Canada has produced some awesome indie artists over the past several years. Bands such as Arcade Fire, Grimes, El-P and a host of others can attest to that having taken over US music festivals in 2012 like Bonnaroo and the recent Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago. The Montreal music scene has served as the focal point (along with Vancouver and Toronto) of this attack of musical kanuks with more swagger than the Canadian Mounted Police. With that in mind, I crossed over the Pont Jacques Cartier (love saying that with a French accent) into THE cultural capital of the far north to see a couple of intriguing Canadian artists Cold Specks and Snowblink. The scene was the cramped but friendly little venue in Montreal’s Portuguese quarter Divan Orange, providing the perfect setting and crowd for this incredible, intimate, and emotional show.
The evening began with a paired down version of the Toronto-based band Snowblink. In the past, Snowblink has consisted of mainstays Daniela Gesundheit and Dan Goldman, in addition to various other singers and instrumentalists to fill out its unusual folk/surf rock sound. This evening Gesundheit decided to go minimalist, a decision certainly not inappropriate due to the size of the venue, by including only herself and co-guitarist and singer Goldman, with a couple of guest performers who spontaneously emerged from the crowd upon request to accompany the pair with synths and vocals. Gesundheit, armed with her trademark antler-mounted guitar, played a few of the highlights from Snowblink’s 2011 album Long Live, as well as a couple from their forthcoming disc (due in September) and a lights-out cover of the Bruce Springsteen tune “State Trooper” (a twangy, surfer-sounding highlight of this interesting set). Although I would have loved to see Snowblink with accompanying drums and bass (to interject some necessary percussion, Gesundheit even handed out hand bells to the audience to jingle-jangle during the set’s final number, “Ambergris”), Gesundheit’s tremendous vocals went far to make up for it – during most songs her voice hit the high ranges only to be brought down to join and harmonize with Goldman’s. Albeit minimalist, Snowblink contributed a nice performance to the evening and a filling appetizer for the headlining main course.
Cold Specks, aka Al Spx and her band, was intent on providing the French Canadian crowd as robust a sound as they could muster with their six member ensemble on the tiny stage at Divan Orange. As incredible as the full band sound was (I particularly loved the contributions of Chris Cundy’s saxophone and Tom Havelock’s cello), it was Spx’s emotionally wrought vocals which reigned on this evening. I have listened to Cold Specks’ remarkable new album I Predict a Graceful Expulsion several times, but that experience in no way prepared me for Spx’s striking performance. Cold Specks’ musical concept has been identified with various markers such as “indie goth” or “doom soul” – regardless of these odd tags, their live set evokes a scene of last year’s scruffy, mountain men folk rock darlings Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver playing on a front porch somewhere in the Mississippi Delta with Mahalia Jackson replacing Justin Vernon and Robin Pecknold on lead vocals.
I loved the intimacy and powerful performance of this band and their singer from the moment they took the stage – the intensity of the set was tempered with Spx’s cute banter featuring lame jokes and the down home back-and-forth sway she employs while singing. Although Spx is a very young woman (and looks it), her commanding voice and physical manner and dress made me feel as if I had been taken under the wing by an aged and wizened rocking chair philosopher.
Spx concluded the performance with an emotional tour-de-force during the final two numbers. Having run to the end of the immensely satisfying thirteen song set (playing nearly every song from the new LP and a couple of covers including a tongue-and-cheek rendition of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air title song), Spx performed “Lay Me Down” for what she thought would be the last song and brought this otherwise noisy bar to a standstill by singing away from the microphone to hit the high notes and avoid the abrupt explosion of martini glasses (between Spx’s vocal pauses on this song you could hear nothing but the whine of taxis zooming along St. Laurent Boulevard). After this stunning moment, Spx and her band departed thinking they had finished the set and having no intention of returning. However, the sustained howl of the audience and its refusal to leave forced Spx to climb back on stage for an encore humbly remarking that she didn’t know why she was back since the band was all tapped out of songs. She managed to requite the crowd’s love though by working through a song she said she recently wrote accompanied only by her guitar.
I try not to gush about concerts I see, but when all is said and done in 2012, this powerful little show in old Montreal will probably stand out as the year’s best.
Check out this sweet performance of “Winter Solstice”