Saturday, June 21, 2008

Performing Love, Thorny and Fragrant: Stars at the Groove FM Jazz Festival

I got to see Montreal-based band Stars play live a couple of years ago when they came to the Garrick Centre in Winnipeg to promote their 2004 album Set Yourself on Fire. And it was definitely a fantastic show. Then within the last eight months I've managed to miss them twice - the first time, they played Waterloo just before I moved there, and the second time, they played Winnipeg in winter while I was still in Waterloo. That's why I was so thankful that they decided to play the Groove FM Jazz Festival as part of the "indie package." I would finally get to see them play material from their latest album In Our Bedroom After the War. Of course being part of the Jazz Festival, they ended up slotted in Pantages Playhouse, an old vaudeville theatre building with proper seating and a balcony - not exactly my favourite kind of setting for a live show. As I sat there in my eighth row seat, watching the opening act, Winnipeg band The Details, I started feeling a bit grumpy and put off by the situation. The audience appeared to have drawn all sorts of demographics, and especially ones I never thought I'd see at a Stars show. Frankly, I think some of these people were wondering what they were doing there themselves (if they were expecting jazz, they were in for a surprise). And I was wondering how I was going to bear sitting through the show trapped in the eighth row.

After the intermission between The Details and Stars, the pulsing introduction from the opening track from In Our Bedroom After the War, The Beginning After the End, started up and the real Stars fans began to scream in recognition. The band sprung out onto the stage, and instantly, Torquil Campbell told everyone to come down to the stage - he later said that we should have to stand if they fucking had to. I joined the exodus of indie-pop fans as we stumbled and leaped over the bewildered older people who were completely content to remain seated. I was so grateful I could have hugged Torq. The moment that all of us crowded against the stage the gig started in earnest. And Stars are always completely earnest.

The stage was decorated with white and red roses, which were flung from the stage at various intervals, some of them disintegrating into showers of petals. It was a beautiful idea and completely fit the honesty and tenderness that Stars embody. The first track they played was the second one off the latest album, The Night Starts Here, and indeed it did. Torquil and his lovely singing partner Amy Millan demonstrated the perfection of their united vocals - I think their voices complement each others so perfectly it's emotionally alchemical. Amy lightly chanted the refrain of "The night starts here, Forget your name, forget your fear" and I did exactly as I was told, dancing and letting myself soak in the bittersweetness. Then Torquil asked the audience where our Barack Obama was and when would we finally elect a First Nations person for Prime Minister in this country before launching into Soft Revolution. This was only the beginning of the banter that he and Amy would engage in throughout the night.

The sheer intensity of the music was incandescent - Torquil has been accused in the past of being "hammy" (cough, Pitchfork), but I only see his theatrics as passion of the order of Morrissey. Being a consummate performer who believes and feels every word he/she has written is the opposite of "hammy" fakery, and Torquil is the consummate performer. There were so many highlights, and many of them were due to Torquil's energy as he played off Amy, who serenely played brilliant guitar, electric and acoustic. They ended up making two dedications to the couple whom they stay with whenever they're in Winnipeg - the first was The Big Fight, dedicated by Torquil, and the second was My Favourite Book, which was dedicated by Amy, ostensibly to rectify the dark implications of the first dedication and to elicit further banter between them (including a comment by Torquil that sex was always painful and you end up regretting it - a theme that works its way into several of their songs). The former was seductively sinister as Amy and Torquil exchanged lines in a dark dialogue of a fractured relationship, and the latter definitely balanced it out with its retro elegance and twee melody. Ultimately the spectrum that these two songs span, the pain and the elation of relationships, is completely representative of their body of work, and it's what makes me adore them so much.

The Ghost of Genova Heights, a track I wouldn't have immediately pegged as one of my favourite Stars track has proven to be exactly that, especially after seeing it live. It shifts between two different styles and moods, between a dreamy New Romantic feel and a soulful funk. Torquil was hugely impressive with his falsetto, breathing and yelping like Prince, making this song's chorus one of the most memorable ones of the night. Humour was also constantly present - before shooting headlong into the raucous Take Me To the Riot, Amy attempted to talk to the crowd about the Manitoba Moose hockey team and the AHL, only to have Torquil jump in and say that this audience was probably the only 800 people in Winnipeg who had no interest in hockey, prompting a hearty cheer. He also prefaced One More Night with a dedication to the newly re-formed New Kids on the Block, complete with an accapella satire of boyband trite emotion and dance moves, singing the chorus of Phil Collins' saccharine One More Night with a modified ending complete with profanity. The set-up served to demonstrate the contrast between Collins and the honesty of Stars' One More Night in which lovers hurt each other as much as they long for each other. There was also a sweet little moment in which it appeared Torquil lost himself in the middle of the song, standing there holding his trumpet and muttering "shucks" before eventually returning to the microphone and continuing on to the second verse.

I also have to mention one of the most exciting segues in which they moved from What I'm Trying to Say into Elevator Love Letter, two of my favourite Stars songs flowing together in an ecstatic tribute to complex emotion. To round out the entire set, they also played Your Ex-Lover is Dead, Set Yourself on Fire, Ageless Beauty, Midnight Coward, and Window Bird. The vulnerability and uncertainty that accompanies love and intimacy in reality pervades Stars' music and transforms these seemingly unromantic characteristics into a new form of romance. My only petty wish is that they would have done Barricade, a fantastically perverse ballad from In the Bedroom After the War, in which two football hooligans fall in love, turned on by violence.

One of the most intense moments was the final song of the set proper, the title track of their latest album, an epic ballad to the necessity of rebirth and reinstatement of humanity after the horrors and dehumanization of war. A person in the audience asked Torquil if he could dedicate it to his friend in Afghanistan, and Torquil replied with "Of course, my friend," his voice choked with sincerity that nearly made me tear up. The song built and built to an incredible climax of catharsis as Torquil ended up throwing his head back and howling "war" over and over. I felt my eyes close along with him as I sang with him, my vocal cords straining.

After the set proper ended, Torquil was the first to bound back onto the stage to tell us that he would have to perform accapella and that he knew some great Captain and Tenille songs; when the rest of the band reappeared, he feigned disappointment and told us that we could catch his solo material at a softball game in Ontario, trailing off with "the bus there is cheap." Stars then proceeded to perform a stellar four-song encore - it was like they read my mind. They needn't have told me to dance. They began with their fabulous laidback cover of This Charming Man - once again, anyone who could accuse Torquil of heavy-handed overdramatic performance couldn't have ever heard the subtlety of this understated cover version where Amy and Torquil's voices approach whispers as Marr's famous riff gently pulses in the background. They then slipped seamlessly into Reunion, one of my favourite songs off Set Yourself on Fire, a joyful trip of nostalgia and reclaiming missed opportunities. The show then ended with the gentle loveliness of Calendar Girl and then The Woods, the only other song that night from their second album, Heart.

Stars restored my faith in live gigs after the last lacklustre one I attended. I wish I could have gathered up the gig in my arms like a bouquet of roses, thorny and fragrant, and buried my face in it forever. Instead, it will have to remain pressed and dried in the folds of my memory.

The Ghost of Genova Heights - Stars

Barricade - Stars

Elevator Love Letter - Stars

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