I'm still feeling the afterglow from Saturday night and it's thanks to the Montreal Pop Festival, now in its second year. On Saturday, I was among the first in line at the Arcade Fire/Phaser/Hawksley Workman show at Club Soda, on St-Laurent Blvd. and St-Catherine. It was scheduled to start at 9:30 PM sharp but they didn't let us in until close to 10 PM. Grabbing the best seat in the house (top right gallery, beside the speakers, a pebbles throw from the stage), I sat down and wondered what was up with the first band. Even though they looked like an art school field trip being let loose on a room full of instruments, I reserved my judgements for the music. And when the music hit, I knew I was on to something.
The Arcade Fire are from Montreal and have very little music released right now. According to an article I dredged up on Google somehow, they have over 100 songs already written but are trying to raise the funds to record a full length LP and really get a buzz going. It's working. When the lead singer Win Butler began strumming his electric guitar and visibly shaking right on stage, I felt like I was watching Nirvana on Prozac, or maybe a Canadian mock-up of the Flaming Lips. It's important to mention the rest of the band, all 7 (8?) of them. His wife Régine (Chassagne), a little dark haired vixen, was playing the accordion, a bandmate was playing a snare drum, another was just banging drum sticks on the floor, another guy was playing the French Horn, and there was even an Xylophone used in one song. Also, the bandmates switched instruments quite a bit, with at least 2 or 3 different instruments happening in every song.
One thing that must be said about their sound is that it is Big and Layered, like that Wall of Sound we always hear about in trendy music magazines (Phil Spector, etc.). The Arcade Fire is a purveyor of pretty melodies and everyone in the band sings nearly every lyric. The only jarring moment of their set was when Win yelled at the crowd for their apathetic response to this beautiful Rock onslaught. He angrily asked if anyone was awake, or something to that effect. Luckily, he apologized later, attempting to salvage some respect and win back our affections. ("I'm sorry I yelled earlier but doing a live show is so..." and then he looked around for a life preserver. I shouted "Intense!" and he looked up at me before repeating "Intense, yes, that's it..." I was glad to have helped out.)
If we judge them completely on a musical basis, The Arcade Fire aren't just going places--they're building domes on the Dark Side of the Moon, driving dirtbikes over the lunar surface, and leaping towards the sun. Did I mention they're from Montreal? Great new rock and roll. Go and see if you can pick up their album at Cheap Thrills or download some of their stuff from their website.
The way I'm ranting and raving about the opening band, you'd think that the Phaser didn't exist. This would be a blessing upon humanity, if you ask me. Don't look at me that way. I can't help but shrug when I listen to these Washingtonites (Washingtonians?) and hear a Southern version of Sam Roberts, only without the tunefulness and with a lot more attitude. This makes for a mish-mash, a home-brewed bootleg of rock and roll with too many distortion pedals and not enough songwriting prowess. Some in the crowd were grooving to Phaser, while I was not. My brother shook his head when they played although both he and I had been toe-tapping and "rocking out" to The Arcade Fire only minutes before.
Shows are not judged by the opening acts, as we all know, and the headliner, Hawksley Workman, tricked us into believing he was human and fallible in his first couple of songs. He looked slightly shaky, seemingly not happy with the job the sound men had been doing (between songs, he asked them to raise the vocals). His set began with several songs from his latest album, including "On the Highway Tonight", "We Will Still Need a Song", and "Anger as Beauty". This is where he really hit his stride, keeping the whole crowd spellbound. Hawksley kept lurching and high-stepping around the stage like some sort of dinosaur and he was soloing and enjoying himself out there. When you hear him sing live for the first time, it is very tempting to smile in awe of his amazing range. He can go from a guttural baritone into a frenetic yelp at the bat of an eyelash. He has the best set of pipes since Freddy Mercury.
One of the best songs of the whole night had to be "Tonight Romanticize the Automobile". It has such a powerful lead that really shines through when you hear it live and we could hear the conviction in Hawksley's voice. He knows the talent he's got inside and when you hear him turn a catchy lyric into a poetic moment, his eyes look wild and feral. I think this must be what it was like to see Jim Morrison perform live. (One can only imagine! I once read a pretty strange story about Jim & Jimi Hendrix, involving a bottle of whiskey and Janis Joplin, but I'm getting off-topic. Read Rolling Stone if you want hippy gossip.)
Hearing these songs played live for the first time confirmed my suspicions about the poor production of his album "Lover/Fighter" (see review below somewhere on this page). Live, the songs sounded clearer and sharper, like a detailed photograph that comes into focus when you put on your bifocals. He sounded paranormal, almost even mystical, especially on "Wonderful and Sad", "Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off" and "Smoke Baby". It was difficult not to sing along with most of his songs but I could have done without the wailing and screaming of some of the ladies in the audience. (During an operatic pause in the middle of "Don't Be Crushed", some girl shouted "Take it Off!". Hawksley, obviously offended that his song was being overlooked, growled back "You first!")
Eventually, the rest of his band ("The Wolves") left the stage. Only Hawksley remained up there, grabbing a seat at the piano and playing a couple of classics from his first album "For Him and the Girls". Eventually, Mr. Lonely (his keyboardist) returned to the stage and picked up where Hawksley left off . After several pleas for a nice glass of Red Wine (and a bellow from this reviewer down into the crowd "Someone get this man some wine!"), Hawksley's wish was granted and he took a great big swig of wine. At one point, he was singing "Silver Bells" and he still sounded fresh and effervescent.
Hawksley and the Wolves did two encores (including a great song off his first album, "Safe and Sound") and we were all envigorated by the great show we had just witnessed. Excluding Phaser, I think that I saw some of the best Rock and Roll that Canada has to offer right now. Matthew Good Band and Our Lady Peace are relative pee-wees compared to the majestic grandeur of Arcade Fire, while Rufus Wainright is like Hawksley-lite or maybe his kid brother, trying to get his sea-legs. I am really anxious to get my hands on more from the Arcade Fire. And Hawksley? He will only get better the more time he spends in Paris and in Montreal, at least if he stays off the blow. (Read the lyrics of "Smoke Baby" and you'll see what I mean).
To sum up, I can't wait until next year because Pop Montreal is turning into the best music festival we've got! (And to think that I missed the Queens of the Stone Age show. It will be a challenge to refrain from slashing up my wrists with a steak knife).