even with two encores, the show wrapped up at 10:00 PM sharp.  The show’s early curfew allowed those scheduled to run in The Goodlife Fitness Marathon on Sunday morning to go home, carb-load and get some rest, while other, more thrill seeking concert-goers, were able to make it down to Lucky Bar to catch Fucked Up; unfortunately, this reviewer was part of the carb-loading tribe, though I heard Fucked Up played a hell of a show at Lucky.

The night began with an impassioned opening set by Moon King.  Led by parka-clad singer, Daniel Benjamin, Moon King did an excellent job of warming up the non-parka clad crowd (Sugar Nightclub has a mandatory coat check*—I’m still unsure how Benjamin managed to sneak past the eagle-eyed security staff) with a rousing and energetic set.  Along with guitarist/harmonist, Maddy Wilde, Benjamin cavorted his way through an engaging set of songs ranging from beautiful pop-induced harmonies to gritty punk rock songs.  Moon King is strikingly young, and on Saturday night they proved themselves to be a band worth watching: I picked up their debut 12”, Obession, and it is most excellent.

Sugar was near capacity by the time Austra took the stage.  The first thing that struck me, aside from the band’s beautiful, and aptly fitting umbrella light display on stage, was how tiny lead singer Katie Stelmanis is.  One would never guess, from listening to Austra’s powerful and operatic vocals, that Stelmanis incredibly short in stature.  Even with platform shoes on, Stelmanis essentially peered over the monitors lining the front of the stage for most of the band’s set.

Flanked by a band clad in some similarly interesting apparel, including the keyboardist’s spandex onesie, Stelmanis gave an energetic and delightful performance to wrap up the band’s long North American tour.  The show, mostly comprised of material from Austra’s newest album, Olympia, which was released earlier this year, fully displayed how far Austra’s come since their debut, Polaris-Nominated release, Feel It Break.

While the crowd was more responsive to material from Austra’s first album, particularly standout track, “Lose It” which most of us sang along to with full vibrato, the band’s darker new tracks were every bit as stunning, proving that Austra wasn’t the slightest bit affected by the sophomore slump.  While Olympia is indeed a grower, the songs performed live on Saturday night were undoubtedly more raw and engaging in their live skin.  As we walked down Sugar’s massive staircase, and out into the early evening air, we did so with massive smiles slapped upon pink cheeks.

*I heard many-a complaint about Sugar’s mandatory coat check policy on Saturday night.  While I fully understand the safety logistics motivating the coat check, I agree with other patrons that the three dollar charge for each checked item is a bit steep (one person I talked to was charged $9, as she had to check three items).  I think it would be great if Sugar lowered their charge, or donated all monies collected from their mandatory coat check to deserving local charities.Image




Orpheus Emerged: Neko Case In Vancouver

22 09 2013

On Friday night, The Orpheum’s ornate and vaulted ceiling caressed a voice so confounding in its unlikely alloy of strength and weakness, we were justified to believe that Orpheus himself had temporarily assumed the form of a red-headed goddess. Just as Orpheus charmed all living things and even the stones with his song long ago, Neko Case immediately transfixed a near capacity crowd with her timeless, curiously lyre-less, lyrical ballads: no doubt, even the building’s stone walls rejoiced.

The evening began with Case’s haunting rendition of “Where Did I Leave That Fire”, from her newest release, The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You. The song, featured in the album’s trailer, was even more haunting in its live skin, and set the tone for the rest of the evening by demonstrating Case’s unique ability to incite tears and laughter in a matter of minutes.

Flanked by her five piece band, Case betrayed not the slightest sign of illness though she later disclosed that a cold has plagued her from the very outset of her west coast tour. Songs such as “This Tornado Loves You”, “Margaret vs. Pauline” and “John Saw That Number” never sounded better even if, as Case suggested, they were filtered by phlegm’s semipermeable membrane.

Friday night’s concert also showcased the beautiful harmonies and acerbic wit of Case’s long time friend and collaborator Kelly Hogan. Hogan, who waxed poetic and comedic on a range of subjects from menopause to her “ladycop outfit”, kept the crowd entertained as Case tuned her four string guitar between songs. Hogan’s most recent release, I Like To Keep Myself In Pain, was one of last year’s most tragically under-appreciated records, and her pitch perfect harmonies continue to prove indispensable to Case’s sound.

Friday night was a homecoming of sorts for the notoriously transient Neko Case. Throughout the evening Case, who graduated from Emily Carr with a BFA in 1998, graciously thanked bandmates past and present for making her musical career possible. The seats were lined with such bandmates, including Dan Bejar and Kathryn Calder from the New Pornographers as well as fellow Corn Sister Carolyn Mark.

After an encore and two standing ovations, the house lights went up and Case disappeared into the rainy night. Her eastbound bus destined for New York via Philly, Case continues to live a reality so poetically described in “I’m From Nowhere”: “driving for twenty one days”, our nowhere woman leaves thousands of star-struck fans in her magical wake, proving that Orpheus continues to emerge in the rainiest of cities.


Reinventing Song: Blackout Beach’s Blues Trip

14 03 2013

Upon its release in 2011, Blackout Beach’s Fuck Death took a lot of people by surprise. The album’s tight weave of synthesizers and sonic soundscapes, which provide a rich, multifaceted backdrop to Carey Mercer’s often hushed words on war, sharply contrasts with the guitar driven fury that defines much Mercer’s back catalogue. Fuck Death marked radical departure for Mercer, one that had taken him a long time to create.

“I recorded Fuck Death over the space of two or three years,” says Mercer “I wasn’t working on it every day but I would work intensely for weeks at a time. I wrote all the music and then I sat on it for about a year waiting for the right words to come. As I listened, I often asked myself ‘What does this sound like?'”

Mercer eventually found his answer in an unlikely place. While reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a first person account of the Vietnam war, something clicked.

“I read Dispatches and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, my record!’ Vietnam couldn’t be further away from my own experience, but it’s one of those things that keeps resonating: I feel kind of haunted by it. I thought this record could be not just about war, but how war is represented, how it’s fictionalized and how disgusting that is, but also how I get kind of giddy reading about it.”

With a renewed sense of direction, the words came quickly to Mercer. He discovered that the elements of war were hiding in the music all along.

“I just had to listen for a really long time. I noticed that there was a lot of static, a lot of helicopter sounds and short wave radio, which could be interpreted in several ways but because of what I was reading and thinking about at the time, I heard those sounds in the context of war. I wondered what it would be like to have an aggressive helicopter flying over me.”

After thousands of hours of work, mostly spent in solitude, Mercer had finally completed Fuck Death. Released in 2011, the album was met with much critical acclaim but, in hindsight, Mercer is largely ambivalent to his experience recording it. What began as Mercer’s labour of love ended as a war of attrition.

“I don’t ever want to make that kind of record again,” says Mercer “It represents thousands of hours of looking at a computer screen. There’s a kind of singularity to the album because it’s all me playing. I guess it’s kind of neat that you can do that now– you can hole up with your computer and synthesizers, become insular and after a few days you’re like, ‘Wow, I worked on this so much, it’s so neat, what a wonderful way to spend time!’ . But after a while you start to go a bit nutty: it becomes a toxic experience and actually starts to poison you a bit.”

Mercer’s remedy to the toxic experience of recording Fuck Death came last summer when he, along with drummer Melanie Campbell and bassist Dante DeCaro, stole away to DeCaro’s remote studio to radically reinterpret many of the songs on Fuck Death. Ironically, the three piece band ended up stripping down Mercer’s solitary constructions.

The session ultimately resulted in Blues Trip, which was released on Bandcamp in February and will available on limited edition vinyl later this year. As Mercer confides, the album brings new life to the material.

Blues Trip appeals to me because it was tracked in a day with friends. We thought it was kind of funny that we started off with this electronic record and reduced it to what a lot of people would call one of the more mundane forms–the blues. But we were so invigorated and excited by what we were doing, much more than if we had faithfully recreated Fuck Death. Doing that wouldn’t have been much fun for me.”

On Friday night, Victorians will have a chance to see songs transformed. Mercer, along with the three piece incarnation of Blackout Beach is set to take the stage Victoria’s newest venue, the Copper Owl. The evening promises to be a culmination of thousands of solitary, introspective hours in front of the computer and one fateful summer afternoon rocking out with friends. It shouldn’t be missed.

Nick Lyons


Direction is No Place at All: An Intimate Evening With Colleen Brown

19 11 2012

On Sunday night, I had the opportunity to attend a house concert. I’d never heard the performer before: all I knew about her was her name (Colleen Brown) and that she came highly recommended by a friend of mine who is endowed with wonderful musical instincts. I braved the elements, walking down Dallas Road in the midst of the year’s most powerful storm. I saw octopi washed up dead on the concrete, I saw whitecaps consume a horizon that only reluctantly comes to rest at the foot of the Olympic mountain range. And then I saw Colleen Brown sing, an experience every bit as powerful and inspiring as my journey to the small, seaside duplex where she played.

Brown’s songs are a fortunate fusion of complex chord progressions and thoughtful, meditative lyrical play. While I hate to draw comparisons, Brown often reminded me of Laura Marling, Joanna Newsom and Joni Mitchell. But Brown’s is ultimately a musical style, most singular. No doubt, future generations will mould themselves in Brown’s musical image; they will be fortunate to have her as a reference point.

The highlight of the evening, for me, was Brown’s original composition, “Direction”. The song showcases Brown’s subtle graces on piano, which provide a hesitating, beautiful backdrop to poetic turns of phrase from the voice of Brown, our restless wanderer. She confesses that “Direction is no place at all”, and on Sunday night, the fortunate few who were lucky enough to be in the friendly confines of that duplex were instantly transported us a sacred place: a place in between places—not here, not there, as the wind outside blew wild.


Get Your Tickets Early: An Evening with Bahamas and Jason Collett

25 10 2012

The fortunate few who gathered at St. Anne’s Auditorium on Tuesday night couldn’t help but feel pretty lucky. The auditorium, while beautiful, is incredibly small; last minute fans were left to scour the Internet, and the park surrounding St. Anne’s where Bahamas hid the two remaining tickets, for their chance to see the show. Unfortunately many were left out in the cold, but those who got their tickets early were generously rewarded to an intimate performance courtesy of not one but two of Canada’s premier acts without the drunken distractions that inevitably detract from any given show at any given bar. St. Anne’s Auditorium was the perfect venue for Bahamas and Collett because of, not in spite of, its size.

The evening began early with Jason Collett taking the marqueed stage all by his lonesome. Collett looks and sounds much different than he did last time he came through town. His quaffed curls have given way to long hair, and the themes of his beautifully melodic songs have changed rather drastically. While Collett played some older songs, most of his set consisted of selections from this year’s _Reckon_, whose direct and austere tracks seemed even more urgent in their live skin. Yes, the subject matter of many of Collett’s new songs is bleak, but the tone of his performance was impossibly light as Collett was obviously thrilled to join his old pal and former bandmate, Afie Jurvanen, on his tour across Canada. If Bahamas’ set was any indication, the thrill was mutual.

Bahamas’ live set is perfect: maybe it’s because the band has been touring for so long, maybe it’s because of the obvious chemistry between all four of the band’s member’s, or maybe its because they draw from such rich material; whatever it is, it would be impossible to conceive of a more refined and awe-inspiring live set. Though Jurvanen constantly reminded us that he and his band has only two albums of material to draw from, and while he was well aware that he paid us a visit a mere three months ago, his band’s performance was pitch-perfect. And keep in mind that this was the first show of their cross-Canada trek, by the time Bahamas reaches Winnipeg, much less Ontario, I’m willing to bet that they’ll prove the old axiom obsolete: Bahamas will improve upon perfection… with their Victoria show, they already have.

Barchords is as perfect an album can hope to be. A precious mixture of melancholy and joy, the album refuses a passive listen. The play count on my digital version of Barchords verges on triple digits, yet I still feel compelled to revisit it often. And still, Barchords’ songs are better live. If the studio versions of the songs lay elaborate blueprint well worth consideration and reconsideration, their live counterparts are a numinous finished product: precise gives way to even more precise while excitement steps aside to make room for an unparalleled spontaneous passion.

While it’s unfortunate that more people weren’t able to witness the fine mix of Collett coupled with Bahamas, perhaps that’s what made it even more special. Without the ambient noise and chatter generated by those who might have heard “Lost in the Light” on Much Music a couple of times, the songs of two future Canadian icons has room grow, leaving their silenced crowd utterly and completely captivated. For better or for worse, it is likely the last time we’ll be able to hear either act in a venue so small; get your tickets now.

–Nick Lyons


UnoFest 2012 – Blue Box

2 06 2012
Carmen Aguirre

Carmen Aguirre in Blue Box.

Blue Box is an unapologetic story of and told with power.  Its narrative bathes in it, bemoans the loss of it, fights it and fears it—all in one captivating solo show.

Carmen Aguirre’s autobiographical monologue is a clever, sensual reflection of a life she so fully tried to give over to passion (politically and otherwise), only to wind up with stilted desire, denied pleasure and the defeating reality of edging near the brink of success only to be left hanging.  It’s a womanly take on blue balls, as the euphemism goes.

Over the course of 80 minutes, Aguirre intercuts her tale of obsessive (and unreturned) love for a younger actor with the decade she spent in South America fighting for a Chilean revolution that wasn’t.  In some moments, the endless back-and-forth between countries, characters and years is confusing—but the polarity of both vignettes is important to Aguirre’s layered perspective on control and certain vulnerability.

Where this works best?  In the contrast of two risky nights to remember: one in the late 80s where she lays awake with every bump in the night after an informant tracks her down, another, ten years later, when she beds her Chicano lover for the first time.  Both hunting stories are absorbing on their own but together they offer a stark tribute to the agony and ecstasy of living from your gut.

Aguirre herself is stunning to watch, full-featured in her splendour with a streak of wildness in her unruly waves and high cheekbones. As a performer, Aguirre has an unreal confidence.  Her salsa dancing—backed by great sound design—is gorgeous and she has no problem giving you real talk about her lover’s chocolate truffle tongue inches from your face.  Brian Quirt’s sharp direction is sparse but Aguirre delivers its subtlety with power in every gesture.  She has absolute comfort in total silence, adding weight or tension to key moments.  Her eye contact is as piercing as it is frequent and her command of language—its tricks and double entendre and quiet ironies—is the real magic of this piece.

But this confidence itself is where the narrative falls down a bit for me.  It’s incongruent with Aguirre’s almost-fanatical pursuit of her young lover, who is at best an unlikable douchebag.  As the show progresses, their relationship borders on abusive—yet Aguirre is still in it to win it, explaining that “when one is on an adventure, one must see it through to the end.”  I didn’t buy into this, even with the knowledge that I was watching a more mature Aguirre looking backwards.

But maybe that’s her point; Blue Box challenges the parameters of how far we can or should go for our beliefs and, in doing so, packs a punch unlike anything else at UnoFest this year.  If not for love, then why?  —Melanie Tromp Hoover

**One more show on Saturday, June 2 at 8:30 p.m. at the Metro Studio.  Tickets are $25.

UnoFest 2012 – Jake’s Gift

1 06 2012
Julia Mackey in Jake's Gift

Julia Mackey in Jake’s Gift.

Returning to Victoria for the fifth time in as many years, Jake’s Gift has truly become a modern classic for the city’s theatre-going crowd.  Surprising to probably nobody, Julia Mackey performs the piece as flawlessly today as she did during its premier at UnoFest in 2007.

Told over three days of the 60th Anniversary D-Day celebrations on Juno Beach, this solo show explores loss, regret and ultimate hopefulness through the war-time encounters of Jake, a reluctant veteran who has returned to Normandy for the first time in 60 years.  His stumble down memory lane is prompted by the poking and prodding of Isabelle, an ambitious and fiercely loyal ten-year-old living on the beach today.

Mackey—under the sharp direction of Dirk Van Stralen—flips between Jake and Isabelle with convincing grace and precision.  Her physicality with each character, particularly as an 80-year man with shaking hands and an endless sway, is as entirely believable as her French accent (though Jake’s Canadian prairie inflection might have a teensy New York twang to it).

At its tremendous heart, Jake’s Gift is a deceptively simple story; the content itself doesn’t bring anything particularly new to the tale of Canada’s participation in WWII.  Instead, it reframes the fable of war alongside its decidedly human core.  In an era where wars are largely fought by computers from airplanes—when the people caught in the fray are still very real but the soldiers rarely have to look them in the face—this charming, powerful story of humanity is a national treasure.

In one scene Jake says: “It means a lot that someone so young understands what we were trying to do.”  With almost 70 years between us and D-Day—and only a handful of WWII veterans still living—Canada is lucky to have Mackey’s incredible gift for storytelling. — Melanie Tromp Hoover

**Jake’s Gift plays Friday, June 1 and Saturday, June 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Metro Theatre. Tickets are $18.

UnoFest 2012: The Adversary

28 05 2012
Andrew Bailey is The Adversary.

Andrew Bailey is The Adversary.

Master storyteller Andrew Bailey takes a compassionate stab at justice and dignity in The Adversary, the latest and perhaps sharpest installment yet in this hometown talent’s sweet-and-sardonic monologue series.

Best described as a tale of poetic justice, the narrative is based largely in Bailey’s decade-long stint as caretaker for Victoria’s St. John the Divine, the church tucked away at Quadra and Mason that serves equitable time as a haven for God’s children and an out-of-the way spot to shoot up for junkies.  Through the opinions from and interactions with a motley group of homeless people, we learn that Bailey’s gig was as much about connecting to the humanity in others as it was about pre-church lawn mows and de-needling the underbrush every Sunday.

Bailey uses his 60 minutes wisely to unpack justice as concept—both the street variety and otherwise—while commenting on tolerance, the heartbreak and fellowship of Victoria’s homeless population and his personal take on the kind of battles that are worth fighting.  While each piece before Adversary has exposed Bailey’s total lack of self-assurance, this new work trails his evolving sixth sense for knowing when to take charge and when to leave the shit-kicking to someone else.

Delivered with subtlety, honest wit and expert comedic timing, Bailey appropriately humanizes the story beyond the realm of preachy or patronizing and his clean transitions between both character and anecdote keep the audience on pace from start to finish.

As someone who has seen, loved, praised and publicly extolled the virtues of the award-winning Andrew Bailey Monologue Trilogy (Scrupulosity, Putz and Limbo, respectively), I see The Adversary as a comfortable fit for the more mature, less-freaked-out-but-still-geeky next chapter in Bailey’s confessional saga.  Mostly autobiographical, the sub-themes and people involved in each piece have been virtually the same—yet Bailey has deftly used each monologue to bring one element, one particular cast of characters from his life to centre stage for a level of charming and thoughtful analysis that earns every laugh, gasp and agreeable nod it gets.

Performed for the first time ever to a sold-out crowd on Sunday night, The Adversary is poised to become another runaway hit for Bailey on the Fringe circuit this summer.  Victoria is only too lucky to get to see it first.  — Melanie Tromp Hoover 

**Showing Monday, May 28 at 6:30PM and Tuesday, May 29 at 8:00PM at the Intrepid Theatre Club (1609 Blanshard).  Tickets are $16 and are available at www.ticketrocket.org.

UnoFest 2012: The Birdmann

25 05 2012
The Birdmann

Trent Baumann is The Birdmann.

The Birdmann has already been called a lot of things in this town—words like ‘oddball’, ‘mind-blowing’ and ‘surreal’.  Returning to the city for a victory lap on the Uno stage, 2011’s Pick of the Fringe is just as rambunctious the second time round.

The show itself is a bit Seinfeld-meets-vaudevillian sketch in its eccentric take on nothingness but, more than anything, Birdmann is a giggle-worthy hour of silly and spectacularly-enacted joy.

Performer Trent Baumann has deftly blended a maze of observational one-liners with frat house party tricks that he brings new life to under the lens of absurdity.  It helps that he also possesses a knack for flawless physical comedy rivaled only by his ability to pull off skinny, skinny jeans.

Underneath all of this tightly-scripted showmanship is a jumble of plot points: amongst others, the plastic bag problem in our oceans, parental advice on the bare essentials of life and the benefits of meditation.  Having said that, my big takeaway was much simpler: The Birdmann is an exercise in play, in reclaiming childlike instincts (the ones that throw utensils across a room or, say, pour liquids through nostrils) to reinterpret the oddities that are put before us at any age.

If there’s a bigger message, I missed it between all of the laughs.  — Melanie Tromp Hoover

**One more show on Friday, May 25, 7:00 PM at the Metro Studio (1411 Quadra).  Tickets are $18/$19, available at www.ticketrocket.org.

UnoFest 2012: Four Quartets

25 05 2012

Deborah Dunn in a scene from Four Quartets.

In Four Quartets, Deborah Dunn—famed across Canada for her prose-inspired dance pieces—brings a stylish new energy to T.S. Eliot’s brooding poetry of the same name. 

Designed as a temporal study of the human condition, this piece is ultimately a story of contrast.  Eliot’s opus—and, by extension, Dunn’s brave choreography—dabbles in beginnings and endings, in stillness and movement and in spirituality versus the impact of earth’s most physical elements.

In short, there’s a lot going on. 

Add to these themes a layer of metered language in voiceover interfacing with movement and the audience is asked to tackle a lot in 60 minutes.  Even with a sparse set free of distraction, it took much of the first quarter to settle into the consuming pace of synchronized listening and watching.

But Dunn’s strength as a dancer—in both precision and in potency itself—is as impressive as it is enduring.  There’s a moment in the first poem where a wash of red light isolates every muscle in Dunn’s naked back—an image of vulnerability, perhaps, but also a testament to the physical possibilities of the human body despite Eliot’s view that “humankind cannot bear very much of reality.”

The moments when Dunn’s choreography becomes a literal picture of Eliot’s language are the only soft spots in an otherwise clever mash-up of form and function.  Delivered with wit and decisive grace, Dunn’s quartets are an elegant contribution to the UnoFest lineup.     — Melanie Tromp Hoover   

**One more show on Friday, May 25, 8:30 PM at the Metro Studio (1411 Quadra).  Tickets are $18/$19, available at www.ticketrocket.org.  Full details on the UnoFest website.

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