It’s May 23rd, the day after a terrorist attack at Manchester Arena and you’re opening your tour in that very city, what do you?
Why not kick things off by bringing onstage, straight from the off, a born and bred legendary Manc in Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr? Yeah, that’ll do nicely.
Not sure anyone in the crowd could even have begun to suspect something like that from this sizable and ever-changing collective of Canadian musicians. But as the 9 members of Broken Social Scene waltzed onstage, they wasted no time at all in bringing him on for the surprise opener and big favourite “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old”.
I for one did not expect them to open with my favourite song but so sweetly beautiful was it with Emily Haines’ soft and syrupy voice repeating those cherished lines during the bridge that it felt like its own standalone introduction, a taster, a teaser, an presentation to the opener. With its hauntingly delicate and cosy melodies, it just bathed you in its velvety glow.
It was timeless.
Park that car, drop that phone, sleep on the floor, dream about me
Not quite the sort of song you’d associate with Johnny Marr but he did stay on for one more as various of the (semi) permanent members shuffled off stage or swapped instruments. So then they “properly” opened the show with another live favourite “Cause = Time” which upped the ante and got things rolling with all 6 men feeling their way into it, Marr singing along, all smiles, and by the end they were confidently rocking it out together as one, louder and louder as the song climaxed. There was still a certain element of shock at Johnny Marr’s mere presence but guitarist and crowd alike enjoyed it and vociferously acclaimed him after his short, welcome and inconceivable cameo.
He left the stage echoing frontman Kevin Drew’s – who looks like Eddie Vedder’s long lost brother – thanks and his urge to stick together for Manchester.
Then it was just the band. Just the 9 of them that is: like a chaotic yet cohesive indie rock version of Snarky Puppy I’d seen 3 weeks prior. They chose that opportune moment to play one of their newly released songs from upcoming album Hug of Thunder and delivered a powerful performance of “Halfway Home” that fit in seamlessly with the rest of their material and kept the wave of synthesis we were slowly cresting on the rise. A wave we fittingly crested and became one with on the next aptly-titled “7/4 (Shoreline)” which grew and burgeoned once more – and not nearly for the last time that night – into a wall of discernible sound that emanated good ecstatic energy and culminated in the two-man horn section sneaking up onstage for their indispensable part in the outro.
Relax and breathe and release the shackles. Everything felt better, felt alright.
They chose not to let up yet with a pulsating and wonderful “Texico Bitches” before switching singers for the next song. The one I’d been labelling “the old man in the band” took the vocal reins and started “Stars and Sons”. Turns out this sprightly grey-haired and high-kicking bassist of the previous songs was none other than founding member Brendan Canning whom I knew of only in name. I did him great disservice because he was the most lively member during the gig, enthusiastically animating the crowd and jumping around and cutting loose. And he played some great bass, although the brilliant bassline to “Stars and Sons” was played by another member of the band. Don’t ask me who.
It was time for a Feist-less “Hug of Thunder”, their beguiling second release from the new album, and Ariel Engle proved an able, cute and lovable deputy in her absence, even when fumbling a high note. But it was adorable and t’was not a night to hold grudges. As opposed to “Halfway Home”, they hadn’t quite nailed it down yet but they grew into it somewhat and have a whole tour left to find its perfect little niche in the set. Not that the lovely crowd seemed put off by anything anyways but they followed that up with the hugely popular “Lover’s Spit” dedicated to the lovers out there and wonderfully capped with a heartfelt and pleading rant of advice to keep those “things” – *mimics handheld appliances* – away from us, especially from the bedroom where we don’t need 756 likes, and to find love and comfort in human touch and togetherness, be it in just a single person, or two, or even yourself. On a bed of lovely music, a speech from the heart to make your soul ache with agreement and guilt.
Kevin Drew cut a charmingly friendly figure on stage, engaging the audience pleasantly, casually and simply, intervening with mid-song banter or chatting away before the next one, he was a great watch throughout and an admirable frontman. The gig served as a cathartic reminder of the power of music to join people together, transcending the physical barrier between artist, audience and outside world as he inspired us into a soul-purging and cleansing outpouring of any and all emotions by screaming as loudly and as long as we could on the count of 3 as the noise level flourished to a new high.
He steadily got rid of all of the tension, theirs and ours during a special evening, joking around during the next song “Fire Eye’d Boy” sung by guitarist Andrew Whiteman, exclaiming he’d changed a lyric around and the chemistry in the band was clear to see as they all harmoniously jammed off each other, exchanging smiles and pleasantries along the way. It really is a great and comforting sight to see a band so at ease with each other’s presence.
They then performed two new and never-heard-before songs in “Protest Song” with Emily Haines with a great self-conscious and self-deprecating chorus about the long line of protest songs. One of the highlights of the night then ensued as new song “Stay Happy”, sang by Ariel, drifted into noise and jam land and then blended into “Sweetest Kill” for a while as Canning and Ariel traded different song lyrics and twisted and turned the tune into a beautiful cacophony of controlled music. It was a marvellous concoction of new and old, drawn-out instrumentals with repeated and climactic vocals soaring to elation.
They rounded off the night with another new song called “Skyline” and a vibrant “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)” enthusiastically roared on by the gleeful crowd to whom Kevin admiringly gave his sincere thanks for making it out and standing together with them on that special day before they slipped offstage. But within a heartbeat, Kevin was back with an acoustic guitar and invited Emily on for a stripped down, tender and graceful rendition of “Backyards” with Emily’s somehow husky-soft chorus so evocative and soothing. Band members then steadily came back onstage, one by one, to add their voices to the outro’s amplifying lines before hushing it down completely until the only sound resonating through the airy space of the magnificent Albert Hall was the sound of a few hundred enchanted souls singing together, in unison, as one.
It’s a heart parade, just be courageous
A fitting end indeed but also pleasantly not the case as they came back on one final time for their customary closer “KC Accidental”, to the immense delight of the hall, and its stop/start rhythm did nothing to lessen the audience’s emotion as we jumped and bounced around all the way to the loud, thrilling and joyous end, satisfied smiles on the faces of every single person, band and crowd, as we all took our time to leave by savouring the special moment.
There’s something so purely heart-warming and jubilant about watching this group of people play, proving that Broken Social Scene are anything but what their names implies.
(Albert Hall, 23rd of May, Manchester, U.K.)