Monday, January 18, 2010

Review: Basia Bulat, The Luyas @ Trinity-St. Paul's Church.

Basia Bulat played Trinity-St. Paul's United Church on Saturday night to celebrate the launch of her new album, Heart of My Own, due out on 26 January. She gave a stunning performance, moving, heartwarming, and well-received by members of the capacity crowd. This was my fifth time seeing her, and it was awesome to see this talented performer bring the house down in such a beautiful environment.

I was excited for the show, but didn't realize so many others were too until I got to the church at the advertised door time, 7pm. The lineup was already more than a block long. I took my place in line, in front of a group of people speaking Polish. I figured they were members of the Bulat extended family, and a minute later drummer (and brother) Bobby Bulat came over to greet them. Confirmed. The crowd was a mixed bag: many younger concert-goers, including a few familiar faces from the local music scene, but also older couples. We all stood still for at least 30 minutes until the doors were finally opened and we slowly made our way in.

Inside, a large stage took over the front of the deceptively-small church. The pews on the ground floor were divided into four sections, about a dozen or so deep. Upstairs, hundreds more people sat in tiered pews in the U-shaped balcony that wrapped around the entire room. A few minutes after 8pm, the lights dimmed and the first band started to play.

They were the Luyas, a Montreal 5-piece headed by singer-guitarist Jessie Stein. They were presumably excited to get a chance to play for a relatively large, captive audience. Stein appeared in a short red dress, black blazer, black knee-high leather boots, and sporting short, curly hair, a kind of female pompadour. She looked great. Musically, her backing band---drums, violin, keyboard, and French horn---impressed. Some of her musicians also play in those other Montreal bands, Arcade Fire and Bell Orchestre. But Stein doesn't sing well. Her breathy, child-like vocals had me cringing. There were spots during a couple songs when instrumental jam-outs caught my ear. Mostly, though, the Luyas' brand of bizarre orchestral pop with sub-par vocals did little for me. I can't imagine an audience there to hear Basia Bulat's wonderous singing and folk-pop rhythms felt much love for them either. At one point Stein implied she'd like us all to rebel by standing on our pews. If she'd performed much longer than her allotted 35 minutes, she might well have had a rebellion on her hands. In a more appropriate context she and her band might have gone over better with me.

But all was soon forgiven. From the first note of Basia Bulat's opening song, the familiar-but-newly-recorded "Heart of My Own," I was back to being excited. In a flattering crinkly brown dress, mauve tights, and calf-high cowboy boots, Bulat exuded warmth and charm. She seems to be great friends with her band-mates, and especially the lovely women who flank her on either side of the stage: Holly Coish (vocals, ukulele) and Allison Stewart (vocals, viola). The band---a 6-piece also including Bobby, Erik Arneson (banjo, guitar), and Bret Higgins (bass)---performed songs off 2007's Oh, My Darling and Heart of My Own. "In the Night" was second, then Bulat performed a couple songs (including "Snakes & Ladders") from the grand piano off stage right. She returned to centre stage for "Once More, For the Dollhouse."

After a moving rendition of "Little Waltz" Bulat's band-members left the stage, and she performed "If Only You" and "Sugar and Spice" on acoustic guitar, then "Sparrow" on the ukulele. Allison, Bret, Erik, and Holly returned to sing backup on "The Shore," featuring the gorgeous and strange hammered harp. (Not to be confused with the autoharp, pictured above, which Bulat also played.) The church was silent, audience members enraptured. The final four songs--- "Pilgriming Vine"; the "fun song," "Go On"; "If It Rains"; and "Walk You Down" were more rousing. Cue standing ovation. The first two encore songs called for audience participation: "Before I Knew" and "I Was A Daughter." The concert ended with a solo vocal performance of a traditional negro spiritual, unmiked. It was sensational. Cue second standing ovation.

Throughout the set Bulat thanked us all for coming, and expressed genuine happiness at being home, playing in this great venue. "A dream come true," she explained. During the encore, out of mic range, she exclaimed "this is so fun!" to her band-mates. They seemed thrilled too. And so was I. This concert was a rare treat. Though, Bulat told us, it had been a particularly bad day for the band prior to the show, her good humour and spirited personality seemingly know no bounds. The strength of her voice, and her and her band's impressive musicianship was awesome. "Hope to see you next time," she said, as always. Yes, you will.

Download: "Gold Rush" (Heart of My Own, 2010).
Download: "Go On" (Heart of My Own, 2010).
Download: "In the Night" (Oh, My Darling, 2007).
Download: "Home" (live at Criminal Records, Toronto, Dec 2007).

Photo credits: Frank Yang. More here.


Wade said...

great reveiw. I can't believe I missed this one.

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