FRIENDLY RICH & THE LOLLIPOP PEOPLE, VIVA MEXICO MARIACHI, GREGORY PEPPER and THE SILVER HEARTS at the Horseshoe, Thursday, July 24. Rating: NNN
Friendly Rich & the Lollipop People do bombastically theatrical musical numbers that push past the boundaries of making sense into the terrain of entertaining absurdity.
At the release party for Bountiful (Rich's tenth CD), the artist seemed intent on demonstrating that idiosyncratic stagecraft is old hat for him. He roped the audience into an improvised dance involving the "snowman" and "crotch rot," and everything he touched became a prop, making it slightly surprising when he actually played his instruments (clarinet and guitar).
The band kept throwing the audience sonic curve balls - a long, droney trombone solo by Steve Ward, creepy looped breathing noises - between blasting through klezmer lines and dance tunes. With song titles like Penis Suitcase, it's perhaps a blessing that we couldn't make out the words.
Each of the three openers proved sympathetic to Rich's vision in different ways: the Viva Mexico Mariachi ensemble played dramatic party music, conveying joy through sadness; Gregory Pepper, alone without his Problems, emphasized eccentric lyrics; while Peterborough's Silver Hearts - another sprawling, orchestral folk-rock band - were the highlight of the night and should have played a longer set.
NAT BALDWIN at the Monarch, Thursday, July 24. Rating: NNN
The solo work of Dirty Projectors bassist Nat Baldwin is gorgeously understated and subtle, showing how strangely ethereal an acoustic upright can sound in the right hands. While he sometimes plays with a band and a drummer, for this Toronto appearance he performed alone, wrapping his wistful vocals in shimmering bowed harmonics. Or rather, he attempted to perform alone while an overly enthusiastic fan drummed along arrhythmically in the front row with his hands until Baldwin politely asked him to stop midway through the gig.
Unfortunately, the disruptive audience member's eventual ejection from the venue cast a weird vibe over the show and distracted from the experience. Baldwin's cover of Arthur Russell's A Little Lost was still haunting - and his own compositions translated quite well to the stripped-down arrangements - but it would have been easier to appreciate in a theatre setting than competing with the din of a bar. Had he brought the full band with him on this tour, the songs would have cut through the chatter and commanded the attention they deserve.
CHOIR! CHOIR! CHOIR! at Harbourfront Centre, Friday, July 25. Rating: NNNN
Toronto singing crew Choir! Choir! Choir! have been playing all kinds of gigs lately: prestigious ones (accompanying Tegan and Sara at the Junos) and really cool indie ones (NXNE's 159 Manning backyard barbecue). On Friday night, a crisp summer breeze carried their voices at Harbourfront Centre.
Led by Nobu Adilman, who conducts, and Daveed Goldman on acoustic guitar, the posse of about 60 singers harmonized through a well-curated set of universally loved tunes (Sweet Caroline) mixed with the bandleaders' lesser-known favourites (Elliott Smith's Needle In The Hay).
Adilman and Goldman have perfected their comedic timing: "How many people like Blur? How many people like Oasis? Well, you Oasis people can suck it," for example.
Casual, playful and obviously having a blast, the choir especially impressed with a serene rendition of Hallelujah and the Smiths' There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. They seemed slightly short of breath at times, but the difficult arrangement of a novel take on Blur's Girls And Boys was fantastic and well executed.
APB and RAZ FRESCO as part of UNITY FESTIVAL at Yonge-Dundas Square, Saturday, July 26. Rating: NNN
Beck Motley and Bon Voyage, collectively known as APB (or the Airplane Boys) are fresh off a raucous sold-out performance at the Mod Club - a career high for the Scarborough-bred duo. On Saturday, they were clearly still basking in the glory of that show.
Still, the Unity Festival's transient crowd was a challenge. They overcame it by jumping in and rapping directly in the faces of attendees, sending smartphones aflutter.
Part of APB's charm is their unabashed sincerity. They closed with their newest single, Scarborough Kids, an overcoming-the-odds anthem that unified the diverse audience.
Earlier, 19-year-old Toronto emcee Raz Fresco demonstrated the bag of performance tricks that have bolstered his reputation thus far. For example: known for his soulful 90s revivalism, he spat confidently over a melody of Southern beats from the crunk golden era, including Like A Pimp and You Don't Want Drama. The artist saved the best for last, teasing a new track from an upcoming release featuring woozy production and a grimy bass line.