THE WALKMEN at the Phoenix, Friday, March 2. Rating: NNN
It takes a certain level of self-indulgence for a band to celebrate its own decade-long history with a two-and-a-half-hour, two-set show with no opening act. But unabashed grandiosity has always been a major part of the Walkmen's aesthetic.
The set list, culled from the New York City indie rock band's six-album discography (plus a few new ones from their forthcoming seventh), alternated between elegant rockers, shuffly mariachi-tinged jaunts - complete with upright piano and full horn section - and a couple of solo acoustic ballads.
Despite the varied dynamics, the songs all had a few elements in common, namely the reverbed-as-all-hell guitars and Hamilton Leithauser's forever-yearning vocal rasp. Having a distinct sound is a good thing, especially for a band with so many stylistically similar peers, but after 20-plus songs it became a bit of a monotonous blur.
THE BARR BROTHERS and LITTLE SCREAM at the Great Hall, Thursday, March 1. Rating: NNN
The Barr Brothers set at the Great Hall started strong, with the four Montrealers crowded together on a darkened stage inside a perimeter of pulsing white light bulbs. This evoked a midnight campfire, enhanced by the warm intimacy of Brad Barr's vocals, his fingerpicked acoustic guitar, the percussive pitter-patter of hand-hit drums and the elegant plucking of Sarah Page's harp.
Things got louder and more experimental as the night wore on, revealing the band's jam-folk tendencies and their audience's penchant for hippie dancing. Andrew Barr and Andres Vial used bows to saw away at cymbals, and crashed sticks against bicycle wheels mounted on stands; Brad Barr used his right hand to pull a wire across his electric guitar strings while his left-hand fingers hammered on and off.
Mid-set, two members of opening band Little Scream - Laurel Sprengelmeyer and Richard Reed Parry (yes, that Richard Reed Parry) - came aboard to hit the bicycle wheels, a violinist added swooping Gypsy-folk touches and the songs sprawled out into epic harmonica-squealing jams that grew tiresome. By the time the Barr Brothers pulled back to a focused four-piece, the crowd had thinned considerably.
TEENANGER at Sneaky Dee's, Thursday, March 1. Rating: NNNN
Teenanger aren't strangers to Toronto stages, but the local garage punks have resolved to focus on other markets to promote their just-released album, Frights. Last night's release show was one of just two the band plan to play here this year, so they had to make it count.
And they did, playing most of the songs off the album, plus a few others and a cover of a Discharge song. The fact that their set lasted barely more than a half-hour just reinforced the quicker, punkier disposition the band displays on this new record.
Songs were faster and louder. Plaid-shirted, nasal lead singer Chris Swimmings spent much of the show either spitting out beer or jumping into the crowd, while guitarist Jon Schouten and bassist Melissa Ball kept up a rapid, consistent groove. That's the perfect mode for the claustrophobic Sneaky Dee's show space, made even more so by the unfathomable fact that the street-side windows have been painted black.
For some reason, Teenanger replaced their drummer and guitarist for a firebrand version of album highlight Bank Account, but otherwise they worked as a well-oiled, house-rocking unit.
JOSE JAMES at the Great Hall, Friday, March 2. Rating: NNN
Soulful Brooklyn vocalist José James's approach to reinventing jazz singing for a hip-hop world keeps the genre's improv aspect front and centre while wrapping it with heavy soul rhythms and melodies. Backed by bass, Rhodes electric piano and a drummer, he comes across as smooth, confident and supremely laid-back. He's long had his routine down to a crowd-pleasing science, and as a result, his Toronto fan base grows every time he comes through town.
The drawback to this well-defined identity is that over the course of a full set it starts sounding formulaic. Yes, imitating turntable tricks with your voice as a substitute for a scatting is a great trick, but it loses power when applied to every jam. Likewise, flipping a hip-hop groove into a jazz shuffle is highly effective the first time but suffers from diminished returns after that. James is inarguably one of the most talented jazz-inspired vocalists taking the form in new directions, but he's a little too comfortable at the top.