Thu, June 28
Cesaria Evora at Roy Thomson Hall Rating: NNNN
With Roy Thomson Hall at capacity, it seemed everyone was leaning forward to absorb legendary Cape Verdean singer Cesária Evora 's sparkling performance. Swells of applause greeted the singer at the start of each song, but her rendition of Africa Nossa got the most.
As she continued, the place was so quiet you could hear a program drop, meaning everyone could clearly hear the gentleman in the audience who would occasionally yell something in Portuguese at the 65-year-old folk artist. While there was some mild laughter, beneath the vivid lighting Evora seemed unimpressed. When anyone left the auditorium, a disappointed expression crossed her face.
Her eight-piece backing band was exceptional. Her highly adept violinist and saxophone player both kept in tight unison, harmonizing perfectly in high pitches, while her guitarist plucked a percussive guitar whose body was a frame with no soundboard or back. All kept a rich backdrop of fado and morna sounds flowing for Evora's sorrowful soul vocals. She didn't move very much, however, content to stay put and sing. At one point her lively sax player tried to get the fadista to dance, shimmying toward her suggestively, but to no avail - she remained static, looking slightly amused as he returned to his station.
Sat, Jun 30
WILCO at Massey Hall Rating: NNNN
After becoming the critical darling prog kings of alt-country, Wilco, with frontman Jeff Tweedy, could take turns drinking cooking sherry and pissing in a bottle onstage and the fans'd still go bananas (if the acoustics were good).
The band has paid its dues, toured ad nauseam and, based on Saturday's spirited show at Massey Hall, is simply interested in having a good time. The high-energy set was long on extended Krautrock-inspired numbers, with a few slower tunes to balance things out.
Wilco relied heavily on their last three discs, delivering a wonderful version of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot's Jesus, Etc., not to mention a revamped version of older live staple Sunken Treasure.
Only real problem is that as good as the band is live - and it is freaking good - the fans did much to ruin the show by whooping and applauding every time Tweedy and company did, well, anything. After a while it was kind of a bummer trying to hear the music when half the venue overzealously cheered the band on like it was that poor kid running the race from that old Garth Brooks video.
Sun, Jul 1
FINAL FANTASY at Harbourfront Rating: NNNN
As Owen Pallett, aka Final Fantasy, so eloquently put it when remarking that neighbouring condo tenants could very well make noise complaints about his Canada Day outdoor show by the water, "Is there anything more Canadian than property ownership and righteous indignation?"
Pallett kept up that level of wit throughout his set, while displaying inspiring, self-confident musical ability. Playing old fan-pleasers like The CN Tower Belongs To The Dead and This Lamb Sells Condos, Pallett stood quietly off-centre for most of the evening yet still managed to connect with the audience.
And if close to an hour's worth of Final Fantasy wasn't enough of a treat, near the show's end he was joined by openers Do Make Say Think, who convincingly brought out newer, more aggressive dimensions of the music.
FEMI KUTI at the Docks Rating: NNNN
Forro in the Dark kicked off the High Life Festival to a sparse crowd at the Docks , delivering a sufficient portion of chunky Southern-fried rock.
By the time the headliner was about to hit the stage, the crowd had grown to around 300, which still left lots of space in the cavernous Docks.
The Positive Force band, clad in bright orange and yellow African print shirts and black slacks, entertained with their playful steps before three beautiful dancers filled the stage with a frenzy of body movements.
On a perfect cue, Femi Kuti stepped into centre stage behind his keyboard and four horns. The razor-sharp band and Femi's impassioned vocals kept the semi-political party rocking.
Chaos erupted when he unleashed his legendary anthem 1997, to which dedicated faithful Femi fanatics chanted along. At least a dozen other selections achieved a James Brown level of musicianship and discipline. A four-song seance of an encore was the icing on the cake.
MAVIS STAPLES at Nathan Phillips Square Rating: NNN
Achieving legendary status is trickier than it seems for hard-workin', still-touring musicians. At least that's the sense you got from watching gospel's gold standard, Mavis Staples , work it for a captivated crowd during her Toronto Jazz Fest throwdown at Nathan Phillips Square Sunday.
It's not that Staples is showing signs of wear; quite the contrary. Half a century into her career, the ebullient diva still has a rich roar of a voice that could leave the most hardened anti-spiritual stoic begging for salvation.
Her vocal control is part of her power. The woman doesn't just sing the lyrics; she feels and believes them. Her assured, heartfelt treatment made even potentially stale boomer-friendly tunes like I'll Take You There feel like full-on revival burners.
But held up against the light of Staples's formidable chops, her backing crew came off like a second-rate bar band. Drummer Stephen Hodges sounded as stiff as a middle-school percussion teacher, while guitarist Rick Holmstrom 's wankery brought to mind former SNL bandleader G.E. Smith's commercial break jams.
An artist as gifted as Staples deserves backup with much more soul.
Mon, Jul 2
THE BOREDOMS, PRINCE NIFTY at the Phoenix, Rating: NN
Having the mind-numbingly dull plink 'n' drone duo of Prince Nifty open for the Boredoms at the Phoenix was a crafty bit of high-concept booking. Too bad Yamataka Eye and his monotonously pounding drum corps were no more thrilling than their snoozy warm-up act.
Watching a group of percussionists bash away in unison can be intriguing, particularly when they're sweaty, half-naked taiko drummers, but there was nothing special about the Boredoms' three weedy whackers in headphones rumbling away to a click track while fearless leader Eye added whooshy electro-blurts and intermittent yelps.
The most impressive part of the show was the tower of suspended guitars that Eye studiously smacked in regular progressions with a broom handle. It was swell for the first 10 minutes or so, but the repeated patterns soon became a painful ordeal.