STARS at the Phoenix Concert Theatre, December 17-19. Rating: NNNN
Every music lover has those albums that remain dear to their heart, even long after they’ve soundtracked a particular era of your life. For many fans of Canuck indie pop, Toronto-bred, Montreal-based Stars’ Set Yourself On Fire was that record: at once epic yet intimate, emotive and intelligent, it captured the group’s strengths in one perfect package and earned them a whole new wave of listeners with its anthems of love and loss.
Unlike many of their fellow Montreal acts who faded away as quickly as the hype over that city’s early-aughts scene died down, Stars continue to ply their trade in electro-tinged perfect pop 15 years in, but it could be argued that Set Yourself On Fire was their high watermark. So it was perhaps unsurprising that the band chose to mark the album’s 10-year anniversary (SYOF was released in Canada in 2004, but received wider international release the following year) with not one, but three sold-out hometown shows at the Phoenix, performing SYOF in its entirety.
As it happens, the shows also marked the 10-year anniversary of a similar stretch of Stars’ concerts: in December 2005, the band played six back-to-back performances at Lee’s Palace to cap off a long tour in support of SYOF. Back then, as a young reporter at the Toronto Star, I had the temerity to suggest to an editor that perhaps the paper should be covering this rising act that was selling out so many shows in a row. Her response? “Excellent – it would be great if you went to all of them and reported back.” Suddenly, it seemed that my love for this band would be sorely tested.
Long story short: a decade later, I’m still gladly listening to Stars – not only that, but this time around voluntarily signed up to review this week’s entire run of shows at the Phoenix. Why? Let’s just say there is something to be said for longevity (this is a band I’ve been following since even before singer Amy Millan joined the group), and for context: Why on earth would someone go to see the same band over and over again? When it comes to their live show, somehow this group manages to charm every time thanks to the sheer act of just bringing it. These are musicians who live for the stage, and it shows.
Bands playing their major albums front-to-back has almost become a gimmick at this point, but luckily Stars’ three nights at the Phoenix didn’t simply trade in sentimental nostalgia, but rather served as a celebration of an album and a band that have meant so much to so many.
Unlike back in 2005 at Lee’s, where Stars played around a bit with the setlist so that the gigs felt fairly fresh for both themselves and the audience, this time around all three nights were near-identical, from the setlist to the banter right down to the band’s outfits. And yet, somehow there was still a unique energy from night to night, each evening’s capacity audience (Thursday seemed to be industry night, with fellow music pals like Kevin Drew, Andy Kim, Jason Collett, Ron Sexsmith, and Universal Music head Jeffrey Remedios all on hand) singing along, commemorative SYOF beer cans (courtesy of Collective Arts Brewing) in hand.
Common wisdom has it that the first performance of a multi-night run is surely the ‘warm-up,’ but save for the Phoenix’s typically boomy sound (that’s better suited to straight-up rock) that swallowed up some of Stars’ more delicate atmospherics, Thursday night offered the best balance between SYOF’s swoony classics and the more recent material that capped the second half of the set.
If anything, over three nights of hearing SYOF played from beginning to end, one thing quickly became indisputable: from that unforgettable “When there’s nothing left to burn…” intro right down to the crystalline glow of Calendar Girl, it’s a collection of truly beautiful songs, and Stars barreled through all 10 tracks like they were that same hungry band from 2005. The only difference is that now they bring a decade’s worth of road-honed stage skill with them, which translated into a far heavier, rockier approach to even the SYOF tunes.
If you still think of Stars as that twee band playing feather-light electropop, clearly you haven’t seen them live in some time: while singers Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan’s dual vocals and onstage interplay remains the nucleus of Stars’ show, the band can also kick up some serious noise, too, as on a fierce, guitar-squalling rendition of SYOF’s pointed Dubya-era barb He Lied About Death.
Still clearly a fan favourite to this day, Reunion sparkled with its bright melodies and big guitars, while another crowd-pleaser, One More Night, underscored Stars’ knack for concealing poison-pill lyrics deep within sugar-coated hooks.
While the small-club atmosphere, community mindset (donations were being collected for both the North York Harvest Food Bank and Parkdale Community Legal Services) and trip down memory lane all made for a love-your-neighbour vibe, the sardine-like crowd and enthusiastic off-key warbling (if I wanted to hear drunk bros murder Calendar Girl instead of Millan’s angelic rendition, I’d go to karaoke, thanks) certainly killed the mood a little.
Interestingly, if these shows were meant to highlight SYOF, they also served to showcase what a deep canon of should-have-been-hits Stars continue to rack up. While there was no denying the drama and power of the SYOF segment of the set, once that was out of the way, the latter half featuring their recent dancier tracks felt looser and – dare I say it? – just more fun.
A kinetic madman on stage all three nights, Campbell threw down a melodramatic take on his sneering club-poseurs takedown Trapdoor (complete with falsetto, natch) burnished by SYOF collaborator Erik Hove’s slinky saxophone solo even repeated false starts nightly on Dead Hearts couldn’t mar its melancholic beauty and in No One Is Lost, Stars now has an EDM powerhouse that’s the ideal hands-in-the-air closer to their live show.
During his typically passionate-and-profane banter, Campbell exhorted the crowd to eschew extravagant Christmas gifts and instead focus on community – something, he noted, their fans here have exemplified by supporting Stars since the beginning. “We’re Stars, and we’ll never fucking go away,” he declared.
Let’s hope so. After all, you have to hand it to a band that’s not only still at it, but still genuinely energized about what they do. And about great songs, too: a playful cover of the Pogues’ cheeky anti-Christmas carol Fairytale Of New York not only proved the perfect finale, but also brought things full circle – Stars first learned the tune so they could play it at those pre-Christmas shows at Lee’s Palace 10 years ago.
For three nights, hundreds sang in unison: “Live through this/And you won’t look back.” Words to live by – but in revisiting perhaps their best-loved album, Stars reminded us not of what we’ve lost along the way, but all that we’ve found instead.
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