Monday, February 08, 2010

Review: Martha & the Muffins (reunion), Wilderness of Manitoba @ The Music Gallery.

Being a bit too young and certainly far out of the loop on such things, I'd never heard of Martha & the Muffins before this year. The Toronto new wave/pop-rock band formed in 1977, and never completely went away, though things had petered out in the early 1990s. Now, 18 years after their last release, original members Martha Johnson and Mark Gane are back with a new album, Delicate. On the weekend they, with help from Evelyne Datl, Brian Kobayakawa, and Hill Kourkoutis, put on two reunion shows at the Music Gallery, the daytime church turned nighttime concert venue. I went to the Friday show.

In the opening slot was the local vocal-heavy folk group The Wilderness of Manitoba, performing sans drummer. They were riveting. I'm a big fan of the band, and knew the church setting would have to work in their favour, but this was really something. The scene and appropriate sound system ensured there were no muddy vocals, annoying chatter, feedback, or the sound of breaking glass. Instead the band's harmonies were crystal-clear, and all the more impressive for it. The short, seven-song set included "Bluebirds," "Great Hall," "Evening," and "Dreamcatchers" from their 2009 Hymns of Love and Spirits EP, not-yet released St. Petersburg and the Fleet Foxes-esque Orono Park, and ended with a moving, beautiful cover of the great Crosby, Stills & Nash song "Helplessly Hoping," originally released in 1969. I suspect very few audience members had ever heard of the WOM, but my sense is that the foursome won new fans with both their music and their easy manner. What a treat. I don't think it a stretch to say that they've perhaps never sounded better.

The darkened church, already full, was peopled by audience members a good chunk of years older than me: couples, small groups of friends, and other people remembering their going-out years, all excited about seeing Martha & the Muffins. The band got started just after 9pm with "Black Stations/White Stations" from 1984's Mystery Walk---a "good year," explained Martha. Although the band's configuration didn't allow them to rock out (no drums, for one), their funky bass lines and guitar rhythms came through nicely in these "interpretive versions." Next up were a couple songs off their new album, "Drive" and "One In A Million." Martha struck me as a bit stiff, but not doubt that's due to her on-going battle with Parkinson's disease. She looked great, and nowhere near her true age, in black leggings, leather booties, a patterned mini-skirt, and black top. Martha sat down during "Swimming" (This is the Ice Age, 1981), sung by her husband, Mark, himself looking much younger than his years. "Danseparc (Every Day It's Tomorrow)" (Danseparc, 1983) was next. Martha attempted to solo on a small plastic saxophone, but the instrument made no sound come the appropriate time. (Later on during the show she had trouble with another instrument.) No matter, really. By now it was apparent to me that this show wasn't really about the music but about a celebration of music once-loved and fondly remembered, and the two people who were such an important part of Canadian music in the 1980s.

Reaching back to 1981, "One Day In Paris" was performed next, then the new "Life's Too Short To Long For Something Else," featuring Evelyne on grand piano. After the next tune, Mystery Walk's "Cooling the Medium," Martha told us she was pleased with how things were going. I can only imagine that the audience members felt the same. And newer songs like Delicate's "Crosswalk," up next, didn't feel out of place. After another oldie we got---finally, 11 songs in---"Echo Beach." This is the band's biggest hit, and received the most excited reaction from the crowd. (Subdued and quiet, the audience members were not shy about wooping when they heard the first notes to their favourite songs.) Up to now I'd been enjoying the show, but not so much because of what I was hearing. The last handful of songs impressed me, though, and I started to really get into things. Talk about a long-defunct, tiny venue called the Mud Club helped give me some context to the band, and it was nice to hear a story from their performing days.

The set ended with "Even In The Rain"---a lovely tune off the new record, "Mess," also new, and a satisfying, rousing rendition of the band's 1981 hit, "Women Around The World At Work." After a standing ovation which seemed more appropriate than most, we got an as-yet unrecorded duo between Martha and Mark titled "Remembrance Day," and one final song from Delicate. Well, that was fun!

Although the show was more "cute," "neat," and "nostalgia trip" than anything else, the band clearly put effort into arranging their older songs for this weekend's drummer-less lineup. And they were celebrating a new record, and performed many tracks off it. Toward the end I warmed up to what I was hearing, and now---after having listened to many of the original recordings so I could write this review---I find myself rather a fan.

* You can listen to some of the songs mentioned here at the band's CBC Radio 3 page.

[Photo credit: Martha and Mark, photographed by their daughter, Eve Gane.]

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