Review: Long Winter at the Great Hall

For better and for worse, Long Winter again proves to be a study in contrasts

LONG WINTER with MOZART’S SISTER, BIZZARH, LEE PARADISE and KEITA JUMA at the Great Hall, Friday, November 15. Rating: NNN

For the third year, Long Winter is again a study in contrasts. But last night’s new season kick-off was perhaps the concert series-cum-art show’s most contradictory offering to date, for better and for worse. 

The subterranean talk show Long Night with Vish Khanna featured Trillium Book Award-winning poet Souvankham Thammavongsa reading from her newest collection, Light, and a stripped back performance by Basia Bulat of her Buddy Holly-inspired song, Wires. The singer was armed with merely an electric guitar, a scratchy-sounding amp and her powerful voice. And although surprise guests are the norm for Long Night, the audience (and Khanna, for that matter) was genuinely elated by the appearance of Sean Michaels, this year’s winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Us Conductors, a story about the origins of the inventor of the Theremin.   

Meanwhile, upstairs in the steamy Conversation Room, Mississauga-based rapper Keita Juma was tearing the place down and subsequently rebuilding it with his moody, futuristic beats. The crowd’s energy – presumably under-agers with way better rhythm than this awkward reviewer – fed off Juma’s cool gusto, provoking the best dance party of the night. 

With the ground level of the Great Hall now occupied by the Bristol restaurant, it left only the main room licensed, meaning that at all times in the night there was a winding line to get into the only place where you could buy a beer and catch the headlining performances. But once you got in, Lee Paradise treated the crowd to a rowdy performance with his droning croon over Halloween funhouse melodies. 

Back in the Conversation Room, neo-Soulquarians Bizzarh exhibited cool girl finesse, the kind that most of us dreamed of having at their age, via Charli Champ’s intelligent rhymes and Dollar Paris’s ethereal backing vocals. Despite a slow start, they proved they’re bound to become the new face of Toronto R&B. 

Mozart’s Sister finished off the night in the main room. With a table full of samplers and synths flanked by back-up dancers, Caila Thompson-Hannant’s voice was in full diva mode and her experimental beats were slick with poppy hooks that had everyone dancing.

Long Winter should feel like a festival indoors, where each room brings new oddities and surprises. But because of the Great Hall’s strict parameters, small capacity and overzealous security guards, it lacked the fluidity and carefree nature that’s at the very crux of the festival. Here’s hoping that Long Winter can iron out these kinks in the coming season, because it’s destined to become a Toronto institution. 

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