Concert Review: Jeen, November 1, Horseshoe Tavern

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Jeen‘s stage banter was rather timely during her Thursday night show at the Horseshoe, making reference at one point to the recent legalization of cannabis. “Everyone smoking more pot?” she asked before adding, “All I know is it’s completely messed up my purchasing.” It’s not like Jeen was revealing any big secret about herself though – “Medicate Me”, a song off of the Toronto singer’s latest album which she’s described as “an ode to introverts,” touches on the topic of marijuana and “weed therapy.”

That new album, Gift Shop, was mixed by Toronto music legend Ian Blurton, who also lent his talents as a member of Jeen’s live band. I’ll admit Blurton’s involvement was a bit of a draw for me – the guy’s always entertaining to see live – although he kept things relatively subdued and kept any of his trademark shredding to a minimum. And while he did let loose on occasion, the focus for the night was squarely on the songs themselves.

And Jeen’s songs sounded pretty good, despite her announcement at the outset that she couldn’t really hear anything in her monitor. “We’ll just go with the flow,” she said, and that flow took Jeen and her band through a series of songs that ran the gamut from the danceable “Won’t Be Long Now” to the driving rock of “Any Moment” and set highlight “Pull Out Your Knives.” All in all, a show worth leaving the house for on a rainy Thursday night.

Concert Review: The Twilight Sad, October 27, Velvet Underground

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“Hello Toronto. It’s been awhile,” said Twilight Sad vocalist James Graham to the crowd upon taking the stage (adding that there was no intended reference to “that shite Staind song”) and perhaps because they’d been away for awhile, the band wasted no time in getting right down to business.

Starting out strong with “There’s A Girl In The Corner,” The Twilight Sad put on an intense, emotionally charged performance that covered songs from throughout their career, from “That Summer, At Home I Had Become The Invisible Boy” to “The Wrong Car” to a trio of songs off of their upcoming album IT WON/T BE LIKE THIS ALL THE TIME, which sees the band continuing on with the synth heavy post-punk sounds they’ve been working with ever since 2012’s No One Can Ever Know –¬†listening to some of the new tracks, I’d wager the band may have learned a trick or two from all that time spent opening for The Cure on their last arena tour. The highlight of the set though was a beautiful cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm,” a song that the band has been performing regularly on this tour in memory of the late Scott Hutchison.

As they ended things off for the night, Graham thanked the crowd for coming out, again acknowledging that they hadn’t played Toronto in some time. “We’ve not toured in awhile so that you’ve come out to see us on a Saturday night is absolutely mind blowing,” he said. And while it was true that The Twilight Sad hadn’t been through Toronto for a bit, Saturday night’s show at Velvet Underground was well worth the wait.

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.