Basia Bulat at Massey Hall, July 10.
BASIA BULAT at Massey Hall, Thursday, July 10. Rating: NNNN
Basia Bulat is a master of instruments both familiar and not, and she brought an arsenal of them to her Live At Massey Hall concert.
"You'll never get me off the stage," she said, genuinely and charmingly in awe of the setting.
Songs from her latest folk album, Tall Tall Shadow, sounded fuller, richer and more rock 'n' roll backed by her strong six-piece band, especially with the two-drum-set treatment. (Her brother, Bobby, was behind one of them.)
Bulat contributed to that high-energy spirit, too, dancing around as best she could with a large guitar slung over her shoulder, cradling an auto-harp as carefully as one would a child or delicately tickling her tiny charango - as she did on opener City With No Rivers and the outstanding solo, mic-less encore performance of It Can't Be You.
Her slightly husky, sweet vibrato was made for Massey. Though it was never drowned out by her band, it sometimes had to compete. That was resolved when she performed a solo mini-set partway through - particularly emotive and poignant on Paris Or Amsterdam, a song she dedicated to the deceased friend for whom it was written.
BEYONCÉ with JAY Z at the Air Canada Centre, Wednesday, July 9. Rating: NNN
There was something hollow about Beyoncé and Jay Z's chemistry on Wednesday night. After leading off with two of their biggest co-hits - '03 Bonnie & Clyde and Crazy In Love, Bey and Jay alternated bangers without much interaction or even a stolen glance.
Accompanied by a formidable squad of backup dancers, Beyoncé did the lion's share of the work, performing songs from her latest album interspersed with a smattering of Jay Z's greatest hits. The two finally delivered some onstage PDA for Drunk In Love. Then, just past the halfway mark, Beyoncé delivered a riled up performance of Why Don't You Love Me, kicking off the back half of the concert that played on our relationship-status speculation.
Jay Z stood solemnly at the mic for Song Cry, an exceptional cut from his Blueprint album that laments a relationship marred by infidelity. Then it was Beyoncé's turn to perform her famous betrayal ballad, Resentment.
But, the couple presented a united front. "Forgiveness is the final act of love," said Beyoncé's holier-than-thou voice over the PA before an upbeat denouement of Love On Top, Izzo (H.O.V.A.), Single Ladies, Hard Knock Life, Pretty Hurts, Young Forever and Halo.
RANZIE MENSAH with REZA MOGHADDAS TRIO at Small World Music Centre, Saturday, July 12. Rating: NNN
The Small World Music Centre's cabaret-theatre-style seating was awkwardly intimate for Ghanaian "Princess Of Peace" Ranzie Mensah's performance despite the video cameras. (The concert series will be broadcast online.)
The Italy-based singer put on as big a show as possible in the small space, singing, dancing and storytelling backed by her Toronto-based collaborator, pianist Reza Moghaddas and his trio (bassist Oriana Barbato and ex-Cliks player Morgan Doctor on percussion).
Mensah takes a singular, vibrato-heavy, nearly operatic approach to vocal Afro-jazz that takes some getting used to, but her pipes have the power to transport the listener to other places, as they did on Swing To The Beat.
Crowd-pleasers included a handful of Miriam Makeba songs, like hit Malaika. (Mensah knew Makeba and translated Makeba's autobiography from English to French.)
The band debuted a couple of new pieces written specifically for the collaboration - including To Bebop - and Mensah walked offstage to let the band jam out on their own, finishing the encore with total improvisation.
GRETCHEN'S MUSE at the Music Garden, Sunday, July 13. Rating: NNNN
Despite marking its 15th anniversary this year, the summer series of free concerts at the waterfront Music Garden remains somewhat of a secret.
Curated by veteran critic Tamara Bernstein, the program offers a low-key way to enjoy classical and world music in an idyllic setting - performers are set up with minimal amplification under a massive weeping willow adjacent to the shoreline, with the attentive audience seated on the grass or the stone steps carved into a hill above.
Sunday's matinee featured New York-based chamber music ensemble Gretchen's Muse, a string quartet specializing in 18th-century works, notably from the transition between baroque and classical styles. If that sounds daunting, far from it: the players moved through a Hayden and a Beethoven quartet in near-telepathic synchronicity.
While ensemble founder Abigail Karr on violin and guest cellist Beiliang Zhu proved standouts for balancing passion with precision, the beauty of the quartet's playing came not only from their period instruments (Karr noted that the gut strings make a richer sound), but from the palpable collective chemistry between such individually accomplished bow-wielders.