Sunday, February 28, 2021

February 28th 2000, The Cure at Roseland Ballroom

 

In 2000 The Cure released "Bloodflowers", a return to the darker sounds of their earlier albums, drawing heavily from the same places as their masterpiece "Disintegration". Admittedly, "Bloodflowers" isn't their most popular work, it's a bit dense and it's a bit heavy, and after the Pop they had been making for the few years prior, it was a bit of a surprise for the casual fan that knew them only for the popular hits. But when you give it a try "Bloodflowers" is really quite an impressive release, an intimate and reflective collection of songs that reward the listener with repeated listens. I really enjoyed "Bloodflowers" from the first time I heard it, and I liked how all of the songs were long and intricate and fully immersive, a really cohesive and succinct collection in my mind. It's one of my favorites from the band, and I find that along with "Pornography" and "Disintegration" it's an album that I regularly go back to when I'm feeling in the mood for some Cure. 

Shortly after the album came out, the band announced a short club tour to showcase the new songs. I seem to remember it being billed at the time as their only planned gigs to promote the album, so there was a certain urgency to see them on this jaunt because, A) when I like an album I always want to see the songs performed live, and B) the possibility of seeing The Cure in a club was really appealing to me. In terms of concerts various shapes and sizes of venues all have their pros and cons, but there's no denying that a smaller venue where you're closer to the band and closer to the performance can make for a really special experience. There's a greater connection, there's a greater intimacy, there's a greater feeling of being part of a moment. By that point in their career The Cure had been playing large arenas and stadiums for over a decade, and while I'd seen them a few times already I hadn't seen them in a small space. The upcoming tour seemed like the best opportunity to see them in a tiny venue that I would get, and I waited eagerly for information about when tickets would go on sale.

But on the day that they announced the dates I was disappointed to find that there wasn't a Toronto show scheduled. The nearest that they would be playing was New York City, and that's a lot more than the quick subway ride or short walk from my home that I was used to going to see shows. But my interest in seeing them was still pretty great. And listening back to the album while talking on the phone with my friend Xtina about the situation (it was 2000, people still used their phones to talk to other people at the time...), we both mutually came to the same conclusion that this was an opportunity that neither of us could pass up. We had to figure out a way to make it happen and we had to go to New York to see The Cure.

This would be a good point to tell you about my friend Xtina. She's smart and fun and enthusiastic, she's curious and interesting and amazing, she's brave and strong and charitable and kind. She has the best hair of anybody I know, and of all of my friends she is definitely the most readily willing to drop everything and go on an adventure to another city to see a concert. Xtina's spontaneity, her enthusiasm, her kindness, her fun lovin' joie de vivre, and of course her spectacular hair, all of those things have impressed me greatly over the years, and to this day she remains one of the most amazing and special people I know. She also remains inextricably tied to The Cure in my mind, so that's kind of cool too...

So with all that understood, of course Xtina would agree with me that we should go see The Cure in New York. There was a lot to figure out, we needed to get tickets which would be a challenge because a small venue meant a small number of tickets, we needed to get there which as noted was going to be a lot more difficult than a subway ride or a quick drive, we needed a place to stay, and a ton of other things to figure out, but we were going to make it happen. And in a lucky coincidence of circumstance, it all came together perfectly and on the day of the show we arrived in New York just in time to see The Cure at Roseland Ballroom.

I'll admit that I'm not very familiar with New York. I've been there a couple of times in the past and I've enjoyed the time that I've spent there, but it's not a city that I can speak to geographically very well. Similarly, that lack of familiarity means that I don't really have much to say about the venue either, except to say that the Roseland Ballroom was a decent sized space that I would imagine could hold a couple of thousand people, probably about the size of The Danforth Music Hall here in Toronto or maybe a little bigger. I remember that it had very high ceilings and that gave the sound a bigger space to fill up, and I've since heard that both David Bowie and Lady Gaga played there at some point, but I don't really have much else to say about it other than the fact that it was a very nice place to see The Cure.

But where I don't have much to say about the venue, I have more to say about the show itself, 'cause it was pretty special. They opened with "Out of This World" which is also the first song on "Bloodflowers", resplendent in a dreamy and languid way, and then they launched into "Watching Me Fall", which I've always seen as the emotional heart of the album, a monumental track that built up a wall of sound over the course of it's live length..

At first I was thinking that they might take the opportunity to play the album straight through from start to finish, I mean, it was meant to be a showcase show, right? But that idea was quickly dispelled when they began the slow notes that announce "Want" from "Wild Mood Swings", leading into that grind-y guitar line that plays throughout while Smith recites a litany of every increasing and unattainable desires. "Want" is one of the best moments from the band's nineties output and it doesn't get that much attention, but it's a solid track, an excellent piece of music that I've always enjoyed.

Those three songs set the tone for the rest of the show, a trip through the darker and more melancholy side of the band's history that was very much in keeping with the sound of the album they were promoting. They avoided the pop hits for the most part though there were a couple of nods to singles. It was mostly a night of deeper cuts and fan favorites, and the audience were totally into it, myself and Xtina included. After having seen the band in larger venues like the Grandstand or the Skydome or whatever else, having the opportunity to see them so much closer, to be so fully immersed in the show was pretty spectacular, especially a show for an album that I was so fond of.

They played a swoon-worthy version of "From the Edge of the Deep Green Sea" where all of the audience put our hands in the sky, and a haunting version of "Prayers for Rain" that brought back memories of the Prayer Tour in 1989. They ended the set with the title track from "Bloodflowers" and I remember thinking while we were waiting for the encores that they might be more inclined to dive into the singles then, but there were no cats or imaginary boys to be found, and the band stayed true to the mood that had been set earlier in the night, sticking to a handful of darker but beloved tracks including a sprawling version of "A Forest". 

The night ended with "Disintegration", a spiritual cousin to the songs on "Bloodflowers" and pretty much my favorite Cure song. As they sang about crocodiles and glass roofs and how the end always is, I felt happy to be at the show with my friend, happy we were part of that moment with the band and the rest of the audience. It was an exceptionally good time to be a Cure fan in New York. 

After the show ended we left the venue and headed back to our hotel room, big smiles on both of our faces and awash in that post-show glow that happens when everything clicks just right at a concert. There's always been a bit of a disconnect between the moody and unhappy nature of The Cure's music and the happiness that it inspires in their legion of fans, but I suppose it has something to do with the idea of misery loving company, something to do with knowing that there are other people out there that feel the same way you do, a sense of numbers and community that makes us all feel less alone. Or maybe we all just like songs about cats and staring out windows, rainy days and getting lost. The world could always use more songs about cats...

I'll admit that seeing The Cure at Roseland may not have been the best gig I've ever seen them play. In fact Xtina and I would both go on to see many other shows by the band after that, some of them better, some of them worse, but I'll always remember the time that we saw them in New York as a particular highlight amid all of the concerts I've seen, a great show at a great venue with a great friend. That's the definition of a great show right there.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

February 25th 2020, Bambara at The Garrison

I've always loved a good story. Ever since I was a kid I've enjoyed hearing about other people's lives, other places, experiences, adventures, romance, danger, excitement, tragedy. I love the artistry involved in setting a scene and presenting a situation, the way that a skilled story teller can make us care so much about characters that they feel like family or friends. I love when a story is so rich, so detailed, so fulsome that I can't help but get lost in it's appeal, to the point where the rest of the world seems to disappear and I'm fully immersed in the story being told.

Bambara are great storytellers. Like, really exceptional storytellers. Over the course of their ten plus years recording they've crafted some truly amazing stories in their songs, tales with vividly described characters in richly detailed scenarios that completely draw in the listener. Each song has a strong narrative quality bringing to mind great artists like Nick Cave or Tom Waits, and that's pretty high praise, isn't it? I'll admit, making comparisons like that might seem pretty bold but I'm gonna stand by it. Cave and Waits and Bambara all travel the same roads, a shared highway that chronicles the stories of the lost and the broken and the tragic. 

Bambara put out their latest album "Stray" in 2020, and a support tour shortly after release brought them to the Garrison on February 25th for an excellent show that was one of the last I saw before lockdown began. They're a tight musical unit, a solid band of musicians playing dark songs that are evocative and cinematic interspersed with moments of delicate and tragic beauty. It all comes together really well and I was pretty much spellbound for the entirety of their set and all of the stories they shared.

Songs like "Jose Tries to Leave", with it's detailed description of a late night exit, and the frantic stomp of "Heat Lightning" all painted vivid pictures of desperate characters trying to escape bad situations, Southern Gothic Film Noir with a Post-Punk soundtrack. Singer Reid Bateh was dynamic and dramatic in his performance, stalking the stage, acting out the tension and desperation felt by the song's characters while the rest of the band set each scene musically, moving everything along with an ease and skill that spoke to an impressive talent. It was all pretty awesome.

They closed out the night with "Serafina", an encore that left the audience on a high note with the reminder that even amid all of the darkness and tragedy around us there is also beauty and hope that can be found in unexpected places. I'm hard pressed to think of a better song ever written about a pair of arsonists who fall in love, a driven and incendiary track that stands out in my mind as one of the best love songs of the last year, burning both passionately and literally.

That's another quality of a great story teller, isn't it? Bambara know to leave the audience with a little bit of hope, a little bit of light in all of the darkness, not just because we need to believe in something but also because hope keeps us coming back to hear more stories. 

I'm pretty confident that Bambara have a lot more stories to tell, and I'm looking forward to hearing all of them...

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

February 24th 2020, Ice Cream at The Drake

I feel really strongly that the interaction between artist and audience can lay the foundation for a good show. I've written many times about the flow of energy between the two and how that can influence the course of a live set, and I've also made reference to how a great artist can take control of that energy and lead the audience in a particular direction. From my experience that ability to lead and control interaction is an exceptional skill, and it's an ability that Ice Cream have in abundance.

I can't remember the first time that I heard or saw Ice Cream. I have a feeling that I saw them open for another earlier gig without knowing who they were, but my first conscious recognition of them came when they opened up for The Pixies at the Phoenix in December 2019. Kristin Hersh had previously been announced to play the show and I was really looking forward to see her as I've been a fan for years and it's been forever since she's played in Toronto, but a day or two before the show an announcement was made that Hersh had to cancel and Ice Cream would be opening instead.

Stuff happens and sometimes you just have to roll with it, and I decided that I would still get to the show early so I could see what Ice Cream were all about and show some support for a local band, which was definitely the right decision for me to make because Ice Cream are awesome. They're a duo, Carlyn Bezic on guitar and Amanda Crist on synth, alternating vocal duties between them. They make a really solid hybrid of Pop, Post-Punk and Electroclash with a certain amount of funk-y vibes to them, and their lyrics are intelligent and engaging with a wry humour that really appeals. It's also worth noting that Bezic is an absolutely awesome guitarist, just a really amazing player with a tight sound that reminds me of Wendy Melvoin in terms of style and playing. That's about the highest praise I can give any guitarist, because Wendy Melvoin is one of if not THE best guitarist I've ever seen.

After that show I checked out Ice Cream's Bandcamp page and was really impressed by their album "Fed Up" which had just been released a few weeks before. It's a collection of songs that was just as awesome as their set at the Phoenix, and listening to the album gave me the opportunity to appreciate their songwriting with a greater focus and reflection with repeated listens. It's a really impressive work from really great musicians and since it's release it's earned a lot of well deserved press, including being part of the Polaris Music Prize long list for 2020.

I had the opportunity to see Ice Cream again a couple of months later as part of the February installment of School Night, a monthly curated event at the Drake Hotel designed to highlight and support new talent in a great venue. They played an excellent show that night that fully lived up to and surpassed my expectations, and having a little bit more familiarity with their work at that point I had a better opportunity to pay attention to what they were doing on stage both technically and in terms of their performance. 

One of the things that was really apparent and really impressed me was the way that they actively watched the audience in much the same way that we were watching them. That's not something that you see very often, and it allowed the duo to both connect and confront the audience in a way that asserted them not only as performers but as equals worthy of respect who were making music for their own enjoyment. By shifting that power dynamic, Ice Cream challenged and eliminated any ideas of objectification that may have occurred and instead led the audience in a new direction where the relationship between the two was built around a more equal acknowledgment of each other.  It was an impressive and thought provoking shift in dynamic and it really resonated with me and left me thinking about the way that we observe music, performance, and people.

I should add that in addition to successfully and effectively challenging the traditional performer/audience ideal, Ice Cream also played some excellent music. Bezic and Crist are immensely talented artists, and that talent was in full effect at the Drake, with the two of them obviously strong, confident, and fully in control of what they were doing. There were searing guitar solos, there were solid Pop hooks, really it was a truly impressive set that I thoroughly enjoyed. 

On the strength of the shows I've seen and the albums I've heard, there's no doubt in my mind that Ice Cream are a really Really REALLY great band, and I'm very much looking forward to hearing what they do next. I have every faith that it'll be amazing, and I am already so there for it...

Monday, February 22, 2021

February 22nd 2020, Bat For Lashes at the Phoenix Concert Theatre

 

If you've read any of the earlier posts in this blog you've probably realized by now that I'm a big fan of music. I enjoy it for the places that it takes me, the way it can make me move, the way it makes me feel, the memories that it stirs up, and a thousand more reasons. Music is magical in my mind, and being able to see it performed live, seeing it's creation in the moment, I feel like that's a magical and transcendent experience. 

Continuing that train of thought, I've always believed that there are some artists who feel the same way that I do, not just about making their own music, but in their enjoyment of other people's work, the songs and musicians that influenced and meant something to them. I've always thought that some artists seem like they're fans of music too, and they listen to music and feel the same way as me, reveling in the stories and worlds that can be made in a great song, closing their eyes and immersing themselves in all of the wonder of an awesome record.

I've always been drawn to the artists who feel like fans, and I often feel an additional appreciation for their work as a result. For a long time I've felt like Natasha Khan from Bat for Lashes is one of those artists that revels in the sheer joy of music, and that feeling was pretty much confirmed for me when I saw her at the Phoenix on February 22nd 2020.

My interest in Bat for Lashes began with their cover of "A Forest" by The Cure back in 2008. Like many Cure fans that song is one of my personal favorites from the band, capturing their entire musical ideal all wrapped up in a single track. And I guess I saw another fan in Khan's decision to cover it. The Bat for Lashes version is really great, a slightly more delicate and ethereal approach to the song that adds strings and a nice drum fill, and it's a fine example of my long standing belief that a well written song can translate into good music whatever form it's presented in. Add in the immense talent and style of an artist like Natasha Khan, and you're bound to get an excellent cover.

Since then I've maintained an interest in Bat for Lashes' music. That delicate and ethereal quality that initially appealed to me on "A Forest" runs throughout Khan's work, and I've enjoyed checking out her albums as they were released, always curious to hear what she was doing. I saw her open for Depeche Mode on the Delta Machine tour and that was a great show, but I'll admit there's a certain intimacy to her music that wasn't as easily translatable in such a large venue. I enjoyed her set, but I knew that I'd rather see her play in a smaller space where I could immerse myself in the mood more easily with fewer distractions. And a few years later when she announced a show at the Phoenix I made sure I got a ticket so I could do just that.

I'm happy to say that her show at the Phoenix was exactly what I had hoped for, exactly what I wanted it to be. Khan delivered an intimate and engaging set that really captured the essence of her work, performing stripped down versions of songs that allowed her voice and her stories to stand out in even greater focus. It was a great evening, a set drawing largely from her latest album "Lost Girls" along with a number of fan favorites and covers thrown in, including a song by Kate Bush which especially bears noting because anybody that covers Kate Bush is pretty brave to try and pretty talented to succeed. Natasha Khan is both. 

But as much as I enjoyed hearing Bat for Lashes perform "This Woman's Work", it was another one of those covers that stands out in my mind as the highlight of the evening, the moment that really made the concert for me. Around halfway through the set Khan told a story about how when she was growing up, she and her family would listen to music and dance in the kitchen to the next song, and then she did a stripped down piano, synth, and vocal version of "The Boys of Summer" by Don Henley. 

And it was magical. 

Henley's original track has a certain pathos to it, a feeling of loss and regret, but in performing it at the Phoenix Khan was able to bring a greater sense of nostalgia and wonder to it, a celebration of the song itself and the moments where it had brought her closer to her loved ones, transcending the song's original intent and making it into something more. The magic and beauty of the song as she performed it wasn't just in the lyrics and it's original intent, it was about what she brought to it and the memories that it had for her. She was a fan singing a song that she loved and it showed in a way that really resonated with me. I realize you might believe that I'm just projecting my own thoughts on her performance here but I don't think that I am, I really do feel that Natasha Khan is just as much a music fan as she is an artist, and I think that her being a fan informs and inspires her artistry to greater heights.

Bat for Lashes' cover that evening connected with me in a way that defined that show in my mind, creating a memory and appreciation informed and heightened by her own experiences with the song, and if that's not the work of a music fan then I don't know what else is. Seeing Bat for Lashes play "The Boys of Summer" was the moment that made a good show into a great show for me, and I will always remember it as magical and beautiful, and most of all the work of a true music fan...

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

February 17th 2019, Peter Murphy at the Phoenix Concert Theatre

My very first solo performance was in high school when I got on stage during a talent show to perform an a cappella version of "St Vitus Dance" by Bauhaus. That was a special moment for me, an interesting intersection between my own artistic intentions and others' appreciation of those intentions that worked pretty well for the length of three minutes. I screamed my throat raw, and I remember not being able to speak above a croak for a couple of hours. It was pretty great.

My introduction to Bauhaus and the glory of "St Vitus Dance" was through my friend Jose, who loaned me a copy of "In the Flat Fields" at some point in grade ten. Jose knew that I was a fan of David Bowie and The Cure, and aside from their performance of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" at the start of "The Hunger" I hadn't really exposed myself to Bauhaus at all, but he could tell from my other musical interests that I'd be into them. And he was right, there was a familiar Glam sound and theatricality that suggested they were raised on "Ziggy Stardust" and "Diamond Dogs", taken a little bit further into darker extremes and territories. Where The Cure were alternately mopey and playful, and the Banshees were passionate and strong, Bauhaus seemed purposefully dark and appealingly pretentious. Plus, y'know, really great cheekbones. Like, really, really, really great cheekbones. 

That first album has some great moments on it, incendiary guitar and stomping drums, a certain manic charm, and lead singer Peter Murphy gives a delivery that alternates between softly crooning and screaming intensity at the flick of a switchblade. There was a real appeal to Bauhaus' sound for me, and a great appeal to the world that their music implied. Songs like "In the Flat Field" with it's literary allusions and it's razor edged guitar line, or the challenges inherent in "Double Dare", they suggested an exciting world that was a million miles away from the one that I knew. 

But it was "St Vitus Dance" that connected the most with me, a song about a performance artist who's commitment to their art takes an explosive turn. I'm not sure what it was that first triggered my interest in it, maybe the growing unease of Murphy's vocals, maybe that bouncing bass line, very probably just the story itself that's told with a building intensity, a burning strobe light pulse. It was and still is a pretty amazing piece of music. And in what may have been the beginning of my recurring desire to share all of the things that I enjoy with the rest of the world, I decided to perform it live for my high school talent show. 

For the most part, they may not have been ready for the screaming.  

But Jose liked it, and so did my English teacher, and a couple of people from the higher grades who knew the song and the album. That may have been the first time that I realized my own tastes didn't always run parallel with everybody else, and it was definitely the first time that I didn't care.

Since then, in the, what? seventy three years, eighty six, I can't really remember how long it's been since high school, but in the intervening years I've seen Bauhaus perform a handful of times, I've seen Peter Murphy solo, I've seen Daniel Ash, David J, Kevin Haskins in various combinations, solo shows, what have you, and some of those shows have been majestic and immense in their appeal, and some of those shows have been really great, and admittedly some of those shows have been less enjoyable than others. But there's a thread that runs through all of those concerts, all of the music they've made since, the suggestion of another world, another way of life. And I've always been grateful for their introduction to that world and to that way of life.

The most recent show I've seen by Peter Murphy was when he came to the Phoenix on February 17th 2019 to celebrate the Ruby anniversary of Bauhaus, where he and his band (including David J) would perform "In the Flat Fields" in it's entirety. So, y'know, I was pretty interested in that. My experience has been that at his best Murphy can be a dynamic and inspiring performer, and with the right material behind him (y'know, like the brooding and intense epic that is Bauhaus' first album), he can be quite impressive. It seemed like the kind of show that promised greatness.

I got to the Phoenix a little bit later than expected, so I missed most of the set by opener Vinsantos but I enjoyed what I did see, especially a heartfelt cover of "Crowds" which is another one of my favorite moments in the Bauhaus catalog. There's a certain courage on the part of an opener covering the main act's songs, especially such an intimate and personal song as "Crowds", and to deliver it so well, so sincerely, it's well worth remarking on and appreciating. Vinsantos definitely deserves a big round of applause for that one.

After a short break Peter Murphy took the stage to the opening of "Double Dare" just like the album, and it was a pretty excellent opening. I had a space pressed up against the right side of the stage so I had a pretty unobstructed view of Murphy and the band throughout the night, and during that opening the band were pretty into it, drawing from the energy of the song, the energy of the audience, building the kind of feedback loop that often makes for a great performance.

Except, well, it never quite reached that level in my mind. Maybe it was an off night, maybe there were other frustrations on stage (there were a couple of flare ups during the set that definitely suggested that all was not well with the band...), maybe it was my own subconscious comparison between what I wanted to see and what "In the Flat Fields" meant to me versus the actual performance of it almost forty years later, but, well, the show just didn't inspire me the way that I hoped that it would.

Don't get me wrong, it sounded great, it was awesome to see these songs live (the title track was particularly impressive, and I won't deny that "St Vitus Dance" sounded far better than I ever sang it), but it... didn't... quite... scale the heights I had hoped for. I feel badly saying that, especially when pretty much everybody I knew that saw the show said it was a revelatory experience for them, one of the best shows they'd ever been to. And I can see how that would be, it was a great set of music, buuuuuuut, it just didn't work for me. At least not the way that I hoped it would.

After a run through the entire album, Murphy and the band played a set of Bauhaus classics including "She's in Parties" and "Bela Lugosi's Dead" among others and again they were all delivered well, and I appreciated the opportunity to hear them, but by that point my heart wasn't in it. And further to my feeling that maybe it was an off night for the band, after the set proper they only came out for one encore as opposed to the three or four songs that they played in other cities. Which is kind of ironic to me, as their take on "Adrenaline" was one of the best parts of the show in my mind, a brief moment that seemed to capture all of the incendiary qualities that I was hoping would fuel the entire show. For the length of the encore I saw everything I was hoping for but just as soon as they reached that point the show was over and we were all walking slowly out of the venue into the cold February night.

Sometimes the quality of a concert can be measured in moments and I guess this was one of those times, at least it was for me. It wasn't quite what I was looking forward to (and I recognize that's largely my own fault for letting nostalgia get the best of me and hoping for too much), but there were moments, parts of the show that shone really briefly and really brightly. Those are the parts that I think about when I think about Peter Murphy at The Phoenix, rather than the rest of the show that I didn't enjoy as much. And those moments shine brightly enough in my memory that I smile whenever I think about that night...

Monday, February 15, 2021

February 15th 2020, Ghostly Kisses and Grae at The Baby G

 

 

I really appreciate a well made Pop song, and I truly believe that there's an artistry in writing and performing songs that connect so easily and so effectively with an audience. Pop has the potential to be inspiring and revelatory, especially when it's done at it's highest levels of ability, and I have a tremendous respect for those who are able to reach that level of appreciation with their work. But despite the artistry and talent required to make good Pop music, there's a certain disdain towards it as a genre. Pop is often looked down upon or seen as having less value than other forms of music, even seen as being disposable, which is really quite unfortunate as the best Pop music can be transcendent, perfect, and wonderful.

A lot of people who dismiss Pop don't realize that it has a complexity to it, a structure, a form that's paired with an emotional response that immediately appeals to your feelings at a primal level that needs little consideration or thought. The appreciation for a good Pop song is almost instinctual that way, it goes right to the core of who you are, and over the years there have been hundreds of Pop songs written that have that effect, that are able to speak to something inside of us and connect with us. Rhianna makes amazing Pop, so does Beyonce. Lady Gaga has a tendency to put an artistic spin on it, but at the heart of everything she's making great Pop music. I'm sure you can think of dozens of other artists and bands that do the same, artists who make music that effects you in an immediate and relevant way, something that you can recognize and relate to because it speaks to your own life. Good Pop resonates with us like that.

So why is that? I think part of it stems from a universal subject matter, good Pop speaks to things that we're all familiar with, that we've all lived through. It talks about being happy, celebrations, being in love. It can also talk about being sad, regrets, losing love. Good Pop can talk about dreams and yearning and need, and finding a place and a community for oneself, whether that's with another person, or a family, or somewhere else where you belong. Think about "Don't you want me?" or "Crazy in Love" or "Dancing in the Street" or "Twist and Shout" or "Born This Way" or "Umbrella" or a million other examples. Each of those songs has a different format, a different style, a different sound, but all of them resonate and connect with us in very immediate and specific way. They all have an almost universal appeal and they're all examples of exceptional Pop songs.

On February 15th 2020 I was lucky enough to see two great examples of Pop music when I saw Ghostly Kisses and Grae at The Baby G. I wasn't familiar with either of them until maybe a month before the show when a random Spotify suggestion popped up for me. Curious about the name Ghostly Kisses I clicked on a link and liked what I heard, enough so that I decided to pick up a ticket when I saw they were doing a show in a few weeks time. And in hindsight, I'm glad that Spotify's algorithms worked in my favour that day because it was a really great show.  

The evening began with an artist named Grae who makes really solid Indie Pop songs that are slick and sleek and really Really REALLY good. Her songs revel in the feelings of love and longing, songs that kind of bring to mind the happier side of The Cure, and she delivers them with a sincere and honest voice. That sincerity, that honesty, it's a large part of what makes her work so great, a lot of the reason why I enjoy it so much. She's writing from the heart, she's writing from her own experience, and she's baring it all for the audience to see. That takes a lot of courage and it shows a lot of strength, and I can't help admiring it. Now I'll admit, I didn't know her material well enough at the time so I can't tell you the names of any of the songs that she played at the Baby G, but I can tell you that I enjoyed her entire set and I was greatly impressed with her enthusiasm, her energy, and her talent. If there's any fairness in the world those qualities will carry her forward into great things in the future.

After a short break Margaux Sauvé took the stage as Ghostly Kisses, a name inspired by her ethereal vocal style, an achingly beautiful voice that brings to mind Tracy Thorne and maybe even Elizabeth Fraser. Paired with exquisitely delicate musical tracks built around piano and violin, Sauvé crafts haunting songs that speak to the kind of universal feelings that all good Pop songs draw from, and it really works, it really connects. She performed a set of blissful Pop magic that touched on Shoegaze, Triphop, R'n'B, and nineties PowerPop influences, all held together by that stunning voice. Along with her own material, Sauvé also played covers by the Cranberries and Beyonce, and you have to give credit to an artist who's willing to tackle such impressive talents. I'm happy to report that Ghostly Kisses did an admirable job of covering each of them, and that feat succeeded in building an even greater admiration of her artistry in my mind. 

It was a night of really strong songs performed by really great talents, and I was truly impressed by both acts. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing both of them when we can go out to shows again, and if you appreciate Pop the way that I do then I encourage you to make the effort to see them for yourself. In the meantime, both Ghostly Kisses and Grae have been busy recording and releasing new material, and I recommend visiting them both on Bandcamp where you can support their work and their growth as artists while they wait to take the stage again...

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

February 10th 1993, Duran Duran at the Danforth Music Hall

In the early nineties performing acoustic sets was a really big thing. MTV was still very much a showcase for music videos and new music at the time, and one of their biggest shows was a series of acoustic performances called "MTV Unplugged" where bands would do stripped down sets in an intimate live setting, giving fans an interesting opportunity to see them reinvent their songs in new and different ways. A number of the artists involved ended up releasing their sessions as albums separate from the series itself, and soon there was a boom of acoustic songs playing on the radio, including notable releases by Nirvana, Eric Clapton, and others. In retrospect I imagine that the acoustic movement was part of the backlash against the slick and synthesized elements of the eighties, a different sound for a new generation that was very much in keeping with the nineties ideal of being more real, more down to earth than the decade before.

The acoustic thing remained fairly popular for a while, and some bands took it to the next level by touring as an acoustic act, redoing older songs from their back catalogs in ways that often shone a new light on their musical talents and abilities. Duran Duran was one of those bands and in 1993 they did a small run of acoustic shows to promote their new release "The Wedding Album". At the time the band were working through new ideas for a style and sound that would work for them in a new decade, especially after their last couple of albums had been less well received than their predecessors, and to their credit they were able to tap into that nineties ideal on the strength of the singles "Ordinary World" and "Come Undone" which were a little more reflective and self-aware than the New Wave Pop that had made them stars. 

So armed with a newer, more mature sound Duran Duran went on an acoustic tour to promote the album and it was a pretty great show. For the Toronto stop on the tour they played at the Danforth Music Hall, a classic theatre in the east end of the city that just celebrated it's hundredth anniversary last year. I really like the Music Hall, it's a great space for a show, a big high ceiling, lots of space. It's currently a seatless venue used for General Admission shows, but back in the nineties it was seated with velvet cushions rather than the rows of folding chairs that were spaced out on the floors at places like the Exhibition or Maple Leaf Gardens. It was comfy and kind of schwanky. 

They opened with "Planet Earth" which is in keeping with many Duran Duran shows both before and after. And given the synth heavy sound of the original, you may be wondering what it sounded like in an acoustic form, so I will share with you that it was a lot of rapidly strummed acoustic guitar and hand drums. Nick Rhodes was playing an organ of some sort, probably a Farfisa, though I can't confirm or deny that fact as his set up was on the opposite side of the stage from where we were and we didn't have a very good view of him. We did however have a great view of John Taylor throughout the evening, who was wearing a long hanging nightcap for most of the show. I'm not sure what that was about but somehow against all odds he made it work. Maybe he was cold? February in Toronto is often a very chilly time of year...

On the subject of what they were wearing, the whole band dressed in variations on a theme of burgundy velvet. John Taylor wore burgundy velvet pants with a white night shirt and the aforementioned hat, and I think he may have had a jacket at one point. Simon LeBon wore a relaxed burgundy velvet suit, as did Nick Rhodes, though his seemed more of a formal cut. Warren Cuccurullo wore burgundy velvet pants and a vest, and I want to say that he was shirtless for at least part of the show. He also had this hanging medallion shaped like a heart that hung from his belt. That was a fashion choice that never really made it very far, and I'm kind of grateful for that...

So yeah, they opened with "Planet Earth", and it set the tone well for the rest of the evening. This show was early in the tour before the band had done their own appearance on "MTV Unplugged", so there was some question as to how well they'd be able to pull off the whole acoustic thing, but they were actually quite successful at it. Y'see, despite being lumped in with a lot of other eighties artists where style was held in higher regard than substance, Duran Duran are actually a really talented band, really talented musicians. John Taylor is an amazing bass player, and hanging heart belt or not, Warren Cuccurullo is a solid guitarist. I couldn't tell you who was playing drums for them on that tour, but I'm sure that they had a great drummer at the time, and I will defend Nick Rhodes' keyboard playing 'til my dying breath. They're all solid musicians and they've made a vast number of really well written songs over their career, many of which lend themselves well to acoustic arrangements because the songwriting and structure are so strong to begin with. I've always believed that good songwriting can translate in almost any genre, and that night Duran Duran were able to prove that they didn't need any synths or studio polish to make it work, they could deliver the goods on their own.

Over the course of the evening, they played a few songs from the new album, along with a selection of hits like "Hungry Like the Wolf", "Rio", and "Save a Prayer", all of which sounded great in stripped down forms. "The Chauffeur" in particular worked really well, though a lot of that comes from the fact that it's probably their best song anyway, so, y'know, further to my point about good songwriting being able to translate in almost any genre, it's not a surprise that it would sound good in a different form.

It was a really good show, and I feel that tour went a long way towards giving a new level of credibility to Duran Duran that they may not have had otherwise. It proved that they had a lot more substance than people thought, and in many ways that may have contributed to a success that continues even now almost thirty years later. Yes, they're a nostalgia act, but they have an appeal and respect that many of their peers haven't been able to sustain, and I really think that part of it has to do with them taking the chance on doing this acoustic tour, taking the chance to prove there was more to them than they were being given credit for at the time.

Admittedly Duran Duran's acoustic tour was a brief moment in their history, and within a few months they were already back on the road with the kind of full electric set that fans have come to expect. I saw them again when they returned to Toronto later that summer, a show at Kingswood Music Theatre with full production values and all the synths you would have wanted. A lot less hand drums, and no matching suits, but still pretty great. They played "The Chauffeur" that night too, but I'm hard pressed to say which was better. There's something to be said for a full on version of a classic song, but sometimes it's nice to hear a stripped down version too...