By Matthew Stella
Last night BANNED: A Live Projection Experience went down at Babylon. It was a jam packed bill with locals Benoit Christie and Atherton, Montreal’s Dany Laj and the Looks and Calgary’s Miesha and the Spanks warming up for the projection experience featuring Brooklyn’s Old Monk. For any of you cultural protectionists who support the new application fees for international bands (does anyone actually support them?), having four canadian bands play along with an American band is but one of the ways that cross-border exchanges can actually enrich Canada’s cultural tapestry.
I unfortunately could not make it to the opening acts because I was flying into Ottawa, but after taking a cab to my house and then sprinting to Babylon (with a few walking breaks in between) I was able to see Dany Laj leading the crowd in a call and response chant “bullshit!”
The place was decorated with multiple projection screens side by side displaying anything from random photo slides to the final credits of Darjeeling Limited.
After Laj and his Looks departed the stage, a white screen was set up where a band should be and a projector was placed in front of the stage where the most diehard fans should be. Communication with the band via e-mail concert organizer Liam Mooney instructed them to begin warming up and to prepare for a sound check. When all was set up the three-piece band, playing in what looked like an old house, appeared on screen to applause from the rowdy crowd, but no sound was coming out. After a few minutes and a computer change the DJ cut the music and Old Monk was heard wailing on their instruments.
Singer/guitarist Josh Carrafa would approach the camera to read e-mails from Ottawa telling him when to begin. Why the group and the organizers never exchanged phone numbers remains a mystery to me, but e-mail seemed to work quite effectively. After the final directions from Ottawa the band took their places and pounded out the opening chords to their single “Attica” which caught the crowd’s attention.
From then on it was a one-way exchange between band and crowd as Old Monk tore through a frenetic set of mostly new songs that will some day comprise their second LP while the crowd’s cheers went unheard by the band. The sound in Babylon was quite good, both Carrafa’s vocals, which shifted from restrained, to falsetto, to some kind of Malkmus-like warble (often in the same bar) came through clearly as did his constant effortless riffing. Backed by a solid rhythm section of Ian Burns, who appeared on screen as a flailing ball of drumsticks and hair, and Tsugumi Takashi who swayed back and forth in front of the camera while anchoring the prog-punks on bass, Old Monk’s musicianship was the first thing that caught the crowd’s attention.
Carrafa, embracing the new unorthodox set up, bounced around the small space in which the band had confined themselves, and often approached the camera to show of some of his more impressive riffs. The crowd, ever vocal, shouted out requests in between songs, made jokes and even stuck a live microphone in front to the screen to line up with Carrafa’s face. The only thing that was affected sound-wise was the banter coming from New York, though Carrafa was head to say something along the lines of, “we like Canadians, except for the one’s who did the things that we are taking a stand against.” This was a very eloquent, though abstract, way of reiterating the bullshit chant that Laj had directed toward the Harper government earlier in the night.
As a spectacle, the night was a resounding success. Old Monk was successfully brought to Canada despite the regulations in place that prevent such events from taking place. Fans were treated to an amazing show, but of course this event was meant to highlight the negative effects of these new international artist regulations. So if the show went well, if Old Monk found new fans without having to leave the comfort and safety of their Brooklyn bubble, then what was lost in this event?
For starters this event was potentially the first of its kind in Ottawa. It was a novel idea and was popular because it was done as a creative form of protest. No band could effectively do a projection concert tour of Canada. This could never become the norm. The crowd was into it, the crowd was cheering and bantering with the band in jest. If they aren’t in on the joke then it doesn’t work.
After the show I went to Old Monk’s label eeniemeenie.com to buy a record. At $12 I thought it was a steal, but with shipping to Canada the entire thing comes to $26. Bands, especially up-and-comers make their money off selling records, and more importantly merchandise. There was no way to support this band in such a way that it would help their name spread. No t-shirts and no albums were sold by the band.
As soon as the show ended the band waved goodbye and the live stream was stopped. There was no way for Old Monk to talk to fans, to mingle with the opening acts, to get to know people in the Ottawa music scene that could help them out with shows or tours or collaborations.
This is what is lost when international acts face barriers when trying to come to Canada. They do not take jobs away from Canadian artists. This is an absurd notion that has no basis in reality whatsoever. Art requires collaboration and cooperation not competition and protectionism.
Events such as BANNED are fun, creative and interesting, but they cannot become the norm for live music in Canada. This also seems like it’s an issue that is just small enough that we as individuals could potentially push the government to reverse its position on the matter or at least bring it up for debate in the House of Commons again. A petition has been circulating online for some time now. It has reached 132,000 signatures, and apparently if it gets 150,000 this will re-open the debate on the issue. I don’t know if this is true, but I’d like to find out. So please sign the petition, support your local scene, buy Old Monk’s music and stay tuned for BANNED 2.