Monday, December 28, 2009

meet you at the sound check

The tree is starting to shed, the boughs on the mantle are starting to look decidedly shabby and the turkey has got one more day of picking left on it before it is relegated to soup. It must then be time to unveil the first of the year's lists.

Everyone agrees that it was a stellar year for music. 2009 will certainly be remembered as the year that was responsible for many exploding heads, as list junkies everywhere struggled to whittle their best-of lists down to a manageable length. And with Calgary increasingly becoming a concert hub, it was next to impossible to walk down the street on any day of the year without tripping over a red hot concert or two. The year was almost as noteworthy for the concerts I missed (Leonard Cohen, Dan Mangan, Vic Chesnutt, Obijhou, Carolyn Mark and NQ Arbuckle, Daniel Johnston) as it was for those I attended.

But regret is pointless, especially when you are trying to shave the top twenty list down to a mere nine. So, in true list junkie fashion, you revisit those memorable concerts and you sort through the resulting nostalgia to find those golden nuggets.

And then you list.

Bad Tempered Zombie's Nine Most Memorable Concert Performances of 09

9. the Breeders
Sled Island Festival @ Olympic Plaza (June)

- a beautiful summer evening, in the heart of downtown, only a border of trees to separate us from the glass and steel towers lit up against night sky, as we crowded around the stage -

Here's what I said at the time (and I'll do this for the entire list):
"Both Kim and Kelly played the entire set with the hugest grins on their faces, mockingly telling people to stop smoking pot. Kelly: "I'm not supposed to be around this stuff. No smoking!" There was a feeling of real comaraderie between the crowd and the stage. As Kim started the awwooo part at the beginning of Cannonball, she started complaining that they didn't have the proper gear to make the distortion sound that it needed, and that it sounded like shit. So just like that, the audience started up "awooo awoooo awooo awooo awooo awoo".

Gave me chills."


8.Justin Rutledge/Melissa McClelland
Central United Church (November)
- a laid-back Sunday night in what is rapidly becoming my favourite venue in town -

"It started as a smoldering groove in a knock-out red frock, built into a smocking jam session that threatened to tumble off the packed stage, and ended as a heartfelt lullaby singalong standing on the pews. Not bad at all for a church concert.

I'd seen both artists perform previously, most recently at Calgary Folk Festival appearances, and had a suspicion that this musical pairing was a particularly inspired idea for a tour. And not just because they are both uncommonly pretty people either. Melissa McClelland and Justin Rutledge have two of the sweetest and purest voices in Canadian music today and their vaguely alt-country styles complement each other so perfectly that it's surprising nobody thought of this before. One of the first thoughts that crossed my mind upon hearing about this concert was that it would be criminal if they didn't perform at least a couple of songs together."

7. Final Fantasy/Timber Timbre
Knox United Church (October)

- I was lucky enough to see Final Fantasy twice in 09, and although we had front row seats for the June concert and although he was sick as a dog with strep throat at the October concert, the addition of Timber Timbre made this show sublime -

"The church had become a David Lynch film. Timber Timbre will do that to a place, impart it with such an unsettling but strangely lovely mood that even a solid structure like Knox United Church is transformed into a world of backwoods and shadows. We were held silent observers in those sturdy pews of dark gleaming wood, while the vibrant stained glass that punctuated the stone walls and soaring ceiling caught the subdued lighting perfectly and cast a surreal glow over everything. When Taylor Kirk and band began their set, they did so in utter silence, with just a couple of soft, barely imperceptible touches of the violin strings interspersed with an occasional guitar twang, all set against a backdrop of bird sounds. As the music gradually rose, the atmosphere escalated alongside, until I was convinced we were watching a soundtrack come to life.

In the film running through my mind I saw long abandoned farm houses and ominous flocks of silent birds, with shadowy veiled figures lurking silently in the background. The acoustics at Knox United Church are so perfect that every nuance of Kirk’s dark and eerie vocals, every haunting reverberation of the lap guitar, hung like crystals in air. The feeling of being frozen in some sort of freaky otherworldly cinema was inescapable.

The atmosphere shifted entirely when Final Fantasy took the stage. A creepy film morphed into a video game. As though a collectively held breath were released, the audience relaxed, still attentive, still respectfully silent during the performance, but discernibly more at ease. As it was, it was a brave venture of musical experimentation, melding new works with revamped crowd favourites. A Final Fantasy performance is always a joy, always an aurally tactile affair to be savoured with ears wide open. Marrying Pallett’s brand of playful orchestral pop with the dark and cinematic songs of Timber Timbre offered a sumptuous smorgasbord of auditory flavours. It was a very tasty evening."


6. Billy Bragg
Commodore Ballroom, Vancouver (November)

- a rainy night in Vancouver, basking in the glow of camaraderie of the Offspring and some great blog friends, in a stunningly beautiful venue. Great memories -

"Billy Bragg is one of those rare individuals who maintain their passions and their convictions over the years, and he does not tone things down just because he has a touch more grey. He played for over two hours at the Commodore on Saturday night, two hours of fervent rabble-rousing, two hours of soulful softy songs, two hours of stories and rants and working himself and his fans up into a lather.

He doesn't try to deny that he is aging. He was after all, drinking tea on-stage, for his "froat". But he is still passionately involved in life and causes, and in amongst thrilling us with
New England and Levy Stubbs Tears and Power in a Union and Way Over Yonder in the Minor Key, he alternately delighted us and infuriated us with lengthy tales and pithy quips of his guitar-playing teenaged son, the fascist running for office in his hometown, the Vancouver weather, the "Thatcher is dead" text message, the Clash, and the dangers of cynicism.

There was a lot of love in the room, and it was felt across the wide spectrum of humanity in the audience that night, from the aging hippies and the olde punks to the indie kids and the young marrieds. It felt like community, and everybody sang along."


5. David Byrne
Jack Singer Concert Hall (February)

- way up in the nosebleeds at Jack Singer, and it was still a mind-blowing experience -

"David Byrne is still inventive, still relevant, still has incredible pipes, and I would hazard to guess that he is still the man whom many heterosexual men crush on.

Although visually David Byrne could easily have passed as a cult leader, dressed all in white as he was and with that commanding presence of his, he was anything but autocratic during the performance. Often, he would blend in with the dancers or the singers and mimic their movements, or fade to the background of the stage while the dancers took over centre stage.

The audience was dancing gleefully in the aisles during the entire second half of the performance and joyfully clapping along with all their favourite Talking Heads numbers. I'm pretty certain that if David Byrne had offered up kool-aid and a chance to ascend to the mother ship, at least 75% of the audience would have taken a drink."


4. Akron/Family
Calgary Folk Music Festival @ Prince's Island Park (July)

- I did not see this coming, this sublime communal experience -

"I have never before experienced such a melting of the boundary between band and audience as I did at that Akron/Family set. The audience was completely engaged in the music, undulating as a single entity to the pounding drums and the droning rhythms. But it wasn't simply a matter of the audience responding to the music, it was an actual synergy among all the elements at play. In a truly organic moment during an long extended drone, a complex clap arose from the audience and grew into an integral part of the song itself, such that the music from the stage ultimately morphed into an entirely new form to encompass the music that the audience was making.

In a final rock star encounter, I was able to gush to Miles Seaton ofAkron/Family for a little while about the jawdropping experience of their Twilight stage concert and engage him in a little debate about the nature of the audience/musician boundary and what a sublime experience it is for musician and listener alike when that boundary gets broken down. Somehow, just knowing that these rare and shining moments are just as precious to the people who make the music as they are to those who receive it, felt like it would be enough to sustain me until next year's escape to the Island."

3. Holy Fuck
Sled Island Festival @ the Warehouse (June)

- the most high energy (musical) performance I have ever seen at 2:30AM -

"Holy Fuck is one of the most appropriately named bands I can think of. Their high energy electronic show is so exciting to watch, the way they leap around and attack the sound boards like they were a combination of an enemy to be vanquished and a tv dinner to be devoured, is utterly incredible. By this time, of course, I was standing/dancing on the little corner table of the booth, as the Warehouse was packed and hopping. I have never seen a band engage an audience so
entirely. I think maybe five people didn't dance. The rest moved as one entity, including yours truly, doing her patented white girl shuffle on the table top.

Of course we didn't want to let them leave. But another nice thing about Holy Fuck, is that they have the perfect name to chant out, punctuated by hand claps, when you want an encore. Ho-ly Fuck! Ho-ly Fuck! You get the idea."


2. Elliott Brood/the Wooden Sky
Dicken's Pub (October)

- Not only is Elliott Brood my perennial favourite concert band, we were lucky enough to attend with a great BLIP friend. It was some party -

"Conventional wisdom suggests that Sunday night might not be the optimal time to hold a barn burner of a concert, but conventional wisdom obviously does not know Elliott Brood. The crowd that packed Dicken's Pub, threatening to seriously strain the integrity of the basement bar's foundations, did not care that they had a work week to start the next morning. Like every Elliott Brood audience I have ever been part of, they knew that the band was going to deliver a high calibre, highly interactive, joyous experience, and if it meant chafed hands and raw throats the next morning, well that's just the price that you pay when you get sucked into the exuberant vortex of this band.

The Wooden Sky opened the evening with a drop-dead gorgeous set of haunting and raw alt-country songs. Alternating between heart-wrenching ballads that morph into singalongs and gritty roots numbers steeped in experimental sound, they played a set that was at once haunting and raucous. It made me very glad that I was being true that evening to my life's motto of always buy the cd.

And once again we readily believed every word when Mark, Casey, and Stephen told us that we kicked Edmonton's ass."


1. the Decemberists
Calgary Folk Music Festival @ Prince's Island Park (July)

- it's hard to pick the ultimate concert, of course, but finally crossing the Decemberists off my list of bands I must see before I die, being swept away by Colin's infinite charm, and experiencing a full blown rock opera under the stars - it created the perfect storm -

"The Decemberists silently took their positions and we heard the first organ notes of the prelude to their new album, The Hazards of Love. They played it in its entirety, the way it is meant to be played. And they played it without song breaks, but with costumes and lighting and plenty of drama. It was glorious, it was a spectacle, it was an honest to god rock opera! And it was the Decemberists!

Naturally, we all went nuts at the conclusion of the performance, and, as hoped, the Decemberists came back for an encore of Sons and Daughters which was an inspired choice for a folk festival, being a singalong round, as it is. Of course, before launching into the song, Colin Meloy absolutely charmed the hell out of each and every one of us with his little tale of flying from Calgary to Dusseldorf on a $200 flight while attempting to get from Montana to Paris for an ill-fated romantic encounter.

Upon Colin's instructions to "the denizens of this island", we all sang loudly and lustily and long to the final chorus, with Colin conducting, in addition to jumping up and down and shredding and finally ending with a dramatic rock star leap off the speaker. My mind was suitably blown.

Then with
hear all the bombs, they fade away still echoing in our ears and pounding in our chests, as our new best friend Colin promised they would if we sang loudly enough, we shuffled en masse off the island of which we had all been denizens of Decemberists' mythology."

Did you see any stand-out performances this year?


Karen said...

Wait a minute...didn't you go to see Radiohead down south this past year? I'm shocked it didn't make your list!!!

Barbara Bruederlin said...

It's hard to believe that it wasn't this year, Karen, but in fact that blessed event was 2008. Good memory, you!

Karen said...

Wow. Where did the time go?

mister anchovy said...

geez, it's list time already....where did the year go?

justrun said...

This just further proves what I always say around here: You are so cool.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I know, right, Karen?

We blinked. It flew by, Mr Anchovy.

Is that what you always say around there, Justrun? I like it around there!

Sean Wraight said...


This is a terrific list and one of my favourites I have seen this season. It really is a measured reflection by a true music fan of the music that truly affected them this year.

2009 has been an amazing year music wise and all of your selections back this up. Very pleased to see David Byrne made your list as his show from a few years back remains one of my favourite lifetime shows. He is such a consummate showman and soooooooo talented.

Here's to 2010 and hopefully we'll get to see a couple together in the new year! The thoughts of Sled Island are slowly diminishing the mounting piles of snow on my boulevard.

Excellent, excellent post. I look forward to your best recordings list too!


Barbara Bruederlin said...

And I, in turn, can't wait to read your reflections on your favourite concerts of the year, Sean. Because so very many of them, I really wished I had been able to join you at.

But what an incredible year for music! My mind reels when I think of the sheer mass of concerts and releases that I missed, while still managing to enjoy such a smorgasbord of great offerings.

Here's to 2010 indeed, and to seeing some concerts together. I just know it will be sublime.

Remi said...

You do get to a lot of cool shows. I can't wait until the new Owen Pallett disc comes out. It's going to be hard to not refer to him as final fantasy any more.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

There were a lot of cool shows in town this year, Remi. May the trend continue!

I'm looking forward to the new Owen Pallett album as well. I alternate between calling him Final Fantasy, Owen Pallett, OPalz (when I am feeling particularly familiar), so I don't think I'll have too much trouble with the change of moniker.