CMW: Jordan Klassen, HIGHS, Lisa LeBlanc, Sexy Merlin

by Michael Thomas

‘Twas the Friday night of CMW, and the musical gems were scattered about the city. In this spirit, I moved from venue to venue for a truly incongruous but pleasing night.

Jordan Klassen
Jordan Klassen

The action began at the Horseshoe Tavern, for one of the two times Jordan Klassen would play Toronto on Friday night. Klassen’s music is often described as folk music, but his work is played with such passion that it almost needs a new genre name. The set began with “Call and Answer,” and Klassen wasted precisely zero seconds darting around the stage strumming a guitar. It took probably less than five minutes for skeptical onlookers to get closer to the stage and watch him go at it, as he switched between acoustic guitar, electric guitar, ukulele and keyoards.

Klassen again brought Jocelyn Price on keys and vocals and Simon Bridgefoot on drums, with a new bass player (apologies for not catching the name). Klassen and Price have stellar chemistry on stage, like during “The Horses are Stuck” when Klassen turned his head towards Price and made it look like he was serenading her. Equally impressive as the chemistry Klassen’s backing band had was the way a limited array of instruments produced such full sound. Horn sounds and string sounds were approximated with vocals, giving new meaning to each song. The back-to-back “Go to Me” and “The Horses Are Stuck” provided a wonderful peak.


Later, it was over to Sneaky Dee’s to once again witness the unbeatable HIGHS. Their African-influenced pop music is always easy to get stuck in your head and easier to adore. The vocal combination of Joel Harrower, Karrie Douglas and Doug Haynes is beautiful enough, but what they do with their instruments is its own thing of beauty. Starting off the set with their self-titled EP’s “Cannibal Coast,” Haynes smashed on a drum for an explosive start.

The set covered all five EP songs, the last of those songs of course being the near-perfect “Summer Dress.” In addition, the band played “Still and Still,” the Paul-Simon-esque “Mango” and ended off with an unrecognizable “Gold,” which Haynes told me after their set had been reworked quite a lot. This new “Gold” is perhaps their most powerful song to date, culminating in multiple beatings of drums and a solo intro from Douglas.

Lisa LeBlanc
Lisa LeBlanc

Following them was Lisa Leblanc, who appears to be wildly popular in her home of New Brunswick and abroad. It appeared the enthusiasm traveled with her, as the crowd eagerly awaited her, chanting “Lisa!” three times before, during and after her set. Her CMW profile and picture make her look pristine, but LeBlanc likes to call herself “folk-trash” and even that fails to adequately describe what went down at Sneaky Dee’s when she began maniacally strumming her guitar with her two-man backing band.

She may call her songs folk, but she attacks them with the ferocity of a punk musician. Some of her songs showed a clear blues influence, while others leaned toward roots-rock, and she switched between English songs and French songs as she went along. Never has a banjo sounded so close to a guitar, and her floor-shaking set (seriously, Sneaky Dee’s, invest in some floorboards that don’t bounce people) was truly a sight to behold.

Sexy Merlin
Sexy Merlin

Finally, it was over to the Silver Dollar for Sexy Merlin, act number six on a mammoth bill presented by Silent Shout that also featured We Are Wolves, Operators, Pat Jordache and more. Having cleared out quite a bit after the much-hyped set by Operators, only those truly willing to dance stuck around, and holy hell did they dance. At first, people didn’t seem to realize that the house music had ended and that Sexy Merlin had started, but once they realized what was happening, everyone was fully on board.

Sexy Merlin worked with a bunch of electronic boards and several different drums, creating complex, but not obtuse, structures. His control over his instruments was sheer mastery, at one point drumming on a drum pad and producing bird noises, because why not. Some heavily delayed vocals only added to the psychedelic element of his music. With few breaks, the audience was in an all-out frenzy.

Had I the stamina, I would have stuck around for the final two acts of the night, New Zebra Kid and Zoo Owl, who would have no doubt kept the party going. But the night was still great, with only one more to go.

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