Tag Archives: Dylan Lai

Concert Review: Bat Fangs, Hop Along @ le Belmont

From the band’s very first address to the audience, it was clear the Hop Along show at the Belmont last Saturday would be a relaxed evening with hearts warmed by great music and charming and humorous band members. Throughout the evening, banter between spectators and band would blur the lines between the two for an intimate show appropriate of the Belmont’s shoebox performance space.

Before this, Washington, D.C.-based Bat Fangs warmed up the stage, announcing their provenance via the bassist’s Capitals tee and a brief introduction from singer/guitarist Betsy Wright. Wright and drummer Laura King formed the band after bouncing around a few other groups, and their experience oozed out of their ripping guitar riffs and flourishing tom hits. As if their stage presence didn’t scream of enough rock n’ roll cool, they introduced the song “Bad Astrology” by yelling out, “was anyone here just born bad?” It took a moment for the audience to respond, probably because they first assumed it was a rhetorical question meant for the band members themselves. The answer was a clear “yes.”

Hop Along took advantage of the sizzle left by Bat Fangs’ riot grrrl torch and immediately launched into the lead single, “How Simple,” off their album released earlier this year, Bark Your Head Off, Dog. Onlookers lining the front of the stage and pockets of them throughout the venue bounced and hooted along to the contagious melody of the refrain, reflecting the more optimistic half of the lyrics, “Don’t worry we will both find out/ Just not together.” The set that followed would include most of the 9 songs from the short-but-sweet track-list. Origin-indicating shirts seemed to be a motif of the night, with a member wearing a Modern Baseball shirt, this time referencing a fellow band from Philly.

Front-woman Frances Quinlan broke the ice by thanking the crowd for coming out on their “only Saturday of the week,” adding that, “it’s just bazonkers.” Over the chuckling crowd-members, she ironically added, “yeah, I’m a wordsmith.” Though meant in jest, one of the band’s greatest strengths is Quinlan’s songwriting. She excels in stringing together monologues that put the listener in the shoes of characters imagined, observed, or of her own in ways that are still deeply relatable even through layers of idiosyncratic imagery.

The band then took a brief detour through their past discography with “Kids On The Boardwalk” from 2012’s Get Disowned and “Texas Funeral” from 2015’s Painted Shut. By the time the irresistible rhythm guitar of newer song “Somewhere A Judge” rung out, anyone in attendance not previously unabashedly crying out memorized lyrics would have understood their excitement. Indeed, successfully singing along with Quinlan and coming at all close to replicating the often unexpected turns in melody and her many vocal inflections should definitely be considered a feat. Quinlan’s voice has the ability to take on as many identities as the diverse assortment of those described in her lyrical narratives, from understated whisper to disinhibited howl and somehow, in combination of both, a throaty yelp full of simultaneous force and restraint.

“What’s the Montreal version of a Waffle House?,” Quinlan asked, foreshadowing the next song, “I Saw My Twin,” about Quinlan spotting her doppelgänger in a West Virginia location of the restaurant chain (the crowd’s decided equivalent: “La Belle Province”). Afterwards, Mark Quinlan, the band’s drummer and Frances’ brother, lightened the topic of lives that could have been and the thin veil of celebrity by joking, “just about 420 songs left.” In response, a member of an enthusiastic group in the crowd that had previously screamed out an open invitation to their address after the show, yelled in ecstatic recognition, “the weed number!” The tone of the show became serious yet again as Frances started off “Look of Love” as she does in the recording, with just her voice and her acoustic guitar. Lyrics containing the album’s title wove a story about a guilt-ridden childhood experience in which her wish that a disliked neighborhood dog would stop barking at her is fulfilled by a car accident. Though Quinlan had warned the audience of melancholy subject matter just prior, the song ended in an uplifting reflection on the beauty in life after death upon returning the dog’s grave and seeing birds feeding on the garden over it.

The thematic intensity continued, this time taking a turn for the biblical with “What the Writer Meant” and “Not Abel.” Hop Along’s latest work differs from their previous efforts with the addition of strings either bowed or plucked in the background of most of the album, including these songs. Understandably, this feature was not translated to their tour, but the absence of the arrangements was barely noticeable with Quinlan’s poignant lyricisms and the band’s camaraderie that both made their playing seamless and the audience feeling like a part of the family.

With this atmosphere in mind, I almost expected Hop Along to make light of the traditional encore formalities and perhaps continue straight into the end of their set after a wisecrack about not leaving the stage. Though in the end they went through the motions, they promised to return as soon as possible after treating fans to old favorites “Well-Dressed,” “The Knock,” and “Tibetan Pop Stars.” I have no doubt they’ll have an even greater troupe of loyal music lovers waiting when that happens.

~review by Dylan Lai

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Concert Review: The Marias @ L’Astral

It isn’t often that an opening act warrants attention apart from who they are supporting, but this was certainly the case when The Marías took the stage before Albert Hammond Jr. this past Monday, April 2nd. Nostalgia is one of the immediate reactions to the band’s music and image: the cover photo for their debut EP Superclean, Vol. I is front-woman María’s legs, highlighted by flash as they rest upon red velvet-upholstered theatre seats faded with the dim haze of Hollywood’s golden years. Their music draws from old-school funk, soul and psychedelia, but instead of wallowing in all this 60’s/70’s reminiscence as they easily could, the group coats their tunes in a distinctly modern sheen with María’s sometimes-Spanish lyrics and drummer Josh Conway’s sleek production.

Lead vocalist María does indeed have a last name, but leaves it offstage as many icons have before her. Any aloofness this move might imply, however, was immediately eliminated by her humble stage presence and an outfit that could have been as much her everyday style as performance-ready getup. Matching the colours of the EP album artwork, the flowing white fabric of satin palazzo pants breezily followed María’s rhythmic swaying, paired with a matching bandeau concealed by a scarlet matador-inspired jacket. The rest of the band loosely coordinated their outfits to match this palette, with tones of red, black, and white tying up their aesthetic into one clean, focused package.

The pulsing beat of “I Like It,” the first song of the set, helped introduced the crowd to the band’s polished sound. María traded and shared vocals with Conway, their soothing croons blending for an effect reminiscent of a Serge Gainsbourg duet. After this warm-up, María’s vocals came into focus, bringing in the chilled-out groove of “Only in My Dreams.” The synchronized strums of (Canadian-born) Josh Conway’s bass foundation and Jesse Perlman’s glossy guitar overcoat combined to access the space between wakefulness and dreaming, a strange balance which could be the band’s brand.

The synth squiggles in the background of “Superclean,” contributed by Edward James, were followed by an affectionate version of J-Lo’s “Cariño” and an unreleased song: “Ruthless.” The second of these was accompanied by a surprise appearance from Busty & the Bass trumpeter Scott Bevins, who added a crowd-pleasing jazzy texture that would return later during “Basta Ya.” Before his reappearance, the band kept up the brass-fueled energy by playing personal favourite “I Don’t Know You.” Conway propelled the tune forward with a funky bass-line tempered by straightforward chords from Perlman to again achieve the group’s soporific-yet-snappy signature. Before their closing song, The Marías paid tribute to their influences with another cover, this time of Teena Marie’s “Lovergirl,” keeping all the soul of the original while replacing some of its 80’s glare with their own sound.

After kindly giving Albert Hammond Jr. a second shoutout, María referenced her Puerto-Rican roots one last time with “Déjate Llevar” for a more up-tempo finish. Though The Marías make great use of guitar, they are not initially an intuitive complement to Albert Hammond Jr.’s frenetic riff-laden energy. Watching their set, however, it became clear that their appeal is a subtler and no less remarkable kind of gravity, sizzling just below the surface like their deceptively catchy music.

While addressing the audience at one point during the set, María confessed to the audience that it was the band’s first time in Canada. It might already be clear by virtue of their role supporting a former Stroke, but something about the Marías’ quiet confidence and refined image tells me that it won’t be their last.

~review by Dylan Lai

Concert Review: Hanna Benn, Sinkane & Son Lux @ Theatre Fairmount

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to characterize the music of Son Lux is that it’s difficult to do so. The genre-resistant group was originally the solo project of Ryan Lott until 2015, and his proclivity for out-of-the-box musical exploration has drawn comparison to (and a collaborative project with) Sufjan Stevens. Personally, his unique vocal timbre is reminiscent of James Blake. This affinity for the unusual also apparently extends to Son Lux’s choice of touring partners, as openers Sinkane and Hanna Benn blended their own selection of sounds to give audience members a taste of what was to come. As I entered the Fairmount this past Monday to catch the end of Hanna Benn, the already substantial crowd was a clear indicator of the magnetic power and intrigue of ambiguity.

Benn’s crystalline vocals, which also made an appearance on Son Lux’s 2016 EP Stranger Forms, floated over compositions influenced by her eclectic classical and gospel training. Sinkane, up next, mixed the music of his Sudanese roots with jazz and funk elements for an energizing set that showcased the talents of the group’s members. The guitarist got a few improvisational solos in, and the harmonies of keyboardist/vocalist Elenna Canlas backing up frontman Ahmed Gallab’s soothing tenor transformed to lead vocals for the majority of the band’s final two songs.

Before long, Lott’s faux-hawk appeared under the dim stage lights. He was joined by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia and drummer Ian Chang, and the trio introduced themselves with the first few chilling verses of “Forty Screams,” then the opening song from their latest album Brighter Wounds. The project is the second to include Bhatia and Chang as official band members after 2015’s Bones, though the group has been performing together since 2013. Though the most recent album is sonically more accessible than the last, Lott hasn’t lightened his hand lyrically. It’s an intimate reflection on his alternating hope and uncertainty for the future spurred by the recent birth of his son. His trembling falsetto, sounding always as if he might be moments away from tears, lends itself to expressing the raw content of the music. Varyingly passed through filters and paired with his eclectic production, full of instrumental samples and effects with a distorted yet organic feel, it can be hard to be sure he’s emitting the sounds you’re hearing or if they originate from some otherworldly source.

Though Son Lux is Lott’s brainchild, the group’s writing process is reportedly highly collaborative. Accordingly, the musicianship of the of the other members was given ample time to shine, with the band adapting their recordings for the stage to highlight their skill. Bhatia had a few solos and covered string parts by adjusting his tone, and for “Stolen,” Chang broke into an extended drum break to finish off the song. Building off this energy, Lott later showcased his usually restrained voice by belting out the resplendent chorus of “Dream State.” Digging into the keyboard unconventionally angled away from him, it seemed like he was holding on against a musical fervor that would otherwise sweep him away.

As he approached the end of the set, Lott joked with the audience, playing on the traditional faux exit and encore by telling the audience, “the song after this is our last…but not really. Just pretend it is.” The crowd happily obeyed, keeping energy levels high. When the band got to their “last song,” they requested that the people in the venue participate, instructing the crowd and cueing them in to sing a melody adapted from one of the string parts in the song. The tune in question, “All Directions,” was befitting of the impromptu choir, since a similar effect is applied in the final refrain of the recording. The lyrics, “And weren’t we the beautiful ones/I promise we were,” also stir up a collective impression of loss and redemption that was easy to feel part of.

As promised, Son Lux exited the stage before re-entering and delivering a smoldering performance of “Aquatic.” To spark things up again for their (actual) last song, they treated everyone to their most popular tune, “Lost it to Trying,” getting the audience to join in once again – this time without any request needed.

~ review by Dylan Lai

Concert Review: Tess Roby, Girl Ray & Porches @ Theatre Plaza

Last Sunday, Theatre Plaza hosted an ode to DIY music with three distinct artists demonstrating synth-laden electronic, good ol’ rock, and a final act that combined the two. Local group Tess Roby opened the night with a simple setup: Tess on keys behind a mic, and her brother, Eliot, on guitar. Her warm, unadorned vocals (strikingly similar to the few studio recordings she has released) and pulsing synth cascades instilled a moody stillness, the only movement coming from the intermittent stomping of guitar pedals and the milling about of audience members. For her final song, “Ballad 5,” she requested that all the lights be turned blue, softening the ambiance one last time before taking her leave.

Girl Ray appeared shortly afterward with a classic guitar band outfit, adding just one touring member to their three-girl London-based act. Layering a modern lo-fi guitar sound over 70s folk/pop influences, they ramped up the energy along with the swelling crowd, even garnering cheers for a brief coordinated shimmy between guitarist/vocalist Poppy Hankin and bassist Sophie Moss.

With the clock approaching midnight, Porches frontman Aaron Maine took the stage with his back to a charged audience. After counting the band in with his swinging hips, he turned to deliver “Now the Water,” a song off his new album The House. A few tunes in, gentle head bobbing turned to jumping and jiving as the crowd got down to “Find Me,” a single off the album that juxtaposes lyrics about struggling with anxiety against dance-worthy beats. Energized by the response, Maine expressed his appreciation for everyone coming out by informing us he’d worn a “special shirt” for the occasion, indicating something apparently exceptional about his otherwise nondescript black tee. That shirt soon became a centerpiece for communicating the artist’s personality throughout the night, like his deadpan humor when he later clarified that we should actually ignore the shirt and “focus on the music,” a point he reinforced by briefly hiding behind it after lifting it up and over his face for a moment towards the end of his set.

Just as Maine’s dry sarcasm kept the audience guessing, The House navigates the ambiguous emotional spaces of post-breakup introspection, motivated by his recent split from Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos. Still, the music of Porches has never shied away from melancholia, and the 15-song set, split evenly between the most recent and previous (sophomore) album, felt like it could be part of a single work connected by its synth and heart-heavy sound.

Whether or not the awkwardness was deliberate, Maine seemed most comfortable mid-song, swaying along to the murky emotions simulated by the swirl of rhythm, melody, and lyrics that frequently invoke water as a metaphorical vehicle. One couldn’t help but feel the simultaneous solace and solitude in his music when, during the encore, the rest of the band crept, kneeling, into their spots while he began the heartfelt ballad “Country.” Before giving anyone time to reflect, the band closed the night by stripping back the synths and returning to their roots with “Headsgiving” off the debut album, lifting spirits with hearty guitars and drums. It was a perfect way to end. Lyrics like, “And in her eyes/I want to die/Before I die the sad kind,” contrast with those about giving head to encapsulate the sadness, sometimes whimsical, sometimes sincere, but never overly self-indulgent, that Maine likes to inhabit with his songwriting. This emotional gray area has a hazy relatability, even if not always readily accessible – though wallowing in Maine’s world for the better part of an hour certainly helps tap into this space. As I stepped outside to let the cold wind blow away any remaining gloom, I felt a sense of catharsis, and though unexpected, I was sure I wasn’t the only one.

~review by Dylan Lai