Photo credit: Gerard Cosloy
The first truly sweltering hot summer night in Vancouver. Granville Street. Crowds milling under gaudy lights, cop cars crawling, johns cruising the high track hookers a block away. Pawn shops, one-slice pizza joints, all the wannabe lurid yet oddly sedate sexuality so peculiar to this Pacific coastal city.
The Royal is an oasis, a dark safe womb draped in Union Jacks, band posters and beer towels, and featuring pink felt pool tables and an impressively long hardwood bar. From numerous discretely placed speakers, Jay Farrar emotes wearily. Tall tables and high-backed stools. Half lit faces, each with a sheen of sweat. Even the odd trucker hat.
When Joel Phelps walks onto the tiny stage almost apologetically, along with drummer William Herzog, looking like graduate students from UBC’s physics department, polite applause from approximately fifty people drifts around the shadowy places, shying from the few spotlights. When there are only fifty people, each handclap suddenly matters (even if only to stir the air).
Phelps plays a short, intense set of nine plaintive songs, the only real variation being the swapping of acoustic for electric guitar throughout (and, for Herzog, the equivalent trading of brushes for sticks). Once his voice has settled, and everyone’s finally (reluctantly) accepted that the buzzing amp isn’t going away, the sultry heat in the air makes the lack of overt swing a blessing tonight, and the small crowd sits rapt, if not worshipful, as gentle, melancholy, alt-country-folk songs parade by with little obvious differentiation. There are highlights, nonetheless: opener “One Got Caught” is heartfelt and electric with subtle brushed drums; “From Up Here” is stirring, now that Phelps has landed those upper register plaints; and the penultimate “Mother I’m Missing” is beseechingly gorgeous. This is really the perfect opening act for Nina Nastasia’s oddball troupe of acoustic discrepancies.
By the time they take the stage, the crowd must have doubled, an occurrence spooky in and of itself, for its stealth. Nastasia’s brand of mutant folk attempts to replace the solid air, just as encompassing and strangely humid, the poised Americana of slightly toxic swamplands. A voice simultaneously strong and fragile as spider silk weaves within and behind and above and beyond an ensemble featuring acoustic guitar (Nina’s), cello (Stephen Day), upright (and occasionally electric) bass (Dave Richards), violin/viola (Dylan Willemsa), accordion, and drums (Jim White of Dirty Three).
In songs plucked equitably from all three of her albums (I’m assuming the selections I didn’t recognize were either covers or were from her currently unavailable acclaimed 1999 debut Dogs, of which—fans, take heart—a late fall reissue date is planned), Nastasia covers a fair amount of ground within her skewed parameters. Playing with the tension between intimacy and distance, she alternates between chilly banter (N.N: “Did somebody say something?” Audience member: “How’re ya doing?” N.N: [with exquisitely reserved politeness] “I’m OK, how are you?”) and self-contained courtesy (to one request for a song, a simple “No, I’m sorry”). But everything melts in heat like that, and even shyness will bat its eyes; after complaining that they’d just made the trip from Minneapolis in two days, she adds: “thankfully, we have an X-Box and lots of pot.” A more incongruous game console reference, even, than Liz Phair’s recent effort, perhaps? More endearing, anyway.
Nastasia stands front and centre throughout, with a powder blue shirt and pleated skirt willfully removed from the now. She is right there but perhaps not entirely there. Here but not now. A phantom, reaching Minnesota earlier via a raft along the Mississippi/Missouri. The music stalks quietly between the sweltering silences, occasionally swelling in orchestral dissonance, bowed violas, cellos and upright bass surging like clouds of killer bees on impossibly steaming southern evenings. Nastasia’s voice is, if anything, even stronger live than it is on disc; Run to Ruin‘s “Superstar” has a reedier Suzanne Vega feel on the record, yet here it is stunning, heartbreaking, each instrument awaiting its precise moment to join the desperate slow march toward a shaky, unconvincing self-acceptance (“Look at me. I am a superstar”), creating a reluctant, mesmerizing dread. As the fiddle is last to break in, Dylan Willemsa awaits that moment with eyes closed, body still as the oppressive air. Quiet dramas, not least in Jim White’s deft genre-straddling stick work, are enacted everywhere.
That spacious creepiness which haunts The Blackened Air in particular, finds a welcome temporary habitat here in this dim hothouse. The more gothic (and I mean southern gothic, not “goth”) elements of such songs as “In the Graveyard” thrive and grow, the violin at the end meandering like kudzu vines, gorgeously, oppressively. There may be spaces, but they will be filled.
But in this context, pretty much all of the offerings from this year’s Run to Ruin are strong. “You Her and Me” is stunning, a disturbed ménage à trois narrative that features Nastasia’s full throated wail of frustrated meanness, before collapsing back into its exhausted mule lurch. All this, plus Dave Richards playing slide on his electric bass. In an alt-universe, “I Say That I Will Go” is the anti-“Kashmir”, its Middle Eastern tones a lulling narcotic, its opiate words as close to poetry popular music can get without slipping over into pretension, and always the shards of a shattered (shattering?) story glint behind them.
Whether backed by her freakish troubadours, or solo-with-guitar as on the fairly straight-arrow pretty “You Might…”, she has the audience entranced—all except that standard gaggle of bar-hugging scenesters who persist in chatting obliviously through even these sparest of pin-drop numbers (partway through, boyfriend/manager/Great Protector Kennan Gudjonsson actually crosses the room to ask them to be quiet, which is both funny and sweet).
Another song from Dogs, “All Your Life”, is the twelfth and final shimmering mirage, a picked acoustic heat haze up until the chorus, when a pastoral, near-orchestral swell blooms to fill the room. Seemingly as far from dance music as you can get, the rhythmic elements are more subtle but no less intricate. Not that anyone wants to dance tonight. And of course, it’s not the end. The band goes through the merest of motions leaving the stage and quickly returns. It’s clear they relish playing this twisted stillborn country music.
And she’s even taking requests now. Including a single song second encore, they unspool (the word “unleash” is somehow too aggressive, even though implied violence is a feature of this music) five more tracks, two of them audience requests (so much for that earlier coyness)—“Oh My Stars” and “Ugly Face” from The Blackened Air (my own blurted requests, so much for journalistic objectivity). The latter in particular is a highlight among seventeen highlights; plucked violin mimicking a lonely banjo, a harrowing waltz (“Ugly face / Don’t even make it again / . . . I want to strike you”), a puzzled threat.
So, seventeen hints; ways to prickle the nape of your neck, to make the sweat trickle faster—elemental, creepy and freakish, and kind of perfect on this night so moist that the very posters on the wall, flags on the poles, will need to be wrung out. Just as the sound rang out, long after.