STARS at Lee's Palace, December 15. Tickets: $15. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
To choose to play six consecutive sold-out shows at a smallish club, you've got to either a) really love your fans, or b) have a masochistic streak.
In the case of Stars , who followed up a string of high-profile opening-slot dates by camping out at Lee's for a half-dozen shows over four days, it was likely a bit of both, combined with mega-venue fatigue and homecoming nostalgia. As singer Torquil Campbell kept reminding us, though Stars have been Spun as part of the Montreal indie renaissance, they're Annex and Cabbagetown kids at heart.
They Martha Stewarted up the joint for über-festive effect, plastering paper pine trees along the entrance hall and hanging a forest from the ceiling.
Thursday's kickoff featured openers Birling , 50-somethings (family friends of drummer Pat McGee ), who plunked and trilled through carols and ceilidhs, much to the confusion of the college pop crowd.
Birling did manage to lend a relaxed pub singalong atmosphere to the proceedings, which played well against the solid but not stiff feeling of Stars' tight set. Touring has done tons for their focus, and for the first time in the years I've seen them, you got a real sense of how integral the group's rhythm section is to their sound, particularly now that they have a full-time touring violinist ( Genevieve Walker ) to provide contrast.
Campbell and singer/guitarist/babe factor Amy Millan were in excellent form, playing up their Fleetwood Mac-style onstage coupling for full love-hate effect right from icy opener Going, Going Gone (off Stars' Nightsongs debut LP) through the slinky jazz of The Big Fight, a he-said, she-said duet that doesn't quite work on the recording but smoked live.
Campbell's ditched his caustic banter for clever, genuinely sentimental quips - a nice change, since you no longer feel he's trying to steal attention away from his band's songs.
Mixing violin, trumpet and sax, two lead vocalists, huge bass and layered synths is tricky, but Stars wisely brought their own "sound engineer," who got the perfect balance by the time I returned on Sunday night. Thursday's sound, though, was spotty, and McGee seemed just slightly out of step with the rest of the band. By Sunday, he claimed to be so tanked that fuming bassist Evan Cranley had to cue him, and finally fell apart during encore What The Snowman Learned About Love.
You also felt like everyone in the band was holding back. Who wouldn't want to save energy for their other five shows? But it meant Thursday's show lacked the transcendent power of their Sunday finale. There was just one moment when everything came together and it was pure gold: on the show-closing spin through the Pogues' Fairytale Of New York, which found Walker doing her best Celtic fiddling and Millan her best Kirsty MacColl, Oirish brogue and all. Now that was magic.