CAT POWER at Kool Haus, Saturday, October 20. Rating: NN
As long-time Cat Power fans know, there's no telling what to expect from her shows. Reviews of the singer/songwriter's current tour have ranged from okay to absolute train wreck.
Perhaps the tipoff that her Kool Haus show was going to fall into the latter category came several hours before, when Chan Marshall tweeted a photo of herself in a Toronto ambulance. Taking the stage half an hour late, the blond mohawk-coiffed singer offered no explanation for her earlier photo, or many words at all. Her stage banter was mumbled at best, and her singing distant.
Playing songs from her recent album, this year's excellent Sun, she had trouble holding the crowd's attention, and her band struggled to keep up. By the time she found her footing, picking up a guitar for Peace And Love, it was too late.
While there's no question Marshall, whose demons are well documented, is one of the most talented American singer/songwriters of her generation, some rest might be in order for the sake of her mental and physical health.
IRIS DEMENT at Hugh's Room, Saturday, October 20. Rating: NNNNN
Country-folk great Iris DeMent opened the first of two sold-out shows at Hugh's Room with older songs Sweet Is The Melody and The Way I Should, apologizing for her rusty guitar playing and joking that she considered taking up waitressing again while making piano-heavy Sing The Delta, her first album of new material in 16 years.
Sing The Delta has been described as melancholy, and it is. Many of the tunes are long, slow and plaintive, addressing loved ones lost and leaving, particularly her parents. But live the songs came across as soulful and life-affirming reflections on where DeMent is coming from.
A steady pianist and famously expressive vocalist (her trademark warbling lilt comes courtesy of a childhood in Arkansas and California), she had the crowd the whole time, even when she momentarily forgot a chord. We also learned of her inspirations: her forthright mother, country singer Tammy Wynette and the morning glory in her garden.
SUN RA ARKESTRA at Daniels Spectrum, Saturday, October 20. Rating: NNNN
For their first Toronto appearance in four years, the Sun Ra Arkestra under the direction of alto saxophonist Marshall Allen performed at the newly opened Daniels Spectrum, formerly the Regent Park Arts & Cultural Centre.
The event united the 15-piece jazz band with kids from the Regent Park School of Music and dancers from Coleman Lemieux & Compagnie in a performance of Bill Coleman's Hymn To The Universe.
As the sequin- and satin-clad band led the young musicians on a musical parade through the lobby, it was obvious we were seeing something special. Apart from a whimsical piece about pregnant men that distracted from Knoel Scott's honeyed vocals on a rendition of Johnny Green's Body And Soul, the choreography perfectly matched the instrumentation.
By show's end, fans old and new were dancing and singing onstage. More than just a concert or dance performance, the afternoon was a true display of community spirit - under the umbrella of music.
2:54 at the Horseshoe, Monday, October 22. Rating: NNN
Spotted at the 2:54 show at the Horseshoe: all three members of The xx.
It's not a huge surprise that the bands would be mutual fans and friends. (They're also former tour mates.) Both are young, hotly tipped London, England-based indie rock acts that contribute to the shadowier fringes of contemporary music.
Led by sisters Colette and Hannah Thurlow, 2:54 are more aggressive and less minimal than the fragile Mercury Music Prize-winning trio but equally emotive (and black-clad). The Monday-night crowd was sparse and the stage ridiculously dimly lit, but the four-piece's set of dream-doom was engaged and included some newer material.
Their sound is so well defined - mid-tempo, lower range, propulsive, devoid of significant shifts in structure and arrangement - that a sameness can creep in after an hour. What adds interest are the moments when Hannah's distorted guitar lines grow cleaner and busier, and when Colette's voice soars into its higher register.