RIHANNA at Danforth Music Hall, Thursday, November 15. Rating: NN
To hype her seventh album in as many years, Rihanna invited a planeload of journalists and fans to tag along on her seven-day, seven-city 777 Tour, which met an excited yet well-mannered crowd upon its touchdown in Toronto.
You have to hand it to the Barbadian singer for keeping the rock-star lifestyle alive at a time when labels are slashing marketing budgets. Moreover, it's always interesting to see an arena-sized act play a smaller venue with little more than a backing band. Alas, with Rihanna, the line between "spontaneous" and "lazy" is a fine one. She seemed more concerned with basking in adoration than performing, often letting the backing tracks and audience do the work.
Rihanna has an arsenal of incredible pop songs and gladly gets out of their way. But without the arena razzle-dazzle, her aloofness and choppy singing were laid bare. That she struggled not to smile during acoustic ballad Unfaithful and failed to muster sexual heat when reciting Ginuwine's Pony chorus on new song Jump are just two examples of why this fan frenzy was ultimately unfulfilling.
BOB DYLAN at Air Canada Centre, Wednesday, November 14. Rating: NNN
There's something satisfying about Bob Dylan's wilful disregard for maintaining his own mythology or furthering the nostalgia of hot-dog-eating boomers and their distracted offspring.
At the Air Canada Centre, he played lots of hits, including Like A Rolling Stone and All Along The Watchtower. But his simultaneously comforting and irritating nasal voice is gone, replaced by a gravelly rumble that renders his lyrics mostly unintelligible. His current cadence and phrasing, meanwhile, put a stop to stadium-sized singalongs. About three songs in, a steady parade of disappointed Q listeners started making their exit.
Dressed in a military-style suit that from my vantage point looked like pyjamas, Dylan said little besides "Thank you, friends!" and an introduction of his band, including guitarist Charlie Sexton, who injects welcome dissonance into the beloved songs. Visions Of Johanna was particularly satisfying.
At 71, Dylan has a piano, a top-notch band and a catalogue of songs from which to compile a set list. Take it or leave it.
OM with DANIEL HIGGS, SONS OF OTIS and WYRD VISIONS at the Great Hall, Sunday, November 18. Rating: NNN
There's a pleasure that arises from hearing a band really dig into a riff, playing it again and again until the listener reaches a state of sonic hypnosis. Om are great at it. The California stoner-metal trio have built a bleary-eyed fan base thanks to their plodding, experimental opuses.
After an overlong run of openers, they lumbered onstage at the Great Hall just before midnight, delivering a show that split the difference between a doom-metal concert and a weedy religious ritual. Some fans twisted and danced like no one was watching; many more just stood there, eyes half-closed, a sea of toques headbanging at 33 rpm.
The obvious highlight was epic closer Bhima's Theme. As Robert A.A. Lowe's effects-treated vocals (he sounded like he had a theremin crammed into his mouth) filled in Al Cisneros's laborious bass grooves, the band methodically stoked the atmosphere. Then drummer Emil Amos thundered in, sending the crowd into the streets after a volley of echoing cymbal crashes.
NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE at the Air Canada Centre, Monday, November 19. Rating: NNNN
Neil Young is famous for following his gut, even when it gives him questionable advice. Thankfully, that risk-taking often results in pleasant surprises. Reworking his CSNY classic Helpless into an uptempo garage rock country stomper doesn't sound like a great idea on paper, but it definitely thrilled and surprised the crowd at the Air Canada Centre when he played the radically different version as an encore.
The two-hour set was sprinkled with familiar hits, but overall the focus was on the grungy guitar jams of his newest album, Psychedelic Pill. If that disappointed anyone, the crowd sure wasn't showing it, and the new songs sounded great live and loud. The extended loose arrangements provided plenty of opportunity for feedback-fuelled soloing and washes of noise, but Young also made time for an acoustic interlude toward the latter half - a chance to play The Needle And The Damage Done - to give our ears a break.
There's a fine line between trying too hard to please the fans and being self-indulgent, but Young straddled it perfectly.
GILBERTO GIL at Massey Hall, Monday, November 19. Rating: NNNNN
Gilberto Gil has an amazing band - two percussionist/drummers, an accordionist, fiddler, bassist and lead guitarist - that frequently overpowered his delicate guitar work. But the iconic, influential 70-year-old Brazilian musician's voice, stage presence and highly original blend of samba, bossa nova, reggae, tropicalia and even touches of Celtic more than captivated.
It's music "with a lot of pulse," explained the former Brazilian minister of culture, who paused now and then to give us Bahia music history lessons, a graceful and well-spoken figure in a casual white T, jeans and runners.
It was unexpected, then, when halfway through the two-hour set he began to seriously cut loose, dancing goofily across the stage with his guitar. His singing got experimental, calling and responding to guitar leads and giving way to something louder and more primal. Sometimes his voice dipped impossibly low or, even more thrilling, flew Michael Jackson high - a tuneful shriek that cut through the percussive busyness.
The ladies got to their feet, and eventually everyone else did, too, dancing and swaying and clapping. Feel-good concert of the year.