A bad concert can be enjoyable. Like with a cheesy B-movie, there is pleasure to be found in watching a band bomb hard, as depressing as that is. In these scenarios, the audience might watch, entranced, as the band fumbles through their Kafkaesque set, seemingly unaware of the nature of the attention they are receiving.
But Islands last Tuesday at Ritual was not a bad show. Not by any means. Instead, it was a boring show, which is far, far worse for everyone involved. There is no fun to be had watching a band plod through a carefully thought out sequence of chords and rhythms, singing melodies and harmonies that they have rehearsed over and over and over. I’d take a truly terrible show over a boring one any day.
It would be one thing if this unusual for Islands, but I can tell you from experience that they have always been like this. The first time I saw them, nearly 10 years ago at Babylon, they were upstaged completely by a young Gregory Pepper, then a member of the Montreal band The Dymaxions. After a rock-god-inspired set from Pepper, Islands took the stage to play their brand of boredom-pop and put everyone to sleep.
And let me be clear: I like Islands. My history with the band, aside from live performances, is very positive. Return to the Sea is one of my all time favourite albums. I’ve been with them since The Unicorns, and the fact that they play uninspired shows affects my love of their work only slightly. But it also makes me really hesitant to recommend that anyone see their shows, because based on shows like this they are nothing at all to write home about.
It’s a shame because they are clearly talented and creative artists. Why they fail to inspire anything but the faintest of toe-tap, even in completely appropriate venues like Ritual, will never cease to befuddle me, and likely many of their fans.
What’s more is that Ritual’s show began with an energized and dynamic set from Lushlife, whose recent album is nothing short of brilliant. Watching Lushlife made me want to buy his merch. Watching Islands made me wonder why I was watching Islands, which is too bad. I want to like them live, I really do. They just don’t give me much of a reason to.
Perhaps part of the problem was that, on a Tuesday night in downtown Ottawa, it’s much easier to sell chicken wings and Keith’s than live music. The venue was only about a third of its capacity, and much emptier for Lushlife, the opener.
Whatever the reason, I think we can all safely say that Islands will never be known for their live performances. However, if you’re interested in seeing some very excellent musicians play largely flawlessly, if dispassionately, they aren’t a bad time. It depends on what you’re looking for, in the end.