AGALLOCH and JEX THOTH at the Opera House, Friday, July 4. Rating: NNNNN
The gamble with metal shows is that it's hard to guess how they'll come together live. That's especially true with Oregon-based blackened folk metal group Agalloch. Their albums are loaded with quiet, meditative, folksy elements (acoustic amblings, babbling brooks, chirping birds) that provide counterpoint for all the pummelling, howling and power solos. It's hard to imagine it registering as effectively onstage.
And then you see it. Filing onstage through prop smoke, cued by tone-setting acoustic fingerpicking, Agalloch drove into The Astral Dialogue, which carried them through an impressively heavy, incredibly fun set. It's easy to joke about the band's bright instrumentals and crescendo fetishism, but their ability to massage the savagery of black metal into complex, triumphant instrumentals - dynamic beyond their vacillations between acoustic and electric guitars - is impressive. Especially live.
Also: big shout-out to openers Jex Thoth, a definitive example of a band that sounds flat and kind of boring on record but explodes in concert. Singer Jex contorted like a Tim Burton claymation maquette, her commanding, soulful vocals summoning the anguished spirits of classical metal front-women like Coven's Jinx Dawson.
MAXWELL at Massey Hall, Saturday, July 5. Rating: NNNN
Even as R&B and hip-hop have become increasingly interwoven over the past decade, falsetto-voiced Maxwell has stuck to the kind of finger-snapping midtempo jams and soul ballads of his 90s neo-soul heyday.
Dressed in a three-piece suit, the 41-year-old cut a classic silhouette, and he and his seven-piece band sounded as sharp as he looked. Playing exclusively back-catalogue material, he swayed his pelvis suggestively, commanded the band James Brown-style and frequently dropped to his knees.
When a woman handed him a pair of panties during Bad Habits, he put them in his mouth and finished the song. "Wow," he said, sniffing them after. "They were pretty used. Definitely."
The most theatrical portion of the evening was a cover of the Kate Bush ballad This Woman's Work, during which religious devotion doubled as foreplay.
Maxwell knelt with his back to the crowd and faced a single spotlight as a near-a cappella pre-recorded Kate Bush vocal played. Returning to the mic, he drank in a long pause, leaned into the mic and caressed it gently as women screamed and waved their arms in anticipation.
JEFF TWEEDY, NEUTRAL MILK HOTEL and VIOLENT FEMMES at Toronto Urban Roots Festival, Saturday and Sunday, July 5 and 6. Rating: NNNN
Violent Femmes' Saturday afternoon TURF set was triumphant: they ripped through their 31-year-old eponymous debut, in order, then delved into Hallowed Ground material, sounding even better live than on record.
But what Jeff Tweedy pulled off the next day was subtler and more of a coup: the bulk of the Wilco frontman's set was songs the audience could not sing along to because they'd never heard them before. Tweedy's debut solo album, Sukierae, is due out in September.
He joked that it took him 18 years to make a solo album because he had to grow a drummer: his son Spencer played on the record and at the show.
Their stripped-down, more straight-ahead arrangements allowed Tweedy's lyricism, humour and charisma to shine, even as his guitar playing occasionally fumbled.
Afterward, Neutral Milk Hotel's Jeff Mangum was a reluctant cult hero, but the audience was eager to eat up songs from their beloved In The Aeroplane Over The Sea album, especially Two-Headed Boy and The King Of Carrot Flowers. Mangum's vocals, especially when backed just by his acoustic guitar, were the most distinctive and haunting of the fest.
FESTIVAL D'ÉTÉ at various venues in Quebec City, Friday, July 4, to Sunday, July 6. Rating: NNNN
For 11 nights each summer, up to 90,000 people flood Quebec City's Plaines d'Abraham, the headlining "venue" of the multi-stage, city-wide music celebration Festival d'été. A pass goes for $78 for the whole shebang, making it Canada's best-kept festival secret, as well as totally worth the gas money or airfare if you're inclined to visit from T.O. Judging by the international media presence, it won't be secret for long.
Lady Gaga brought her Artpop tour outdoors on Friday night, showcasing hits from that record, belting a dynamite ballad version of Born This Way and making impressive costume (and wig!) changes throughout: bondagey leather numbers; dazzling, winged bodysuits; rainbow-bright, Harajuku-inspired ensembles.
Snoop Dogg was less impressive on Saturday, expending minimal energy, even if his 90s hit catalogue is familiar and fun. A$AP Rocky - who commanded the stage despite a wonky set list - totally outshone him.
But Sunday's headliners, Journey, were tops. After a solid but sleepy Steve Miller Band, they owned their ultra-singable rock hits, from the pump-up classics (Any Way You Want It) to the lighter-waving ballads (Faithfully) to the all-out transcendental (Don't Stop Believin'). Lead singer Arnel Pineda is a ball of captivating energy, breathing new life into the classics with his tirelessly soaring vocals.
The festival continues until July 13.