Monday, November 09, 2009

Review: Junior Boys, Woodhands @ Lee's Palace (Toronto) and the Starlight (Waterloo).


An interesting, exciting double-billing of electro bands, Toronto's Woodhands and Junior Boys, originally from Hamilton, stopped in at Toronto's Lee's Palace Friday night. Woodhands' energetic, in-your-face electro-pop is a guaranteed party starter; Junior Boys are much more about sexy grooviness. To Woodhands, you jump and scream. Junior Boys call for more restrained behaviour (at least in public spaces).

I arrived just shy of 10:30pm. A DJ was on stage amid smoke and the place was already buzzing. And then Woodhands came on. They had a healthy following on the dance floor, with audience members singing along to some of their better-known songs. There was dancing, but it took a couple songs for people to really loosen up. By then there was an excited group just to my right who were intent on dancing up a storm, and from my vantage point right up front it seemed like people were into things. A technical glitch or two didn't interrupt the flow for long. Dan Werb's screams and grunts were well-received and his frenetic keytar soloing from the high stage was a rare treat. (Woodhands is more of a visual band than one might expect given everything the duo is doing during a performance.) During the extended finale, "Dancer," drummer Paul Banwatt sang the female part---in context, not strange at all---and toward the end Werb sang parts of rapper Biz Markie's "Just a Friend." Banwatt, whose voice isn't present on the band's recordings, rapped during one of the band's earlier songs. Lee's Palace isn't the best place for a dance party, and so Friday night wasn't a particularly memorable Woodhands experience (for me), but not for lack of trying on the band's part. The duo definitely earned themselves a chunk of new fans.

Most people in the audience were there to see the headliners, who have been making waves in the dance scene for several years. (As a point of trivia, I first heard of Junior Boys because Woodhands' Banwatt had their "In the Morning" song streaming on his personal MySpace a couple years ago.) After Woodhands' high energy set, Junior Boys seemed super mellow, and though the band installed a green laser and the lights were put to good use, their performance wasn't a feast for the eyes. Junior Boys' live band---Jeremy Greenspan (vocals, guitar, keyboard), Matt Didemus (knobs and buttons and etc.), and a touring drummer---did a good job translating the recordings to the live setting. There wasn't much extended jamming during their set, which I found disappointing, but it did mean that we heard more songs than we might have. And the band has some good ones, including the stand-out "In the Morning" and new tracks "Parallel Lines," "Bits & Pieces," and "Hazel," off this year's Begone Dull Care. Greenspan is a strong singer, his voice fuller live than on their records.

Download: Junior Boys, "In the Morning" (So This Is Goodbye, 2006).
Download: Woodhands, "Dancer (Extended Mix)" (Dancer EP, 2009).

The juxtaposition of these two different electro-pop acts allowed for a fascinating study in contrasts. Woodhands and Junior Boys come out of different musical traditions and have had very different touring experiences. Both produce music that makes you dance, but Woodhands have built a reputation primarily for their explosive live sets. There is nothing explosive about a Junior Boys' show. Greenspan danced a little, but Didemus hardly seemed to be aware that there were hundreds of people watching him do his thing. Greenspan's between-song banter was, if not awkward, hardly befitting his music's smooth, sexy attitude. I found it jarring, like a jolt of reality spoiling a great moment.


The show was fun, but as a serious Woodhands fan I left rather unsatisfied, and unconvinced of the awesomeness of Junior Boys. There was only one remedy: go see them both again the next night in Waterloo at a smaller club, the Starlight!

This time around, with Woodhands on a much lower stage, things were as they should be. The younger crowd started dancing right away, and though I got the sense that not a lot of people there had seen them before, Werb's call for audience participation during "I Wasn't Made For Fighting" was eagerly answered. It was awesome. A great space, good crowd, and fantastic sound all made for a brilliant performance. The new song that the band played---they'd debuted it in Toronto the night before---struck me as stronger, and made me look forward to their new record even more than I had been.

The smaller club benefitted Junior Boys on Saturday night, too. I spent most of their set manning the merch table, and so had a dance party by myself. Fun times. They finished their set with a slow number, which was a bit of a vibe-killer, but redeemed themselves during the encore. And although I enjoyed JB more the second time around, to my mind Woodhands outdid the headliners in the danceability of their songs and certainly in their performance. Junior Boys' slow simmer is better for mood-setting at home or a DJ night at your favourite club. Their quieter, slower jams lose something in the live setting. Woodhands are a brilliant live dance band, and that's what I like most about them. Look for their new record, Remorsecapade, out 26 January.

Photo credits: Jeremy Greenspan by Michael Ligon, original here; Dan Werb by Aviva C., original here. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

I was happy enough to see Woodhands when they were in Ottawa. But missed out Junior Boys. :P

mike said...

First time seeing Woodhands. Fun to watch live for sure, but not really into the music. I've been a long-time Junior Boys fan. As consistent with their basically all their live sets, Matthew's ALWAYS been like that ie. oblivious to the audience it seems, but I think it's just his way of maintaining his comfort level b/c he'd always been quite shy from what I remember. Jeremy always had a little bit of groove in him. I do thank God they added a drummer to their live set several years back or it'd almost been unbearable to watch them live. Nowadays, when I see them live, I don't so much watch them on stage as feel the music. There music is just so friggin' infectious and I really enjoy dancin' to them.