ALFIE with PILATE at Lee's Palace, July 20. Tickets: $14.50-$20. Attendance: 200. Rating: NNN
It's not too often that you catch a show where more of the audience is there to catch the opening act than the main attraction. Maybe it was the way the crowd swarmed Pilate's merch table with stars in their eyes and autograph pads extended, or their rude 'n' rowdy chatter after the opening band had exited. At any rate, I got the impression that the blissed-out fans singing along to the locals' Brit-poppish rock Saturday night would've been happier listening to canned James tunes than to headliners Alfie.
Too bad. Alfie deserve rapt attention. That's not to say Pilate isn't worthy of the respect of the friends and family gathered at Lee's. For a band that's never even toured, these boys are damn solid.
Frontman Todd Clark's vocals verge on angelic, with a tingly falsetto falling somewhere between Travis's Fran Healey and indie-rock choirboy Thom Yorke. Their songs are carefully crafted and perfectly put together, with rippling acoustic guitar builds, shimmery cymbals and sparkling finger-picked electric guitar riffs.
My only complaint is that the set grew monotonous after a while. Pilate has reduced polished, dreamy guitar rock to a formula. With no variation, all the tunes sounded pretty, but pretty much the same. Even their cover of Neil Young's grungy Don't Let It Bring You Down was given the swoony pop treatment, buffed to a shiny pop finish with all the rust sanded off.
In contrast, Alfie's ambitious set meandered all over the place.
The adorable six-piece band calls Badly Drawn Boy Damon Gough's Twisted Nerve label home, and it's easy to see the similarities.
Like Gough, Alfie play with unconventional melodies, complex, layered pop songs and a wide range of styles. But there's a reason Badly Drawn Boy has made it big and Alfie haven'tyet.
They just need to find some focus. Too often, frontman Lee Gorton's slightly whiny, Gallagheresque vocal melodies were buried in an over-saturated sea of sound. At worst, Alfie layers jangly Stone Roses guitars with washes of ambient noise, syncopated drums, ponderous piano and brass accents (big-band-style trumpet blasts are a fave) until the core of the tunes become impossible to hear.
But when they're on, they're on. The opening song, a cobbled-together guitar symphony with fuzzy psych-rock riffs and hints of East Asian accents and country twang, was stunning. And cellist Matt McGeever improved every track he played on.
Plus, Gorton deserves props for winning over the chatty crowd with his goofy charm. Between mumbled anecdotes in his thick Mancunian accent, wacky hand-clap dances that resembled a beached baby seal and intermittently flashing folks up-front the thumbs-up sign, he was an unaffected, incredibly watchable, charismatic whirlwind.
And he claimed that we Torontonians whipped American audiences' asses, which is the quickest way to win a Canuck's heart.