Fri, July 20
SCOUT NIBLETT at the Horseshoe Rating: NNNN
Finding a description of Brit art rock songster Scout Niblett's oeuvre that doesn't contain the words "primal," "raw" or "spare" is like trying to track down an Interpol review that doesn't refer to Joy Division - fuckin' tough. There's a reason. She may not write the most technically complex songs, relying on rough power chords, simple, echoing melodies and intense, often repetitive lyrics that feel like the mantras of an unbalanced genius ("We're all gonna die... We're a-a-a-ll gonna die"), but the stark vulnerability of her music makes it feel as though Niblett's hit on an unmediated throughline that runs directly from her bloody heart to the microphone.
It's for precisely this reason that seeing her in a live context has the power to instantly hush a cacophonous crowd and floor individual listeners into slack-jawed silence.
Niblett's minimal, guitar-heavy performance at the Horseshoe Friday night was in some ways the polar opposite of the baroque art pop of the two sets that bookended it - local singer/songwriter Katie Stelmanis, who crows operatic vocals over intricate layers of keyboards and electronic textures, and buzzy chamber-cabaret threat St. Vincent, who trills along to a choir of her own looped harmonies.
But what Niblett lacked in fancy dressing she made up for in emotional weight. The woman knows how to structure a set for maximum effect, opening with quietly strummed fragile folk tunes that recalled Joanna Newsom, then gradually building up through distortion-scarred guitar rockers like Dinosaur Egg before reaching the howling-banshee, stomach-churning, drum-pounding apex of closer Miss My Lion.
At barely 45 minutes, Niblett's set was a bit too brief for the tumultuous emotional trajectory. Let's hope she gets more air time when she returns to headline her own show this fall.
CHRIS CORNELL and JULIETTE LEWIS at Massey Hall Rating: NNN
A study in contrasts unfolded to a full house at Massey Hall on Friday, as Juliette Lewis and the Licks tore open the show. Lewis's skin-tight black leather pants and ragged mesh top matched the mood of her jerky, freaky music.
What the wiry frontwoman lacked in vocal prowess she made up for in wild stage presence, and her efficient band supported her Lee Aaron shtick well. Their energy built all the way to the outro, when four of the five members (including Lewis) grabbed drum sticks and furiously pounded to a climax. Still, though Lewis may be a natural born killer, it was just second-degree murder.
Their set was markedly different from the mellow storm that is 43-year-old Chris Cornell. The grunge survivor, celebrating his latest birthday in Toronto, goaded the crowd by proclaiming, "It's each and every one of your responsibilities to rock this motherfucker, cuz it's my birthday," but he moseyed about the stage like he was already hung over.
On Audioslave radio faves and then on Temple of the Dog requests, Cornell's rich and textured vocal tones easily reached the upper regions of the cavernous venue, while the crowd faithfully sung along to much of the material.
A six-song solo acoustic set, including a touching Can't Change Me and an infectious version of Billie Jean, was a definite highlight, while Soundgarden staples helped bring the early 90s back to life. Finally, Cornell begrudgingly unleashed a crowd-rousing Black Hole Sun for the encore, then bowed out gracefully.
PETE ROCK at State Theatre Rating: NNN
Sometimes selfishness is good. Case in point: Friday's Pete Rock show at State Theater. After DJ Merciless executed the perfect set-up, lubricating the crowd with slick tunes, Rock stepped up. Prepared to hit the eager audience with hiphop bombs, he barely managed to graze the b-boy bystanders for the first bit of his set.
Rock doesn't do turntablism, and when his Run-DMC juggling routine and traditional song choices didn't ignite the joint, he reached for the big guns. As soon as Rock focused on songs he produced, a fantastic voyage began, kicking off with the eternally sacred T.R.O.Y., dropping into the Chuck D church anthem Shut Em Down (Remix) and continuing for an hour with underground classics from Jeru, Common, Nas and Rakim.
Rock occasionally rapped along and at one point treated the crowd to fresh selections from his forthcoming fall album, New York's Finest. He even played many of the timeless true-school creations he produced with CL Smooth, though they're notoriously not on the best of terms. Selfishness is good, at least the way Pete Rock did it Friday night.
Sun, July 22
THE POLICE at Air Canada Centre Rating: NNNN
No two words inspire us to hit the couch and watch Law & Order reruns more than "reunion tour." Aging rockers rehashing their old hits are usually a recipe for extreme boredom. Thankfully, that wasn't the case Sunday night when the Police delivered a performance most 20-something groups could never pull off.
Sting's son, Joe Sumner, kicked off the night with his Fiction Plane crew, and it was impossible not to think Police while watching the three-piece featuring Sumner, who sounds just like his father, on bass. Sadly, the similarities end there - Fiction Plane's music is as bland and boring as it gets.
Despite a few more wrinkles, the headliners sounded like they were 23 again. Wearing a white tank and black pants, a muscular Sting hit every note, while Andy Summers whipped off blazing solos and, not to be upstaged, Stewart Copeland smashed drums, gongs and timpani for two straight hours.
When the Police launched into Message In A Bottle, it was clear this wasn't going to be just a tired trip through the band's oeuvre. Blistering guitar moves, extended jams and unusual percussion accented the big hits. They spared no single, busting out Roxanne, Walking On The Moon, Every Breath You Take, So Lonely and more.
While the band members rarely spoke to each other, keeping their distance on the large circular stage, they made it clear that old grudges can die... or at least be set aside to mount one of the better reunion tours around.
Mon, July 23
BILLY JOE SHAVER, ROMI MAYES at Hugh's Room Rating: NNNN
Pushing an empty shopping cart through the aisles of the Loblaws across from Hugh's Room, Billy Joe Shaver wasn't having much luck in his desperate search for some Red Bull to jump-start his evening.
At the club, dreadfully dull folk tunes strummed by warm-up act Romi Mayes provided a plausible explanation for Shaver's need for a pre-gig boost. After three snooze-inducing ballads, most listeners could've used their own triple shots of espresso. Fortunately for those at the back, the staff thoughtfully left the Blue Jays game playing on the bar TV.
When the fit-looking Shaver finally appeared, he was greeted with an outlaw hero's welcome by those obviously familiar with his pending court date for that parking lot shooting business back in Texas. Anyone in the venue not already on his side was likely won over by The First And Last Time, his emotional opening tribute to departed wife Brenda Joyce Tindell, which he warbled unaccompanied, or as he put it, "Acapulco-style."
His years in the honky-tonks have made Shaver a canny entertainer, but no one could accuse him of being overly career-minded. Some artists with a great new album due out in weeks might be tempted to spend the night plugging it. Not Shaver. He only touched on two songs from his fantastic Everybody's Brother (Compadre) CD and didn't think to mention the album's title.
Instead, he seemed quite content to perform shouted requests for old favourites, ready with snappy retorts to fire back at those hollering the loudest. "Ride Me Down Easy," bellowed a dude down front, to which Shaver replied, "You better let yer wife do that!" No wiseacres dared call for Where Do You Want It?
When Shaver needed a mid-set breather, he went to the Townes Van Zandt playbook to pull a clever misdirection ruse that began by calling up Mayes for backing vocals, then handing her a guitar to perform a song of her own. Mayes eagerly took the bait, and while she was singing, Shaver snuck away to chill with the crowd for two songs. Had she been any good, Shaver might've been off for three or four more.
Along with the roadhouse antics, Shaver used his time onstage to demonstrate some self-defence techniques, shadow-boxing during guitar solos and explaining how it's possible to "knock someone out with a jab by turning your fist" when throwing a punch. That and some life-saving tips about what to do if someone in your motel room overdoses on heroin are all included in the price of admission to a Shaver show.