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Great Lake Swimmers. Saturday, June 2, Danforth Music Hall.
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GREAT LAKE SWIMMERS and COLD SPECKS at the Danforth Music Hall, Saturday, June 2. Rating: NNN
Toronto folk rockers Great Lake Swimmers' most recent album, New Wild Everywhere, is their most lushly produced yet, and they pulled out all the stops to reproduce its dense layers and textures, including adding a string section to the five-piece band. This generated an undeniably pretty wall of sound but also made the set seem like one long, relaxing song.
The most dramatic moments came with fewer musicians onstage, illustrating the importance of careful arranging. Cold Specks' minimalist opening set drove that point home as well. Without a full band backing them, Al Spx's heart-wrenching gospel blues songs also tended to blend together, though the sparseness allowed her spine-tingling vocals to stand out. Not many singers can walk away from the mic to go unamplified and a cappella without getting drowned out by chatter.
BRY WEBB with DEL BEL at 918 Bathurst Centre, Friday, June 1. Rating: NNNN
Del Bel's Lisa Conway duets with Bry Webb on her band's latest release, so it made sense that they'd sing together at their Wavelength-presented co-headlining set at 918 Bathurst. Their performance of jaunty jazz-blues tune No Cure For Loneliness beautifully matched the record's lo-fi intimacy.
The collaboration didn't end there. Nine members strong, Del Bel gave extra punch to their cinematic orch-pop by adding Webb's deep, expressive bleat to compositions rich with a full horn section, pedal steel and Conway's unassuming yet dramatic lead vocals.
Webb slowed the tempo for his own set, showing off the quiet acoustic folk he unveiled on his debut record, Provider. As the show progressed, though, he took advantage of the extra musicians at his disposal, reminding Constantines fans just how effective his gruff voice is when propelled by a bigger sound.
Webb brought out the whole ensemble for a fun, all-on-the-table encore version of Seals & Crofts's yacht-rock hit Summer Breeze before, ironically, sending the audience out into the rain.
KELLY JOE PHELPS at Hugh's Room, Friday, June 1. Rating: NNNN
Vancouver, Washington-based blues musician Kelly Joe Phelps let his guitar carry most of the show on Friday night. That lent the evening a focused quality, as the audience leaned in to listen closely over Hugh's Room's little kitchen noises.
Though he seemed to be in a shy mood, he was a pleasure to hear, frequently exploring detours and false endings, managing to sound like he wasn't sure what note he was going to land on next - his idea of a joke, perhaps - but always sounding right.
Phelps, who previewed material from his upcoming gospel-influenced ninth album and covered Motherless Child, Hellhound On My Trail and Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah, alternates between acoustic and resonator guitars, seamlessly incorporates his jazz background into fingerpicking and bluesy slide guitar, and sings about struggle, redemption and mercy - a perfect soundtrack to the rainy weather.
MUTEK MONTREAL May 30-June 3. Rating: NNNN
Last week's political and, uh, psychopathic, turmoil aside, Montreal played perfect host to Mutek attendees. Since 2000, the annual electronic and digital arts festival has incubated and showcased the best in diverse Canadian talent, stacking it against some of the biggest producers, DJs and musicians in the industry, with incredible AV accompaniment to match.
Even more impressive for a Mutek first-timer was the range of performers, from the accessible to the oblique, across all genres, and from around the world. Techno pioneer Jeff Mills stunned Metropolis on Thursday night, while at the same time round the corner, buzzy young gun Shlohmo played a gratuitous, genre-trolling set replete with stoner-friendly edits of Christina Aguilera and Drake.
Vocal collaborations seem to be a current Canadian preoccupation: super-trio Nouveau Palais (Lunice, Prison Garde, Ango) made their live debut, and producer Nautiluss brought out singer ALX during his live performance. Tim Hecker and Stephen O'Malley took Mutek to church, filling the historic Eglise St. James with cell-restructuring drone from the in-house organs. Favourite DJ set? Friday night's two-hour, progressive club throwdown by Hyperdub scion Kode9.