Photo credit: Paula Wilson
Most bands just skip Grand Rapids altogether. Yeah, it’s the smack-dab midpoint of the Detroit-Chicago roadie, yeah it’s a well populated city with a strong local music scene and its share of modest success stories (Mustard Plug, Whirlwind Heat, umm . . . Al Green?) but the sheer, unforgivable lack of quality midsize venues is too high of a hurdle for most touring bands to clear. Enter Broken Social Scene—good-hearted, brave Canadians riding the high praise of their latest (greatest) LP, You Forgot It in People. Somehow, the odd folks that own Grand Rapids’ SWIM gallery convinced this happy bunch to grace their farewell/going-out-of-business bash. SWIM is, for lack of better words, an old shithole building in the bad part of town that doubles as a kitsch laden “art” gallery. Items on display this night included: one old moonboot ($2), one Dolly Parton iron-on decal ($1), one half-full gorilla coin bank, several old art history textbooks and assorted other pieces of crap . . . I mean, pieces of “art”. The bands play in SWIM’s tiny cellar-style cement basement; a set-up that is conducive to three- or four-piece punker groups, but maybe not quite so for 10-12 piece multi-instrumental Canadian musical collectives. Undeterred, BSS squeezed a trimmed down nine-member lineup into said basement on a Wednesday night in July (temperature—92 degrees) and pretended not to care about the absolutely horrendous playing conditions—literally blessing a modest crowd of 200 hot, sweaty music lovers with a stunningly diverse, engaging and up-tempo two hour set.
After a light, breezy intro/soundcheck (no roadies, no stagetech, no nuthin’) the Scene launched into “You Forgot It‘s “Stars and Sons”—a Factory Records-ish bass line of exceptional quality leading jabbing high-hat beats into an unholy maelstrom of shrieking guitars. The crowd was pleased. Shuffling instruments, vocal duties, members and mics, the Scene makes for almost as satisfying a visual treat as an aural one. You may choose to watch the wife-beater-shirt-and-camouflage-“Death Cock” hat-wearing rhythm guitarist. Or maybe the tall, heavily mustachioed trumpet/guitar/tambourine/synthesizer playing dude catches your eye. What about that J Spaceman-but-sober-looking bass player? Or the little Suzy Q singer in the Pharrell-mesh hat. Isn’t that a skinny Randy Newman over there playing guitar? You get caught up in the watching and as a result are drawn even deeper into the remarkable sounds they are making. “Cause=Time” tore what little paint was left right off the cellar walls; the kind of blistering, dynamic-shifting off pop J Mascis once was capable of delivering. “Anthems For a Seventeen-Year Old Girl” brought Suzy Q (nee Emily Haines) front and center, head Scene-ster Kevin Drew on his knees, fiddling with vocal-effect boxes, distorting her voice into multiple strands then twisting and turning them over the track’s mesmerizingly slow-building crescendo. Broken Social Scene relies mostly on well-defined melodic phrases that reveal themselves simply—unwrapped and unobscured moments of clarity. They will, however, layer it on in glorious fashion from time to time. “Almost Crimes” converted a dissonant skronk-guitar introduction into a mad-hopping Brainiac sounding alien pop song that featured Drew and Haines matching, then doubling each other’s vocal. On this night, the band found themselves scrambling to find enough onstage mics to accommodate the track’s big, four-part vocal finish. They ended up having to share mics, an effect that brought to mind visions of Bruce and the E Street Band’s trademark schtick, though this act was done not in the service of rock and roll showmanship, but rather, sheer necessity.
After an instrumental that featured the sudden creation of an audience member brass section (flugelhorn, trombone, trumpet), the Scene closed their set with “KC Accidental”—the ridiculously hyper backbeat nearly overshadowing the velocity of the song’s multiple guitar onslaught. The song is, essentially, two big chunks of major key emo heaven sandwiching a soft, central and singular verse; indecipherable and thus, beautiful, the brief respite of this verse provides just enough opportunity for one to catch one’s breath before one is tossed directly back into the blender. A sloppy, error-plagued version of “Lovers Spit” sounded like the halfhearted last-second encore it was, but considering what the band had just put themselves through for us for the low, low price of $5(!) nobody seemed to be complaining. Broken Social Scene plays damn fine songs that leap out at you and beg to be loved. There’s no other way to sell it. Pay more attention to Canada. Keep an eye on this band.