A “band” spent an entire set making tea onstage and I assure you it was awesome
By Tom Beedham
Canadian Music Week is a large-scale, heavily sponsored music industry event that could best be summed up by a philosophy toward reliable metrics – think “much dollars, very hashtag.” So it goes without saying that more than a few were surprised by the news that, this year, the Toronto-based festival was allowing not one, but two nights of programming curated around community representation and distinct artistic visions from local buzz band DIANA: “DIG DEEP/GET HIGH.”
The first of those events – DIG DEEP – took place last night at the Drake Underground. Promised as an evening that would mine the benefits of “solitude/looking inward,” it was host to performances that were entirely antithetical to the trending topic CMW strives to be: hard left turn improv renderings of pop songs, a minimalist ASMR-catered iced tea instructional, raga drones, and stream of consciousness folk songs. That the first two of the four avant-creative performances given here were categorized as “rock” on CMW’s website is all the more telling of the festival’s conservative values and an operating vocabulary entirely lacking compatibility with what was going on here.
Audiences only had to look to the start of the night for reification of the latter. Before kicking off the show with a short but spiritually arresting 25-minute set, Matthew “Doc” Dunn had to entertain a festival stage manager following him around like a lost puppy, repeatedly asking if he was going to start playing as people were still filtering in.
CMW events are often toted for their ability to launch artists’ careers, but in reality, wristband holders are encouraged to embrace the festival’s gamification and venue hop to skip out on opening bands they’ve never heard of so they can (maybe) catch another band they #love halfway across the city. To wit, the liberty to jump from a performance at one venue to another elsewhere is a big appeal to obtaining a festival wristband. In these cases it can be endlessly irksome to arrive at a venue only to wait for band x to come onstage, especially if you left another performance early to do so. Stage managers that keep bands on time are essential to preventing this from happening. But it’s also expected that opening bands will delay their start time to allow greater audiences a chance to catch their sets, and waiting between bands is a reality of concert attendance. At a festival like CMW, where all performances are given equal hour-long blocks in which to do their thing, as long as it doesn’t interfere with the next scheduled performance, there’s little harm done (even less so at a presentation like DIG DEEP, where the acts performing are all peers – in some cases appearing onstage together that night – that are sympathetic to each others’ needs).
In effect, the rushed production felt from CMW just translated to a failure on the festival’s part to register the immersive community experience the event aspired to be.
Some time after Dunn had finished delivering his audience to another plane of being with his juxtaposition of raga-affected slide guitars and bendy bleeps and bloops, ASMR Buds took the stage. Consisting of Bernice members Robin Dann, Felicity Williams, and Colin Fisher (also of Caribou and Not the Wind, Not the Flag) as well as Matthew Pencer (LOOM), ASMR Buds provided what was probably the most peculiarly adventurous set delivered under the CMW banner this year. In a performance that spoke to the experience of the autonomous sensory meridian response phenomenon from which the group borrowed its name (read about it), the “band” brought the room to a murmuring silence as it asked the audience to consider the relieving powers some of the lifeworld’s most subtle stimuli possess.
Bracketing a whispered performance that saw them document the making, herbal effects, and consumption of different iced teas, all the while tapping the process with some sensitive mics, Dann and Williams sat seated on a pillow before an assortment of tea candles. On either side of them, Fisher elicited hushed tones and peculiar textures from the electric guitar and arsenal of effect pedals he brought in tow while Pencer played with the vocals and layered the sounds on a laptop, turning it all into a live stereo collage.
Then it was time for DIANA to take its own turn at helming this big, weird, droney beast it spirited into fruition. They kept Dann, Fisher, and Williams all on stage, also cramming sound processor Dafydd Hughes into the space for a set that promised to be their “most opiated performance ever” and aimed “to melt you into yr seats.” They dug into (see what I did there?) extended studies of Perpetual Surrender’s title track, “Curtains,” “New House,” and a loose cover of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets” that bled into a reworking of “Born Again,” but the crowd that crushed towards the stage to get a close look at their performance dissipated significantly as the set went on. You can guess why. Folks directed here from the festival schedule expected the tropical pop grooves DIANA committed to wax. What they got was (relatively) indulgent experimentation and exploration.
Then broody folk songwriter Jennifer Castle took the stage to follow them. Singing and playing her electric guitar with closed eyes from her seated position on the stage floor, she had been playing to a room about as populated as (but a little less shy than) the one that came out early for Doc Dunn. But then she was told she only had one song left.
What followed was an exchange that emphasized the commitment to art that had been under the dim blue spotlights all night.
“Really? It’s like one in the morning oh my god,” Castle said. (To the stage manager and CMW’s credit, it was actually just before midnight, when a separate CMW event was about to begin in the same space. They probably needed the time to clear people out so they could charge a second cover, which isn’t ethically questionable at all.)
“I, for the record, never, ever, need anybody to tell me it’s the last song,” said Castle (her emphasis). “People are always like, ‘Why the fuck do you play for five minutes? You suuuuck.’”
As much as Castle was speaking to her own situation, her response also conveyed the complicated relationship felt between festivals like CMW and the tightknit communities they interrupt. It was a terrific night of challenging performances, but it also came packaged with the trappings of a machine that refused compatibility.
DIANA returns to the Drake Underground tonight with the second part of its CMW showcase, “GET HIGH”: a night of dance music promising to mine the benefits of extroversion and giving outward. Joined by performances from House of Monroe, Ice Cream, and Pacific High DJs, DIANA will play house interpretations of songs from Perpetual Surrender.