Toronto – Thanks to yesterday’s thunderstorms and me being dumb enough to leave the house without an umbrella, I spent most of Sunday night standing on the floor at Lee’s Palace soaked to the skin, feeling sorry for unsuspecting bystanders who accidentally bumped into me only to find their own clothes or arms suddenly damp. I got soaked on my way from picking up my media pass from Nathan Phillips Square yesterday, then again on the way from Bathurst station to George’s Deli to Lee’s.
After uncomfortably dripping away through most of opener Maylee Todd’s set, though, Esthero took all discomfort away upon taking the stage. It hasn’t been a long time since Esthero played a show in Toronto, but the crowd reacted like they hadn’t seen her in a decade. Esthero playing here just feels so right. Despite moving to California several years ago, there’s a comfort level between the Stratford native and a Toronto crowd that’s unlike virtually any concert I’ve seen. Not only were her parents on hand, but she brought her father on stage late in the show (“she’s my jelly bean!” he exclaimed) to tell the crowd of how he’s fought through prostate cancer and strokes, to tell him he’s her hero and to sing “It’s a Small World.” Her brother, J. Englishman, joined her for a cover of Concrete Blonde’s “Joey,” the song she says got her noticed back when she used to sing it at Free Times Cafe. She said she hadn’t played with her massive 8-piece backing band – plus backup singers Kim Davis and Toya Alexis – in a year, and that this was her first show with the guitarist, but you’d never have guessed it from the sound. That’s the comfort level of an Esthero show in Toronto: she’s smoking on stage and is fairly drunk for the encore, the guitarist is brand new, the band and singer have been apart for a year, her dad’s wandering on stage, half the crowd is soaked, and half the show is off-the-cuff, but everything just feels right.
Much to the chagrin of a few fans in the audience, though, Esthero chose this show to premiere a lot of rarely- or never-before heard tunes from an album to be released later in the year. After starting off with the crowd favourite “O.G. Bitch”, Esthero delved deep into yet-to-be released material like “Black Mermaid”, “If I Didn’t Have Faith”, “You Don’t Get a Song” and more. By her own admission, her newer material is a lot less beat-driven than her 1998 trip-hop classic Breathe From Another or 2005′s rhythmic Wikked Lil’ Grrrls and has more in common with, say, the music of a singer-songwriter like Ron Sexsmith. Speaking of Ron Sexsmith, he appeared on stage at one point to sing a duet. Sexsmith is ok in my books, but it’s weird that he looks like he could burst into tears at any given moment. I guess that’s just his usual facial expression.
Anyway, Esthero’s new material is likable enough; her voice is certainly very strong and interesting enough to pull off a singer-songwriter album. The material’s a bit raw, however, and loading up the setlist with so many new tunes that could still use some polish might not have been the best choice with a crowd of fans who would’ve loved to sing along. Esthero did try to make up for it by getting the crowd to sing to a friend in California through her cell phone at the start of the encore, then by soliciting requests. After the shouting died down, this resulted in a rendition of “We R in Need of a Musical Revolution” and an impromptu version of “Gone” done a capella because the new guitarist didn’t know it. Meanwhile, old favourites “Bad Boy Clyde” and “Country Livin’ (The World I Know)” brought the house down. Considering how well those two songs went, you can’t blame the people behind me who were yelling for her to do “That Girl” all night if they went home a little disappointed.
Still, it was a solid night of music, and nice to see the Jazz Festival branch out a little into something a little less jazz and very local. Esthero’s on-stage charm and disarming openness made everything feel right, even being totally soaked with rain. Hopefully she comes back soon.