Tag Archives: concert reviews

Field Trip Music & Arts Festival, Toronto (6/6/15 & 7/6/15)

Image source: twitter.com/fieldtrip

Held on the historic grounds of Toronto’s Fort York, the Field Trip Music & Arts Festival has steadily been growing since its inception in 2013. This was my first time attending, and I was impressed with how well-suited Fort York was for a mid-size festival. It felt like the grounds were fairly compact, yet there was absolutely no sound bleeding between the two stages. Also, the pathways were busy but didn’t bottleneck, which is a huge plus.

Here’s my recap of the music I checked out at the festival last weekend:

DAY ONE

My first day at Field Trip got started with Apostle of Hustle over on the smaller Fort York stage. As somebody who tends to find a spot I like at the main stage and stay there for most of the day, it was nice to get a bit of the “side stage” experience, where things are usually a lot more laidback. Apostle of Hustle sounded fantastic, and though their crowd was small, the die-hards near the front were clearly thrilled to have the band back after their four-year absence. These guys did the most with fewest people on stage. (It’s hard to believe it when you hear them, but Apostle is a trio.)

Over on the main stage, The War on Drugs provided the perfect soundtrack for a lazy late afternoon. Playing tons of material off their excellent 2014 album, Lost in the Dream, The War on Drugs were cool and low-key compared to most of Field Trip’s acts. They sounded fantastic (and the sax player was a welcome touch) but their on-stage vibe felt a touch introverted for the festival setting. That said, “Red Eyes” got everybody bobbing along.

Certainly not short on energy were The Arkells, who tore through a set packed wall-to-wall with hits. Considering the Hamiltonians only released their first LP in 2008, they’ve put out a pretty impressive slew of infectious singles that have been inescapable on Canadian rock radio. Songs like “The Whistleblower”, “Kiss Cam”, and their newest, “Leather Jacket”, all sounded particularly great live, and the band had the enthusiasm to back up their sort of Springsteen-y, working man sound. Lead singer Max Kerman was all about audience interaction, too, getting people to dance, cheer, and sing along song after song.

The day had already been filled with great vocalists, but then Alabama Shakes came along to show everyone how it’s really done. Lead singer Brittany Howard is known for being a powerful live presence, and she certainly didn’t disappoint. The crowd was on board from the first note, and Brittany was in the zone. Highlights included “I’m Yours” from their moodier, slow-burning latest LP, Sound and Color, and the boppy, infectious “Hang Loose” from their debut.

Also, while I didn’t see much of Purity Ring’s set, it’s worth noting that when I walked by, they were battling some serious technical difficulties. It seems they frequently lost power during their set, which is a shame, because they had a pretty awesome light show going on. Nonetheless, the band seemed to be staying good-natured in spite of the problems.

DAY TWO

Sunday offered up a little bit of everything, including some amazing food. Field Trip goes the food truck route and since I’m a naturally indecisive person, choosing between roughly 20 different vendors was a long process. I eventually landed on Fidelo Gastro’s, though, and their creation called the “Sgt. Slather” (a pulled pork sandwich topped with guacamole and tortilla chips) turned out to be a fantastic choice.

In terms of, y’know, music, I caught some of Absolutely Free and Hayden’s sets, and while both acts sounded technically really solid, they just lacked a little of the spark needed to really come alive in the festival setting.

However, sometimes the bands that get relegated to early timeslots surprise you the most. This definitely happened on Sunday, with Lee Fields & the Expressions serving up a delightful funky dance party. Fields, in his decked-out red jacket, offered a welcome helping of old-school soul. He was full of energy and even though the band was a bit of an off-beat choice for Field Trip, the crowd seemed to be loving it.

Speaking of charismatic frontmen, Father John Misty was every bit as weird and wonderful as you’d expect. It’s difficult to engage a large, sprawling festival audience – especially as a solo artist – but Father John Misty (a.k.a. Josh Tillman) had the crowd hooked from the first bombastic strains of his set. Tillman’s dynamic set involved delving into the audience, receiving an assortment of gifts from fans, dramatically tossing his acoustic guitar to a waiting stagehand, and more hip shimmies than you could count. His set wisely favoured his more bombastic material, ending with a raucous, incendiary take on “The Ideal Husband”. From there, Tillman waved and promptly exited the stage without another word. The audience, meanwhile, was left still digesting everything they’d just seen.

“I pity the fucking fool who has to follow Father John Misty,” opined a cheeky Dan Mangan half an hour later, as he began his own set on the main stage. But while it’s true that Mangan may not have quite the same flair for theatricality, he’s certainly an engaging performer in his own right. As a singer, he can belt out a note so hard that you feel it in your gut, and on older tracks like “Rows of Houses” and “Sold”, he hit some amazing vocal peaks. His newer material from this year’s Club Meds, however, felt a little denser and sat less comfortably in Mangan’s vocal range. This is purely a matter of opinion, but even on the studio tracks, I feel like the material on the plodding Club Meds often actively works against Mangan’s urgent, spiky strengths as a performer. Luckily, his Field Trip set heavily featured his older material, which got a noticeably larger reaction from the crowd.

I couldn’t stick around on Sunday night, but by all accounts, My Morning Jacket offered up a rollicking set, as you’d expect, to close out the festival.

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Sufjan Stevens @ Massey Hall, Toronto (29/4/15)

Sufjan

Sufjan Stevens’ latest album, Carrie & Lowell, is an intimate affair fraught with lyrics so personal that they send a little pang through your chest as you absorb them. So, perhaps it makes sense that when Stevens stopped by Toronto’s Massey Hall, he had the audience in the palm of his hand for the duration of his nearly two-hour set.

After opening with Michigan’s gorgeous piano interlude “Redford (For Yia-Yia and Pappou)”, Stevens worked his way through the entirety of Carrie & Lowell (albeit in a slightly rearranged order). The album’s themes of loss, nostalgia, and spirituality felt especially resonant in the live setting. This was only enhanced by the intermittent home movie–style footage playing on the diamond-shaped screens hanging behind the stage.

Stevens brought an effortless sense of drama to everything about his live show. He didn’t say a word to the crowd for the first half of the show, instead letting the heft of Carrie & Lowell hang in the air a little while longer.

Things then got slightly livelier as Stevens and his band transitioned into some older material, highlighting several tracks from fan favourite Seven Swans. Stevens himself also opened up with a couple of rambling, subtly funny monologues later in the show.

Another highlight came late in the night as Stevens dropped an unlikely, charmingly shambolic cover of Neil Young’s “There’s a World” (a tribute to the night’s venue, which has famously hosted Young many times, including for his classic Live at Massey Hall album). Knowing the cover wasn’t going particularly well (though it was warmly received by the audience), Stevens took the opportunity to laugh at himself a bit mid-song. It was a nice, all-too-rare moment of seeing the rather serious, introverted Stevens loosen up.

After much hushed seriousness, the set ended with a heavily electronic, swirling wall of sound. It may not have been subtle, but it was an arresting culmination to all of the emotion that had come before.

Stevens’ encore seemed like a breather by comparison, and his final song of the night, 2005’s “Chicago” felt downright joyous in contrast. The horns and the enthusiastic crowd response made for a triumphant end to a sombre night.

The particular melancholy of Sufjan Stevens’ work has been cranked up to 11 on Carrie & Lowell, but in the live setting – aided by Stevens’ more heavily electronic re-arrangement of certain songs – the music is still devastating, but also manages to take on a new sense of life. It’s a cathartic experience, but if you’re along for the ride, Sufjan puts on a hell of a show.

Ryan Adams @ Massey Hall, Toronto (12/11/14)

Ryanb Adams

Ryan Adams was in full-on Ryan Adams Mode at last night’s Toronto concert. His nearly two-hour set – and his stage banter between songs – was cantankerous, scruffy, and funny all at once. With a career-spanning setlist and a solid band backing him up, it was a show bound to please any fan, but also one that seemed to highlight Adams’ own frustrations.

At his more petulant moments, Adams casually eviscerated a heckler (though not before declaring that they were “best friends again” moments later) and was clearly a bit exasperated with the results of the audience “vote” to decide the concert’s final song, which inevitably fell in favour of “Come Pick Me Up”. (Massey Hall has a strict 11 p.m. curfew, so Adams had to cut things a little short.) However, his somewhat cranky persona is what fans have come to expect and, if not wholeheartedly love, at least accept in exchange for great music. (And, to be fair, Adams is arguably much harsher on himself than any drunken goon in the audience. “Here’s another song about my feelings,” Adams deadpanned at one point.)

With the full band backing him, Adams’ heavier material really shone. The few songs that he played from his recent self-titled album were among the night’s highlights, especially the swirling “Stay With Me”. He also dipped into 1984, his punk-y EP from earlier this year, to tear through through “Rats in the Wall” and “When the Summer Ends” with a crackling urgency that’s difficult to capture on recording. Earlier cuts like “This House is Not For Sale” and “Do I Wait” also felt propulsive and fresh in the “rock show” setting.

His mid-tempo material generally didn’t come across as dynamically and “Dear Chicago”, one of his most searing songs, felt surprisingly watered-down with a full band. However, it was undeniably exciting to hear “When the Stars Go Blue” live. Adams mixed up the ballad’s arrangement just enough while still staying true to the song’s original lovely (and, admittedly, slightly hokey) sentiment.

A real highlight of the show was the debut of a new song, “Do You Laugh When You Lie?” It’s part of his just-announced 7” and based on the live rendition, it feels very much in line with Adams’ latest LP down to the hooky guitars and anthemic chorus. Despite his fears of messing it up live, the song sounded great and offered a strong indication that the ever-prolific Adams still has a ton of exciting music in him.

Musically, Adams was in top form last night. And while the vibe of the show was more laborious than the last time I saw him live – in 2011, when he played a loose and spontaneous solo acoustic show and seemed to be in a more laidback mood – it still had the snarling energy that is key to Adams’ music. As fans we come for the Puddle of Mudd anecdotes, the life-sized stuffed tiger that adorned the stage, and, most importantly, a night of great music. And on all of these fronts (and many more), Adams certainly didn’t disappoint.

Jason Isbell @ Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto (15/7/14)

Jason Isbell

When I go to a concert, I enforce something that I am now naming the “three song rule”. This basically means that I try to reserve judgement for the first three songs of the concert because this is the time when everyone is settling in. The musicians are warming up and shaking off possible nerves, the sound might still be getting adjusted, and people in the crowd are scrambling to snap blurry Instagram photos. Some of the best concerts I’ve seen needed a couple of songs to hit their stride. But when Jason Isbell took the stage of the Phoenix on Tuesday, it took him all of about 30 seconds to find his groove. And by halfway through the opening verse of the first song, “Flying Over Water”, I knew that I was in for a fantastic show.

Everything about Isbell’s live show signals that he is a seasoned musician and a consummate professional. From his lively backing band, The 400 Unit, to his drawling and polite stage banter, the Alabama native knows how to put on a show.

He sings with a laser sharp precision, but while each note feels perfectly planned and executed, his vocals feel far from robotic. He belted out the big notes on songs like “Danko/Manuel” and rocked out on “Super 8” but then also pulled back on more intimate fare, such as the heartbreaking “Elephant”, which was adorned with only Isbell’s acoustic guitar and a keyboard.

Isbell is so personable that it’s easy to see why the night almost turned into one big love-in. When Isbell thanked the crowd for listening to his latest album, 2013’s Southeastern, one particularly Canadian heckler yelled back, “Thank YOU for making it!” sparking a tongue-in-cheek “‘Thank you!’ ‘No, thank YOU’” monologue from Isbell. The crowd also broke into cheers during “Cover Me Up” when Isbell sang the openly autobiographical line, “I sobered up and swore off that stuff forever this time”.

It’s not surprising that Isbell got such a warm response. His genuine love of music is obvious, and he and his band indulged the crowd with a sprawling two-hour set that covered a variety of fan favourites. Almost every track from Southeastern was represented, as were a sampling of songs from his previous solo albums. He also dipped back into his days with the Drive-By Truckers, and “Decoration Day” (the title track from DBT’s 2003 album) really came alive in person. Isbell took the epic story-song of feuding Southern families and fleshed it out with venomous, snarling vocals and just enough guitar solos to highlight how shattering that song is.

“Decoration Day” wasn’t the only vintage Isbell song that sounded better live than on recording, which likely speaks to his growth as an artist. Isbell was 22 years old when he joined the Drive-By Truckers and now, at the seemingly much more balanced but still young age of 35, it really feels like he’s in top form as a musician.

Also proving to be quite a polished performer was Isbell’s opener, Doug Paisley. The Toronto native was joined by a small backing band to showcase a number of tracks from his top-notch album from earlier this year, Strong Feelings. Truth be told, Paisley’s considerably more mellow brand of alt-country paled a bit in comparison to Isbell’s sheer might as a live performer, but taken for his own merits, Paisley made for quite an enjoyable opening act. Paired with Isbell, it was an all too rare night of music by two men at the top of their respective musical games.

The Antlers @ The Mod Club, Toronto (27/6/14)

the antlers

The Antlers are a rare indie band that managed to achieve something close to universal praise with their 2009 album Hospice, which found its way onto pretty much every best-of-the-year list back in the day. But while the band then seemed poised to build a career akin to Arcade Fire or The National, their moment of adoration and breathless critics’ pronouncements seems to have passed, at least for the time being.

Perhaps because of this, they seemed to be in a bit of tricky position when they stopped by Toronto’s Mod Club this past Friday. It was just the third stop of the tour promoting their latest album, Familiars, which dropped earlier this month, and the setlist was largely dominated by new material. This wasn’t really a problem for me; I like Familiars a lot, and I was thrilled that they kicked off the show with the album’s opener, “Palace”. However, the crowd’s divided response to their setlist was…um, shall we say obvious? Earlier material (especially from Hospice) was met with immediate cheers, fervent swaying and nodding, and thunderous applause. Meanwhile, the tracks from Familiars received a noticeably more muted response.

You can’t really blame a band for wanting to show off their new material, but it’d also be hard not to say that many of the show’s highlights came from their more well-worn territory. Hospice’s “Sylvia” proved to be even more rollicking and guttural live, with Peter Silberman showing off the impressive range of his voice. It was those moments of release, like the one found in the chorus of “Sylvia”, where the band really came alive and created something dynamic and blistering. Familiars ­–as textured and lovely as it is – just isn’t an album that offers as many of those transcendent moments that make the Antlers so captivating.

Similarly, the encore saw the band take on two tracks from their 2011 LP, Burst Apart, which were clearly fan favourites. The gorgeous “I Don’t Want Love”, with its halting guitar and almost anthemic chorus, provided a rare moment of laidback buoyancy from the Antlers, while “Putting the Dogs To Sleep” evoked an unexpected audience sing-a-long, ending the night on an energetic note.

The Antlers are a band concerned with atmosphere, which I always appreciate in a concert. Their carefully constructed songs lend themselves to a little drama, and the band didn’t disappoint, throwing in plenty of horns, reverb, and dramatic pauses to set the mood. With only four guys on stage, they created an impressively rich sound.

I have no complaints with how the Antlers sounded, and on the whole, they put on a very satisfyingly sombre show. The lighting (very moody; lots of backlighting) and the stage presentation (lit up birdcages/chandeliers?) only added to the drama, and the crowd seemed more than happy to get their sad on.

If we’re going to nitpick, the band members themselves could have been a little more engaging; judging by the fact that we barely got more than a couple of thank-yous and a few unintelligible mumblings from Silberman until well into the set, stage banter is clearly not their thing. However, it’s easy enough to forgive a little shyness when the music sounds that good.

Those looking for a chattier frontman were probably pleased by openers Yellow Ostrich, who were every bit as fun and spunky as the Antlers were moody and serious. Frontman Alex Schaff proved to have heaps of charisma both when bopping around the stage and telling of the band’s ill-timed van breakdown at the U.S./Canada border that almost prevented them from making the show. Their excellent, James Blake-esque slow jam “Ghost” sounded shimmery and lovely live, and the rest of their set was full of enough jaunty, Local Natives-style rock to make for a nice contrast with the main act.

If you like the Antlers, you’re going to like hearing the Antlers live. It was nice to see a few tracks from the claustrophobic Hospice get opened up a bit in the live setting, and while the new tracks may be less familiar (har har) to fans, there’s certainly good stuff to be found. It’s the Antlers, so thing are going to be a little dour and a whole lot sad, but when they hit the right moment, things really start to soar.