I went to see Recoil (a.k.a. Alan Wilder, formerly of Depeche Mode, as they kept mentioning all over the promotional material) at the Opera House here in Toronto last night. I’ve always had kind of a fascination with that “formerly of Depeche Mode,” thing, I have to admit, simply because Depeche Mode seems to hire these brilliant keyboard players, who strongly influence the band’s sound and then leave to form bands about a million times better than Depeche Mode at the kind of sound that they brought to Depeche Mode. It makes me wonder what the internal politics of the band are that they so strongly influence the band but in such a strangely diluted way while they’re members. The two cases in point would be Vince Clarke, who went on to form Erasure and there pretty much perfected the upbeat electro-pop thing, and Alan Wilder, who left to pursue Recoil (which he’d been doing on the side while a member of Depeche Mode) and took the disturbing, dark electronica style to its pinnacle.
‘San joined me (which was an unexpected treat), and the place we’d planned on for dinner turned out to have a long wait, so instead we popped in to Big Fat Burrito in Kensington market (always delicious). That’s a very quick meal in relation to what we’d planned for, so we actually arrived shortly after 8pm, just when the doors were being opened. That was my first hint that the crowd was going to be yet another totally difference slice of music fans. First, everybody was wearing black, head-to-toe, and second, there were actually a huge number of people waiting in line for the doors to open. Almost every other show I’ve been to this month (with the exception of Ryuichi Sakamoto, which had the formal performance lobby-with-wine thing going on) has featured crowds who show up hours late out of either hipsterness or a desire to skip the opening bands / all the standing around. This eager-to-get-in-and-see-everything crowd was actually a lot more something I could relate to, and the crowd did seem more “my people” — geeky, middle-aged, seeming like they worked in the tech sector by day, were vaguely gothy by evening, and role played on the weekend. (I’m actually not gothy at all, and I don’t role play, but that’s a the social crowd I’ve often been in.) At one point there was even a guy in front of us with a t-shirt that said “EVIL” across the back, which I found painfully goth-melodramatic, until I noticed that the faded graphic beneath it was a collection of comic book supervillains (the Penguin, etc.).
The Opera House is a pretty okay venue. I’ve always found their sound a little mushy, but not awful. If you know the song, you can pick it out just fine, but if you don’t know it, stuff sort of just blends together. Also, they tend to really push the bass a bit further than is necessary, but again, it’s not awful. It feels weird to say it, but they have very nice lighting. They know how to pre-populate the room with the right amount of smoke to give the lighting really defined beams without blocking sightlines or making it hard to breathe.
(As usual, all the media was recorded on my cell phone, which means it’s low-quality and grainy. Also, I was further from the stage this time.)
I presume from the ticket that the guy providing the in-house music was DJ Kevin H. He put together actually a very nice sort of industrial-dance mix featuring stuff anywhere from old school My Life With The Thrill Kill Kult to Aphex Twin’s darker tracks (well, I don’t know that Windowlicker counts as “dark” precisely, but it’s not one of his airier, prettier tracks). He was using Traktor, which made me happy, being a huge Native Instruments fanboy.
The first act up on stage was Conjure One. I know that I have a bunch of Conjure One fans among my friends reading this. It’s actually kind of weird in that I think more people I know are really into Conjure One than have even heard of Recoil, despite Recoil being the headliner.
In any case, they were the closest thing the evening’s set had to an actual band performance, in that they had the live vocalist. The stage was set (at the beginning of the show) with three desks, and the other member of the band was behind one of these, fiddling with equipment in ways you mostly couldn’t see, but which gave the same sense as the general “guy behind a laptop at a desk” performance style. I can’t remember if he had a MacBook at all — I think not — but it became funny by the end of the show to count the MacBooks. (In general this month, every single concert I’ve seen except Ryuichi Sakamoto has had a significant chunk of the sound provided by a MacBook of some flavour — and usually each musician in the show had one. It’s becoming the most popular musical instrument to see at a concert for me by far.) In any case, he pretty much never looked up or made eye contact with the audience at all, and the singer was doing the sort of etherial “look over the heads of the audience at the middle-distance” thing. The result was that they really didn’t connect. I might have gotten more from the show had I liked the music more (I find them kind of generic), but all in all the performance struck me as sort of boring. It didn’t help that the images behind them were often-repeated, and I wasn’t super excited that in their imagery they often relied on Islamic or Middle Eastern imagery as an unrelated-to-their-show shorthand for mystic exoticism. Here they are performing “I Dream in Colour”:
They played a reasonable-length set. Since I wasn’t that into them, it was a little longer than I’d wanted, but it was probably a good length for fans or the mildly interested, kind of longer than the “band nobody’s ever heard of” 3-5 song set, but still not overdoing it.
Because of the setup of each band — a laptop or similar-sized piece of equipment on a desk — band changes were remarkably quick — just unplug a few cables and carry the whole desk off the stage.
After a brief return to DJ Kevin H, the next act, Architect, took the stage. The changeover wasn’t all that smooth, with a lot of gesturing and adjusting of sound levels needed to get things going, but it wasn’t a huge deal or anything.
I’d never heard of Architect before, but it appears to be a side project of Daniel Myer of Haujobb. I don’t know in this iteration if he bills himself as a DJ or a musician or both, or if any of the music was original (I definitely heard some songs I recognized by other artists such as the obligatory Depeche Mode reference, but most of it could have been original for all I know). It was pretty much the epitome of “guy standing behind a laptop, with video” performance. The music was interesting, but not… elevated. It was what I’d expect from a very good industrial DJ at a club, and I think in that kind of atmosphere, where you were dancing and nobody was expecting to see a performance, it would work really well. As it was, the video show was slick and professional and very appropriate for the style and music, but it really got repetetive to just stand there and watch, and although toward the end of his set he started to bop around a lot more in a way that was fun, he himself also didn’t put on that much of a show. The music had a lot of great, catchy industrial beats, though, and I think it was a little notch of an improvement from the Conjure One set. I’d probably go to see him in a club as a DJ, but I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to see him in a concert setting again. Here’s a little chunk of his set (there are MUCH higher quality videos from this set posted already by other people on YouTube already if you’re interested in seeing more):
My only big complaint about the Architect set was that I really did think it went on far too long for an opening act. It felt more like a “festival of equal performers” set, and maybe that’s the way they wanted it, but given the repetetiveness (especially the mind-numbing repetition of the video portion), by the end I was really heading toward that state where you start checking your watch every few seconds.
After he left the stage, after a really quite brief pause, Alan Wilder, a.k.a. Recoil, took the stage along with producer Paul Kendall, a.k.a. PK or Piquet. They performed together for the whole set. Like the rest of the show, it was the two of them behind their respective MacBook Pros (Wilder had two, actually) with the bulk of the performance space dedicated to showing video.
They definitely put on the best show of the assembled performers, as you would expect from the headliner, I suppose. And this despite the similarity of their acts. They didn’t engage with the audience much more, although Wilder did come out and wave and bow before installing himself behind the laptop, and did make eye contact now and then, both of which go a long way. I know I keep saying this, but I would have liked a little banter, although I admit that there was really no room for it during the set, the way it was constructed. The concert was actually billed as “A Strange Hour with Alan Wilder,” and that turned out to be a sort of continuous multimedia presentation rather than a traditional concert done in a fairly freeform style with songs and breaks, etc.
This is where I’d intended to insert the video of them performing “Prey,” but there appears to be something wrong with it such that both times I’ve attempted to upload it to YouTube, it’s simply said it was “processing” forever. I’ll have to check back on it later and slip it in, if it ever completes.
I think two things made their show different. The first is obviously very subjective, but I just think that the music was of a higher calibre than the other acts — more textured, better orchestrated, tweaked for a live performance better. Certainly it’s a more structured approach to writing, which can keep it interesting. Part of this may be my increased familiarity with the music, which also really helps keep a show from just blending together, although ‘San also reported that she thought they were by far the best and she’s not familiar with them at all. Maybe part of it is Wilder’s extensive concert experience lending a bit more atristry and technique to his approach to orchestrating for live performance. Whatever the case, I found that the music and the progression through the music was designed in a way that it kept your attention better, while also being just as fun and having as driving a groove.
The other aspect is that the video show wasn’t just a tempo-synced looping slide show as in the other acts. It was a series of videos prepared specifically to accompany the audio. It didn’t repeat in the same way, and each song or segment in the audio performance had a video specifically crafted to match its tone and theme. Some of the videos told little stories, others were collages of images and clips, but in the end it was a much more dynamic and deeply crafted video experience. (Also often vaguely pornographic in a disturbing way, but that’s true of Recoil’s music as well.) Throwing in some classic Depeche Mode was a nice touch as well:
If I can get into a purely trivial observation here, there’s also a certain set of forms and styles to how musicians “groove” to their own music when they’re on stage in this format, and I think both Wilder and Kendall have the kind of groove that I like — understated, but not too subtle, with a good balance between “I’m intellectually very engaged with whatever I’m doing to drive this performance” and “we’re all grooving together to this vibe”. Wilder did make a good point of throwing about some smiles at the crowd periodically as well — Kendall, further in, had a sort of “tech guy” thing going on, much more deeply engaged in what he was doing at all times.
At the end of the show, they made their design of it as a multimedia experience clear by scrolling credits (there had been title cards at the beginning as well). This both set an interesting tone and belied any claims they might have made to spontanaeity. I think, ultimately, that they did about as well as you can do with this style of performance, but that I’m just not completely adjusted to the idea of watching video presentation accompanied by music provided by a laptop being vaguely babysat by a performer. And it’s weird, because I know that, to a greater degree than many people realize, this is how music is made these days. I mean, it’s how I make music. I don’t sit around with a guitar in my lap on a park bench jotting ideas in a notebook with a chewed pencil. I sit in an office chair at a desk in front of a computer staring at a screen fiddling with a mouse. I look about the same when I’m writing music as I do when I’m writing these posts, or when I’m at work. This has been an ongoing dilemma in the back of my mind, because while I don’t have any plans to do any more live performing, if it came up and I decided to do it, I don’t know that I’d be able to do anything differently (and even to get to this style of performance, I’d have to find someone who is good with video willing to help me out, I imagine). That’s part of what prompted my failed experiment with the EWI — a desire to learn to physically play something that would untether me from a keyboard rack and get me out from behind a desk.
But I don’t get the impression that young people (say, the audience at the Four Tet show, who were mostly in the 19-21 range) have any problems connecting in an environment like this, so I may simply be seeing the cultural horizon behind me. Who can be sure?
Either way, I can’t imagine harkening back to Recoil as one of the great shows I’ve seen (whether that’s because I can’t relate to this style of performing in as complete a manner or whether because it just wasn’t stellar is up to the reader to surmise), but for this type of show it was a very well put-together example, and if you like this sort of thing, it would do you well to check them out.
Unfortunately, this will be not be a media-rich recap, because photos, audio and video recording were strictly disallowed at the show. :(
I had no idea what to expect from this show, because of the tremendous diversity of Ryuichi Sakamoto’s repertoire. I recently heard it said that if he were born a few hundred years ago, we’d call him a renaissance man. His career has spanned numerous musical genres — Kraftwerk-style early electronica with Yellow Magic Orchestra, contemporary pop, abstract, experimental and noise work, adult contemporary work both on his own and with David Sylvian, contemporary “classical” works, film scores, and those are only the things that pop to my head without consulting any sources. He’s also been an actor, a writer, and an activist. Because the site I heard of the tour through was less than informative, I had no idea what hat he’d be wearing for this performance.
He played at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, which initially made me suppose something more sedate due to the “going to the symphony” vibe both the lobby and the patrons exuded, but then, as it came closer to show time, the crowd diversified quite a bit, from families in fine attire to teens in jeans and heavy metal shirts. Also, the televisions announced that Ani DiFranco was playing the same venue soon (which always surprises me, since the last time I saw her live was in a tiny high school gymnasium in Kingston around 1992 or 1993). When I got in and proceeded to my seat (this being the only non-general-admission concert I’m seeing this month), I found the venue to be nice, with more comfortable seats than I expected, and a versatile but definitely upscale feel.
(As an aside, although I arrived right at “doors”, I was able to snag a choice parking spot due to the venue’s “Reserved for Hybrid Vehicle,” spaces. Score!)
About five minutes before show time, a title card with some explanatory text came up. The show was to be for his “Playing the Piano” album and was to feature him playing solo piano. Well, “solo”. As the projection explained, a number of his works are duets, but he was playing by himself. He approached this situation by pre-playing the secondary parts into a Disklavier system, which would reproduce his hand movements exactly as played on the second piano while he accompanied himself on the first. They had an overhead camera showing the other piano playing with both the keys and the bed visible at one point in the show, and it was nifty to watch. I’m not a piano nerd, so I can’t tell you what type and model of piano he was playing, other than that it was a Yamaha. He had a little control surface next to him that he seemed to use occasionally to control the Disklavier and adjust the mix, but he didn’t touch it much, spending most of the time focused on playing.
I was a little trepidatious about the announcement, because of all the albums of his that I own (and I own quite a few), Playing the Piano and BTTB (another solo piano effort) are my least favourite. I find his piano-only albums feel a little clinical to me at times, even when he’s playing obviously emotional songs. I’m not even sure it’s that his playing is clinical. I think it’s just that I don’t connect with them as much. It’s quite possible that I’m just not well-practiced at listening to solo piano, so I have a hard time getting into the right frame of mind for it.
This worry extended through the first song, which was actually an abstract piece in which ambient textures played from a recording in the background and he manipulated the piano strings directly, leaning over to reach inside the piano. It worked just fine, but it was also somewhat dry, and I was a little tired.
However, after that he sat down and focused on the keys and played fairly traditional arrangements of various works covering his career (“Playing the Piano” is sort of a self-cover album, with him performing some of his best-loved pieces on piano), and as he continued, all my doubts washed away. Somehow in live performance he just emoted tremendously, and really made the music feel and flow in a way that it never really has for me in the recordings. (Although listening to them as I type this, I can now see that it’s all there, so maybe I just needed to see him play it to have it ‘click’ for me.) Anyway, it was really tremendous and awe-inspiring, and covered a tremendous array of tonalities, sometimes giving the sense that you were watching a concert pianist play a lost classic and at other times giving the sense that you were listening to a lounge player, dripping with intimacy and sentimentality.
He played his main performance for about 75 minutes and then left the stage to wild applause, although only maybe twenty people stood. I did, as my favourite moment in the performance had been right near the end of the main run — a tremendous, beautiful rendition of “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” which I’ve always loved. He then came out for two more encores, rounding out the show to about 105 minutes total. The first encore had a good half the audience on their feet at the end, and the second brought pretty much everyone to a standing ovation. For the first encore, he set a much more playful tone, picking up the pace, throwing in some swing, and really jazzing the songs up, becoming much more animated. I don’t even know what the first song of the first encore was, but it almost sounded like some sort of elaborate arrangement of a Stones tune or something along those lines. For the second encore, he played a truly epic and astounding performance of “The Last Emperor,” which is a great work with a lot of compelling passages.
Visually, there was a giant screen projecting mostly abstract shapes and morphs and things like this, almost all monochromatic (although not always black/white — sometimes black/red or black/blue) which sometimes felt a little disconnected with the performance but mostly set a good feel for the music while not being distracting or focal. I tended to notice them only every other song or so. The only text after the pre-show explanatory slide was in one of the encore numbers where an argument about the interconnectedness of all things and thus the fallacy of single-cause roots to problems (and single-method solutions), credited at the end to the current Dalai Lama, was presented.
By now, you know that I love banter, and I would have liked it if he’d taken a little time to talk to the audience a bit, but as it was, that’s a relatively minor complaint.
Despite my initial doubts, by the end I was convinced that this would be remembered as one of my top ten performances, and I’m so glad that I went. In addition, I think I need to make a point to see more solo pianists when I get the chance.
Okay, I said that I didn’t have any media from tonight’s performance, and I don’t, but for those of you who read this far, here’s a clip of him performing “Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” live that I found on YouTube (it’s not solo piano, so it’s not from this tour, and I think tonight’s rendition was much better and more emotive, but this is still a good take on the song):
So I got out to see Four Tet at the Mod Club in Toronto today. I recently posted about the Mod Club; It’s the same venue where I saw Howard Jones. I still like the venue a lot.
Nonetheless, it’s kind of amazing how much the show (and in particular, the crowd it draws) can change the vibe of a venue. More on that later.
Doors officially opened at 8pm and I arrived at 8:35pm. There was almost nobody there. When I entered there were maybe twenty other people in the venue, and they’d all taken the seating along the edge, with nobody at all on the floor (a couple of people had staked out the tables near the back, but nobody was standing on the open floor). It was amazing how utterly empty the place felt. To make it even more surreal, they were playing (relatively quietly) a song from the Harry Belafonte Christmas album when I came in. I was kind of set for a pretty small, intimate show, which suits me fine.
It turns out that, as I had feared, it was just that the band wasn’t coming on anytime soon, and most of the people expected that and didn’t bother to show up. However, people started to trickle in as it approached 9pm, and when the opening act, Jon Hopkins, took the stage, there was a pretty good crowd — enough to fill the place and get a vibe going but still few enough that you could mostly dance freely and not worry too much.
Apologies again for the quality of the videos. I had meant to sign a better camera out from my workplace, but they were all signed out today, and I was going to fall back on borrowing ‘San’s camera, but I had forgotten to ask her about it and she wasn’t home before I left. As such, these are from my cell phone again. For a cell phone, it doesn’t do too bad a job, but where the audio was pretty good for the Howard Jones show, this kind of performance really demands a much more subtle recording quality, which my phone doesn’t really have.
Anyway, I actually really enjoyed his set. I danced a lot. I’ve never been a huge fan of the “guy standing behind a laptop” style of performing, and even less so now that the whole “put everything behind a barrier on a desk so you can’t see it” thing has become de rigeur in electronic music (I personally blame Daft Punk). However, I found that his set was interesting, nicely textured, and for his type of performer, he did a good job of connecting with the audience. A little banter would have gone a long way, but especially as he seemed to be using a lot of tap tempo, there was a sense that he was really involved in what he was creating, and he seemed genuinely happy when people cheered or clapped, which really helps. Contrary to my previous posts about Toronto crowds, a lot of people — pretty much everyone even vaguely near me — were dancing.
He actually played a fairly long set, and one of the problems with this sort of music is that it can be kind of hard to know for sure who you’re seeing. A lot of electronic performers don’t play songs from their albums when they play life, instead opting for a sort of impromptu “DJ set”, and it’s not unusual to have no idea what these people look like or even how many people are in the band. As such, given the quality of the set and its duration, I wasn’t at all sure that this wasn’t in fact the Four Tet show, which seems kind of silly in retrospect. Anyway, it wasn’t, which was confirmed when the set finished, the interstitial music came back on, and nobody cheered or tried for an encore, instead just lapsing back into idle chatter.
It was somewhere between his set and the Four Tet set (there was a pretty long break between) that people started to arrive in numbers, and this is where I probably should talk about the vibe. Whereas many of the shows I’ve seen lately, especially Howard Jones, had a lot of people my age, this was almost entirely students from U of T, and mostly very, very young students. I mean, to me, kids — many of them were probably young enough that I could have been their Dad without it even being all that scandalous. On top of that, most of them were completely drunk, many of them were high (one guy asked me for a light at one point and then got it from someone else and proceeded to smoke up right there in front of the stage), they all kind of smelled like teenager (some more than others), and they had no sense of respect for the people around them at all. Also, a lot of them were clearly there to impress some theoretical person or other, because they danced over-extravagantly whether there was danceable music playing or not, quite often in ways that were mostly designed to show off whatever they perceived as their key sexual assets. If this sounds awesome or I sound like a fuddy duddy writing this, I mean, it’s basically like being stuck at a frat party with a bunch of people that, when I was their age, weren’t even born yet. I don’t mean that they shouldn’t be there, by any means — I loved going to concerts back then and I hope they all have a great experience. However, they do grate, especially when they leave the floor strewn with beer bottles, slam themselves into you every few seconds, whip your face with their hair and hands regularly, and appear to be there for just about anything BUT the concert.
Okay, “get off of my lawn!” moment off my chest. :)
Eventually, Four Tet did take the stage, as evidenced above. :) His show had its moments, but I felt like he both did a much poorer job of looking like he was connecting with the music and with connecting with the audience. The rest of the audience seemed to be having a great time, but they also seemed to be at their happiest when he stopped making music altogether and would just pump out a completely unaltered, unadulterated 4-on-the-floor rhythm loop. Which, you know, if you’re completely drunk and high and just want to dance and work out your jungle fever with all the other teenagers, I guess makes sense, but it didn’t make for a very intellectually stimulating show.
I think that the real issue is that with electronic music shows, you really have to make some kind of effort to make your show come across as more than just, “I hit play, the music goes,” and I don’t feel like Four Tet succeeded in that. People were certainly having fun, and I don’t regret going. I danced around a bit to the Four Tet stuff and enjoyed some moments where things really came together. I just don’t feel like it was a fantastic live music experience, if you know what I mean. I certainly don’t know if I’d go again, whereas I’d be happy to catch Jon Hopkins again if he was in town.
By around 11:35 or so, the show actually started to really drag for me, and I have to admit that I wound up ducking out early, at about that time. It’s quite possible that the final tunes and the encore were the most mind-bending things of all time, but by then, like I said, I didn’t regret it, but I felt that I’d gotten what I was going to get out of the show and all told I was feeling a little bored.
I feel like I’ve complained a whole lot in this post, whereas I did have a good time. The crowd’s willingness to dance and have fun was a plus over the normally dour Toronto audience, and I was glad to get a chance to move around a bit, even in the latter half of the show when there were a gazillion more people and space was quite restricted. So overall it was worthwhile, but on the one hand I eventually just hit that point of diminishing returns, and on the other hand, I don’t think this is a show that I’ll remember a year down the road.
Oct 14, 2010 Other bands
Apparently fans of the band Weezer have launched a project to raise $10 million to convince them to break up, on the basis that they have gone steadily downhill since their 1996 album, “Pinkerton,” and that continually getting people’s hopes up with lofty promises and dashing them with disappointing releases constitutes an abusive relationship.
Oct 13, 2010 Live Music
Looking back, I realize that I posted more about Crazy October Music Month prior to it beginning than I have since it began. Since I just posted my Howard Jones recap, I should probably talk about the other shows I’ve seen thus far this month.
Well, the sad news first: I didn’t get out to see either The Swans or Deerhoof. I had tickets for both, but it was a really rough time for Erin, so I took the weekend to go out and offer her some moral support instead. I found someone to take the Swans ticket off my hands (I’m actually pretty curious as to what they thought of the show — they were getting the ticket for a friend but thought they might try to tag along and pay at the door, although they’re not a Swans fan), but all of the takers for the Deerhoof ticket flaked on me, so in the end that ticket went unused. I made a valiant attempt to get back in time to see the show, but unexpectedly long border wait times thwarted me.
I did, however, get out to the Talvin Singh show being put on by Small World Music on Sept. 30th.
This seemed like sort of a disorganized event from the get-go. BandsInTown had it listed as being at Lula Lounge and never corrected that nor ever produced a tickets link, but eventually I contacted Lula Lounge directly, and they informed me that I should get in touch with Small World Music. Small World’s website had the event listed, fortunately, and I was able to buy tickets from them online. Their online poster, however, had a different listing of opening acts than the posters on site had, and I think that that might have been marginally different than the acts that were actually there, but I could be wrong.
It was the first time I’d ever been to the venue, The Great Hall. It was a pretty nice venue, overall. They have an art space and cafe next door where another event was going on, which caused a lot of confusion in terms of where we were to be and so on, but it wasn’t a big thing. The main floor of the Great Hall is a lot like The Mod Club, which is probably my favourite live music venue in Toronto at present. If I have to slight them for something, it would be that the upper-level balcony, which wasn’t open at first but which they opened later in the show, is awful. The railing obscures the performers completely no matter where you sit, and there’s not one decent sight line up there at all. However, that’s easy to avoid by just standing down in the general floor area. It’s bad news for people who aren’t okay standing all evening, though.
I arrived a little early for doors, due to Dufferin being a significantly more efficient route downtown than I expected, and there was a small crowd of mostly South Asian people waiting around for the show. I had expected a bit more of a diverse audience, as I think of Talvin Singh as more of an electronica artist than a South Asian artist, but still, it was interested to unexpectedly be at what really felt like a community event. Having been to enough Indian and Pakistani weddings and community dinners in my time, then, I wasn’t at all surprised when someone poked his head out about ten minutes after the listed “doors” time (which was an hour after the different “doors” time some listings had) and said that they weren’t ready yet and we should all go to the Starbucks down the street and come back in about 45 minutes. Doors actually opened maybe an hour later, but even after that there was a really long wait before any acts took the stage. This might seem petty, but I really am getting a little old to be standing around for two or three hours before the performance even begins. I might start being one of those people who just shows up late and takes a chance on missing the opening acts.
There was a DJ whose name I can’t recall offhand (some googling suggests that the listed DJ was DJ Double AA, although I can’t tell you if that’s who was there or not) who was listed as an opening act, but was more just providing the music while people mingled and waited — he was off to the side of the stage placed behind a bunch of stuff rather than putting on a show in any real sense. The first real stage act was a local group (I think) called Omnesia. They combined a keyboard player and (male) vocalist who tended toward hip-hop and rap stylings, a classical Indian (male) vocalist and flute player, a classical Indian tabla player and a (female) vocalist with more of an R&B vibe (she seemed most at home in her cover of Gnarles Barkley’s “Crazy”). I gather that the keyboardist/vocalist is the core of Omnesia and doesn’t always perform with the other three, and they didn’t always gel together very well (especially the woman singing seemed a bit of a rough fit for the rest of the band, stylistically), but they were interesting, and the guy playing tabla, who was very talented, seemed to have a real fan base in the crowd. There’s no real gear spotting to be done here — all the music was run from a MacBook, and the keyboard player was using an M-Audio Axiom 61 controller to drive soft-synths on the laptop. (Trivia: That’s the same controller you can see in the photo of my studio on the site masthead, although I have the 25-key version.)
Overall, for a local opening act, Omniesia were a little rough around the edges but were fun and did get the small portion of the crowd intent on dancing moving. I don’t know if I’d go out of my way to see them again, but I’d certainly show up for them if they were opening at a show I wanted to see or were part of a festival I was at. You can see someone else’s (very dark but listenable) YouTube recording of them from that evening here, which also lists the performers in the video information. (It seems to have been posted by one of the band members.) Omnesia’s MySpace Music page is here.
I feel like there was another long gap between Omnesia’s set and Talvin Singh’s set, but I could be totally wrong about that. Talvin Singh took the stage with a very different approach. Whereas Omnesia were definitely trying to push the live aspect as much as they could, and whereas I think the additional performers were mostly there to expand that live element, Talvin Singh’s show was a single-man show wherein the majority of it was directly from a laptop. Each song had essentially the same process: He would spend a little while setting up his sequence on the laptop and would kick it off. Usually it would sound kind of broken and halting on his own. Then he’d go over to his tabla rig, which was mounted so he could stand up and play, he’d close his eyes and spend a few moments finding the groove, and then he’d drop into it and play like mad.
His tabla performance is quite impressive, and the way in which the laptop-generated sequence would feel completely incoherent in terms of having its own groove until he dropped in and added all the missing elements on the tabla, when it would suddenly all make sense, was a fantastic stunt on an intellectual level. You could play a sort of fun game trying to guess which elements would fall where once the rhythm was finally tied together. A lot of his drumming was fairly frenetic, but as opposed to Omnesia’s show, which stuck to a pretty rote interpretation of fusing traditional Indian music with modern electronic and hip-hop elements, his was much more textured, and felt a lot more nuanced, like someone who had gone beyond playing scales and exercises to composing suites or symphonies, and as such would have more elements that changed in tone and tenor, in tempo and in the way they relate to the listener.
The big problem for me was that after four or five songs, it also took on a real sameness to it. It was kind of like a tactics vs. strategy thing. Each track was well-crafted, but the overall performance didn’t come together in a way that felt thoroughly thought out and well-planned, for me. It could be that he was trying for a more “DJ set” vibe, where people would mostly dance and a sense of constancy is a plus rather than a minus, but it wasn’t as textured a performance as I would have liked for a concert.
I feel a little weird admitting this, but I actually wound up heading home after six or seven songs. I’m not sure if his show changed significantly later or not. If someone reads this and stayed for the rest of the show, please feel free to comment!
Unfortunately, I don’t have any media of my own to round these thoughts out, since I didn’t have a real camera with me and the lighting was such that my cell wouldn’t have caught anything (it’s really terrible in low light). There’s another YouTube video uploaded by one of the Omnesia guys here. It’s dark like the first one, but in this case it actually pretty much captures what his live show looked like — there wasn’t a lot more to it.
I don’t regret having bought the ticket and having attended this show, but I think my expectations for it were a lot greater than the actuality. Seeing some other Talvin Singh videos online such as this one apparently shot in Chicago just the day before, I think his performance is also much better suited to this open-viewing, sitting setup in a well-lit venue than to the standing setup where he was mostly obscured by his gear and where a lot of detail and nuance was lost in the darkness. But ultimately, I also think that for this sort of performance, it would be nice to see him backed by a live band rather than by his laptop, and I’m generally pretty okay with laptop musicians. But even just being able to see his face (and hands) better in the well-lit venue seems to add a lot.
Would I go again? I don’t know that I would, but I don’t at all regret having gone this time, and I think his skills are worth having witnessed in person at least once. People I spoke to before the show seem to have felt that his live show was something really amazing, and I don’t know if they felt differently about this one or not, or if his prior tours had more on offer. Again, if anyone reading this has seen him perform before and wants to comment, I’d love to hear it.
Oct 13, 2010 Live Music
Last night, I got out to see Howard Jones play at the Mod Club. I should admit that going to see this particular show was a bit of a mistake — not in terms of the results (I had a lot of fun), but in that it was the result of a bit of a brain malfunction on my part. You see, I sort of slot Howard Jones and Thomas Dolby in the same part of my memory architecture, and when I saw the listing for Howard Jones, I thought of Thomas Dolby and all the stuff I’ve been hearing about his touring show and how I must go see it, so I bought the ticket with Thomas Dolby in mind. That said, when I realized my error, I didn’t really mind at all, since I also like Howard Jones quite a bit, although I like him in that “I liked his hit songs that I heard on the radio back in the day,” way more than in the, “I owned any of his albums,” way. Either way, I figured that seeing a performer that’s sold out the largest arena venues in an intimate club venue (The Mod Club is smaller than most modern movie theatres) would be an experience.
(I actually really love The Mod Club as a venue. It always makes me happy to find out that a performer I’m interested is playing there.)
During the course of the day, I mentioned the show in the evening to several people, and the overwhelming response was: “Who?” I was quite surprised by that, since Howard Jones was extremely famous in his day (his prime was in the early-to-mid 80s, most of his big hits having been from 1983-1984) with several top-40 hits, many of which I believe cracked the top ten. His first big hit peaked at #2 in North America, I think, and he definitely proved himself to not be a one-hit wonder. On the other hand, his pop-electronic sensibilities may have been a little too earnest and good-natured to fit into the vision of the 80s “New Wave” that’s popularized today. So for those of you in this same camp, Howard Jones was a synth-pop singer-songwriter from the 80s who wrote mostly positive and uplifting but catchy songs. Favourites of mine would include New Song and Things Can Only Get Better, both of which were very popular.
I like that they specified on the ticket both when doors would be opening and when the show would start. I didn’t figure it would be packed full of crushing youth, and I was right about that. I turned up about ten minutes to 8pm and managed to get a really great spot maybe five or six people back from the stage with great sight lines and only had to stand for a little while before the opening act took the stage, which was a nice change from the usual “standing around for hours” concert experience.
I should note at this juncture that I didn’t bring a camera or any sort of dedicated recording equipment with me, so all the media in this post is from my cell phone, which isn’t an awe-inspiring capture device — I have a Nokia E71, which I love as a phone, but isn’t really positioned as a bells-and-whistles gizmo. You work with what you have, but I think I will consider bringing a real camera of some sort to future shows. Mine is bulky and has no image stabilization, so I’ll either sign one out from work or borrow Oksana’s, most likely. I should put a decent compact digital camera on my holiday wish list. Anybody have any recommendations?
The opening act wound up being Darelle London, who wasn’t bad, all told. She played a Yamaha CP digital piano, probably the CP33 if I had to guess, but I’m not a stage piano geek, so take that with a grain of salt. It had a really nice tone, and she played it well with some very snappy expressiveness where she wanted it. Her playing had more character than many singer-songwriters’ playing. Not quite a Tori Amos sort of level, but still quite playful and emotive. I thought her lyrics were a bit on the “heteronormative stereotypical gender role love song” side for me, but if you don’t mind that sort of thing, she might be worth checking out, and she’s from Toronto, so it should be possible to see her fairly easily if you’re in the area. Here’s a photo of her set:
She did introduce the guy playing violin (who also did the occasional backing vocals), but I didn’t catch his name. I also didn’t catch most of his performance, sadly, as I think he was turned way, way down in the mix. I think it might have added a nice texture, but the show was fun anyway. She had some decent banter, talking a little about how she’s always wanted to play the Mod Club and with an earnest plea for someone to please return her lost car keys if they found them (I hope someone did), which she managed to work into a song lyric at one point as well. All the gear behind them is the setup for Howard Jones, so it was just her on the piano and him on the violin. I always think that it must be hard to be the opening act for such a big-name nostalgia act, because people really are kind of impatient to see the main act, and a lot of them aren’t paying any attention to you other than wondering when you’re going to get off the stage so the band you really want to see can come on. A lot of people had their backs turned out were yelling to carry on conversations over the music. A few times she seemed all too aware of this, which I think extended the distance between her and the audience a bit because you felt kind of bad for her rather than feeling really connected, but maybe that’s just me. I think she’d fare better at her own show, perhaps in a more piano-friendly environment.
There wasn’t too long a gap after she left the stage before Howard Jones and his band took the stage:
This was what he calls his “Electric 3 Piece Band” setup. For the gear-heads reading this, in this scenario Howard himself plays a Roland Fantom G8, his drummer, Jonathan Atkinson, plays a lovely set of Roland V-Drums, and his electronics wizard, Robbie Bronnimann, playes a nice compact rig which was oriented so I couldn’t see much of what was going on but seemed to consist of a MacBook Pro on top, a Novation compact controller keyboard below (if I had to guess, I would say the Novation ReMOTE SL Compact, although they have several products that would have fit the same profile), two pads on either side that I have NO idea what they were (Jazzmutant Lemurs, maybe?), and a multi-I/O interface attached beneath which again, I’d be completely guessing at, but it was about the size and shape and had about the I/O spread of a MOTU UltriLite MK3, perhaps? Since all the “action” was really going on on the laptop, it’s really less of a gear spotter’s dream than it would otherwise be, I admit.
I should take a moment and point out that Robbie Bronnimann is a gorgeous, gorgeous guy, by the way. His rig was right between he and I and as you can see my cell wasn’t exactly taking detailed photos anyway, so I didn’t get any good shots of him at all, but OMG, he was dreamy. I was all a-swoon. From the images that I could find on Google Images, I think this one represents his current look fairly well. He had a delightful smirk, too. He kind of reminded me of a cross between Seán Cullen and Glenn Shadix as Otho in Beetlejuice. Ahem. Anyway.
All of this setup out of the way, the show itself was fantastic and unfortunately there’s not a huge amount to say about that. His manager came on stage prior to their set and talked a little about the stuff at the merch desk, which I actually thought was kind of cheesy, but it was probably necessary in that apparently Howard Jones has a couple of new albums out that I wasn’t aware of, and which probably a lot of people have not been aware of. One of the new albums is apparently electronic and the other is acoustic with an orchestra. It’s good to know that he’s still putting out new material, and when they did work in a few of the new songs in the set, they managed to bridge feeling coherent aside his old material with having a fresh vibe nicely.
Most of the show was his old hits, but it didn’t have that “old band needs to pay the mortgage” feel that you get sometimes with 80s acts who are still touring. He seemed to really be loving what he was doing, and he did a great job of connecting with the audience in a way that felt genuine. He gave the same, “I love Toronto, I really feel like I have a special relationship with this place,” speeches that every performer gives when they play a show with a little banter, but it felt real coming from him, and he seemed like a very genuine kind of guy. He also didn’t give any sense of being disappointed at playing such a small venue after having played huge venues in the past. It was a cool thing. His stories were mostly fun, and he seems like every but the positive person you’d expect based on the music he makes. Some of his observations were really interesting, too. For example, he noted that the songs that are popular between the UK and North America are different and some of the songs that everyone here knows all the words to and will carry the song if he asks us to sing are ones that nobody knows over there. (Presumably the reverse is also true.)
He really encouraged audience participation. Every well-known song ended with a sort of improvisational jam where they’d loop familiar bits and the he’d lead the audience in singing along. He also encouraged us to clap a lot. He frequently talked about how great the audience was and how he couldn’t believe how many songs we knew all the words to or how quickly we picked up on new variations he came up with just on the spur of the moment and would sing them back. Again, you hear this stuff at every show, and he probably says it at every show, but he made it seem very real. The only place where things fell apart a little was when he encouraged the audience to dance (or at least, to pogo in place a bit), even resorting to a sort of pouty, “Aw, come on!” facial expression and gesture. Sadly, this is Toronto. I don’t love the concert going audiences here. We have our good points, but for the most part I can’t imagine us being the greatest place to play. That said, Toronto audiences will usually clap along (although it dies out within a couple of bars of the performers stopping prompting us) and are happy to head-bob or nod, but by and large Toronto audiences do not dance. Sure, a few people dance at every show, and I like to try to be one of those people at least some of the time, especially when the performer is actively requesting it, but I can’t claim to be a huge standout from the crowd on that issue, and if everyone around me is standing still I’ll generally at most resort to waist-up dancing out of respect for people’s personal space. Anyway, needless to say, when he asked people to pogo, about three people did it (myself included) and it lasted about two bars tops before even those people gave up. Otherwise, however, the audience was really into it, and people seemed especially delighted that he was so into having us sing along, which is something I think Toronto audiences do love to do when given the opportunity.
Here’s a bit of video that I shot of him performing “Things Can Only Get Better,” which again I thought managed to feel fresh while not losing its definite 80s vibe:
As before, apologies for the capture quality. I think it did an admirable job of capturing the audio, though, given that it’s my cell phone and I don’t even know where the mic on it for external capture is. I stopped recording at the break just before they had the extensive sing-along jam, incidentally, because, well, I wanted to dance and sing along.
So to sum up, it was a fun show. I don’t know if it’ll go down in the annals of great shows that I’ll remember for years to come or anything, but I enjoyed myself a lot and was glad that I went. I don’t know how much I think someone who’s totally not into him at all would get out of it, since it still was a largely nostalgia-driven show, but he does perform well. However, if you’re even vaguely aware of Howard Jones and this tour comes near you, then I’d say to check it out.