COLD SPECKS at Lee's Palace, Sunday, December 7. Rating: NNNNN
Cold Specks picked up her electric guitar for a few songs, but for the most part she left the instrumentals to her incredibly tight four-piece backing band. Instead, the 26-year-old Etobicoke native - who uses the name Al Spx as an alternative to her stage moniker - focused on her singing, showing off her effortlessly velvety vocals and impressive vocal range.
The most heavy-hitting songs were from her latest album, Neuroplasticity, on which Spx experimented with rock 'n' roll and prog. Old Knives, which she introduced as "a song about decapitation," began quiet and cool before escalating into a breakdown of thundering drum rolls and intense baritone sax.
A cappella versions of her songs worked as powerful transitional interludes throughout the set. On Holland, Spx's voice was unwavering as she belted out, "O death, where is thy sting? Does it feed on eager limbs?" Then, without missing a beat, she began singing "Hands up! Don't shoot! I can't breathe!" - seamlessly weaving in the rallying cries of the protest movements sweeping across the United States.
CALVIN LOVE and MICHAEL RAULT at the Drake Underground, Thursday, December 4. Rating: NNNN
The Field Trip Discovery series nailed the lineup for its holiday edition, topping the bill with Calvin Love and Michael Rault, two Toronto-based singer/guitarists making retro sounds new again.
Love's electro-rockabilly recalls Chris Isaak, the Arcade Fire's Reflektor album, the Wonders from That Thing You Do! and all sorts of 80s pop. That said, the Edmonton transplant is one of a kind, owning the stage in his silver-sequined jacket, making love to his guitar and punctuating his songs with emphatic yelps. His super-tight three-piece band was integral to the overall party sound.
My only small qualms? The vocal reverb was a touch overdone, and Love's guitar playing - which usually evoked a Hawaiian vacay - occasionally had an over-accentuated twang.
Earlier, Rault, oozing cool in his between-song chat, made performing his vintage-sounding tunes seem effortless. Listening, I couldn't help thinking of laid-back road trips with my parents' best-of 50s, 60s and 70s tapes, yet Rault and his three backing players make something that sounds a little lo-fi and still totally modern.
JAMIE T at the Mod Club, Saturday, December 6. Rating: NNNN
Jamie T warned the crowd that he was working on only two and a half hours of sleep, but the UK singer/songwriter showed no signs of jet lag as he and his band, the Pacemakers, threw themselves into their first song. Taking a few years off from touring has renewed his zest for performing, and he seemed to genuinely relish the opportunity to play rock star, complete with slicked-back greaser hair, sunglasses riding low on his nose and one foot propped up on his monitor.
On his newest album, Carry On The Grudge, T leaves behind some of his Brit rap influences, and that shift was especially evident live, where even the older material got the rock 'n' roll treatment. He's no longer riding the wave of buzz he enjoyed early in his career, but his fan base is clearly still interested, singing along just as loudly to new songs like his latest single, Zombie, as to old hits like Sheila - which he puzzlingly dedicated to 90s Montreal alternative dance rock band Bran Van 3000.
THE BLIND BOYS OF ALABAMA at Roy Thomson Hall, Monday, December 8. Rating: NNNN
It doesn't matter if you're not Christian, don't care for the holidays or are a plain old Grinch: you'd have to be a robot not to be moved by the Blind Boys of Alabama - four blind octogenarians (ish) who've made a career since the 1940s with their spirited and soulful gospel blues songs.
On the Roy Thomson Hall stop of their annual Christmas tour, Jimmy Carter, Ricky McKinnie, Paul Beasley and Ben Moore took the stage in festive red and green for an hour-and-20-minute set of blissful multipart harmonies.
Led by charming ringleader Carter - the group's only touring original member - and backed by a four-piece band, they performed familiar classics like People Get Ready, Southern Christian songs like the countrified God Put A Rainbow In The Clouds and holiday tunes from both their new album, Talkin' Christmas, and their festive 2003 offering, Go Tell It On The Mountain.
Beasley's magnificent falsetto had the crowd in rapture each time it took the spotlight, and Carter's long-sustained note (it went on for bars and bars) on Amazing Grace brought chills. The boys showcased mean moves during an extended finale, and Carter did a tear-jerking walk through the audience, shaking hands and doling out hugs.