The Garrison comes back to life with a Cadence Weapon concert

The Polaris Prize-winner hosted the first indoor concert at the venue in over 18 months – and it felt like a celebration, in more ways than one


CADENCE WEAPON with MYST MILANO at The Garrison, Tuesday, September 28. Rating: NNNN


Just one day after winning the 2021 Polaris Prize, Cadence Weapon got another honour: headlining the first concert at the Garrison in nearly two years.

The Dundas West music venue has been dark since the pandemic started, the longest ever break in the history of a bar that used to have live music nearly every single night. It was a modest return, but a powerful one. It was a celebratory night, for a few different reasons.

I’ve gotten my feet wet with a couple of outdoor concerts over the last month, but this was my first indoor show since March of 2020. But walking into the back room of the Garrison didn’t seem as strange as I was expecting – more like slipping back into a comforting and familiar rhythm.

It’s as dark and laid-back as I remembered, filled with friendly and familiar faces from the music scene. There’s some new lighting, but it otherwise looks and feels pretty much the same. There are some ongoing renovations, but not much needed to be done. The bathrooms, for instance – all single-person rooms behind the stage – were already COVID-friendly.

The layout is definitely different. To meet Ontario’s current reopening restrictions, the once standing-room venue is now filled with tables, all spaced six feet from each other. The sold-out show had an audience of around 65 people in a room that usually fits about 300.

It looked more like an intimate comedy club or jazz bar than a high-energy hip-hop show. Before last March, you would have never expected to wear a mask at a concert (they were required unless drinking). But there was a warm intimacy to the setup, like we were all friends gathered for a casual party.

And there was Cadence Weapon, standing to the right of the stage working his own merch table, slinging vinyl and soaking up every “congratulations.”

Myst Milano

But the actual first artist on the Garrison’s reopened stage was not Cadence Weapon – it was opener Myst Milano. “It’s a real honour,” they said, recognizing the occasion.

Any residual weirdness melted away by the time the Toronto rapper and producer finished their first song. I thought it would be strange to sit politely during a rap show, but the crowd brought the energy in other ways. People seemed extra generous with the applause, often cheering mid-song for a particularly good bar. Everyone participated when Milano initiated an arm wave. But it was as much appreciation as courtesy. It felt really good to be back.

Like Cadence Weapon, Milano is originally from Edmonton. “The prairies are in the building!” they said, echoing Cadence Weapon’s Polaris declaration that “The prairies got something to say.” Like Cadence Weapon, Milano is in their own lane.

The artist and community advocate produces their own minimalist, hard-hitting beats and deadpan delivery, which draw from the queer scene, club sounds and even hardcore. Milano came out of the punk scene, and shouted out the special DIY trust-yourself energy that exists in both punk and hip-hop. Playing songs off the recently released hidden gem Shapeshyfter, they effortlessly went from full hardcore scream to ballroom vogue.

There was so much charisma and fire coming off the stage that the crowd was fully energized without ever having to get on their feet.

That energy continued when Cadence Weapon hit the stage, which doubled as a Polaris party of sorts. “Lift a glass if you’ve got one,” he said. “I didn’t get a gala, so this is my celebration.”

He reflected on “the craziest 24 hours of my life” between the Polaris and the Garrison show, getting messages and accolades from everyone from his Edmonton high school to politicians Josh Matlow and Mélanie Joly to producer Kaytranada “and my crazy cousin Jeff.” He thanked his partner, Toronto Star labour reporter Sara Mojtehedzadeh, who he called the smartest person he knows and a big influence on his album.

He laughed thinking about how people from all over the world are listening to his winning album, Parallel World, and thinking “this is fucking weird,” baffled by the Canadian references.

He started with a set of songs from that album, which was recorded during the pandemic but felt right at home onstage. The booming bass and gut-punch Canadian grime production hit my stomach in ways it didn’t at home, and his lyricism stood out even more. Sitting at a table, you could zero in on the words. When he went a cappella, there was almost a slam poetry vibe.

You could feel the justified paranoia in his delivery of On Me, a song about online surveillance (which he followed with a snippet of Somebody’s Watching Me). People whooped at “My prime minister wears Blackface but he don’t really wanna face blacks” line on Play No Games, which he also called out on the Polaris broadcast.

His progressive, urbanist politics sharpened during the pandemic, and that felt particularly cutting in his adopted hometown. He launched into Skyline – a critique of Toronto gentrification, displacement, city planning, slumlords, encampment clearings and Doug Ford corporate cronyism. Then he talked about what informed it: walking down Queen West during the pandemic and seeing “weed store, weed store, weed store, Rexall, Shoppers, weed store, A&W, weed store, weed store.”

And he said what he would have said in his acceptance speech if he didn’t want to keep it PG: “Fuck John Tory. Fuck Doug Ford. Fuck ’em.”

Then the jazz club vibe came back when the rapper wheeled off his laptop and welcomed a live band for his second set. He said he was bringing Cam MacLean, Mitch Davis and Susil Sharma – all musicians from his previous hometown of Montreal – to play classic old Cadence Weapon songs. He almost corrected himself with Canadian humbleness but then realized now that he’s won Polaris he can call them classics.

There was a giddy, feel-good spirit to the live band songs, which had a specific angular funkiness. He said crowds at other shows had compared it to Primus, Rage Against the Machine, Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet and a sketchier Lenny Kravitz. I felt more of a post-punk or no-wave vibe, groovy with jagged-edge rhythms. Those came through in new arrangements of songs like Conditioning and In Search Of The Youth Crew and the renamed Unity Square. Cadence Weapon poked fun at the new dances he was trying out, pushed and pulled by the unique grooves.

He got a huge ovation as he left the stage – a few people stood, the rest not quite sure if it was allowed – and came back for Night Service, a Jacques Greene collaboration that likens a night out to church – a secularly spiritual experience. It was the perfect song to cap off the night – a hymn for a congregation that was finally reunited.

Cadence Weapon plays the Garrison again tonight (September 29). The Garrison’s ALIVE series continues until March 2022. All proceeds go to Unison Benevolent Fund and the AMY Project (Artists Mentoring Youth).

@trapunski

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