SUFJAN STEVENS with the PHONEMES and ROYAL CITY at the Horseshoe, December 13. Tickets: $10. Attendance: 400. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
If a bomb had dropped on the Horseshoe last Saturday night, the entire musical population of Guelph might've been wiped out. Besides expats who've adopted Toronto as their rock 'n' roll home away from home - Constantines were coming out of corners, Hidden Cameras hung out by the pool table - hemp-clad hipsters were shooting the shit about CFRU radio shows and U of G basement gigs in southern Ontario's most implausible indie-cool hotbed.
The Guelsh (it's catchier than Guelphite, doncha think?) contingent had good reason to set up T.O. car pools, since Saturday's show marked Royal City 's triumphant reunion. The second Three Gut/Rough Trade crown jewel has been on temporary hiatus since frontman Aaron Riches got hitched to a Danielson Famile singer and decamped for domestic life and grad school in the States.
Although Royal City was obviously the night's big draw, the crowd was polite throughout the Phonemes ' spine-pricklingly atmospheric opening set. Singers Magali Meagher and the very pregnant Liz Forsberg harmonized like more chipper versions of Hope Sandoval and Chan Marshall over washes of creepy-good guitar and brittle drums. If Forsberg (also of Jonasson) doesn't give birth while onstage, let's hope the Phonemes start playing more often around town - they're proof that Meagher has too much talent to have wasted her time as a Hidden Camera underling.
The creepy-good vibe got even weirder once Sufjan Stevens and his crew of gentle pilgrims took the stage. The place was so packed and buzzing that you had to squish way up to the front to actually hear his intricate chamber folk tunes - all the better to appreciate the band's bizarro Boy Scout ensembles.
Uniform fetishes are a dime a dozen these days, so I figured the outfits were tongue-in-cheek till Stevens's earnestly soul-searching delivery (he sounds eerily like Belle & Sebastian's Stuart Murdoch, without the cooler-than-thou scorn) and lit-nerdish Onward Christian Soldiers lyrics hit home.
The indie gospel shtick reached its pinnacle with an endearingly naive Christmas carol, for which the entire band donned Santa hats and sang about what they'd done for Jesus from the perspective of individual animals in the manger. No joke - Stevens even invited his wholesome couple pals to perform the cooing doves segment.
I was moved in spite of the blatant pro-Christ bias. Stevens writes such sweet melodies and is so adorably sincere that you can't help but appreciate the dorky kindergarten-Christmas-pageant spectacle.
So by the time Royal City appeared, led by born-again Paul Bunyan doppelgänger Riches, rocking out to tunes about communion made perfect sense. The metaphorical content of his spiritual lyrics may be more sophisticated, but the basic message is still there. Apparently, Jesus rocks - who knew?
Maybe it's a Guelph thing.