By Jack Derricourt
I’m sitting down at the press bar on Friday night when I finally clue in: I’m in Massey Hall. Having lived the majority of my Canadian life in Victoria, BC, I’d dreamed of this day a long time. That bastion of performance and live recordings (you know the one I mean) — the place spoken of in the same breath as the London Palladium and Carnegie Hall. It seems I’m not the only one who feels this reverence: girls in beehives and leather jackets took pictures in the White Stripes colour-coded stairways; music journalists clustered on the balconies with looks of insane glee on their faces; and, as Brad Barr of the Barr Brothers would state later in the evening, “I’m very happy to be playing Massey Hall. That goes without saying.”
Ryley Walker started the evening with a deathly quiet but moving set. The whole scene felt appropriately churchy — the lights were low, the vocals sung so softly they risked being drowned out by the AC, the seats were sparsely filled, and the two men on stage were wrapped in their strings with deep concentration. They seemed very happy to open the evening up, and the crowd showed their appreciation for the gorgeous folk with resounding applause. There was also a last minute request for Slayer covers, and Mr. Walker promised the good people watching he had every intention of playing Reign In Blood in full — he just ran out of time.
The Barr Brothers fit the middle of the bill. Covering the stage with a whole studio’s collection of instruments, the band played a mix of different styles (within the broader umbrella of alt-country-blues). Mandatory admission: I don’t have the deepest attachment to the genre, and I really don’t enjoy the often blasé platitudes that are offered up as lyric material by many songwriters in this style of music. I will say two things for the Barrs: harp player Sarah Page mixes classical and contemporary techniques to create overwhelmingly beautiful effects that had me crying out for more; and the band’s deep connection to blues rhythms had me hankering for my Hound Dog Taylor recordings.
I had waited patiently for months for the next act. The Twitterverse was crammed full of snarky music buffs like yours truly, announcing the gravity of the moment. Rightly so: the next act was debatably one of the most soulful, captivating rock groups of the last fifty years. Spiritualized came on stage at ten o’clock. After the regular sound issues had been taken care of, the band kicked into high gear. Gospel and noise joined forces to blare out through the columns of Massey, the band doling out the soul food with a side of slide guitar worthy of David Gilmour. J Spaceman and his backup singers tore into “Lord, Let It Rain On Me,” won the entire crowd over with a moving rendition of “Come Together,” and stormed through an all-too-brief set. These guys know how to leave audiences craving more.
With only a slight intermission at Fran’s Diner across the street, and then a nightcap at Cameron House while I watched a local musician play a dual penny whistle solo through his nose during a cover of “I Put a Spell On You,” I headed to Wrongbar to end the evening with Toronto’s own Ark Analog. The bar was empty apart from a few hardened dance heroes. Maylee Todd and Dan Werb worked it like they always do, with masterful electronic manipulation and an assortment of technological twerking. The material off the Dirty Power EP stirred the 2am crowd, and the festival’s westernmost venue jumped and jived against all the late night odds. The truly impressive thing is that the two performers had woken up at five the same day to record for the CBC. Hardest working spandex-wearing band in Toronto? I think so!