Stars Like Fleas + Echoes Still Singing Limbs
15 Jun 2009: The Attic Guelph, Ontario
When Brooklyn’s Stars Like Fleas go on tour, they don’t mess around. Finding themselves in Ontario with a few days between a Toronto show and a Montreal one, they started looking around for something else to do, which is how I was lucky enough to have a Stars Like Fleas concert take place practically in my backyard. The last time I caught the band was in Toronto on their previous jaunt to Canada, and then they managed to fit in shows in Hamilton and Brantford (both Ontario cities small enough that I won’t be insulted if you go “where?”). Most small American bands play Toronto only, as a kind of sideline to their American tour at the time; if they play other Canadian dates they’re in provinces outside Ontario. Stars Like Fleas seem to be too restless, or in love with playing music, or maybe just too perverse to give themselves many nights off. Goodness knows the Attic isn’t exactly the most lucrative gig in the world.
That’s because it’s not a cute name for a rundown bar; it’s the actual attic of a house maybe two minutes from my apartment, in a shared building full of people who are involved in Guelph’s fairly thriving music/art scene to varying degrees. For a university town of around 115,000 (an American friend: “it’s so cute how Canadians think large towns are cities”) there’s a surprising amount of activity in Guelph, and the attic has been hosting shows for a while now. Ultimately, though, it is just the top floor of a house in a quiet neighborhood. Cramming in a seven-member band and their instruments and equipment means that the thirty or so people who’ve shown up have to pack themselves in extremely tightly.
Due to volume/noise issues, it is decided that Stars Like Fleas will begin, but I’m going to talk about Montreal’s Echoes Still Singing Limbs first. They’re still a relatively new band, but from the first moment the two vocalists open their mouths there’s no doubt they are fully and confidently their own thing. It’s rare that a trained opera singer and a man who strives to sound like a dying donkey are paired, let alone that the combination comes off so well, but Echoes Still Singing Limbs make it work. Like their tour-mates, the band isn’t interested in verses and choruses so much as atmosphere, the interplay of the lightly beautiful with the abrasive, and a kind of drawn-out wonder that requires improvisation as much as it does careful composition.
On almost any other night, Echoes Still Singing Limbs would have been the striking, slightly bizarre highlight with their sweet-and-sour voices, their equal embrace of Western (as in cowboy) and Eastern (as in Middle) sounds and their twisting, winding compositions. But on this particular evening they had the unenviable task of following up a set by a band my old editor once called either the best or worst live band in New York City depending on the night. When I’ve seen Stars Like Fleas they’ve erred far closer to the former pole. In the intimate, even cramped environs of an attic, surrounded by cheap fake wood paneling and a rapt audience sitting cross-legged on carpet that dates back to at least the ‘70s, they performed the kind of show you’d kill to see in a venue ten times the size. Montgomery Knott’s voice was just as delicate and moving as it is in the studio, the drums at times were almost scarily loud (one particular drum shot jerked me from a beer-and-heat induced stupor so firmly I thought at first I was about to start hyperventilating), the strings and electronics and everything else sounded beautiful and clear and present in a way that seemed disproportionate to the humble surroundings. (Credit goes equally to the band and to Mike Brooks, one of the tenants, who runs the sound board as adroitly as Peter Bradley runs the shows there as a whole.)
Beginning with three unnamed new songs, Stars Like Fleas did take a little while to get up to their full speed and glory, although maybe I just feel that way due to familiarity with 2008’s still astounding The Ken Burns Effect. Certainly nothing in those three tracks lessened my excited anticipation for the band’s next album, but once they launched into “Karma’s Hoax”, the first of five songs from The Ken Burns Effect that would make up the rest of their set, they didn’t set one foot wrong for the rest of the evening. Stars Like Fleas cover all the bases of the recorded versions of their songs when they play live, but they add on to them, stitching tracks together with vocal improvisations, working out arrangements live that continue to improve on existing structures. Particularly striking was the penultimate duo of “See for the Woods” and “I Was Only Dancing”, both of which hit heights their already sublime album versions don’t quite get to.
Maybe part of that improvement is simply the sensation of hearing this music created right in front of you, but given how eagerly the rest of the crowd seemed to lap it up (most there hadn’t heard the band’s music before, if the conversations I overheard were any indication), I know there was a lot more than novelty value to Stars Like Fleas’ performance. At times, you almost had to shake yourself and remember that this music was being made in just another of the houses on this perfectly normal street, that once you walked out of the door you were just going to be in another neighborhood. That something so memorable and beautiful happened in someone’s attic was almost the best part of the night—it’s impossible to have been there and not feel like you were a part of something special. Stars Like Fleas are an incredible band, and you can’t wish them anything but success; at the same time, I devoutly hope that they’re never so in demand that they can’t play shows like this.