A blustery night in Washington, DC, brought an intriguing double-bill of Canadian up-and-comers to DC9’s small, second-story performance space. Both Cadence Weapon and Born Ruffians had released albums just two days before, strong sophomore efforts that, while not wildly anticipated, have been well received. But release date and common nationality aside, these acts share very little. Born Ruffians create tight, yelping guitar pop, while Cadence Weapon is a music-critic-turned-rapper whose beats boast a lot of vintage synth and video game bleeps. Experiencing these disparate acts playing back to back is a pleasure usually reserved for festivalgoers, and audience members tonight were presented with a sort of mini-variety show of some of our northern neighbor’s smartest and most interesting musical performers.
Before the Canadians could take the stage, a band of local unknowns (last-minute additions to the line-up) had to be endured. The scruffy kids of U.S. Royalty have a silly name and a derivative, post-Strokes jam that was slightly forgivable given their accompaniment by a trunk-load of friends and boundless energy. Although their guitar solos proved that significant hours of bedroom practice had been passed, and despite references to Elvis Costello and Leonard Cohen, the songs failed to be memorable. I was entranced by lead singer John Thornley’s resemblance to a bearded, straight-nosed Owen Wilson, though; that and his tendency to use the harmonica more as a prop for Jagger impersonation than as an instrument. The half-filled room seemed mildly entertained by U.S. Royalty’s shenanigans, but the loudest applause came at their set’s close, when Born Ruffians’ Mitch DeRosier and Cadence Weapon approached the microphone.
At first I thought I was in for an unprecedented indie-rock/indie-rap collaboration—Collision Course for hipsters. But Cadence Weapon, otherwise known as Rollie Pemberton, announced that he and the Born Ruffians’ bassist were actually going to play rock-paper-scissors for the right to headline. Cadence won the best-out-of-three face-off, and so the Torontonian trio went on first.
On record, Born Ruffians are slightly schizophrenic: blissful melodies and joyful shouting battle their melancholic lyrical tendencies. Judging from this performance, there is an easy explanation for their split-personality approach. The band itself is disjointed, with a raucous rhythm section backing an introverted lead singer. Bassist DeRosier and drummer Steven Hamelin worked the room with convulsive energy and self-deprecating inter-song banter. As for guitarist/vocalist Luke LaLonde, one could say he seemed less than enthused about playing in front of all of us fans. For most of the show he kept his eyes closed and his face muscles clenched, as if he were teetering on the brink of hurling or fainting from stage fright. After repeated requests from LaLonde that the lights be turned down, Hamelin quipped that Born Ruffians “like being shrouded in darkness.” It was obvious that DeRosier and Hamelin have become adept at providing comic relief to LaLonde’s anxiety.
Fortunately, their delectable songs were commanding enough to overshadow LaLonde’s awkward stage presence. The interplay of LaLonde’s reedy delivery and precise guitar runs against DeRosier’s and Hamelin’s furious slapping translated well to the live setting. Beginning the show with new album opener “Red, Yellow, and Blue” may not have been the most creative sequencing choice, but no one was complaining. Their oldest hit, “This Sentence Will Ruin/Save Your Life”, from 2006’s eponymous EP, was an early audience favorite, and people who seemed unfamiliar with the group (including still-dressed-for-work denizens from the bar who had migrated upstairs on a whim) quickly fell under the spell of the quirky rock on display. Thankfully, the band waited until LaLonde was at his most comfortable to play their best songs. “Barnacle Goose” and the single, “Hummingbird”, came late in the set, the latter enlivened by a lengthy, guitar-noodling introduction. On “I Need a Life”, LaLonde even requested audience participation, albeit in his own weird way, lifting the whole microphone stand and pointing it at us to chant the “Oh, but we go out at night” backing vocals. Next time they return to the area, I’ll be there to cheer them on—and I’ll be hoping that LaLonde’s stage fright is less constraining.
Nearly a third of the crowd vacated before Cadence Weapon went on; an unfortunate commentary either on indie kids’ lack of affinity for rap or DC citizens’ unwillingness to stay up past eleven. The dwindling audience didn’t faze Pemberton, though, for the former nerd spent the entirety of his hour-long set bouncing on and off stage, shouting sarcastic couplets in a crazed, exciting performance. Rarely have I seen rappers perform without a handful of hype men holding down the last syllable of lines so that the leader can catch his breath. Cadence Weapon needs no such help; alone on stage but for his DJ, he was able to spit it all out with breathless clarity.
“In Search of the Youth Crew” and “Real Estate” (both off his recent Afterparty Babies LP) served thick slices of witty rhymes and kaleidoscopic production, the latter provided by DJ Weasel, an aptly named longhaired turntablist. Spitting out sentences such as “Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes was my idea,” “I run bullshit like a matador,” and “Hyphy, I don’t really know what that means”—Cadence Weapon’s persona turned from bombastic to snide to outright silly, often in the turn of just a few lines. By the end of the night, he had probably shaken hands with, high-fived, or somehow touched everyone still watching. During a long passage of scratching by Weasel, the rapper took himself through the crowd to the bar in the back for a drink.
Whether unwinding slowly or bouncing off the walls, Born Ruffians and Cadence Weapon gave performances that were each original and entertaining in their own ways. Bands like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade sell out most places they go these days, but the gig at DC9 proved that these lesser-known Canucks can, given the opportunity, bring it live, too.