It was a slow year for the WP—only three shows all year, what with me being caught up with my book and the Lion Farm EP—but as a spectator, it was a pretty good year for live music in my life. Here are a few highlights…
L’Escogriffe, January 4
I organized a benefit for WFMU at the beginning of the year, and this band was recommended by a friend. Through pure luck of the draw they had to play last on the bill, but they totally owned the “headlining” slot. Their recorded music is fun, lo-fi rock n’ roll, but their live show brings it up several notches with the almost Shaggs-like self-taught feel of the all-girl band and frontman Luke Ellington’s latent swagger. Definitely one of my favourite Montreal bands of the moment.
Le Cagibi, March 14
I spent the year writing a book about Mike’s old band the Wooden Stars, which filled me with bittersweet nostalgia, so it was inspiring to see him making music that’s better than ever. At this show he played a bunch of new songs from Tambourine Death Bed, an album that’s been in heavy rotation chez nous this year. I don’t have much to say about the show except that Mike is an amazing songwriter, singer and guitarist, and he had the Cagibi audience spellbound.
Église St-John the Redeemer, April 13
I knew Isaiah through some friends, and he had played drums for Gordon Thomas at one of the shows we set up in Montreal. So I knew he was a great jazz drummer, I but wasn’t as familiar with his work as a composer. Upon showing up at the Red Roof Church to see him and an ensemble play his piece Toute clarté m’est obscure, I read the composer’s statement in the program and immediately braced myself for an evening of difficult, alienating music. Isaiah’s love of obscure words and flowery French phrases made the text overwhelming, and his rant about how contemporary audiences want superficial entertainment instead of complex art was a bit much (it’s not that I even disagree necessarily, I just find the debate a bit tired). I wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
Then when the music began, I was totally swept up. It was a beautifully minimal and subtle piece using drones, drawn-out notes and silence (the church was so quiet that even shifting in my seat caused an uncomfortably loud interruption). I was blown away, and the rest of the audience was too. It’s very rare for “contemporary” music to hit me on a gut level in this way, so it was even more of a pleasant surprise.
Resonance Café, June 25
Yes, it’s true that this band features my brother Nick Fraser. But that’s not why I’m including them on this list. My brother is one of the best musicians I’ve ever heard, if not the best, but he mostly plays free jazz. And a lot of free jazz, for me, is like your parents having sex—it’s great that it happens, but you don’t want to see or hear it.
Anyway, Drumheller is my favourite project of his, and this show, their first in Montreal for a good while, was killer. The venue, sweet new space Résonance Café, has a piano, and the songs where Doug Tielli played it were just beautifuli. Eric Chenaux’s guitar solo on the very last tune had my jaw grazing the floor.
(I would also include my brother’s CD release show at Casa on September 7 with his quartet featuring Tony Malaby… it was amazing too, but there’s only so many fraternal shout-outs I can make on one list.)
Cabaret Mile End, September 17
Before this show, I’d seen Pere Ubu three times. In 1992, I saw them in Ottawa opening for the Pixies (and absolutely blowing the headliners off the stage). In ’94, I saw them in Toronto, where David Thomas threw a huge diva fit onstage about not having a straight mic stand (a position I can now identify with)—he responded, counterintuitively, by duct-taping a chair to his mic stand all while singing a song. And a few years back, I caught them at Pop Montreal, where Thomas somewhat alarmingly got wasted onstage with Robert Pollard-like abandon, swigging from a bottle of cognac he kept in the pocket of his Bogart-esque trenchcoat.
This time, I walked into Cabaret Mile End to an audience of less than 100 people. I couldn’t believe such a legendary band would get such a poor turnout. And I was distressed to see that the no-name opener I’d arrived in time to skip was Thomas himself doing a solo electronic performance, which was just wrapping up as I arrived. He looked his age, and none too pleased about the miserable attendance.
When the band hit the stage a little later, with a few more audience members having trickled in, Thomas started the show with a several-minutes-long monologue about how the band is so huge that they play stadiums all over the world but, like the Stones, every once in a while have to return to their roots by playing small club shows. It cut right through the tension and let us all relax a bit.
Then the band tore into a great set spanning their whole career. Thomas sat in a chair the whole time, but was animated and sang passionately. Biting the hand that feeds him, he mocked the audience’s composition of mostly old guys. But a few young kids were in the front. I kept wondering what they thought of this spectacle. Did it just seem like a bunch of old weirdos onstage? Or did they worry, as I sometimes do, that their own best song might not be as good as Pere Ubu’s worst?
Le National, November 1
This was another show that demonstrated the turning tide of audience taste. When I showed up at Le National, the room was barely half full for these underground legends, who hadn’t played Montreal since the early 80s. By the time the Mael brothers hit the stage, the room had filled up to a half-decent level. But the crowd quickly showed itself to be one of quality, if not quantity. The Maels’ genuine delight at the crowd’s enthusiasm was one of the best parts of the show.
The show itself was bold: though the light show was arena-worthy, the performance was just the two brothers, keyboard and vocals; no backing tracks, even on the electro-disco bangers from the Number One in Heaven era, which they performed in the encore. Russel Mael’s voice was still in top form, while Ron had the crowd pulling out their phones as if witnessing a miracle when he took the mic during one of their newer numbers, an excerpt from their opera about Ingmar Bergman. That rare sight was followed by a bit of intriguing news: that the Maels will be collaborating with Canadian film weirdo Guy Maddin on a film adaptation of a Bergman opera.
All that aside, it was inspiring to see a band still staying totally original four decades on. How they pull it off financially, I have no idea (I can only imagine that they must be independently wealthy), but it was inspirational all the same.
Other great shows: The Lonesome Organist and Laura Barrett renewing my musical faith at the One Man Band Festival; Nicole Lizée’s Sask Power at the Ottawa Chamber Music Festival; Ben Reimer and co., also playing the music of Nicky Lizée, at Sala Rossa; punk nerds Pissed Jeans tearing up Il Motore, Corpusse utterly destroying Brasserie Beaubien with Les momies de Palerme’s Xarah Dion in the Lorenz Peter role, and one of my guiltiest pop pleasures, Sloan, doing their Twice Removed show at the Phoenix in Toronto.