Concerts

Concert Review: Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience, October 14, Scotiabank Arena

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It’s safe to say that Ramin Djawadi is one of the more popular and in demand composers working in film and television these days. He’s done the scores for such notable works as Westworld, Person of Interest, Prison Break, Pacific Rim and a little show you may have heard of called Game of Thrones. Certainly one of the most popular and acclaimed television series of recent years, Game of Thrones is beloved enough by fans to earn its own concert tour, which features Djawadi himself leading a live orchestra in bringing the music of Westeros to life. So yeah, it’s a pretty big deal.

But here’s the thing – I’ve never seen the show. I have nothing against it per se, but the show never really grabbed my attention, even though some people whose opinions I trust have vouched for it. Despite never having watched, when the tour made it’s way back to Toronto on the current leg of its North American tour, it got me wondering – would the music and the accompanying live show hold up for someone like me who’s not a fan and mostly only knows GOT by its reputation as a show full of dragons, boobs, and Peter Dinklage? On Sunday night, I aimed to find out.

As I made my way over to the recently rechristened Scotiabank Arena, there was a definite chill in the air – a sure sign that winter is coming. I gather that that’s a phrase people on the show often like to say, though of course, not having seen the show, I can only speculate as to why they say it. I presume its because the people of Westeros really enjoy making small talk about the weather in between all the murder and incest, which are also things I understand they do a lot of on this show.

Walking into the arena, you could tell that the fans were pumped for what was to come, although personally, I was a little let down that everyone looked disappointingly normal. I was really hoping to catch a few folks all decked out in cosplay like they were at Comic Con or something. I bet if this was a Doctor Who or Star Trek event, more people would have dressed up. There were, however, plenty of options for photo ops avialable, including a throne for people to sit on and some sort of green screen thing I saw people lining up for, so there was at least a little of that Comic Con vibe. There was also a signature cocktail on sale at the bar for the night – The Night’s Watch, a curious concoction made up of of peach vodka, spiced rum, pomegranate, pineapple and orange juice, which all seemed just a bit too ambitiously tropical in flavour to really fit thematically with the part of the series which takes place in frozen wastelands … that’s right, I looked it up. But again, I’ve never actually seen the show, so maybe the members of the Night’s Watch are all big fans of fruity beverages. I mean, who isn’t from time to time?

The show itself opened up with a prerecorded message to all of the “lords and ladies” in attendance from presumably one of the female stars of the show, probably one of the ones who played Sarah Connor (I’m guessing it was Sarah Connor from The Sarah Connor Chronicles rather than the Sarah Connor from Terminator: Genisys), telling us all to silence our phones and warning that those who disobeyed this order would be “boiled alive in their own blood” or something to that effect. OK, so far so good … you have my attention, Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience. From there, the band launched into the show’s main title theme, followed by Djawadi addressing the crowd to let us know how happy they were to be playing Toronto on the final night of their current North American tour and that they wanted it to be a good one. “So if you see a favourite character or villain or favourite scene let us know,” he said. And they did, with the crowd cheering for practically every character.

So how was the show for a Game of Thrones illiterate like myself? I have to admit, it was a fun show and the music does hold up even if you don’t know the program. For the performance, Djawadi (who conducted as well as played the hammer dulcimer, keyboards, and electric guitar at a few key points during the show) was joined by a group of touring musicians, all of whom were dressed up like they just stepped off the set of the show, as well as a local orchestra and choir backing them all up. Djawadi, however, just wore a regular suit. Again, I’m a little disappointed he didn’t go full Comic Con, but I understand … I guess.

With its big, epic, stirring sounds, the music was all very evocative of a certain mood and together with clips from the show up on the big screen, it was easy to get swept up in it all, even for a novice – it definitely piqued my interest and made me want to watch the show even though I’m absolutely spoiled all to hell for probably every important/cool moment in the series. While I’m still unclear on some of the finer plot points, it did serve as a decent crash course in GOT and the show and its music are certainly better suited to a massive live concert spectacle than say, Djawadi’s work on Westworld. And it certainly was something of a spectacle – if ever I do get around to watching the whole series, it will be a bit less impressive to not have live percussionists and pyro erupting all over the place every time the dragons breathe fire.

And on a final note, I’m happy to report that as I was leaving the venue I did finally spot a couple decked out in full GOT cosplay so in the end, I guess I got everything I ever really wanted out of this show. Mission accomplished.

Concert Review: Ben Howard, Wye Oak, October 5, Budweiser Stage

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Upon learning that Ben Howard would be performing a show at Budweiser Stage in early October, my initial thought was that it seemed a bit ambitious. Primarily because outdoor amphitheatres and Fall weather don’t necessarily make for natural bedfellows, but beyond that, I also just wasn’t really aware that Howard had made it to the big outdoor amphitheatre show stage of his career. To be honest, I hadn’t really thought of Ben Howard all that much over the past few years. I liked his 2011 Mercury Prize-nominated debut Every Kingdom and I recall him being able to easily full the Mod Club way back in 2012, but since then, I’ll admit that I stopped paying close attention. But just because I’d stopped paying attention, that doesn’t mean that others had, and Howard has most definitely built up a following who were primed and ready to hear him perform songs off Noonday Dream, his first release in four years, despite the chill in the air on this cool October evening. And so, after giving the new album a listen, I decided to bundle up and check out the show.

Opening up the show were Wye Oak who put on an impressive performance despite playing to a crowd that would have easily filled a club-sized venue but seemed comparatively sparse in the larger amphitheatre setting. I’ve seen the band twice before, but this was easily the best set I’ve seen them play and the first time I’ve been able to truly appreciate what great musicians they really are. Though, to give some context, the first set I saw them play was a SXSW afternoon set that was plagued with technical difficulties and described at the time by singer Jenn Wassner as their worst ever, while I was way too tired to really take it in the second time I saw them play. So let’s just pretend that this show was my real first Wye Oak experience. And a rather good one at that.

“We are from America and are currently accepting applications for sham marriages,” joked Wassner, echoing the sentiment of more than a few American performers who’ve visited our country over the last couple years or so, though she did go on to clarify, “I should probably add that that was a joke so America will let us back in in two days.” Wassner also had the best line of the night when she gave a shout out to “our corporate overlords, Budweiser. Thanks to Budweiser for making a beer that it’s impossible to have an opinion about either way.” The band ended out their set with the title track to their latest The Louder I Call The Faster It Runs and thanked the audience, noting that they could feel them out there despite it being cold and dark and everyone being so far away.

Once Ben Howard took to the stage, one of the first things I noticed (besides the fact that I kind of wanted to give the man a comb – some serious bedhead going on there) was that his band has tripled in size from the trio I saw Howard fronting all those years ago. With a bigger band, of course there came an accordingly bigger sound as well, with the songs off his latest (which made up the bulk of the setlist) expanding from the folkie singer-songwriter template of those earlier recordings into a moodier, spacier, more expansive sound that touches on ambient and post rock elements at times. It all sounded quite good, though as technically impressive as it was, there was a bit of sameness to a lot of his songs that, for this writer at least, meant that things did start to drag a bit by about the one hour mark or so – still worth sticking it out though to hear “Towing The Line,” one of the highlights from the new album, make an appearance late in the set.

Despite any of my misgivings however, most of the crowd seemed quite taken with it all throughout the night so I suppose this review is just the opinion of one crusty old bastard who just wanted to go somewhere a bit warmer as the night wore on. Still, this crusty old bastard maintains that a bit of a change of pace might have shaken things up somewhat and made it all a tad more interesting – perhaps a more uptempo number (something like “Keep Your Head Up” off his first album) or maybe even just another flute solo or two would have been nice. Flutes are cool.

Concert Review: The The, Agnes Obel, September 19, Sony Centre

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Following an incredible opening set by Agnes Obel prior to The The‘s headlining set at Sony Centre, something a little unusual happened – the lights stayed off. Usually, between acts you’re likely to see the house lights go up for a bit, but on this night, the house stayed dark. I don’t know if that was an intentional choice, but if it was, I suppose it was fitting since it did seem to continue the mood after Obel’s set in a way. And I suppose anyone who wanted more light could have just stepped out into the lobby anyways.

While it may have been an intentional choice to keep the crowd in darkness, The The frontman Matt Johnson made it fairly clear early on that they didn’t want the vibe to seem too dark for the audience for the duration of the night. “I know we have a serious reputation, but behind the scenes we’re not serious at all,” he said. “So feel free so dance and sing along.” And though nobody did bother getting up and dancing at that point, they finally did a few songs later after Johnson pulled the old trick of comparing us to other cities, deeming Toronto to be the “most genteel” crowd so far on the tour. He did add though that we were free to sit down and stand up as we pleased throughout the course of the night as there would be quieter songs.

Noting that it had been a long time since the band had been through Toronto (possibly 20 years, though he wasn’t quite sure), Johnson was certainly up to the task of making up for lost time, running through a set of songs from throughout their career and offering up plenty of stories about those songs over the course of their roughly two hour long show. Highlights included “Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)”, “This Is The Day”, “Love Is Stronger Than Death”, and their cover of Hank Williams’ “I Saw The Light.” Johnson proved to be an engaging, amiable frontman, balancing out the serious, political side of the band with a solid sense of humour, illustrated at one point when he attempted to have a moment of silence for seemingly no reason at all, possibly just to prove the point that it’s impossible for some people to keep their mouths shut for any period of time.

During the band’s three song encore, Johnson lamented the fact that setlists being readily available online has sort of spoiled the surprise during shows, though he made the most of it by pretending that they take requests, pausing then to let the audience shout out for the next tune, which the internet would have told us was indeed “Uncertain Smile”, before ending things off with “Lonely Planet” off of 1993’s Dusk. And while any surprise may have been spoiled, it didn’t make the songs any less effective.

Concert Review: New Order, August 30, Budweiser Stage

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Near the beginning of New Order’s Thursday night show at Budweiser Stage, Bernard Sumner noted how great it was to be back in Toronto while also apologizing for not making it back here sooner. “Sorry it’s been awhile – this happened, that happened … Hopefully we’ll provide an antidote to Ed Sheehan tonight. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” And while he was hedging his bets with that last comment, I don’t think there were too many Sheeran fans in attendance.

So yes, nothing resembling “Shape Of You” or anything else of a Sheeran-esque nature would make an appearance that night. Instead, New Order focused on what they’re best at, offering up a number of hits from throughout their career as well as a few tracks off their latest studio album, 2015’s Music Complete. Of the new stuff, numbers like “Plastic” and “Tutti Frutti” stood out as highlights that easily hold their own alongside the classics. Speaking of the classics, another standout was the band’s performance of “Your Silent Face,” which Sumner referred to as a beautiful song. “Played it a thousand times but I still think it’s beautiful.” He’s not wrong.

While the band held things down instrumentally, Sumner played his part as the engaging, entertaining frontman, dancing about the stage a bit and occasionally holding the mic up to his bandmates’ instruments while they played. I’m not sure if that did much of anything besides raising the potential for feedback though.

New Order ended off their main set with an absolutely unimpeachable trio of tunes – “True Faith”, “Blue Monday” and “Temptation” – before returning to the stage for an encore of Joy Division songs, much to the delight of all the people wearing Unknown Pleasures t-shirts. “I don’t think we’ve played that one before in Toronto. Ever,” said Sumner after they played “Disorder”, turning to drummer Stephen Morris to confirm that Joy Division had never played any shows in Toronto. “Enough of my talking. Here’s another one,” he said as they ended things off with “Decades” and “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Overall, New Order put on an amazing show with a solid setlist. I didn’t even notice they left out “Age of Consent,” one of my favourite New Order songs, until it was pointed out to me after the show. That’s a sign of a good show.

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