Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Over the Top Festival diary.

This weekend I took in the Over the Top Festival. From start to finish, I saw: Ghost Bees, Timber Timbre, The Ghost is Dancing, Clues, Woods (in-store), Bayonets, Tune-Yards, Think About Life, Oh No Forest Fires, Five Blank Pages, Tiny Masters of Today, The Guest Bedroom, The Budos Band, and Green Go. I could conceivably have seen a few more acts, and I suspect some people did. Still, that’s a lot of music.

The Ghost Bees / Timber Timbre lineup—I missed headliner Baby Dee—is one I’ve noticed before, but I had never seen them play together. Both bands were great Thursday night. Timber Timbre guitarist/vocalist Taylor Kirk’s got a new band backing him up these days, including the wonderful Mika Posen on violin, Shawn Clarke on baritone saxophone, and Simon Trottier on lap steel. The live performance has a different vibe than the record. Perhaps less moving for me, but still impressive. Timber Timbre recently signed with the indie superlabel, Arts & Crafts, so lots more people will get to hear the record.

Ghost Bees is composed of twins Romy and Sari Lightman, who both sing and play guitar and mandolin, respectively. Their weird folk songs are beautiful and deeply satisfying. I can’t imagine how an audience could not fall in love with them. Their unique chemistry on stage—or, on chairs on the floor, in this case—is very appealing to take in. They’ve added the talented percussionist Maya Postepski to their lineup the last couple times I’ve seen them perform. She worked better with them this time around, but I’m not completely sold yet on her place in the band. (No slight intended to Maya, who adds so much to Bruce Peninsula and Katie Stelmanis’ band.) Ghost Bees and Timber Timbre are currently on tour, so check them out in your town if you have a chance. You won’t regret it.

After Timber Timbre’s set, I headed to Sneaky Dee’s to catch The Ghost Is Dancing. These local popsters were just back from touring their great new record, Battles On. Their set was much tighter than I remember them being the first time I took in a show. High energy, as expected, and not just because Oh No Forest Fires’ frontman Rajiv Thavanathan was playing guitar for them. During the set some of the band members shed layers. A few songs in, vocalist/keyboard player Lesley Davies exclaimed to no one in particular that it was so hot on stage. She shortly took her dress off, and reappeared in her underwear. Ha!

The band that I was most keen on seeing Thursday night was Clues, a new band out of Montreal headed up by Alden Penner of the now-defunct Unicorns. The band was preceded, unexpectedly, by a well-dressed, bizarre pan flute and vocal/duo called Jerusalem In My Heart (thanks Chris). Clues therefore started pretty late, and rather than build up anticipation, the weirdo mini opening set was kinda lost on the crowd. It was cool and all, but this is not what we came to hear. I’m pretty sure one lone guy in the middle-left of the dance floor started to slowly clap during one long song, as if to signal to those around him that he’d had enough. Rude, but not shocking given the context. I don’t think the band noticed.

But then we got Clues. I had spent some time with (part of) their self-titled album, and was curious to see it performed. The five-piece was a curious mixture of down-to-earth and hipster-pretentious, and they took a smidge too much time between songs switching up their instruments. If they hadn’t let the energy levels drop every few minutes, it would have been a significantly more exciting set. Sure, a handful of songs came across as rather same-sounding, but their percussion-heavy, slightly off-the-wall pop tunes were cool. In the end a little too cool for me, but I can imagine this band really tearing the roof off a place. (P.S.: Clues, play a show with Born Ruffians if you really want to win me over.) [Photo credit: Alyssa K. Faoro.]

The next evening I got an early start to things, checking out Woods’ in-store performance at Soundscapes. This Brooklyn-based folk-pop trio sing into bullet mics which distort their voices to give the band a slightly other-worldly sound. It’s always a real treat to see a band in this beautiful record store, and Friday was no different. I hung around for a time afterward, chatting with friends, browsing, and waiting for other friends to arrive so we could go for dinner. [Photo credit: Robert Yarmolinsky.]

Dinner went longer than anticipated, and I therefore got a late start to my show-going Friday night. I missed out on great opening (and closing) acts at WhipperSnapper and The Music Gallery, but no worries. I made it out to the Polish Combatants Hall in plenty time for the ridiculous, punky Bayonets, bashing out 1-minute tunes preceded by zany song introductions. Memorable mostly for the brevity and energy of their set, I feel no need to see this band again, but I can think of lots of occasions where they’d go over well. Entertaining. Next up was Tune-Yards, the solo project of Sister Suvi front-woman, Merrill Garbus. As one of the few people in the crowd with some foreknowledge of her, I was stoked. She did not disappoint, looping robust tribal vocals, skippy electric ukelele, and uncomplicated drum hits. The crowd—the ones with an ear for the interesting—was buzzing during and after her set. She’s doing something that no one else I know of is doing, and doing it really well. [Photo credit: Garry Tsaconas.]

Tune-Yards touring mates Think About Life were celebrating the release of their new full-length album on Friday and so a party was in order. The last time they played in town was back in July, and that show was perhaps the best show I went to all year, in no small part because of the insanity of the crowd reaction to front-man Martin Ceasar and the crazy dance-party vibe that his backing band provides. Family is more accessible than their 2006 self-titled release, and I was expecting a rather larger crowd than showed up. Whether it was all the other great shows happening that night or the odd venue, the place did not fill up. But those of us who were there, and especially the first few rows, had a blast. An absolute blast. I found myself on the stairs leading up the stage, both to avoid the moshing and so that I could see everything on stage and to my right. Fantastic. In a smaller, darker, more packed room it would have been amazing. Maybe next time. I ended the set on stage with the band and about 20 other dancing fools. Afterward, I had to wait until the sweat dried before I could leave the building. (Eye Weekly’s got a pretty-spot on review of this show.) [Photo credit: Alyssa K. Faoro.]

By the time I got home at 5:20am or so Saturday morning—Friday’s TAL show led to dancing, which led to Ronnie’s, which led to a backyard bonfire in Kensington Market—I felt like Over the Top had done right by me. And so with one more night to go, and with no other obligations, I decided to plan it right and make the most of my wristband. (I first had to get my sunglasses fixed and see about replacing a broken bike pedal: casualties of Friday night’s festivities.) That night I saw 6 bands at 4 different venues.

My first venue was the Mod Club, a place I’d never seen a band before, and of which I had bad memories from being forced to go dancing there once, a long time ago. My apprehensions were instantly put aside when I got in the place and realized it was rather smaller than I remembered, with a nice, big stage complete with awesome lighting—almost to the point of being ridiculous and cheesy, but somehow not—and pretty good sound. I caught Oh No Forest Fires, who bounded around with abandon. Even the bass player, the most subdued of the bunch, managed to knock down a guitar amp. The kids at the front were amazed and probably inspired to start their own spazzy rock bands. I’m not in love with this band’s music, but I do quite like it, and I am always entertained by their live shows. So much fun. And incredibly tight considering how much jumping around they do. This is definitely a band worth looking into. It would be great to see them play on a much bigger stage to a much bigger crowd. They are most certainly up to it. [Photo credit: Garry Tsaconas.]

The next band I saw is one that won’t ever grace a stage again. The Mod Club show was the final one for Five Blank Pages. I missed the very end, but the parts of the set I did see—from the very front row, and then from further back in the room where the sound was much better—were a great way to end a solid 7-year run. The band performed their lovely Canadiana pop-rock songs accompanied by some musical friends on backing vocals, extra guitars, cello, violin, and trombone. For more on this band, check out my review of their most recent EP. [Photo credit: Garry Tsaconas.]

Just down the street at the WhipperSnapper art gallery there was a rather smaller crowd taking in rather younger, rockier bands than FBP. I arrived while the headliners, the New York-based Tiny Masters of Today, were setting up. And they were indeed tiny: lead by 15– and 13–year old siblings, with a drummer who couldn’t have been much older, these kids really impressed me. Sure, the girl’s not much of a singer (yet) and had to hand her bass over to her brother when it needed a quick tune-up, but they were legitimately good. I would expect more of adults, but what a treat to see these youngsters perform. The festival was all-ages, but except for one kid whose age I know, I suspect everyone in the audience was older than the band members. Their punky, garage-rock sound got repetitive toward the end, but I was so charmed by their musical ability and stage presence to mind too much. [Photo credit: Joe Fuda.]

My second show of the night over, I biked on over to Sneaky Dee’s expecting to spend a few minutes hanging out before dashing off again. Instead, The Guest Bedroom had just started playing, and wow—what a great set. I stayed for most of it, figuring the much-hyped Budos Band would start a little later than scheduled. When I think of their set, doom pop is the first and only description that comes to mind. Sandi Falconer’s vocals were strong and crisp, the tone was very dark, but the music was still kinda catchy. Odd, and extremely well done. This band would make for a good counterpoint to Oh No Forest Fires’ happier, less experimental vibe.

A friend of mine on Friday night had urged me to check out New York’s The Budos Band at the Polish Combatants Hall the next day. Their Afro-funk sound seemed like a good bet, and certainly something I wouldn’t get a chance to hear live again anytime soon. I arrived late, but the show was running even later, so I had time to chat with the few people in the audience I recognized. There was a large crowd out for this one, and it seemed to me like the venue was not far off it’s 350-person capacity. There was a great deal of excitement in the air, at least up near the front, and some of us were getting a little peeved about the by now very late start to things. But then the front lights were mercifully turned off and the band—a 9–piece this Saturday night—took to the stage. As soon as they did, the dancing started. I had a pretty fun time boogie-ing down surrounded by strangers, but had to watch the clock. Technical difficulties annoyed me even more: the band had to stop playing for a while so their sax player could repair his instrument. I guess there was nothing to do done about it, though perhaps next time the band will know to bring along some repair tools just in case rather than having to rely on the venue having what they needed. A fun set, but let’s just say that I wouldn’t have been happy if I’d paid the $18 cover at the door, or had gone out of my way to pick up $15 advance tickets. I left at 12:50am, about an hour into the band’s interrupted set, so I could catch one last band. [Check out some photos of the show here.]

I ended my Over the Top experience with one of my favourite live acts, Green Go. Although my feet were hurting and I’d already done a lot of dancing, there’s no way I can avoid busting a move to this electro-pop band out of Guelph. These guys (and gal) are brilliant. It’s too bad the crowd was rather thin and that there wasn’t much enthusiasm beyond the front row. But for me, it was awesome. And, just because I’m crazy, I ended the night with one more hour of late-night (2–3am) dancing at the Boat. Thank you, Over the Top Festival. See you next year.

[Check out Eye's mini documentary about the festival here.]


Shawn William Clarke said...

Thanks for the shoutout! It was a really fun show

historyjen said...

Thanks Shawn. I really enjoyed it. Such a beautiful evening!
Also, I got your magazine/blog in my links section now.