No, I’ve never done wrong by you
The Wooden Sky, you guys! They came back to Regina!
So that’s how my wife and I spent our Sunday night. The Grey Cup was on, we were in the middle of an episode of Law and Order, but neither of those means a damn thing when you have tickets to a show by one of the most talented young bands in Canada right now.
Gavin Gardner, the band’s frontman/axe-picker/crooner/songwriter/amiable gentleman is one of the most relatable musicians I’ve ever interviewed. When I talked to him at this summer’s Regina Folk Festival I was struck by how easy he was to talk to and how willing and open he was to talking about his music, his band, and everything even remotely connected to it. That shouldn’t be surprising I suppose considering he started the “band” as a solo bedroom recording act. The man must surely have a level of passion few possess for his work.
That passion is evident in he and the band’s performance, although Gardner’s on-stage persona is extremely laid-back as well. The band is at least as tight and cohesive as any I’ve seen, no doubt the product of months and months of continuous touring and meticulously-arranged songs. Gardner plays the leader well, his easy finger-picking opening up complexly layered melodies. In black skinny jeans and a blazer he looks tall but not imposing; he sways around the stage while playing in a dance-like fashion, a sort of serpentine movement only overcomes him once in a while. His voice is deep and rich and he pushes it into a sort of vibrato at times he seems in need of emotional rescue. Bassist Andrew Wyatt makes some of the most intense back-up singing faces I’ve ever seen but still hits his harmonies in short order.
The real key to their live shows, however, is Simon Walker. The guitarist/keyboardist is busier than Rob Ford on game day, adding numerous different elements to each and every song. One moment he’s contributing winsome guitar arpeggios, the next manipulating he and Wyatt’s background vocals through his synths, then playing some deeply-resonant piano chords, then whipping up a wall of sound to create an atmospheric texture. Oh, and he has an amazing singing voice that is a terrific foil to Gardner’s deeper range. His efforts go a long way in creating a truly huge live sound that faithfully recreates the soundscapes created on the band’s last couple of records.
Of course all that is in service to the songs, which show off the group’s immense range as well. “Angels” takes them to the edge of some kind of rock fury as drummer Andrew Kekewich fiercly hammers his toms in an insistent, thunderous beat; Gardner caterwauls his lyrics at the audience with something approaching abandon; and Wyatt pulls off an impressive double-duty, managing to perform a melodica solo (taking the place of the church organ on the original recording) while still hammering out bass notes as required. On the other end of the spectrum is the tender waltz “Take Me Out,” which seems even more like a slow dance waltz from a 50s sock-hop in person than it does on record. It’s a fairly straight-forward arrangement in that sense, with Walker’s piano parts serving as a beautiful touchstone for the melody.
Their set ended with an encore that was even more stripped-down and lovely. Gardner had professed his appreciation for The Artesian as a venue throughout the set and on Twitter earlier in the day. Like Dan Mangan did at the Knox Metropolitan a few weeks ago, Gardner and his band decided to end with a microphone-free group sing-along that would echo what might have taken place before the extensive renovations when the building was still a church, stepping down from the stage into the middle of the seated audience to perform their last song. There’s no better way to connect with an audience than by becoming one with them, although The Wooden Sky didn’t need it; they had Regina in the palm of their hand from the very first song forward.
Fellow Torontonians Wildlife opened the show with a lot of verve. I admit, I was skeptical of them at first; they came out wearing similar all-black shirts, pants, and shoes with orange armbands tied on their left biceps. I have in immediate distrust or dislike of bands with “uniforms” and I’m not entirely sure why; I guess I bristle at the idea that anything should be more important than the music to a group of musicians, especially appearance (to that end I must also say that I hated the lead singer’s haircut; can’t we be done with swoopy, asymetrical, bang-heavy hairdos?). Despite those reservations they played a roughly hour-long set that ultimately won me over; despite being severely crowded by an already-small stage crammed full of gear the band tried to move as much as possible to get the energy up. Kudos to their drummer Dwayne Christie especially — in addition to playing as hard and fast as possible he’s also the most excitable band member, frequently jumping up from his stool and playing on his feet when the mood strikes.
The group’s songs are well-arranged, often starting with a quieter introductory section before building up the tension and exploding into a distortion-heavy burst at the end. But others like the terrific “Sea Dreamer” burst forth with an infectious drum beat and spirited, intertwining guitars.
As far as young bands go they’re off to a great start. Still, there were a number of songs that seemed dashed-off lyrically, some unfortunate couplets that possibly shouldn’t have made it past the first-draft stage being too clearly featured (I’m also pretty sure they ripped off a drum pattern directly from a song by The National, which is mostly okay; if you’re going to lift someone’s style it might as well be Bryan Devendorf). But that’s a minor quibble — I fully expect to be blown away by their next full-length record, which they informed us will be released in the spring.