by Chris Matei
Last night’s set at the Vogue Theatre certainly proved that Hey Rosetta! lead man Tim Baker has the kind of boyish charm, matched to a set of broadly emotive vocal chops, that makes people shout loudly from the crowd about wanting to have his future babies. He and his band kept the bulk of the audience in the palm of their hand, singing along to practically every word, in their role as the opening act on a two-night bill shared with the esteemed Montreal indie veterans, Stars.
With grand, uplifting lyrics that would fit just perfectly if doodled in a college-ruled notebook (sighing: “I wish I could just let my red heart show, too! They understand!” – as heard on Into Your Lungs’ “Red Heart” ) and a fondness for the kind of variegated band structure (horns, violin, cello, keys, lots and lots of percussion) adopted by many a band in the post-Arcade Fire world, Hey Rosetta! nonetheless stand head and shoulders above the mush-mouthed, whoa-oh-ohing Mumfords and all their legion of bastard banjo-wielding indie Sons. They have honed this talent for many years now (since their formation in 2005) leading up to the release of their newest record, Second Sight.
The band cuts through the typical indie-folk, largely with the dynamic strength of their collective musicianship and a marked refusal to take themselves too seriously. Baker and his cohorts (Adam Hogan, Phil Maloney, Josh Ward, Kinley Dowling, Romesh Thavanathan, and Mara Pellerin) are very good at making textured arrangements that simmer and bubble into ecstatic, jammy bursts of riotous volume and colour without sounding forced. They can hit home-run-sized swells of emotion like a smilingly polite, super-posi-vibe, Atlantic Canadian version of Mogwai: one that you can’t help but want to take home to Mom.
Stars, on the other hand, are older and wiser, physically and musically. They’re cynical and worldly in ways that could make Hey Rosetta!’s bright-eyed exclamation point want to go home and curl itself into a question mark on the couch. Torquil Campbell, Amy Millan, Evan Cranley, Pat McGee and Chris Seligman have been making music together for fifteen years now, and their band has evolved dramatically along the way: cool, ironic detachment has segued into the blissful rush of first meetings, those meetings flourished into real bonds, those bonds have been tested and broken, and we’ve been left to sort out the lingering phantoms of what once was, all over the course of the band’s work from Nightsongs to The Five Ghosts.
On their more recent records, Stars have taken up work as the gatekeepers of a kind of alternate universe discotheque, built for all those misfit souls to dance and drink away their miseries, to celebrate and occasionally get overwhelmed by it all and smash their Goddamn glasses. 2014’s No One Is Lost feels like the apex of a notable shift in their sound, from wistful, heartfelt chamber pop to slick dance anthems that spit glitter in the face of fate. Aside from the performance of a few choice cuts from their Arts & Crafts-era records, this more current, neon-coloured vibe took centre stage to energize the Vogue. As the latter album’s title track demands, “put your hands up, ‘cause everybody dies” – and on this night the crowd were more than happy to oblige.
The heart of the band’s live show has always been the ever-changing onstage personality that develops between Campbell and Millan: him vibrating with intensity, doing laps of the stage and shouting (sometimes stoked with with rage, other times with giddy zeal), her balancing deftly between grace and glam only to bust out her guitar and transform into something of a rock goddess a few bars down the line. It’s a pleasure to watch them both – not to mention Seligman’s joyous percussive abandon or Cranley’s penchant for surprisingly athletic leaps.
I could not think of two more compelling Canadian bands to share a stage such as this one. Both have worked hard to stand out in the increasingly murky harbour that is “indie music,” whether that means refining their sound or morphing it into something entirely new.