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La Dispute + To the North

(11 Jul 2009: Spectrum — Sydney, Australia)

As we climbed the stairs to the shoebox they call the Spectrum we heard the unmistakable sounds of a disaster taking place. Members of To the North were yelling at one another, the bassist was strumming furiously to no avail, and the lead singer was begging someone for the loan of a bass guitar. Without speaking, our knowing sideways glances allowed us to share our universal thought: These guys were shaping up to be the worst support band yet. And we’ve seen some stinkers.


So it was with a sense of dread that we grabbed a beer and fought for some of the very limited floor space. The shenanigans went on for quite some time, and every passing second solidified the belief in the ultimate crappiness of this bunch of losers from Brisbane. After about the sixth attempt at starting the same song, this belief was concrete. Also, it was becoming obvious that this was a band working in that vaguely At the Drive-In-ish corner of the musical kaleidoscope where jazz meets hardcore, which lowered my hopes of enjoying the band even further.


So imagine my surprise when things started coming together for To the North, and they actually turned out to be one of the most interesting and together bands I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. Once they got over their obvious perfectionism and just played the damn music, warts and all, their sound really came into it’s own, with lead vocalist Cam’s tuneful caterwaulings floating atop the rather jazzy guitar work. Despite the initial troubles the crowd was warm and supportive, with one kind soul going so far as to yell “Just play it! We like the mistakes!” after an aborted attempt at a track early in the set.


Of course there was the obligatory “front man throwing himself into the crowd” shtick, which I perversely enjoyed despite being fully aware of its status as a well-worn cliché. I know it’s relatively well stage-managed so that no one gets hurt, but there’s still that shred of excitement that someone just might, and that’s enough to keep the fires burning. Isn’t it?


Due to the technical issues the set was cut short, but was no less enjoyable for it. While La Dispute were setting up we went for a walk around the Shoebox, had a cigarette on the world’s smallest and most crowded smoking balcony, and did a double-take when we saw a barefoot 14-year-old stroll past us with a tambourine. I thought this gig was 18-plus?


Next thing this kid is mounting the stage, grabbing a mic, and getting ready to unleash fury. Turns out Jordan Dreyer, who fronts La Dispute, is on the small side, but that doesn’t stop him from creating an almighty ruckus once the band gets started. Dreyer is just the sweetest guy in the universe when the music stops, constantly thanking the audience and To the North (who organised the tour) and generally gushing niceties, but when he launches into song his voice becomes a strung-out yelp sounding out from some cold and personal hell.


Being a particular fan of songs like “Such Small Hands” and “Andria”, perhaps some of the band’s poppier moments, I was taken aback by just how hard-edged the band were live. Which in retrospect was stupid, because it’s not as if I hadn’t heard the rest of their repertoire, and should have known to expect a hard-as-nails gig, but any worries I had were rapidly discarded as I got caught up in the energy and excitement of the show.


The audience was passionately supportive of the band, and proved it by constantly screaming out each and every lyric, occasionally hurling themselves into the rest of the crowd in between lines. This was a scarier prospect than usual, given the size of the venue. A few centimetres too far and someone could easily have been thrown down the back stairs. Dreyer spent a fair amount of time either on top of the crowd, or else amongst them dispensing hugs while he hollered away.


After the show the band welcomed all comers to the stage, chatting with them and hugging them one and all. It seems to me that the harder the style of music the more warm and welcoming the attitude, indeed one of my friends went up for a five-minute chat and a seemingly never-ending series of hugs, about which she didn’t complain. By all reports the guys in La Dispute are genuinely lovely people who just happen to make terrifyingly emotive music.

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