Featured image by Ming Wu/Photogmusic
On Saturday night, Arboretum Festival presented their 6th edition of I Can’t Believe It’s Not… featuring the musical stylings of New Wave legends Talking Heads. The group consisted of over a dozen musicians – many of whom are Ottawa staples – including members of The Acorn, The Wooden Stars, Bonnie Doon, Heavy Medicine Band, Yellow Jacket Avenger, FEVERS, and many more. After some shows at The Manx, House Of Targ and Babylon, the last 3 editions of ICBIN have been housed inside St. Alban’s Church, so it seems to have found a permanent home. The show was sold out, with some people frantically requesting tickets online, and others disappointingly turned away at the door. It was a widely anticipated night, and the crowd – a mix of baby boomers, 30-somethings, and a new generation of fans – would not be disappointed.
First up was Fiver, the solo act of Toronto artist Simone Schmidt. Her music conjured up images from Graham Parson’s mystic country twang to the Grateful Dead’s storytelling folk sensibility, all filtered through her bare reverb-laden electric guitar and idiosyncratic voice. While I was familiar with her name, her music was unfamiliar, which is why I was surprised when I vividly recognized her voice. It did not take me long to realize that she was the singer for psychedelic country band The Highest Order. For the release of their most recent album, Still Holding, they reached out to one radio show per major Canadian city to debut it live on the air, and they were kind enough to choose my show (What’s The Frequency on CKCU) for their Ottawa release.
There was a clear anticipatory stirring in the room as people filed into the gorgeous church nave, but this excitement was met with vitriol from the subtle singer-songwriter. Near the end of her set, she remarked “I have one more tune for you, and I want you to talk right through it.” After the boisterous audience readily complied, she sourly remarked “I was being sarcastic.” Her music was certainly good, but it was not the reason people were attending the show, and the frequent display of bad spiritedness toward the audience between most of the songs was off-putting. This was perhaps an unfortunate pairing on the lineup, but in any case, the atmosphere was revived by the house music, a mix of funk and synth-pop.
The second act, Montreal band The Luyas, began their performance by stating “We’re not from Toronto, whatever that means. Enjoy this rock show, I insist!” This implicit response to Fiver’s calls for silence was met with applause, and the band proceeded to deliver a marvellous set of diverse and entertaining songs. The band clearly comes from a background of indie rock, synth-pop, and shoegaze, but the cool night-time vibes were distinctively their own. Each track was unique, as the members occasionally switched to a lap steel, French horn, synthesizers, and a bizarre guitar reminiscent of a chapman stick. The sprawling sonic palette, rapid-fire changing of time signatures and locked grooves kept the crowd moving, and their graceful precision was an impressive display of musicianship. I didn’t think it was possible, but the band even got the crowd dancing to a French Horn solo in 5/4, and it felt so right. All in all, a fantastic set to prepare the crowd for the night’s main attraction.
At last, the group made their way to the stage. Rather than beginning with a single performer playing alongside a drum machine (as Talking Heads had done in Stop Making Sense), the band immediately brought the house down with a brilliant rendition of ‘Burning Down The House’. This decision was indicative of the philosophy of the night, as nobody was ever centred out as the main performer. Instead, the massive band focused on the group dynamics and songs themselves, backing up the slew of guest performers over the course of the night. Over a half-dozen singers took on the role of David Byrne – a large suit to fill, but the performers delivered with the proper level of talent and eccentricity.
Rather than performing an album in its entirety, the song selection was culled from across the Talking Heads discography, covering from ’77 to Speaking In Tongues, as their famous concert film Stop Making Sense had done. The band pulled off a stunning reproduction of Talking Heads’ distinctive Afrobeat/art punk fusion, without sacrificing the rambunctious energy that made the original versions what they were. Beyond the flawless performances, the instrumental tones of the studio versions of the songs were also painstakingly reproduced- no synthesizer tone out of place, no percussion lacking.
One would expect the high church ceilings to have compromised the sound quality, but there was no distracting echo and the mix, as always, was brilliant. The lighting from below was reminiscent of much of Stop Making Sense, but with an added sense of otherworldliness given by the strings of coloured fluorescent lights illuminating the stage. Some highlights included the immaculate performance of Found A Job featuring Bonnie Doon’s Lesley Marshall as a broad-shouldered David Byrne, the transcendent finale of Once In A Lifetime, and the shadows of countless dancing figures cast upon the church walls during the performance of Born Under Punches. “Nailed it,” indeed.
For all the brilliance of the night, I was slightly disappointed by the focus on songs from Speaking In Tongues, with 5 of the 13 tracks culled from that album. It would have been nice to hear some earlier classics or songs Talking Heads made after their beloved concert film, but everyone was bound to have some unfulfilled requests. I was also disappointed by the lack of encore songs- the ICBIN performances all seem to lack them, which ought to be ameliorated. The performers seem to be caught off-guard each time, and ask the audience what they’d like to hear played again. The band was met with a cacophony of requests, so the band arbitrarily chose to play the two opening tracks and Psycho Killer again – great songs, but it would have been far more apt to re-emerge on stage with some tracks prepared. Take Me To The River, perhaps?
Nevertheless, the night was a ton of fun, and any disappointment I had came from my wanting to hear even more from this star-studded cast of brilliant musicians. All in all, I can’t wait to hear what I Can’t Believe It’s Not… has coming up next!