THE JANE WAYNES with Alister Thompson and the Ugly Bug Band at the Cameron House (408 Queen West), January 16. Tickets: $7. Attendance: sold out. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
It's hard to know where to draw the line when you're a band with a gimmick. A step too far and you're some annoying novelty act; show some restraint and audiences wonder why you bothered working that angle at all. Wished the opener at Friday's rootsy hoedown at the Cameron had put some kind of spin on his straight-up folk attack. Toting a shiny acoustic guitar, Alister Thompson strummed and whined his way through a seemingly epic set of über-earnest folk tunes.
At first he seemed like a nice appetizer for the more charismatic headlining acts, but after 45 minutes of po-faced traditional tunes like Streets Of London he'd lost most of the audience.
The Ugly Bug Band infused their golden-oldies-style set with far more character. From the moment the six-piece ensemble tromped onstage clad in conservative suits and carrying their instruments like the nerdiest high school marching band, you could tell they had quirky flair.
Propelled by the crisp percussion of Conny Nowé (also of Swamperella), the Ugly Buggers sailed through trad-style sassy songs that mixed jazz, blues, swing, country and doo-wop into a charming anachronistic pastiche. True, lead singer Blitz 's gritty growl soon grew grating, but the Bugs reached new heights when soothing singer and NOW film writer Wendy Banks took over the mike.
The Ugly Bug Band plays the same hand as Squirrel Nut Zippers, but they don't restrict themselves to spinning one tired genre into something hipster-friendly. These kids have no delusions of novelty-act coolness - they know they're never gonna appear in a Gap commercial.
Similarly, cowboy-girl ensemble the Jane Waynes have morphed from a cute drag-kingesque sketch outfit into a solid country band who just happen to be bending gender when they sing in character.
After three years of performing live, co-bandleaders Travis and Tucker have a crazy energy that really works. I saw them a couple of months ago at the cavernous Kathedral and something was missing, but in the cozy confines of the Cameron they played up their spaghetti western narratives to awesome effect.
Plus their tunes are super-tight. (Playing the same repertoire for years before recording a disc'll do that for you.) I was already a fan of heartbreak ballads like Sarsaparilla, but was more impressed by newer tunes. One about the joys of women's prison killed, and a cover of Like A Virgin (who knew Madge worked so well in country?) sung by typically quiet trumpet player Buck was shockingly good.
Combine that with Travis's dead-on blues harmonica licks and you left the show wondering why the Jane Waynes haven't been given a Crazy Strings-style weekly residency at one of T.O.'s country-loving clubs. Consider this an open call.