After stepping inside Toronto’s Opera House to a mere scattering of people standing around, I had my doubts if the venue would succeed in reaching capacity. After all, it was a Sunday night and does anyone really put in a solid evening of drinking and partying when they have to get up for work the next morning? The crowd both reflected the twenty-plus years of musical solidarity amongst all the artists on the bill, while asserting the nature of those who refuse to get old. The number of new fans probably equalled the number of followers who were alive when this music first made its mark.
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Creating a live performance full of win, French-Finnish duo The Dø could have easily entertained an audience of thousands. Olivia Merilahti was electricity personified. Flipping her long lustrous hair, coming up to the tip on the stage and leaning into the audience were two of her frequent rock moves. Dan Levy chose to engage the audience with his sudden floor kneeling. But despite the sense of developed chemistry between he and Merilahti, it was she who truly stole the show.
It’s both an interesting and unusual combination for a band to be part French and part Finnish, though it worked for folk band Mi and L’au. The Dø have a much different performing ethos than that duo, however, with a live sound deeply rooted in pop and rock. In concert Merilahti’s lyrical delivery came off similar to the album, for the most part, but with an emphasis on the faster-paced songs overall. She could easily play to the most enticing melodies and riffs while keeping her lyrics perfectly on target. The presence of a live drummer maintaining a fantastic sense of timing throughout also helped.
On their 2008 album, A Mouthful, a visceral shift in moods occurs over its 15 songs—even among the singles. While songs like “Tammie” and “Aha” have an energetic drive to them, “On My Shoulders” is as melancholic as it is beautiful. “Song For Lovers,” “Searching Gold,” and “When Was I Last Home” are simply sentimental songs rather than dance tracks. Making the album increasingly diverse, it ends on a very raw and turbulent note with “In My Box,” which serves as a stark contrast between both the more stripped down intimate songs and those that feel like instant pop hits.
The Dø’s nearly hour-long set began like their album does with the aptly named “Playground Hustle.” Some of the samples in that song, as well as “Queen Dot Kong,” seem reminiscent of those used by Solex from The Netherlands and certainly add to the flirty appeal of both tracks. In contrast, “At Last!” was full of vivid longing, especially the way Merilahti tends to emphasize her words.
By the third song the band abandoned the album order, switching to “The Bridge is Broken” which came off as an edgy lament. “On My Shoulders” had a similar tone as Merilahti repeatedly asked, “Why would I carry such a weight on my shoulders? Why do I always help you carry your boulders?” It’s impossible not to hear her cry without sympathizing. Her accent, and the way she stretches out certain syllables over others, tends to make her sound even more tortured and anguished.
Perhaps the best song of the night was the one not sung in English: “Unissasi Laulelet.” It contained guitar parts memorable enough to match Merilahti’s wondrous vocals. It’s undeniable how well the band kept up their presence and energy throughout the set no matter what they were playing—a night that, at times, felt as rough as it did playful. Dangerous mood swings would be more common at The Dø’s shows if they just weren’t so satisfying to relish in every minute.
Bebel Gilberto, the daughter of bossa nova, literally (her father is João Gilberto,) performed an intimate and kittenish early set at The Box to celebrate the release of her tenth studio album, All in One. While much of the setlist dutifully revolved around the new material (“Bim Bom,” “Cancao de Amor,” and “The Real Thing”) Gilberto indulged fans with hits from Tanto Tempo, like “So Nice” and “Samba de Bencao.” It was, after all, an evening “only for the really close ones” as Bebel put it. In between doting on her fans and praising her four-piece backing band Gilberto relished the role of sultry siren, inspired, no doubt, by the venue’s alternate use as a burlesque club. As the double entendres multiplied, Gilberto had the crowd in the palm of her hand by the time she sang her new single, “Chica Chica Boom Chic.” Despite her flirtatious tone Gilberto’s voice was calm, controlled, and plush, epitomizing the very delicate yet relaxed precision of bossa nova itself.
French alt rockers Phoenix played an excellent set in Central Park on Friday night. The sold out crowd enjoyed Passion Pit, but went bonkers for Phoenix, though perhaps the high school kids were just drunker for the second act. Either way, Phoenix brought gobs of energy, with some interesting twists on their familiar material, and enough of a light/smoke show to entertain the (tone) deaf. Despite touring so much, the band seemed to have fun too, with Thomas Mars climbing speakers and lunging deep into the crowd. I highly recommend seeing them live.
For the last decade the city of Chicago, and the Chicago Cultural Center, has devoted a week to showcasing an array of international music. Appropriately titled the Chicago World Music Festival, the event attracts musicians from around the world to local Chicago venues, spreading diverse and unique music across the city. This year 55 performances were featured at 21 venues citywide.
On September 23rd I attended one of the performances at Martyr’s, a bar on Chicago’s near-north side. On the bill was Rahim Alhaj of Iraq/USA, and Hanggai from China/Mongolia/UK. I had no idea what to expect.
I arrived at Martyr’s halfway through Alhaj’s set. The bar’s main floor, which is usually open, was lined with tables, chairs, and stools and every seat was occupied as people began to congregate around the perimeter of the bar. The room was dimly lit with candles on every table; the audience was absolutely silent, completely mesmerized by Alhaj’s playing.
As Alhaj performed original and traditional compositions on the oud, a fretless pear-shaped string instrument, he told stories of music and exile in Iraq. His strumming was completely beautiful and full of feeling. In between songs Alhaj interacted with the crowd, asking them to keep a clapping beat and follow specific rhythms which he accompanied.
After a quick stage change it was Hanggai’s turn. Decked out in colorful robes, Hanggai blew the crowd away almost immediately. Consisting of five members from Beijing, the band played a mixture of traditional Chinese instruments and western rock instruments: electric guitar, electric bass, acoustic guitar, a standard drum kit, a tobshurr (a strummed two-stringed lute), and a horse-hair fiddle called a morin khuur. The band’s repertoire was inspired by native Mongolian folk traditions and rock music, resulting in reinterpreted traditionals from their indigenous grasslands. Songs covered themes of ancient traditions, especially the importance of protecting them, “playing, singing and drinking,” and the humor of love. Performed compositions included: “Drinking Song,” “Borulai Lullaby,” and “My Banjo and I.”
Topping off Hanggai’s beautiful melodies was a combination of crooning and hoomei, a traditional throat-singing technique. The music was truly transcendent, encompassing the power to carry the listener to a different place. In between songs the band frequently expressed their gratitude and appreciation for being a part of the festival and the excitement of performing and visting America for the first time.
Their set ended with a standing, cheering and whistling ovation from the audience. The crowd’s calls were answered with an encore with solo throat singing accompanied by the morin khuur. The full band eventually returned to stage, which prompted several audience members to get out of their seats, dance and cheer Hanggai on.
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