Emeli Sandé at the Drake Underground, Wednesday, March 7.
EMELI SANDE at the Drake Underground, Wednesday, March 7. Rating: NNNN
Emeli Sandé is practically unknown in Canada, but in the UK her record is number one and she's a star. Our Version Of Events comes out here in June, coinciding with the Scottish-born singer/songwriter's second summer of touring with Coldplay. Knowing this made it almost surreal to watch the blond-coiffed singer, comfortable in front of thousands, on the tiny Drake stage.
Sandé opened with her first single, Heaven. She stripped it of its drum-and-bass-inspired radio sheen in favour of an electric cello, quiet bongos and acoustic guitar, and the muted palette revealed her trade secret: power hooks built on precise abandon and peals of gilded highs, swaddled in restrained, affecting verses.
Sandé's love of vivid, wholesome, universal pop - she's written for Leona Lewis and Susan Boyle - is what makes songs like Next To Me and Breaking The Law effective. Paired with a syrupy siren call that harbours a birdlike tremor, she channelled pop diva greats like Whitney Houston, minus the wide-eyed naïveté. She found soul in a Coldplay cover and silenced the room with the simple piano ballad Clown, which took her emotive heft into Mariah territory.
ATLAS SOUND at Lee's Palace, Tuesday, March 6. Rating: NNNN
Bradford Cox isn't known for his politeness. The day before his sold-out Atlas Sound concert at Lee's Palace, the 29-year-old singer/guitarist made headlines for performing a "shocking" hour-long rendition of the Knack's obnoxious 1979 hit My Sharona in response to a fan request in Minneapolis.
But despite a few (weak) attempts by the gravel-voiced bro element in the audience to coax the crazy out of Bradford, the mood throughout this two-hour set was more cavalier than chaotic. Polite, even.
Cox is a musical Jekyll and Hyde who goes from genteel troubadour to one-man wall-of-sound with a few pushes of a pedal. Alone onstage, he took his time looping and layering guitar parts, reverbed vocals and occasional bass and drum parts into harrowing swells of mournful noise. All this elongated and distorted the sad, strummy four-chord pop tunes from last year's Parallax album into a viscerally cathartic experience.
An incredibly moving performance.
BEND SINISTER at Cherry Cola's Rock n' Rolla, Saturday, March 10. Rating: NNNN
Bend Sinister powerhouse vocalist/keyboardist Dan Moxon specializes in the kind of "we're here for a good time, not a long time" lyrics that can bring a hundred or so strangers together during a show. Add in the Vancouver four-piece's anthemic melodies, warm but energetic stage presence, pummelling drums and epic prog-informed (and maybe Billy Joel-informed) songs and, well, you can't help but get into the spirit of things.
Their exuberant hour-long set included tunes new and old, with Moxon dropping several references to their just-released EP, On My Mind, on sale for $5 - "or say hi after the show and I'll just give you one," he said - and to their new album set for release in early summer. Quieter moments showcased their more soulful side and sometimes cheesy lyrics. ("Hot-Blooded Man?!" Oof.)
Huge applause brought them back for an encore. They used the opportunity to play one of the EP's strongest songs, The Road Divided, and also let us in on the secret that they'd be playing another set... in two hours. Weird move, Cherry Cola's.
ART DEPARTMENT and TONE OF ARC at Footwork, Saturday, March 10. Rating: NNNN
Long after last call, tons of fans were still lined up outside Footwork for the highly anticipated homecoming gig by Toronto house music heroes Art Department. Those who had the patience to wait eventually made it in for the last half of the duo's extended DJ set but missed out on impressive opener Tone of Arc.
The tall, long-haired musician, who looks a bit like a Viking, brought unexpected glam rock and psychedelic influences into his live set of electronic music by playing guitars over his laptop beats and crooning into a shiny, chrome 1950s microphone.
As crowd-pleasing as his performance was, it was clear from Art Department's very first beats who the crowd was there to hear. We're still waiting for Jonny White and Kenny Glasgow to finish preparing a live set of their own, but as DJs they've got more than enough experience and skills to rock a dance floor. It's not easy to make moody, introspective music work at a late-night party, but they pulled it off with ease.