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DOLDRUMS, CADENCE WEAPON, BLUE HAWAII, BLONDE ELVIS and THIGHS as part of WAVELENGTH 13 at the Great Hall's Black Box Theatre, Friday, February 15. Rating: NNNN
Back when it was a weekly series, Wavelength was known to artists as a reliable show to play if they wanted to jump on a bill to play an extra gig or if a concert got cancelled at the last minute. That was how Cadence Weapon, then a teenaged rapper from Edmonton, played his first Toronto concert the better part of a decade ago. A lot has changed since then - for both the musician and the series - but his return trip to Wavelength last night as part of its thirteenth anniversary festival still carried that old feeling.
As a friendly arena for shows that needed a home, Wavelength's weekly series would grow to sport whole bills of bands that tour together and fill empty slots with local bands. The anniversary festival is much more closely curated, but last night's bill felt a lot like the uber-hip Montreal Mile End loft scene invaded Toronto's Black Box Theatre, high waisted jeans, PBRs and all. There was even an afterparty at Double Double Land.
But first, a couple of locals got their chance to warm up the crowd. Spazz-punkers Thighs set up on the floor and tested the mettle of the languidly assembling audience with noisy riffs and a bit of a capella shrieking. Blonde Elvis followed with a set of Brit-influenced rock that seemed to impress the stragglers filling in to catch the next few acts, though the sounds weren't as attention grabbing as lead singer Jesse James Laderoute's turtleneck and chain.
I wrote in my festival preview that Doldrums is poised to be the breakout act of the 2013 festival (like METZ last year and Grimes the year before), but judging by last night's crowd it may actually be Blue Hawaii. The duo project of Braids' Raphaelle Standell-Preston and her boyfriend Agor (a.k.a. Alexander Cowan), the band takes her ethereal soprano and matches it with those chilly electronics so often heard wafting in from late night shindigs anywhere in Montreal there once stood a factory. At times it sounded a bit mismatched, but when the beats got heavier it became an instant dance party.
Cadence Weapon surprisingly had more trouble amping up the "mad sedate" crowd (his words), but the Montreal transplant and his ultra-energetic DJ/"I don't need a fucking" hype man did a great job of getting them into it, peppering his clever wordplay smooth flow with crowd invasions, new material and girl group samples. He also rapped over Grimes and ended with his song Loft Party, not-so-subliminally pushing the afterparty in Parc Ex... err, I mean Kensington Market.
There was a long wait as Doldrums tested their part-live-part-electronic setup and live visuals, but as the 1 am set time inched closer to 2, they finally decided just to cut their losses and play. It wasn't the best set from Airick Woodhead and his assembled live band and he seemed to know it, telling the crowd "we've been sound-checking for like three hours, so just pretend it's good." His band, which included his brother Daniel Woodhead (also of Moon King) brought back memories of Spiral Beach, once a Wavelength staple when they all lived in Toronto, and the dreamy melodies and experimental take on electro-pop still shone through the off-night performance.
DO MAKE SAY THINK, EVENING HYMNS, SARAH NEUFELD, DOOM SQUAD and BERNICE as part of WAVELENGTH 13 at the Great Hall, Saturday, February 16. Rating: NNNN
Thirteen years old, Wavelength has a bit of a split identity. The series' goal, as it always was, is to promote genre-defying independent music, DIY communities and emerging bands, but it now also has a legacy to uphold. As night three of the Wavelength Thirteen festival showed, Wavelength can still balance those two impulses.
The night started with Bernice, a joint project between Robin Dann and Thomas Gill. If you spend any time around the Tranzac or Holy Oak, you've probably seen Gill lending his smooth composition skills to any number of projects, but Bernice has been a rarer band for him of late. That should change soon. Dann has recently moved back to Toronto from the UK. That's beneficial for both of them because the two are a perfect pair, each lending a smooth, silky jazz flavour to hooky, sophisticated indie pop.
Doom Squad followed with a short set that seemed to gain a few converts. The band is comprised of three siblings from Montreal: Trevor, Jaclyn and Allie Blumas. Clothed in pentagrams and amulets, the three blood bandmates mix a quasi-mystical, gothy post-punk vibe with repetitive chants, dance beats, guitar, flute and recorder. To close their set, Doom Squad treated the crowd to a complete reworking of the Doors' Riders on the Storm.
Neither Bernice or Doom Squad are incredibly heavy, but Sarah Neufeld still had her work cut out for her holding up the middle of a rock show with a set of solo violin. Neufeld is known to the indie rock world for her contributions to Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre and the Luyas, but her solo instrumental work has more of a classical, minimalist bent. It's never easy to capture a packed venue's attention with quiet instrumental compositions, but fans in the front of the Great Hall, at least, seemed mesmerized. But everyone hushed once Colin Stetson joined in on baritone sax, lending a deep, booming counterpoint to Neufeld's violin.
Evening Hymns faced a different challenge, playing the slot directly before Do Make Say Think. Wavelength is good at crafting complete lineups, but DMST seemed to be the definite draw. Still, Evening Hymns principles Jonas Bonnetta and Sylvie Smith, held the crowd's attention with their hushed, yearning, gorgeous pastoral folk-rock. Armed with a crack six-piece band on this occasion, they even managed to build up a good racket on a couple of songs.
The problem with packing a bill with five bands is that the headliner is bound to go on pretty late. But that didn't stop many die hards from sticking around for Do Make Say Think. The instrumental post-rockers have a long history with Wavelength, a perfect fit as a band that has sustained a long career on a strictly independent level, so they were an immediate go-to for the festival.
Returning from a recent hiatus, the band is playing in a stripped down five-piece lineup. But this is still Do Make Say Think: "stripped down" still works out to two drummers, so between atmospheric buildups were crashing, cacophonous climaxes. Those were necessary for many in the audience, propping themselves up after three nights of Wavelength, and for the band, too. Guitarist Justin Small commended the crowd for sticking it out. "How many of you took a nap this afternoon?" he asked, receiving a holler in return. "Here's to the fucking rock and roll nap!"
By the time the final sustained crescendo hit, it felt totally earned by both the band and the audience.