This Concert is Broken

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Broken Social Scene descended upon our town on Tuesday night to play one of the most anticipated shows this side of Rifflandia.  It was only the band’s second appearance in our fair city and it seems that the venue gods were on our side this time as the show, originally scheduled for Club 9 One 9 (or whatever they are calling it this week), was ultimately relocated to the hallowed Alix Goolden Hall.  Those lucky enough to get tickets to the sold-out concert were blessed with the good fortune of having no idea what to expect: Broken Social Scene is a many splendid thing.

In contrast to bands with fixed rosters, Broken Social Scene is a revolving collective of musicians, most of whom have their own full time musical projects to attend to.  As a result, sometimes-members of the band such as Leslie Feist and Jason Collett drop in and out quite regularly (or, as the song “Sentimental X’s”, from the band’s most recent effort Forgiveness Rock Record, expresses so adamantly, “off and on is what we want, what we want is off and on”).  Sometimes, when the stars align, there are 19 musicians on stage; other times, there are only six.

In the midst of a culture that clings to consistency as desperately as ours does, one might question the Toronto collective’s rather disjointed/chaotic approach to music and, indeed, to marketing, yet Broken Social Scene has not only made some of the most innovative and celebrated albums of the past decade, but has also become an industry unto itself.

Broken Social Scene are masters of branding.  Affiliation with the collective has played a huge role in the success of artists such as Stars, Metric, Apostle of Hustle, and Valley of the Giants, all of whom are (at times) members of, and endorsed by, Broken Social Scene.  Founding members Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning have each released solo records which blatantly invoke the magical name of the larger collective (Broken Social Scene Presents: Kevin Drew Spirit If…, for example).  Recently, the brand has expanded to other forms of media.  The past year has seen the release of a book (This Book is Broken), which chronicles the band’s history, and a movie (predictably entitled, This Movie is Broken) which weds a rather cheesy love story with concert footage from the band’s homecoming in Toronto.  Broken Social Scene’s cultural presence is as diverse and expansive as its list of members.

It is unfortunate that due to all the business and the business of the Broken Social Scene universe, with its manifold side projects, books and movies, it is easy to get distracted.  It is easy to forget the that music started it all―we miss the trees for the forest.  On Tuesday night, we in attendance at the Alix Goolden Hall were lucky to be reminded of the power of Broken Social Scene’s ever-changing music, the spark that has created an industry.  We had much to be thankful for as we took in the most distilled and current manifestation(s) of BSS.

Opening the show was Chicago’s  Sea and Cake, who played an incredible set.  While longstanding fans may have been disappointed that the band didn’t play any of their older material (most notably missing were songs from the band’s 1995 masterpiece, Nassau) and kept their heads bent in deep concentration throughout, their set was as tight as it was workmanlike.  Swirling telecasters were given a solid rhythmic platform from which to fly as Sam Prekop’s non-chalant yet infectious vocals and occasional yips tied it all together.  While the band’s almost jazz-like arrangements stand in stark contrast to the huge washes of sound Broken Social Scene has all but patented, the quartet is the most recent in a long list of bands who have been absorbed by the collective; they left the stage at the end of their set only to return later on to join the headliners.

Broken Social Scene soon took the stage, immediately launching into Forgiveness Rock Record’s opener, “World Sick.”  On this night, we saw a pared down incarnation of the band, which is to say that there were “only” four guitars, two drum kits, two bass guitars, a keyboard, saxophone, trumpet, cornet, maraca, banjo and one of those plastic things that looks like the bastard child of a Casio 177 and a hookah pipe, on stage at any one time, but the band seemed to make do.

The band’s comparative minimalism gave each of their songs more space to flower.  Most notably, the lead guitar work of Andrew Whiteman (who also played bass and keys) which is usually buried in the thick, atmospheric fog of the band’s recordings, stood out at the show.  Other instrumental elaborations included a saxophone solo on “Fire Eyed Boy” and a “Superconnected” guitar break; Broken Social Scene, despite their size, proved incredibly malleable, adapting to the limitations of personnel and production.

The band also adapted well to the venue.  While Kevin Drew confessed he hadn’t expected to be playing “sober in a church”, he broke the formidable audience/performer divide, which seems to haunt patrons of the Alix Goolden Hall despite its intimacy, as he sang most of “Texaco Bitches” sitting amongst his fans.  Later, Drew stopped the show for a “hug intermission” in which he jumped over pews to embrace the audience with almost as much enthusiasm as the crowd embraced him.  On this night, the Goolden, with its incredible acoustics and beautiful stained glass, had the feel of a small club thanks to the transformative power of the Social Scene.

On Tuesday night we were able to forget about the movie, the book and hell, for a little while, we even forgot about Feist (though her pipes were sorely missed on” 7/4 (Shoreline)”): instead, we were reminded of the music, which is the reason we fell in love in the first place.  It is an expansive music, a music of contrast and contradiction (especially evident as the band followed up the anthemic, crescendoed voracity of their newest track, “Meet Me in the Basement” with the subtle heartache of an old ballad, “Lover’s Spit”).  Our need to define what/who we were seeing was waylaid and instead, we embraced the dynamic noumena that is the Broken Social Scene.

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