Getting me up to Boston on a work night is a tough sell. It takes more than a good show; it takes a great band or at least a good band with good company. When my pal Janine said she'd join me for Sloan at the Middle East, I didn't hesitate to clear my work schedule, and point my rented Hyundai west on I-84.
The doors opened at 8pm as scheduled, allowing us to slip down to the front of the stage shortly afterwards. The crowds wouldn't show up for another two or more hours. This wasn't going to be a show of college kids that have come for the full experience of a night out, but rather an older, jaded crowd barely clinging to their thirties. They hoped to time their arrival such that they would only see the headliner and then leave in time to pick the kids up from grandma’s. As I said, it was a work night.
At 9pm two teens took the stage. They both carried guitars. They both had spiky, disheveled hair. Brendan Little stepped to the mic, introduced himself and his conspirator (Brion Regan), and then began a set of six or seven acoustic pop songs. The songs from this 19 year-old troubadour are slow, and introspective. They have a Replacements-like quality, but filtered through the current crop of sensitive alternative artists like Radiohead and Cold Play. Maybe not as bland as John Mayer, but then again it might just be. Generally, the added electronic guitar swells and washes from Regan saved us from that fate. Little's fans crowded the front of the stage, but the rest of the audience was politely unimpressed.
At 9:30 one teen act left the stage and another sprouted up in its place. Furthermore, where there were two players before, now there were four. I was worried about the exponential rate of growth, concerned that in no time the teens onstage would outnumber us fogies in the audience. Luckily, I remembered that Sloan would come up next, and, barring any sort of ska-band takeover, it was unlikely the band had become 16 teenagers. With that bit of comfort in my back pocket, I was able to focus on the four performers on stage that make up Toronto's Spiral Beach.
Before the band played a note, three things caught my attention. The first hair. The band had a lot of it: three floppy whiteboy afros, one nest of glorious teased red hair on keyboardist Maddy Wilde, and one long, limp, greasy, black sheet of hesher hair owned by the band's roadie and merch man. The second lights. Lots of light strands strung throughout the stage by the aforementioned roadie. When plugged in, only half of them worked, but all the same, lights. Lots of lights. Finally feet. Stocking feet. Mismatched stocking feet. Bare feet. But shoes were entirely absent from the stage.
When the band began its set, I forgot about hair, forgot about lights, tried to forget about feet, and instead spent my time trying to understand the complicated world of Spiral Beach. The foursome is energetic. It's jagged. It's raw. Songs have lots of ideas that explode out in every direction. Arty post-punk nerviness could be accented with Eastern European folk or stomping dance punk. Wilde sings/shouts most of the band's songs from behind her Yamaha DX-7 keyboard, a few from behind a 12-string Dan Electro guitar, and a few more are sung by guitarist Airick Woodhead. Dorian Thronton's bass lines are funky, winding, entirely reminiscent of Gang of Four's Dave Allen, and the only consistent element of the band's music. Spiral Beach will do well when its youth gives way to a bit more focus, until then, go along with the ride. Maybe tease your own hair up, kick off your shoes and dance with the abandon of a kid with the house to him or herself.
After an unexplained delay, the four members of Sloan took the stage. None are teenagers. In fact, the grey hairs outnumbered the pigmented ones by a considerable margin. Of course the band's audience knew what to expect as Sloan has maintained its core audience from its inception in Halifax in the early 90s. Since then, the band's perfected power pop has lured in a host of labels eager to ride the band to fame and fortune; however, the inevitable has never happened. Who knows how many times the band has been "the next big thing" or on the "verge of breaking out?" Throughout it all, Sloan’s music has remained consistent, and its fans have remained startlingly loyal.
The early portion of the band's set contained mostly high-octane rockers songs where Jay Ferguson's guitar ripped through power chords that would make Marc Bolen or Ace Frehley blush. And it was seven songs into the set before the band came up for a breath. Sloan not only nods to the 70s glam era, but also to the decade's power pop of the Raspberries, Big Star and others as well. A less-is-more philosophy resulted in a twenty-eight song set list (before encore!) of short, well-crafted songs.
While the band seldom strays from its aggressive power pop, there is considerable variation as each member of the band handles lead vocals at one point or another. In fact, for a full third of the set, drummer Andrew Scott became “vocalist/guitarist Andrew Scott” (isn't that every drummer’s dream?), sending Ferguson to bass, and bassist Chris Murphy back to drums. Only guitarist Patrick Pentland remained in place. Well, Pentland and a mostly-hidden touring keyboardist who provided disembodied backing vocals from behind a stack of amplifiers.
If the years under the radar have taken their toll on Sloan, it wasn't obvious. The band only seemed tighter, more professional, and more focused than the first time I had seen it nearly fifteen years ago. With the help of an able guitar tech, songs came one after another with few pauses, and only polite acknowledgments to the audience. While Janine shot me surly glances of discontent during the opening acts, throughout Sloan she was smiling and swaying as much as anyone ever dances at The Middle East. I looked around, and while it wasn't the sort of show where the audience knows the words to every song (though some did quite a feat as the band has just released its eighth album), everyone shared Janine's (and my) smile and were intently focused on the band.
Unfortunately, early delays (if the stage is ready to go, why not get out of the green room and make with the rock already!) caused the show to run late. Thus, as the band returned to the stage for an encore at a little before 1am, Janine and I were forced to slip out the back of the club. Was the encore miraculous? What did I miss? Thankfully Brad from Bradley's Almanac recorded the entire show and I was able to hear for myself. If you hurry to his website, you can hear the set in its entirety as well.