ANDY SHAUF and JENNIFER CASTLE at Massey Hall, Thursday, November 23. Rating: NNNN
Who knew soft-spoken singer/songwriter Andy Shauf, with his mumblecore tendencies, modest demeanor and arsenal of melancholic songs, could not only fill Massey Hall but also elicit massive cheering the moment he walked onto the hallowed stage?
That was a highlight of the Saskatchewan-raised, Toronto-based musician’s Live At Massey Hall set, which marked the end of two years of touring The Party, an exquisite and understated baroque-pop album that earned a spot on the 2016 Polaris Music Prize short list and several JUNO nominations.
Some of us had expected to hear it front to back, but he opted against that as it would’ve required constant capo adjustments. “I’m not sure if you guys are capo people,” he offered. Nobody answered, and then the crowd fell into amiable titters.
It’s that kind of social awkwardness that makes Shauf – and The Party, a concept album told from various perspectives of people on the sidelines at a party and one of NOW’s top albums of 2016 – so relatable and endearing. You want to root for him. Especially since the songs are so damn great, full of tumbling description and dialogue, careful arrangements that make for maximum dynamism, and memorable melodies shaped by Shauf’s unique vocal stamp (marble-mouthed shy youthful sweet).
At Massey Hall, a 10-piece band full of clarinets and strings enhanced the 10 songs from The Party plus a handful from 2015’s The Bearer Of Bad News. This treatment actually made the songs more like their recorded versions. (In the studio, Shauf used similar instruments, all of which he played himself.)
No surprise, the overall effect was louder than a typical Andy Shauf concert. It was a denser musical experience than the one we got, say, last year at the Mod Club, which was completely stunning in its quiet calm. At Massey, songs like Twist Your Ankle and The Worst In You had added drama, older tune I’m Not Falling Asleep got a shot of creepy dissonance via sliding violin lines, and Early To The Party grew huge and experimental thanks to excellently weird harmonized clarinets. Martha Sways and The Magician helped things go out with a bang.
Gotta say, though, when Shauf returned all alone for the chilling My Dear Helen, I was struck by how captivating he is on his own. Sure, the orchestration added gloss and dimension, a fine experiment to undertake especially at your Massey Hall debut, but for this critic, less is more when it comes to Shauf.
For her opening set, Toronto singer/songwriter Jennifer Castle also expanded her sound, with two backup singers, gorgeous grand piano helmed by Jonathan Adjemian, twangy electric guitar by Paul Mortimer, and a saxophone cameo from Brodie West (on set opener Pink City).
But the music stayed airy and vibrant, the fullness never detracting from Castle’s exceptional voice, which sparkles with brightness and personality. She has formidable range, moving easily between low-slung bass melodies and much higher Dolly-esque vibrato.
Her songs hold depth and accessibility in balance. She drew heavily from 2014’s Pink City album – Sailing Away and Truth Is The Freshest Fruit were standouts – but also previewed a few from her forthcoming fifth album, which seems to nod to 50s girl groups, Roy Orbison, possibly Patsy Cline. Old and new, her melodies retain Joni Mitchell levels of movement.
Throughout the set, she generously spotlit backup singers Isla Craig and Victoria Cheong (aka New Chance), weaving her voice between theirs as they punctuated choruses, harmonized in unexpected places, did call-and-response and even sometimes sang lead.
By the end, Castle was completely in her element and pulling off Patti Smith cool, her jacket slunk low off her shoulders as she shimmied and crouched playfully near Cheong and Craig. They were left to finish the song as she sauntered away and waved herself offstage to hearty applause. A total joy.
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