GOSSIP at the Phoenix, Saturday, September 29. Rating: NN
About halfway through Gossip's long-awaited return to Toronto, the guy behind me exclaimed, "It's like a low-key Lady Gaga concert!" For anyone who saw the Portland-based band in the early 2000s when they were playing lusty blues-punk, that would be hard to believe. But he was right.
Singer Beth Ditto admitted that the band was drunk in honour of touring keyboard player Katy Davidson's birthday. Maybe it was that pre-show imbibing that slowed things down. There were long, chatty interludes that were lost on everyone not standing in the first few rows, and duets with soulful Magic Mouth singer Stephfon Bartee need tech issues worked out before they're attempted again.
Hits like Heavy Cross got people dancing, but many new songs were dull in spite of drummer Hannah Blilie's driving beat and Ditto's sexy wail. Encoring with Tina Turner's What's Love Got To Do With It had some swooning, while others made a beeline for the coat check.
PROPAGANDHI at the Phoenix, Wednesday, September 26. Rating: NNNN
Twenty-six years into their career, Winnipeg's Propagandhi have perfected the balance between punk-rock-informed music-making and hands-on activism. The latter continues to fuel their anti-capitalist, pro-gay/feminist/civil rights/animal, eco-warrior lyrics, which some find heavy-handed and preachy (and often just too - I don't know - on the nose).
But their last couple of albums, particularly September's Failed States, have also given listeners the band's most complex and interesting music to date. Ambient and dark touches of heavy metal slow down the skate-punk speed, though progressive rhythms and lightning-fast, righteous solos by singer/guitarist Chris Hannah are just as likely to catch you unawares.
At a sold-out Phoenix, Hannah's voice was crystalline and at times anthemic, delivering verbose gut punches of lyrics that got the crowd shouting along, moshing and stage-diving. (One guy landed a kiss on Hannah's cheek and earned an arse kick in return.) By my count, we got tunes from every album, even 1993's How To Clean Everything, when, for the final song of the encore, they played Stick The Fucking Flag Up Your Goddam Ass, You Sonofabitch, which just about sums things up.
DJANGO DJANGO at Wrongbar, Saturday, September 29. Rating: NNNN
When you've seen so many young buzz bands looking bored and dour onstage, the cheerfully goofy enthusiasm of Django Django is positively refreshing (and refreshingly positive). On record, their distillation of 60s psych-pop and post-acid house electronics is catchy and novel but much more earnest than the feeling the grinning Scottish/Irish quartet projected at Wrongbar Saturday night.
The economics of touring North America mean they had to leave their DIY lights and projections at home, but they seemed so happy to be here in their matching T-shirts that the minor compromise was forgotten. Besides, low production values suit the band just fine. Part of the appeal is watching their synth player flip through a notepad to find the correct settings for his battered keyboards, and wondering if the duct tape will hold together their bargain-basement percussion instruments.
Django Django have made a great debut album that you should take seriously, but it turns out they're a good-time party band at heart.
BETH ORTON at the Virgin Mobile Mod Club, Sunday, September 30. Rating: NNNN
Sunday night felt like a reunion between British songwriter Beth Orton and her Toronto fans, many of whom had albums for her to sign after the show.
Starting alone onstage with Magpie off her long-awaited new record, Sugaring Season, Orton initially seemed to be in raw form as she sang about her renewed intent to be heard. Turned out a cold was affecting her vocals and making her foggy-headed. Still, she put on an endearing, intimate and strong show, with intermittent backup from her husband, Vermont-born folksinger Sam Amidon.
Orton has become a better guitarist in recent years, evident on the new songs she played alone. But when Amidon sang backup, the music went into technicolour, making highlights out of Poison Tree and Call Me The Breeze.
Pleased by the warm reception, she offered up older material and audience requests, including Concrete Sky, Stolen Car, Someone's Daughter and Pass In Time, and talked of returning soon with a band.