Saturday, February 27, 2010

Concert Review: Owen Pallett + Diamond Rings, 2/20

So this is the concert where I verified that I am, in fact, a fangirl. Yes I could make the excuse about me turning 18 and being a Senior and wanting to do something wild and fun, but really, there is no rational reason for spending a 14-hour round trip out of the country to see a concert, especially when I got there two hours before doors, especially since I saw the guy 3 months earlier almost to the day, and was seeing him again 2 months later to the day, especially since I was sick at the time. What can I say; I love what Owen Pallett does.

It's only after listening to it so many times that I've been able to appreciate the differences between Heartland and the live shows he does. The guy has progressed from the (mostly) solo or looped or layered violin for Has a Good Home, to the centrally string quartet and also some other orchestrated stuff on He Poos Clouds, to a fully orchestrated fully realized concept album for Heartland...and yet his shows, though expanding slightly with the addition of the stellar and sweet Thomas Gill, are still really in the spirit of Has A Good Home's elegiac construction of a song before your eyes. Thomas has the harder role of the two, I believe, since he has to accompany that spirit, and he doesn't get the chance to redo his mistakes over the loop like Owen (often) does. He has to mold himself around Owen's presence, both because Owen is the songwriter, and because Owen has that looping privilege. It's Owen's force out there. In this particular show, Thomas played the snare clicks on Lewis Takes Off His Shirt, something which only happened on-album and which I've never heard recorded live before. Just that little bit of independence really changed what that song did, what it felt like.

So we can listen to the St. Kitts orchestra all we like, and hear the contours of what he's made for people to perform for him, but when we're live we hear what he does for himself. I was privileged to buy the Heartland Orchestra Scorebook, which is in limited edition of 300 and too heavy to bring on tours, so is shipping for $80 rather than the normal price of $40, and the performers were given an absurd among of independence. That opening, swirling mass of strings at the beginning of Tryst With Mephistopheles? Improvised: "ponticello, play around with this motif, no player the same". The subtle creeping around on Keep the Dog Quiet? Improvised: "with loose bow / ponticello, durations of trills improvised" . On Lewis Takes Action: "arco / with lots of air / turn to random pitches, descend and die away" Every song as at least a few glissandos, in voice or violin or otherwise.The wailing to start off E is for Estranged walks the line between a trill and "like a wide vibrato." Owen can't control any of that, but he controls everything in his live shows. So they become a lot more personal, since he's not just speaking through an orchestra. That would explain why he's never recorded Honour the Dead or Else: too intimate, requires too much of his own spirit.

Anyway, let's jump in. After spending 2 hours waiting for doors, talking to a Junior from McGill and a crazy lady named Sheila, and 1 hour waiting for the opener, here we go:

Diamond Rings

I had listened to "All Yr Songs" quite a bit beforehand, but I didn't know anything else he was going to play. His shows walk the line between musicianship and performance. He sets up his beats and bass beforehand, and then either sings, sings and plays guitar, or sings and plays keyboard over what he has. Usually that kind of stuff makes me uncomfortable: I feel like musician really isn't, xe isn't displaying per talent or anything. But...god, the guy at such Charisma. He clearly put effort into getting everything ready, choreographing himself, and plus he was energetic! Dressed in his denim jacket, zebra-print chaps/leggings, purple socks and sneakers, with all sorts of sparkles and makeup, he was able to be over-the-top dramatic without killing his dignity. He's a pretty good player with a great, great ear for melody, so even his sometimes awkward piano playing yielded exciting results. He's a fine guitarist, as well. Great, great, great voice, very deep and uses it well. I guess what it made me think of was a 90's throwback: synthesizers and purple sneakers and raising two fingers to rhyme with "too" or "to" and falling over when saying how he's "losing balance." Lotsa fun.

Owen Pallett (and Thomas Gill)

The setlist is via Scarychips, a member of the fan forums who was also in attendance, and who decided not to say hello to me even though he recognized me and I was pretty sure who he was, and didn't feel like asking people if they were scared of chips or something. Anyway, he was a sweetheart and posted this:

Théâtre Outremont, Montréal - February 20th.

1. Love Song to an Empty Room
2. Midnight Directives
3. This Lamb Sells Condos
4. Flare Gun
5. The Butcher
6. Many Lives > 49 MP
7. Took You Two Years To Win My Heart
8. E Is For Estranged
9. This Is the Dream of Win and Régine
10. Keep the Dog Quiet + Mt. Alpentine
11. The Great Elsewhere
12. Honour the Dead or Else
13. Lewis Takes Action
14. Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.
Encore #1:
15. The Man With No Ankles
16. Fantasy
17. He Poos Clouds.

That's right, motherfuckers. Two encores.

Love Song To an Empty Room is a track I'd never heard before, although I'd heard he'd been playing that, as well as Independence is No Solution, The Arctic Circle, That's When the Audience Died, and even Better than Worse. We didn't get any of those, but we did get a slew of rarer/unrecorded cuts like this one. Much less a song than a swelling feat of choreographed accompaniment.

I love when Owen starts stuff with Midnight Directives. It's a baptism on-album, and off album it starts with that incredibly impressive run of pizzicato. The shift into This Lamb Sells Condos was a bit atypical, since he usually goes there from The Great Elsewhere, but I liked it. I feel badass that I can play everything he does now. His arrangement is a bit strange, in that the incredibly noticeable melody line that starts off the live reciording has to wait until after the first voice. That's one of the consequences of the looping style: you have to set up your accompaniment first sometimes, and then fill in melody and bass later. But the freedoms it gives you are wild and clear, and it was put to great use much later in Two Years. Back to chronology: Flare Gun and the Butcher were fine, as always, and that segue always works very well. I was kind of dropping off from fatigue at this point. What I was constantly noticing, however, is how Thomas interacts with what's going on. He's spasming, walking around the stage, inserting percussion hits where randomly appropriate. What he's doing is pretty scripted, I think, but he takes and approaches it with a hugely profound amount of sincerity and devotion.

Many Lives > 49 MP demonstrates two things about the performers: Owen Pallett is a melodic genius to be able to a craft a song which has a progression and emotional arc to it even though it's essentially a single melody line with some minimal bass later on; and Thomas Gill is an extraordinary skilled guitarist.

Took You Two Years to Win My Heart: it was requested back in Vienna last August, and Owen responded with a medium-length monologue about how she was "walking on his cookies." I thought it would never see the light of this decade, but wow. Raw and solo, it was a glorious performance. Thomas left, which is interesting; there are spots where accompaniments would've added a new dynamic. But most of his earlier material was intended, and is then played unaccompanied. That doesn't mean he doesn't add stuff to it: just as the improvisings he does over That's When the Audience Died instead of glissing up to the final note, Owen was taking more liberties with rhythm. It was also cool to see what he did at the end: cascade down and hold the notes for a little bit, record and repeat so it goes down further, and repeat that twice more until it sounds like four strings playing 2 note chords. Eeeee.

E is for Estranged was really the turning point for me in the concert. I actually felt myself falling asleep a bit, just letting the arcing melody lull me off. It was a beautiful and tender performance, and Owen managed to get some actual tone out of his strumming this time, which pleased me. This is the Dream of Win and Regine: he fucking nailed it. No messups on those octaves. Absolutely beautiful and energetic, wildly intimate too. Keep the Dog Quiet + Mt. Alpentine I've never understood why he chooses to keep the backbeat of Dog while Alpentine comes on. It creates some nice tension, I suppose, and I guess since Alpentine requires a certain..."suspension of disbelief," as it's not as jarring as it tries to be, especially on album. Do I really need to talk about The Great Elsewhere? Most amazing song on-album is religious live. Augh.

Honour the Dead or Else was wild on so many levels. Since Owen didn't have to do all the percussion himself, he got to do his violin-drumming parts (which is amazing, btw) but leave the bulk of the work to Mr. Gill. Better balance. The build off of "selfish selfish sleepy boy" gets better every time I listen to it, and it was the moment where I snapped and started really enjoying myself. Very well-executed.

Lewis Takes Action is not my favorite of his songs, but the live version appeals a lot more than the album version. Thomas always pulls out these really killer harmonies, which for some reason sound a lot clearer than those on-album. We knew that Lewis Takes Off His Shirt was coming up eventually, but what he gave us was something quite special: snare clicks. As someone who really knows Owen's live routine pretty well, that was jarring...and extraordinarily sexy, driving the spirit along.

The Man With No Ankles was slated and then removed from Heartland, and Owen played it solo. Highlighting moment: "Woahoahoahoahoh!" Fantasy, which followed, comes out of Owen's past, and it's a strange choice otherwise; no other song has that pop glitz to it. The two worked marvelously with it, as if they were satanically happy to be playing pop for a moment, just reveling in how "sweet" it all was. Maybe there was a note of irony in there too: RIP Final Fantasy. After a riotous round of applause, a second encore came though (the third I've seen: legally by Arcade Fire and illegally by State Radio), of He Poos Clouds. Solo. Oh dear, yes. He doesn't do the atonality on the second verse but keeps to the main lick. It's a remarkable song to play solo, in that the climax at the end of the "chorus" section ("move him with my...") has to be played first entirely unaccompanied, and then with maybe a little bit of harmonic power. It's a song that can't just ride on the dissonance of the chord or the volume of the player, it requires a very intent amount of control which Owen pulled off wonderfully as I struck an imaginary piano. Oh dear.

In sum: Owen has a sister?

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