Björk at Echo Beach, Tuesday, July 16. Rating: NNNN
At a time when dance producers are looking to the hard-edged industrial acid of the 90s for inspiration, Björk's first Toronto gig in seven years was a reminder that the Icelandic pop auteur was a screamy techno punk long before Yeezus was an itch in Kanye West's asshole.
Unlike the intimate residency shows based on her 2011 iPad app album, Biophilia, Björk relegated the technological doodads to the sidelines in favour of less subtle flourishes, namely pyrotechnics and a caged Tesla coil that hung above the stage and farted electric bolts of melody.
Sporting a ginger afro wig and twinkly blue dress, she appeared onstage with a percussionist, beatmaker and choir in tow. The Biophilia songs that upsized best to the outdoors were drum 'n' bass jam Crystalline and the terrifying Mutual Core, while prettier, harmonically led Moon and Thunderbolt sounded jumbled despite the pristine mixing.
The set's latter half comprised exclusively bangers: Army Of Me, Pluto, Nattura and Hyperballad, which morphed into LFO's techno jam Freak. It was a cathartic and satisfyingly free-wheeling break from the formalist air surrounding Biophilia.
Savages at Virgin Mobile Mod Club, Tuesday, July 16. Rating: NNNN
In an effort to "discover better ways of living and experiencing music," Savages put a note on the door asking audience members to refrain from using their phones.
But unlike She & Him's recent set on the first night of TURF, there were no security guards shining flashlights in phone users' faces; Savages enforced the policy themselves. It took all of one song for lead singer Jehnny Beth to confiscate a device from an overzealous amateur videographer, setting it down on the stage until later.
It's no big shock to see Savages exercising control over their image. The UK post-punk four-piece cite at least as many cinematic influences as musical ones, and their live show reflects that effort to create an all-absorbing atmosphere. They didn't have that luxury last time they came to Toronto for CMW, but they took advantage of it at this headlining performance.
All four members were dressed in black, backlit by a strobe. Beth's crazy-eyed intensity made her the unavoidable centre of attention even as the precise, locked-in assault of the guitar and rhythm section threatened to pull eyes their way. A tight, brooding, razor-sharp set, then out.
Jay Z & Justin Timberlake at the Rogers Centre, Wednesday, July 17. Rating: NNNN
Thank god for the Rogers Centre. For egos and auras the size of Jay-Z's and Justin Timberlake's, you need a 54,000-capacity arena (which, on this night, was sold out and had Drake in attendance).
Appearing just after 9 pm, they set the tone with opener Holy Grail: Timberlake's falsetto was flawless, and Jay's rhymes effortless. After a mashup of I'm A Hustla Baby and Rock Your Body, they alternated choppily between their greatest hits. It was much better when they individually delved into longer mini-sets, backed by impressive visual projections, two mega-Jumbotrons and a tireless 14-person band.
A few of Timberlake's slow songs killed the energy, and at least once Jay's raps were a step behind the band. But the volume of hits made up for those flaws. By the time the nearly three-hour show was over, we had heard Timberlake's My Love, LoveStoned and Like I Love You, and lots from Hov's Blueprint album plus 99 Problems, Big Pimpin' and On To The Next.
Most special was when Jay-Z performed Song Cry, one of his most thoughtful and personal tunes, followed by Timberlake attacking his greatest jam, Cry Me A River.
M.I.A. at the Danforth Music Hall, Thursday, July 18. Rating: NNNN
M.I.A.'s heavily anticipated fourth album, Matangi, has been held up interminably by disagreements with Interscope. But even though she had nothing to promote officially, her Danforth Music Hall show felt like the first step of a major comeback.
Onstage, the multi-coloured flashing light wheels were as delightfully garish as M.I.A's own presence, and her dance moves, coordinated with a backup singer, percussionist and two dancers, were charismatic and hypnotic while avoiding the stiffness of over-choreography. The sound, unfortunately, was muddy and hollow and mostly pre-recorded.
Her audience rapport, though, has always been a strong suit. Submerging herself in the screaming, dancing, sweaty mass of fans was peril-free, but she did take a tumble on her way back to the stage.
On this occasion, M.I.A.'s songs spoke loudest. Though fans reacted most feverishly to singles like Bad Girls, Galang and inescapable hit Paper Planes, new tunes Bring The Noize and Only 1 U fit the ear-piercing noise rap energy of /\/\ /\ Y /\ standouts Born Free and the Sleigh Bells-assisted Meds And Feds.
That next album is going to be a big one.
Courtney Love at the Danforth Music Hall, Saturday, July 20. Rating: NNN
Say what you will about Courtney Love's music being secondary to her notoriety - she can still rock the hell out of tunes like Miss World, Asking For It and Doll Parts. Her voice is considerably lower and raspier and her vocal delivery more clipped than in her heyday, and it doesn't take a master detective to figure out why: she only made it through the first two songs before lighting up and requesting a "drop" of tequila. "You want a good show, right?" she asked rhetorically between never-ending cigarette drags.
Never a stickler for decorum, Love approached the show with a relaxed looseness that made it a challenge to play in her backing band. Asking them to play "slow and bluesy" to avoid the "shitty" version from an early Detroit show, she growled through a cover of her "favourite drug song," Buffy Sainte-Marie's Cod'ine.
It was unclear whether the many diehards were there to hear Hole classics or bask in Love's cult of personality, but either way she rewarded the audience's fanaticism, pulling the petals off roses and tossing them into the audience between songs. Many returned the favour by tossing their bras and panties onstage, which Love collected and hung up on her guitarist's mic stand.
Beyoncé at the Air Canada Centre, Sunday, July 21. Rating: NNNNN
In a structured, sparkly white onesie, Queen B appeared before her "beehive" of adoring dressed-to-the-nines fans exactly on schedule at 9:01 pm and launched directly into the kinetic choreography of Run The World (Girls).
Everything about the show was immaculately tight, a result of Beyoncé's vision, control and tireless devotion. We got 10 costume changes, an 11- piece all-female band, nine backup dancers and a pair of Parisian identical twins (the only males onstage) whose comedic shtick and human-body-defying dance moves deserve their own show.
Bey's singing wowed, especially on If I Were A Boy and the rocking, growly I Care, which she performed with her badass guitarist and punctuated with GNR-like oohing falsettos.
The show went into overdrive when she traversed the Air Canada Centre in a harness, landing on a second stage close to the back for Irreplaceable, Love On Top and Survivor. Then the floodgates opened: Crazy In Love, an epic interpretation of Single Ladies with choreography Kanye would steal a mic for, and, finally, a tease of Whitney Houston's I Will Always Love You that morphed into Halo.
At 10:58 she bid her beehive adieu. "Until next time, Toronto!" We'll be waiting.