Tuesday, February 16, 2010
When a 10-year institution throws an anniversary party with reunions and reflections galore, it can easily be accused of nostalgia.
But at Wavelength 500—the five-day festival marking the end of the Toronto weekly music series that, it has been argued, changed the way the city’s music scene saw itself—there was no looking back, especially when the MC of the party was constantly—and I do mean constantly—hectoring the audience to be a part of the future, and demanding that they all go home and start bands.
Carl Wilson wrote in the Globe and Mail last Friday that Wavelength had become “a solution without a problem.” The problem in 2000 was a serious inertia in the Toronto music scene, a time when rock’n’roll was dead as a genre, the music industry was starting to collapse, and no one even seemed that interested in live music of any kind anymore. Cut to 2010, and one finds that Toronto is constantly opening new venues, not shuttering them, and there’s no shortage of live audiences for every possible genre. And furthermore, even our fringe artists—like the incredibly prolific doomcore guitarist Aidan Baker of Nadja—get international acclaim, long ago freed from the albatross of attempting to crack some pre-conceived notion of what Canadian culture was or should be.
And so the challenge of carefully curating three bands every Sunday night became a burden for the four men who were in charge of Wavelength in its final years, and they decided to retire that aspect of the project and focus on larger events. And what better way to kick off a retirement party, than with a five-night-five-venue-five-bands-a-night extravaganza?
I was lucky enough to be at every show, though I can’t claim to have seen every act that played. While I saw amazing sets by Bruce Peninsula, Diamond Rings, Professor Fingers, Holy Fuck, the Bicycles, the Constantines and more, it was the final night, the Sunday at the Garrison, that answered the eternal question: What Does It All Mean?
Having missed the first act, Boars, the evening then began with two bands that played the first Wavelength ever in February 2000: Neck and Mean Red Spiders. I’d never heard the former; I remember only that I was never impressed with the latter. Though both are obviously beloved by the Wavelength crew—and Jonny Dovercourt played bass in Neck—it became obvious to me that both bands were part of the problem of Toronto in the late ’90s, and what Wavelength’s children eventually sought out to destroy: music that was non-descript, no fun and missing soul. (To be fair, I also loathe the act each is compared to respectively: Mission of Burma and My Bloody Valentine.) Both bands were interminable. Both were merely “there,” not so terrible that I felt I had to leave the room. If they had made me angry, I would have respected them more.
(If such criticism sounds harsh and antithetical to the whole point of Wavelength, I’ll admit that it is. And in the interest of fairness, two other bands that drove me crazy were the rapturously received reunions of From Fiction and Rockets Red Glare, even though I have maximum respect for individual musicians in each of those bands.)
Ultimately, it was the contrast with what followed on the rest of this closing night that illuminated the changes that had happened in Toronto during Wavelength’s reign.
Barcelona Pavilion predated the short-lived tempest-in-a-teapot scene controversy known as the “Bad Bands Revolution” of 2006, though they surely inspired much of it. As they insisted on the short, sharp call for a “New Materiology,” “NEEDS MUST DICTATE FORM.” Singing and screaming about semiotics in German and English over primitive programming and two bass guitars, they dared to ask the one question that plagued Toronto, aka what hip-hop heads call the “screwface capital”: “How Are You People Going To Have Fun If None Of You People Ever Participate?”
Steve Kado and Maggie MacDonald were Hidden Cameras who were itching to unleash their supersized personalities outside the confines of the Cameras’ one-man operation, hence spawning Barcelona Pavilion. Kat Gligorijevic was a fan swept in the new spirit of Toronto at the turn of the decade. Ben Stimpson was recruited because Kado thought it would be funny to have his friend attach a laptop to a strap (like a strolling ballpark food vendor) and stand on stage and do nothing. Gligorijevic and Stimpson were stoic and nerdy cute; MacDonald and Kado were white hot and combustible, hilarious loudmouths and strong personalities who eventually had a (perhaps inevitably) bitter falling-out. All of them embraced immediacy and amateurism, although in Kado’s case it’s entirely deceptive: for all his railing against “men who practice,” he’s an intuitively gifted musician, and his melodic bass playing is a big reason why Barcelona Pavilion works in the first place.
Their whole ethos is equivalent to one of MC Doc Pickles’ many rants this past week: don’t think, DO. “How is your hangover? How are your bedsores?” taunts Kado on “Participate” (to which he coyly added, in a fit of self-consciousness about staging “dinosaur act” reunion shows, “How is your gray hair? How is your mortgage?”). You know that something like the Barcelona Pavilion can only be born of frustration, of dissecting a dominant situation and deciding that anything has to be better than the bill of goods we’re being sold.
And most importantly: the music of Barcelona Pavilion makes you feel alive, like life is waiting to be discovered, like wallowing in self-pity is self-inflicted cultural genocide, like what’s happening right now is the most important time in your life.
That latter point makes a reunion show a bit of an odd notion, and there were more than a few on-stage jabs at over-glorifying the mid-decade movement of Torontopia, which was most closely associated with Kado’s pontificating at the time. No matter. That time produced a sense of possibility that still exists today, even if some of its originators have moved on.
Barcelona Pavilion was followed by Kids on TV, who haven’t changed much at all in the past six years. Why would they? They’ve improved—as hopefully anyone would—but, like Barcelona Pavilion, how “good” or “bad” they are is entirely beside the point. There is pain, pleasure and politics mixed in with the party, and the spectacle is the thing.
The night was originally supposed to end there, but Owen Pallett was added to the bill at the last minute, along with one half of his current live line-up, a man known only as Thomas. Thomas and his band are hard to describe, and even harder to appreciate on first exposure—which this was, for many people there. Right up to its closing hours of its final Sunday, Wavelength was still introducing new talent.
Many performers have graduated from Wavelength to go on to great things, but Owen Pallett’s solo project—originally known as Final Fantasy—is perhaps the least likely. When he debuted it at Wavelength in 2004, Final Fantasy was one of about a half-dozen projects Pallett had on the go. And a solo violin looping project seemed the least likely of them to turn into a viable project—except that Pallett’s combination of his virtuosity and a balancing act between classical, pop and avant-garde moves made it a “winning formula.” That’s the kind of phrase that most Wavelengthers would recoil from, but there are precious few who begrudge Pallett his success. His homecoming here was beautiful and brief, a confident display of how what was once a daring and bold move has become everyday excellence—a perfect metaphor for Wavelength itself.
It didn’t end there. After what Doc Pickles called a “Saturday Night Live” moment, with all the organizers past and present on stage in a group hug, the Hidden Cameras took the stage. Ah yes, but which Hidden Cameras? Seemingly half of Toronto’s music scene has been in the band at one point or another, with bandleader Joel Gibb the lone consistent member. This one-song set, however, was a reunion of much of the original line-up, which included Steve Kado, Owen Pallett, Maggie MacDonald, Mathias Rozenberg, Magali Meagher, Gentleman Reg, and Dave Meslin, joined by Lex Vaughn, Thomas, and Kevin Drew.
The Hidden Cameras’ “I Believe in the Good of Life” is a Wavelengthian, Torontopian anthem if there ever was one—the “Rockin’ in the Free World,” if you will, of this generation’s time and place. It was preceded, as it would have been in 2002, by Dave Meslin making a brief plug for his latest civic engagement initiative. And it ended, as it would have in 2002, with dozens of people hauled on the stage to join the party— participatory democracy in action, if you will.
After the final chord and the final hugs, Doc Pickles was still on stage at 3 a.m. on this Sunday night, telling us that culture is not what Ben Mulroney and Jian Ghomeshi and Rogers Media tells us it is, that we are the culture, that we have to go home and make art, that life’s what you make it. The legacy that Wavelength helped create should never be taken for granted, never be lulled into complacency.
The only time you should rest on your laurels is if they’re lining your coffin.