Shows that rocked Toronto last week: Les Hay Babies, Stevie Wonder and James Blake

JAMES BLAKE at the Mod Club,.

JAMES BLAKE at the Mod Club, Sunday, November 30. Rating: NNN

England’s James Blake is rounding out the year with a scaled-down mini-tour of concert theatres to road test new material from his forthcoming third studio album, as well as the more techno-oriented tracks he is releasing through his 1-800-Dinosaur collective and record label.

Blake’s music is primarily tender pop ballads sung with a quiet and careful vulnerability offset by heavy, stumbling beats that reverberate through your body. The new songs – which included a swinging soul tune and a plaintive torcher on solo piano at the set’s end – were performed in romantic backlit silhouette with minimal or no accompaniment from his drummer and guitarist.

Other new ones went in the opposite direction. Voyeur (Dub) and recent single 200 Press featured chopped-up hip-hop samples and clanging mechanical noise over industrial-strength techno beats that would not sound out of place in a sex club.

And neither would his anything-goes attitude. A crowd-pleasing cover of Joni Mitchell’s A Case Of You demonstrated a songwriting standard he has yet to match with his own lyrics, but viewed as a whole, the concert’s shifting moods shared his folk hero’s aggressively unpredictable spirit.    

Kevin Ritchie

STEVIE WONDER at the Air Canada Centre, Tuesday, November 25. Rating: NNNN

Last Tuesday at the ACC, Detroit pop-R&B legend Stevie Wonder unleashed warmth, humour and virtuosic musical chops over a three-and-a-half-hour set of tunes from 1976’s flawless Songs In The Key Of Life. 

Before touching a piano key, Wonder spoke about the album, highlighting the contributions of others, including India.Arie, who stood majestically at his side, and concert conductor/keyboardist Greg Phillinganes

The set was personable and full of cut-loose jamming, during which several of the massive band’s astonishingly skilled musicians were given the spotlight. Even the emotive string ensemble made up of members of the TSO found its funk. 

Sir Duke was pure joy and Isn’t She Lovely seemed extra-poignant after Wonder introduced backup singer Aisha Miller as his daughter and inspiration for the song. The set’s second half was slowed down by overly long extended outros, and the sampled call-and-response voices spiking through Black Man were abrasive. But spirits never dipped. Mic trouble during Ordinary Pain and a botched set-up involving an iPhone during the encore didn’t faze the singer, who teased us with snippets of his biggest non-Key Of Life hits before finally giving us our release with Superstition.     

Carla Gillis

THE MARTINEZ BROTHERS at Coda, Saturday, November 29. Rating: NNNN

Steve and Chris Martinez were still in high school the first time they played Toronto back in 2007, a novelty highlighted by the fact that they favoured old-school NYC soulful house music. Now their age is no longer a gimmick, and their style is also much more contemporary. You can still hear traces of the old Paradise Garage tapes that influenced them, but their sound is much more minimal and crisp – often closer to techno than house.

On Saturday, they approached their tag-team DJ set with a casual confidence that comes from having already spent a large chunk of their young lives behind the mixing board. The booth was crowded with partiers, but they didn’t let the distractions disrupt their flow. These days, their sound is often very dark, but it still had a natural relaxed swing, even in their most abstract moments. They stretched out their peaks and valleys patiently, exercising restraint so that there was always room to keep increasing the energy level as the night continued into the early morning.     

Benjamin Boles

LES HAY BABIES at Harbourfront Centre, Saturday, November 29. Rating: NNNN

The Coup de coeur francophone festival double bill Les Soeurs Boulay/Les Hay Babies became one long Hay Babies set when Les Soeurs called in sick. 

The Moncton trio – guitarist Vivianne Roy, Julie Aubé on banjo and Katrine Noël on uke – regaled an attentive café-style crowd with songs, stories and jokes that evoked a summer folk fest set. The preambles often stretched out as long as the songs, and the chuckling crowd hardly seemed to mind.

Onstage, the tunes were folkier than on the band’s debut LP, Mon Homesick Heart, some of them supported only by Roy’s acoustic guitar and the group’s two- and three-part harmonies. The band made up for lack of percussion with hoedown-like foot stomping, while Aubé’s fingers flew on the banjo. Vocally, the group have an impressive sense of timing. 

True Acadians, Les Hay Babies pepper their songs and speech with franglais. Each member took turns singing lead. Noël, the simplest instrumentalist, made up for it by being quite a singer: sometimes it felt a bit like listening to early McGarrigle Sisters.

Sarah Greene

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