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.

Song Of The Day: Windhand – Grey Garden

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It’s Friday! Celebrate with some doom metal courtesy of Windhand. Is doom metal really all that celebratory? Sure, why not?

“Grey Garden,” the lead single off of the Richmond, Virginia band’s latest, Eternal Return, is a solid slice of fuzzed out, psyched out, doomy goodness. Check it out.

Eternal Return is out today on Relapse Records.

Song Of The Day: The Natvral – Know Me More

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It hasn’t been all that long since we last heard from The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart (they just put an album out last year) but TPOBPAH frontman Kip Berman is back with a new project – The Natvral.

Described by Berman as “neither solo project nor side project,” The Natvral certainly shows off a different, much folkier side of his songwriting, with Berman citing the likes of Richard & Linda Thompson, Leonard Cohen, and Ted Leo as influences. After listening to the title track of his Know Me More EP, I’d suggest another possible influence in there, as it gives off a little bit of an early Paul Simon vibe as well. Check it out.

The Natvral’s Know Me More is out tomorrow (October 5) on Kanine Records.

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.