Saturday, May 3
Pas Chic Chic, Elfin Saddle @ Whippersnapper Gallery
An Albatross, Aa at Sneaky Dee’s
With even a small festival that’s as well curated as Eric Warner's Over the Top, some acts are bound to be lost in the shuffle.
Sadly, that was the case for Montreal’s Pas Chic Chic, who played to less than a dozen people in a spacious art gallery where the acoustics did the band no favours. Their 2008 album Au Contraire is a captivating mix of French pop and psychedelics, though how it would come off live was a mystery—especially considering that it’s a band fronted by Roger Tellier-Craig of Fly Pan Am, perhaps the most abrasive and alienating acts to emerge on Montreal’s Constellation Records. I do remember a DJ mix he did for Brave New Waves of French pop oddities, so I knew there was another side of him.
Live, Tellier-Craig turns out to be a completely engaging front man, dancing up a storm, singing directly to the audience and rarely stopping to approach his keyboard. The rest of the band are a visual treat as well, dressed exactly like you would expect for a Montreal rock band—if they were playing on a Radio-Canada after-school dance party TV show in 1972. The muddy acoustics dulled some of their impact, but the band themselves lost the plot during the one jamming interlude near the end of the set. But who can blame them? Try as they did to make the most out of this gig, they can be forgiven for not being inspired to higher flights of fancy. This band needs a bigger stage and a bigger sound; someone please bring them back to Toronto immediately—if they’ll come back.
Opening act Elfin Saddle reside in Montreal, but they very much look like they emerged from a cabin in the woods somewhere on their native Vancouver Island, dragging with them their instrumental detritus: accordions sawed in half, toy drum kits, ukuleles and saws. They sing in two styles: the cracked holler of a mountain man and that of a quirky Japanese girl, reaching improbable harmonies between those two poles. Their instrumental inventiveness drives the live show, especially the way they play off each other rhythmically on makeshift drum kits. They're already scheduled back in Toronto, as part of Pop Montreal's Pop Off show at NXNE: June 14 at the Silver Dollar with Slim Twig and Caroline Keating.
Over at Sneaky Dee’s, a capacity crowd was there to see a new incarnation of Toronto favourites The Creeping Nobodies, as well as the all-out assault of headliners An Albatross. I missed the Nobodies, but had to suffer through Aa (pronounced “big A little A”) who weren’t much more imaginative than their name. With three drummers and electronics, they promised a huge, punishing sound and delivered—but didn’t do anything with it, rhythmically or otherwise. If you’ve always wanted to hear Henry Rollins front a drum circle, this is your band.
An Albatross, on the other hand, deliver a manic rock’n’roll show to end all manic rock’n’roll shows. Like Fantomas sent back to the garage, their spastic speed metal contorts itself relentlessly but miraculously always ends up back on its feet—as does singer Ed Gieda, who looks like a Robert Crumb drawing of a young Steven Tyler. I seem to remember some more dynamics in their set when I last saw them in NYC about three years ago, but no one should ever go to An Albatross show expecting subtlety. Their debut album title said it all: Eat Lightning, Shit Thunder.
Just before they took the stage, a couple in their late 50s entered Sneaky Dee’s, meaning that I was instantly no longer the oldest person in the room. I assumed they were merely curious barhoppers, and so I expected them to leave once An Albatross began. Surprisingly, they didn’t. Even more surprisingly, they made their way to the front, where I recognized the lady as one of my favourite artists of all time: Mary Margaret O’Hara. Her date was snapping pics of the band through their whole set, including when Gieda climbed on top of the window ledge next to O’Hara, lay down and started grinding the bar shelf, much to her delight and amusement. O’Hara is an enigmatic figure in this town, but certainly not a recluse; nevertheless, this was the last gig where I’d expect to see her. A Mike Patton project, maybe, but perhaps the legend of An Albatross is spreading beyond the abrasive art-punk-prog scene.
Tuesday, May 13
Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares @ St. Andrew's Church
It was only two years ago that Eastern European music was the Unexpected International Influence surfacing in various incarnations: the "gypsy punk" of Gogol Bordello; the romantic brass of Beirut; Geoff Berner's exploration of the political and social roots of Roma and klezmer music; the dancefloor recontextualization of Shantel and the Electric Gypsyland compilations; the cultural mash-up of Balkan Beat Box; and on a smaller scale, greater awareness of groups like Kocani Orkestar and Taraf de Haidouks.
And yet for all the excitement of the new school, it's worth remembering one of the first sensations to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain back in the 80s: Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares, aka The Bulgarian State Female Radio and Television Choir (several of those adjectives were dropped gradually during the group's 50-year existence). Their haunting harmonics are a strange amalgam of Roma, Arabic, Turkish and Hebrew, and utterly alien to much of what we associate with choral music—most of which I would never consider going to see in performance, unless my own flesh and blood was involved (which, for the record, he is—my brother's ensemble backed up Kenny Rogers once, true story).
But Les Voix Bulgares are something else entirely, which is why they've survived the fickle flavour-of-the-month approach to trends in world music—this Toronto performance was near-capacity, filled with enthusiastic fans of all ages. And their sound is such a singular, unique and technically accomplished entity that they're unlikely to be assimilated into some basement indie rocker's exotic sonic daydreaming. Balkan Beat Box's track "Bulgarian Chicks" is the lone exception; but hearing two or three Bulgarian voices doesn't compare to the rich experience of hearing the full choir.
While witnessing the glory of their live sound, I remembered enough from my university theory courses to know that part of the choir's appeal lies in their use of harmonic seconds and ninths, but a bit of basic research told me that there are also a lot of parallel fourths and fifths—two things which are absolutely taboo in formal Western European theory. (They're also part of the reason I failed Tonal Harmony at a formative time when I was discovering Sonic Youth and Thelonious Monk, two artists who changed any notions of harmony—conscious or subconscious—that I may have had up to that point.) Being absorbed in the magical dissonance of the Voix Bulgares makes it downright shocking when at one point they constructed a traditional triad, Twist-and-Shout style, throwing everyone for a loop and reminding us what we think choral music should sound like—and how boring it is in comparison.
Even more fascinating is the rhythmic complexity. You can't splice this stuff easily into a remix, because there never appears to be a consistent meter no matter how many times you count to 5, 7, 11, or 13. That makes the role of classy conductor Dora Hristova even more impressive, when she's ensuring that five or six seemingly incongruous rhythmic patterns interlock and end up on the same page.
This is all egghead talk compared to the visceral pleasures of the Voix—not just the beautifully sonorous shapes of their harmonies, but the way they incorporate yelps, ticks and chatter into the pieces (which is not uncommon in much Eastern European vocal music, as Iva Bittova fans will tell you). And then there's their physical presence: the first set featured their traditional dress; the second more modern formal gowns. Each set also featured a variety of featured soloists, duos, quartets and sextets—including the surprise appearance of two token dudes—giving the set more range than initially expected.
Still mysterious after all these years, the Voix Bulgares are still a unique and powerful live experience. Their current North American tour dates can be found here, including two dates in Vancouver and one each in Edmonton and Nanaimo.
The presenters of the event, Small World Music, always have a variety of worth events going on in Toronto. Their next event is Japan's Yoshida Brothers on May 25; the Costa Rican/Iranian guitar duo Strunz and Farah are on June 1; both events are at Harbourfront's Enwave Theatre. Small World also has two high-profile Iranian acts coming up: singer Shajarian and the Ava Ensemble at Roy Thomson Hall on June 6, and Zarbang, a Persian Qawwali percussion ensemble, at the Ontario Science Centre on June 1.
And on the Eastern European tip, David Buchbinder presents his Odessa/Havana project at the Lula Lounge on June 11.