Photo by Norman Wong
Broken Social Scene Play Stellar Show
Oct. 20, 2010 – Written by Steve Hochman
Canadian ensemble Broken Social Scene is not so much a band as a galaxy. The musicians in its ever-shifting cast serve as part of this whole, but many also are the center of their own little musical solar systems outside this collective setting, with members playing key roles in such other indie/post-rock acts as Metric, Stars and Do Make Say Think. Even the biggest names to come from BSS — Leslie Feist (she of “1234″ fame) and poetic singer-songwriter Emily Haines — returned to the fold for guest spots on the recent Forgiveness Rock Record album.
|Photo by Dave Gillespie|
It’s an unwieldy aggregate, but the dynamic forces that keep it together were clear in this concert at the Wiltern Theatre in Los Angeles on Tuesday night. Just in case, though, midway through an exhilarating set, singer-guitarist Kevin Drew, the founder and primary gravitational presence, declared, “Ladies and gentleman, we built this organization on friendship and it’s worked for 10 years.”
In fact, there was a running theme through the show: exploring the pushing and pulling that seem to work simultaneously to keep people together and drive them apart. One key song bears the title “Forced to Love,” and Drew seemed preoccupied, distracted even, with worries that relationships of all sorts are constantly subjected to pressures that can send them careening out of orbit at any moment.
“They try to put you apart,” he said in one seemingly extemporaneous moment as the song “Superconnected” came to a decaying close behind him. “Passion is a thing they market and you might as well go see a counselor and work it out.” And near the end of the generous 130-minute set, he spoke of BSS having had “problems,” many originating with him.
“But we work through them,” Drew said. “That’s what you gotta do in life.”
All this might seem gratuitous or even self-indulgently petulant if not for the music — a shifting swirl of sounds; themselves depicting the kind of galactic energies in play. With the onstage lineup constantly in flux, the dozen BSS musicians wandering on and offstage as needed, and three members of opening band the Sea and Cake and even a roadie joining in to swell the ranks even further, songs featured three, four and at one point even five electric guitars (a silver Telecaster and styling Jaguar among them, with a Vibro-King Custom and ’57 Twin-Amp in the backline). And that’s not even counting bass (two on one song), drums, percussion, keyboards (at times played by two people standing together), singers Lisa Lobsinger and Arielle Whiteman (wife of guitarist Andrew Whiteman). Oh, and the four brass players who would arrive onstage holding their instruments aloft like trophies, play a bit and then leave.
|Purchase Forgiveness Rock Record here.|
Technically, only seven of those musicians are the current touring lineup; several others (including three of the horn players and violinist Owen Pallett) are friends or former members who just happened to be around on this particular night. There was little distinction between the two subsets.
If that wasn’t enough, the sound was drenched in a torrent of reverb, perhaps more than intended. As Drew remarked at one point, “Sounds like we’re in a big bathtub.” Drew handled most of the lead vocals against that backdrop, his earnestly pleading tones given a bit of a distant quality a la that of My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, often rising at the end of lines in a sense of hope or questioning or both. Several others took their vocal turns in the spotlight, too, underscoring the band’s collective nature – arguably an even more fully realized quality here than in fellow Canadian congregation Arcade Fire.
The sonic effect was sort of the-Pixies-play-The-Joshua-Tree-in-an-echo-chamber, yet it never seemed excessive. The sound was always rightly enveloping, whether it was a dozen-plus flailing away in controlled melodic cacophony or the new wave disco crispness of “Hotel.” And when everyone else left Drew alone at the keyboard for a moving version of “Lover’s Spit,” the isolation was striking — until the four horns, harmonica and melodica warmly joined in after a couple verses for a sound markedly different from the full-band version on the new album.
Throughout, Drew expressed intense gratitude for the loyal, engaged fans filling the historic Deco-era theater. In the decade of the band’s genesis and evolution, they’ve become as much a part of the BSS galaxy as the musicians. Drawing on that particular energy, as closing song “Ibi Dreams of Pavement” (with the crucial subtitle “A Better Day”) grew in sound and number of musicians onstage, Drew had the fans join him in screaming “I believe!” and laughingly declared it “the Broken Social Scene Gospel Hour.” He then led the crowd in the chant from Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in the Name,” but rather than an angry rap, the “I won’t do what you tell me” line became an affirmation; a mantra of manifest confidence and hope set to a genteel melody.