Willis Earl Beal. Monday, April 30, Drake Hotel
WILLIS EARL BEAL at the Drake, Monday, April 30. Rating: NNNN
From the moment he walked onto the Drake Underground stage, Willis Earl Beal's presence was overwhelming. Wearing tight blue jeans, cowboy boots and a single black leather glove, a pair of Ray-Bans under his rectangular 50s-style haircut and a toothpick in his mouth, the heavily hyped singer/songwriter began his debut Toronto performance not with a song but with a Charles Bukowski poetry reading.
Before singing a note, the 28-year-old troubadour had already delivered a fully formed encapsulation of his persona. Beal, perfectly framed by a highball whisky on one side and a well-worn volume of Bukowski on the other, was mostly accompanied only by a vintage reel-to-reel tape machine.
What sold the performance, however, was his full-force passion and legitimate vocal chops. He's obviously still honing his accuracy, at one point breaking the spell with a sardonic "Well, I can't hit that fucking note", but Beal has a soulful, powerful, awe-inspiring voice that he commits to with unrelenting intensity. After giving his all at every moment, he ended the show exhausted and dripping with sweat.
ADDISON GROOVE with DOC DANEEKA at St. Stephen-in-the-Fields Church, Friday, April 27. Rating: NNNN
Judging from the number of huge electronic music festivals filling up the summer concert calender, 2012 could be the year dance music breaks into mainstream North America. Thankfully, the sudden explosion of corporate raving is fuelling a complementary resurgence in the underground scene, as proved by this gleefully gritty party in a historic church.
The unique venue was definitely a selling point, but the music was the clincher. Headliners Addison Groove and Doc Daneeka have both successfully dodged easy categorization back home in the UK, and they brought that promiscuous attitude with them to Toronto, bouncing freely between Chicago juke, UK funky and good old-fashioned house music.
What made both sets successful was an openness not only to going deep but also to freely embracing giddy hands-in-the-air anthems when appropriate. Although we didn't see any glow sticks, the crazy energy of Toronto's 90s warehouse scene seems poised for a comeback.
ELAQUENT with KNXWLEDGE and SUNCLEF at Wrongbar, Thursday, April 26. Rating: NNN
What was billed as the album release party for Elaquent's new LP, The Scenic Route, was more like a chill, somewhat loose showcase of Toronto's still nascent community of hip-hop-indebted, psychedelic-minded beatmakers.
A rap-specked, soul-heavy surprise set by Philly's Knxwledge was wily and lighthearted. Local Drake dead ringer Sunclef followed with a more cerebral set of florid funk anthems.
Still, the night celebrated Guelph's Elaquent, a smiling teddy bear of a man who says he coiled the album's warm, jazzy beats around songs like Palm Tree Shit, a twinkling, pastel-hued paean to L.A., where the tune was recorded.
Triggering samples on an SP-404, he ran through old and new tunes, from a remix of Slakah the Beatchild's D.A.N.C.E. to the clacking funk of Montreal Poutine and Carpe Diem.
The highlight came when horn player Octavio Santos, featured on the record, clambered onstage to trill laid-back flourishes over Elaquent's neck-snapping drums.
COUSINS with BY DIVINE RIGHT at the Silver Dollar, Saturday, April 28. Rating: NNNN
The lo-fi crunch of Cousins' bare-bones garage-pop sounds perfect coming through the speakers of the Silver Dollar. Playing to a half-full bar, the Halifax duo proved that as good as their latest album is, it's a pale alternative to the live experience.
Though both members remained seated throughout the show - Aaron Mangle played a kick drum with his feet, in addition to guitar - they never let the energy dip. And beneath the high-voiced hooks and overdriven guitars was studied, polished precision. Mangle and drummer Leigh Dotey have been touring heavily, and it showed in their well-handled stop-start rhythms and musical chemistry.
Openers By Divine Right also impressed with a high-energy set of indie rock. José Contreras has been the only constant in the long-running Canrock institution, and his current trio (featuring Sheezer shredder Alysha Haugen on bass) is a good one.