Gush: Matt Berninger takes on Big Thief’s “Not”

Thanks to Toronto’s Hayden Desser (aka Hayden), the National play Toronto more than they probably would without knowing him. Desser hosts Dream Serenade as a fundraiser for children with exceptionalities and their caregivers.

Today I’m gushing over the almost one year old cover of Big Thief’s flawless tune “Not”. That Berninger ambitiously took on less than a month after it’s release on October 11, 2019. For nerds like me who’d want to know, he performed it on November 2 with the lyrics held close to him throughout his performance.

Throughout he struggled with the lyrics, but most noticeably at the beginning (although Berninger’s been known to screw up beginnings, even of his own songs) and a huge sigh of relief when he hits 3min27sec, when he no longer has to sign. He threw the lyrics into the audience as finishing gesture.

The only other member of the National on the stage is trumpet player Kyle Reznick, who adds some colour to the end of the song, giving it the grit that a cover of it needs.

Calexico & Iron & Wine at the Danforth Music Hall; Sunday February 2, 2020

Some short insights:

  • More people know Iron & Wine than they do Calexico.
  • Most people I speak to, that are roughly my age, say that they liked Iron & Wine 10 years ago, but haven’t listened to them much lately.
  • They have made two albums together: In the Reigns (2005) & Years to Burn (2019)
  • Under the Wikipedia Page for In the Reigns, they classify their genre as Tex-Mex… (?)

Both Calexico and Iron & Wine seem to be having fun while playing. Both bands can easily be lumped in the docile folk category, but as my music taste matures, I’ve developed a bigger love for Calexico (particularly the album Garden Ruin, which I discovered back in 2009). Calexico’s lead singer Joey Burns sound shares the lushness that Sam Beam has, but with a full band and South American influences on high, has a far more complex sound than Beam/Iron & Wine.

I got to the show a bit late – likely missing the first part of the first song. Oddly, the band started at 8:10pm. An early Sunday show for an adult contemporary crowd and I’m 100% OK with this.

The played two of my favourite tunes – “He Lays In the Reigns” and “16, Maybe Less” at the first part of the set. I felt a swell of excitement when Calexico’s Jacob Valenzuela launched into the operatic sounding Spanish vocals on sweet southern waltz “He Lays In the Reigns”, originally recorded by Salvador Duran. Valenzuela’s delivery was softer and more tender and less guttural, but still gorgeous.

Much as it presents on the new album, they played a new favourite tune “The Bitter Suite (Pájaro / Evil Eye / Tennessee Train)” at the middle of the set. A slow burn tune that flourishes into something pretty epic – as the title of the song suggests. The tune highlights Valenzuela’s amazing vocals. Valenzuela plays such an integral part to the band’s sound, but stays tucked in the corner of the stage. Only entering the spotlight when he occasionally sings and dazzles with the trumpet.

Half way through the set, the band left Beam and Burns on the stage. Burns mentioned that they like to have fun and choose each other’s songs to play. Beam played “Naked As We Came,” while Burns played an old lullaby that Burns’ mom used to sing to him and his siblings of the song “All the Pretty Little Horses”, which I now, looking into other versions recorded, can’t unhear Calexico’s spin on it. It sounds like one of their tunes.

They played tune covers – an unrecognizable Echo and the Bunnymen’s “Bring on the Dancing Horses” and the Flaming Lips’ “Waitin’ for Superman”.

Baby’s first time seeing Calexico. I can’t wait to see them again, moreso than Iron & Wine.

Damien Jurado & Nick Thune at Longboat Hall; Saturday January 25, 2020

Second show of the year.

The first time I saw Damien Jurado was at Sasquatch! Music Festival in 2013. He took the stage and left after greeting us. You could tell he didn’t want to be there for his 45-minute set. A fan hopped on stage and begged him to come out and play. He obliged and reluctantly played a set.

This time was as bit more upbeat. Comedian Nick Thune hopped on stage in a striped Adidas tracksuit, toque and pink fashion sneakers. He cracked a joke about how he looked like Marvin Gaye playing on a soccer team – still making me chuckle weeks later. He gave the seated audience a rundown of how the night would look – Jurado, followed by a set from Thune and a final set where they play a few covers together.

From the moment Jurado took the stage, I immediately felt the presence of the late producer and musician Richard Swift. Jurado had a small sticker of Swift on his guitar – only someone that knew what Swift looked like would catch. Swift died in 2019 and I felt a real ripple of sadness from the music community. Both Jurado and Thune made albums with Swift and had oddly met for the first time at his funeral.

Interestingly, Swift wasn’t mentioned until the third and final set of the night. Jurado told a few stories about him and told the audience that the last conversation he had with Swift was in Toronto at the very venue we were in last year, a month before Swift’s passing.

Within their cover set they tucked a silly tune Swift wrote and encouraged us to check it out declaring it to be better than what they were about to play us. Thune had co-written the tune, titled “Iron Man” with Jurado – something I can’t seem to find from some light internet searching.

Thune’s comedy was fun and thoughtful. He carefully explains things for a long time and ends with a quick punchline. Lots of dad humour, most of it in great taste, which was pretty refreshing.

Angel Olsen at the Phoenix; Wednesday December 6, 2017

At thirty years old, Angel Olsen has reached a point in her very established career where she can release an album of B-Sides. With four full-length recordings to date, Olsen is an artist that varies her style, but never at the cost of quality of sound.

Being my third time seeing Olsen live, I found this time to be more playful and lighter spirited. Somehow, with minimal audience engagement and a tight hour and a half-long set. Olsen jested to the crowd “We’ll be playing here again tomorrow”, as if she was playing a regular residency at a tiny club.

Early on in the set Olsen showed some love for one of her guitarists, acknowledging that it was his birthday. Some extra hoots and woos were given and the guitarist playfully pointed at his heavy left hand that donned a ring on its fourth finger. Upon filing back on stage for the encore, the guitarist cheekily said to the crowd “No one’s sang me Happy Birthday yet.” Immediately the audience started singing and a bit disorderly, Olsen chimed in with the same song at a different pace.

I suspect part of this enjoyment and a playfulness came from a place of comfort and establishment as a musician. Unlike the last few times I’ve seen her, she wore a race car driver body suit, except in solid metallic gold. Her hair was its usual messy half up style with trimmed bangs that look like she cut them herself in a dim lit bathroom. Upon returning for her encore, she reentered the stage with the silver tinsel wig she wore in the video for “Shut Up and Kiss Me.”

The band were in their modest country band frocks – powder blue suits

A major high was watching Olsen’s band rock out. Two lead guitarists flanked the stage at both sides. Their sound was playful and fun and while separated, they sounded incredible playing off each other.

Another major high was watching the set closer (before the encore) wrap up with a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “I Found a Reason.” Olsen asked the audience to sing along, especially to the hard-to-hit low parts, and to be nice to those singing around following it with a half thought through comment: “because it’s hard”.

A major low was helping catch a middle-aged Mom that fainted at the show. My knee-jerk reaction was to help, so I cradled her head as her lifeless body descended to the floor. She eventually woke, surprised to hear that she had briefly passed out, she immediately said that needed some fresh air. Space and sight lines are always so limited at the Phoenix. I am so grateful for intensified bookings at the Danforth Music Hall.

Required listening:

Required listening after you listen to the above video.

This sparkly gem wasn’t played last night, but it’s one of my favourite songs… ever:

Spoon at Massey Hall; Tuesday July 25, 2017

It’s been a while, but here is my brief recap:

  • The fancy stage lights weren’t working for the first song. Brit Daniel commented and mid-way through the opening song “Do I Have To Talk You Into It?”. Instantaneously, a sea of cellphone flashlights appeared. On its own and unsolicited – completely annoying, together and requested – fantastic.
  • I’ve always called Brit Daniel effortlessly cool, but this show made me realize how cool they all are.
  • I’m a huge Get Up Kids fan, so seeing bassist Rob Pope (Get Up Kids, Spoon) play in a slightly cooler band like Spoon is a total delight.
  • This Song Exploder session with Spoon drummer, Jim Eno, is worth listening to. He tears apart the sweet tune “Inside Out” 
  • Massey Hall only allowed the first three rows to dash to the front and leave the en. They issued wristbands to all folks with tickets for that section prior to the show’s start. We were in row five. Thanks, Massey!!

Big Thief at the Horseshoe Tavern; Wednesday June 28, 2017

The girl in front of us excitedly typed “@BigTheif…” over a dimly lit Snap Chat video. After an unsuccessfully attempt at finding the band, she erased her spelling error and changed it to the excitedly punctuated “Big Theif!!” I turned to Adam and we shared a chuckle about our Snap Chat concert buddy’s struggle to put I before E except after C. Full disclosure – I always fuck up spelling Big THIEF.

My second time seeing Big Thief and my first time seeing them knowing their material. Last October I took a risk on an empty Friday night to see them open for Frankie Cosmos, two bands I knew nothing about other than the highest regard a la Lucy Dacus. Big Thief’s twenty-five year-old vocalist/guitarist Adrianne Lenker’s taken her projects to Toronto four or five times, playing as Big Thief three times and on her own opening for Here We Go Magic in 2015. I feel the luckiest to have even caught her for half of those gigs.

A part of me hates seeing bands get big. As a teenager I used to hoard music and share it with select people I felt deserved knowing it. Now, I still enjoy music independently, but without the possessive tendencies and I’m amazed to see that a band that I only seem to like is able to sell out the Horseshoe Tavern. Perhaps I’m not socializing enough with Big Thief fans. It’s weird feeling to look around and think your little secret, the record that won’t move at your record store, is able to draw 400 people.

Big Thief played for an hour and a half, now drawing from two albums Lenker told the crowd that it’s so nice to finally be able to share the album with everyone. The newer songs almost sounded better than those played off of Masterpiece. The tunes off Capacity felt more rehearsed and cleaner – perhaps better, less risky arrangements. Capacity is noticeably absent of the grit and edge that songs like “Real Love” and “Masterpiece” have. In the second guitar solo of “Real Love” Adam turned to me and suggested they were offering a sneaky launch into “Shark Smile.” Not quite, while it was the next song, it was the almost painfully long live rendition of a recorded guitar solo.

Adam and I have spent the entire week prior to the gig singing the catchy chorus of “Shark Smile”: “And she said woo, baby, take me. And I said, woo, baby, take me too.” The show did not let us down – a reverse of what you’d expect, guitarist and backup vocalist Buck Meek shadows Lenker’s vocals throughout the verses and allows her to sing independently throughout the chorus.

Lenker isn’t a talker, which is surprising because her vocals are so strong and her singing voice is very deliberate. She throws her voice in a way that is her own and sets Big Thief apart from other folk acts. This was very apparent with Julia Jacklin’s version of “Paul,” which is beautiful, but lacks the perfect pacing that Big Thief gives it. See:

Beyond all this, Big Thief has the best lyrics that are minimal and poetic:

“Paul” – A series of promises that come off effortlessly. There are two songs in Big Thief’s set list where Lenker’s vocals come off as rapping at times (she hits in the gorgeous song “Mary” off of Capacity). I feel like audiences are drawn to this song because it comes off as a big defeat and accomplishment for singing it all the way through in one breath:

I’ll be your morning bright goodnight shadow machine
I’ll be your record player baby if you know what I mean
I’ll be your real tough cookie with the whiskey breath
I’ll be a killer and a thriller and the cause of our death

“Real Love” – the lyrics alone don’t offer much, but listening to Adrianne Lenker belt this nearing the end of the tune makes it for me:

            How much blood is worth the draw?

Happy 2017! pt two

I have to apologize for my absence, I’ve left you, my loyal reader, alone for 149. In this time I saw the following concerts:

  • The Radio Dept with Germans at the Mod Club on March 5
  • Dinosaur Jr at the Danforth Music Hall on March 10
  • Wilco at Massey Hall on March 15
  • The Staves at the Phoenix on March 17
  • Jenn Grant outside of the Great Hall on March 24
  • Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee at Longboat Hall on March 24
  • Peter Silberman at Through Being Cool on March 25
  • M.Ward at the Great Hall on March 25
  • Lambchop at the Great Hall on March 27
  • Lucy Dacus at the Tralf (Niagara Falls, NY) on April 1
  • Allison Crutchfield & the Fizz with Vagabon (who I missed) at the Silver Dollar on April 5
  • The Constantines at Mitchell Hall (Guelph) on April 8
  • Choir! Choir! Choir! do Big Star’s “Thirteen” at the Great Hall on April 17
  • Sondre Lerche at the Garrison on April 20
  • Tim Darcy at Baby G’s on April 20
  • Julia Jacklin at the Rivoli on April 21
  • Dan Romano at Longboat Hall on April 22 (although I sadly and very regretfully only caught one song)
  • Feist at Trinity St Paul Church on April 27
  • Metz with Fake Palms/THE LAST SHOW AT THE SILVER DOLLAR on April 30
  • Guided by Voices at the Magic Stick (Detroit, MI) on May 5
  • Sylvan Esso with Lucy Dacus at the Phoenix on May 22
  • Frightened Rabbit at the Danforth Music Hall on May 29
  • The Avalanches at the Phoenix on June 8
  • Do Make Say Think at the Danforth Music Hall on June 10
  • Workin’ Mom’s Benefit Improv Show at the Garrison on June 16
  • Bry Webb with Bird City at the Pump House (Grimsby, ON) on June 18
  • Thursday with Fucked Up and MeiwthoutYou (did not see) at the Danforth Music Hall on June 24
  • Big Thief with Twain (skipped) at the Horseshoe Tavern on June 28
  • Elvis Costello at the Sony Centre on July 20

 

Frankie Cosmos & Big Thief at the Adelaide Hall; Friday October 28, 2016

All my perfect nights happen without expectation. Catching Big Thief was a total surprise, as I only found out they were opening for Frankie Cosmos through a Facebook post I saw around 5:30pm. I immediately scrapped all my existing plans to make this early show work. I lightly checked out Big Thief after learning that my favourite artist of 2016, Lucy Dacus, very fittingly described Masterpiece as her favourite album of the year. Trusting Dacus’ judgment I felt compelled to go to the show.

They took the stage just passed 8pm. I knew to be there early because Toronto arts heroes Collective Concerts publicly posted set times, because of this I felt good investing my time to see the show, rather than guessing set times and the investment of the entire evening. High fives to Craig Laskey and company!

Four-piece Big Thief took the stage, but only Adrianne Lenker played the tune “Lorraine.” They followed it with the tune I found to be the most accessible tune, “Real Love.” Prior to the third song, I overheard the girl behind me whisper disappointedly to her friend that those were the only two songs she knew. I could relate, as I love the anticipation of waiting for a band to play your song and the disappointment of it not being played. Not being too familiar with Big Thief meant that I didn’t arrive to the show with big expectations for certain songs, but taking comfort in knowing it would be a good show. This is rare for me, but I felt compelled to be at this show.

Much like my whispering concertmate, I fell for the first two songs – “Lorraine” was slow and bold, demonstrating Lenker’s talent on the guitar and vocals. “Real Love” is a lively tune that has one of the most compelling driving guitar solos I’ve heard in a while, which they play briefly, launch back into the song and play it again – perfection. Guitarist Buck Meek and Lenker share the responsibilities of a lead guitar player feeding off of each other’s energy and musical cues. Meek, as his surname suggests, is a thin fella with a classy look and energetic stage presence. He’s twists, sways and spazzes more than anyone in the crowd, perhaps inspiring people to move just a bit more than they normally do. Meek played an incredible cover of a song by a band called Twain, comprised of Mat Davidson formerly of the band the Low Anthem. I didn’t grab the song name, but Meek bravely played it with no accompaniment, but with a heavy country drawl that worked real well for him.

My take away from this gig is the tune “Paul.” An emotionally-charged, heartbreaking tune about leaving someone, but includes all the messy bits in between. The song’s unusally structure ends on a second variation of the song’s chorus. I’ve listened to it about 15 times today. And if my word isn’t enough, indie heavyweights Pitchfork put forward glowing words about the song:

“The happier moments described here are understood to be almost hypothetical. Musically, that puts “Paul” in this midtempo middle-ground where the guitars sound incredibly wistful, with brief flashes of smoldering pain and twinkling hope. Maybe she made the right decision, cutting him loose. Maybe she didn’t. But at least we got this beautiful song out of it, about the struggle between the head and the heart.”

Knowing the set times, I ran some errands and grabbed a few drinks at my friend’s bar between sets. I managed to catch Frankie Cosmos last three songs. I took away three thoughts: cute, she looks like my dear friend Rita and if I made music it would probably sound like this. I’d definitely see her again and listen to some of her cute tunes, but she hadn’t left a mark on me the way Big Thief did. Prior to the last song, Frankie Cosmos frontperson, Greta Kline (daughter of actor Kevin Kline), told everyone that this was their last song and they should all go see her favourite band Kero Kero Bonito play the Velvet Underground. They did not play an encore.

Gush: Tamara Lindeman, The Weather Station and ‘Strangers’

I do a lot of data entry at my day job. It gives me the opportunity to listen to an infinite supply of podcasts. I found Strangers a little while back and I’ve been hooked for the last few weeks. The most recent episode is from Tamara Lindeman, who has a Toronto-based music outfit, The Weather Station. She credits her musical career to the fella she loved and lost. You can listen to her beautiful story here.

weather

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strangers feels like a good Sarah Polley film.