Whitehorse / Jully Black / Zaki Ibrahim / Pierre Kwenders – Harbourfront Centre, Toronto – Saturday 30th June / Sunday 1st July 2018
This was something of a surprise to say the least. When we’d booked our trip to Canada we did have a look to see if there was any music on that we might enjoy and came up with nothing (although a week later and we’d have been able to go and see Courtney Barnett in Toronto).
So when we came across an act soundchecking at the Harbourfront Centre on the Saturday afternoon ahead of two free performances on both the Saturday and Sunday, we decided to check them out, fully expecting that it wouldn’t be the sort of thing we’d normally go to see.
Detained by an extra drink after our meal we missed all but one song of the first act – Pierre Kwenders. This was a matter of real regret as the one song we heard, the last in his set, was terrific. The billing of “icy R&B and futuristic hip-hop rhythms” hadn’t sounded too promising to be honest but meshed with “lively Congolese rumba” it all worked. We wished we’d heard more.
Saturday headliner was Canadian icon Jully Black, who we’d seen sound checking earlier. It wouldn’t be entirely unfair to describe Jully as a soul diva, but it’s a description that doesn’t do justice to what else she brought to the party – certainly r’n’b, pop and even a little rap.
And it certainly was a party. She has a larger than life stage presence and managed to create a celebratory atmosphere for much of the set. Backed by a talented band special mention has to be reserved for her drummer, always driving the songs onwards but with a super-fluid style that made it look ridiculously easy. I think we were a bit surprised how much we enjoyed the show, particularly the more up tempo sections.
The Sunday night was opened by Zaki Ibrahim who dealt in more up to date trip hop pop sounds. Much of her backing came from a laptop with bass and keyboards the only live elements – other than of course her fabulous backing singers whose dance routines were entertaining in their own right.
Just as I was starting to feel a little like I’d heard enough she upped both the tempo and pop quotient for a captivating finale which culminated in an extended ‘Love Made Naked’, the most out and out pop moment of the show.
Advance publicity described Sunday headliners, Whitehorse, as a Canadian folk-rock duo. That fairly generic description is capable of covering many sins but notably fails to do justice to their current range and ambition.
Husband and wife duo of Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland were backed by a drummer and have bite that few folk-rock duos manage. Luke’s guitar style is a big feature of the live act although Melissa’s bass brought a lot of urgency to the performance as well. With both singing, sometimes as a duo and sometimes on their own, the overall impression was of PJ Harvey’s more Southern rock orientated records incorporating the harmonies of Low.
Of course, if critical faculties had essentially been switched off for the other acts Whitehorse are far closer to things that MPT appreciates. Which you’d think would be a good thing but also meant that they were held to a different standard.
I’d love to say that I was blown away by the show, but I wouldn’t be being entirely honest if I did so. I did enjoy it a fair bit at the time and there were certainly a number of highlights, including ‘Devil’s Got A Gun’ and a climatic ‘Downtown’ which featured an extended coda showing off Luke’s guitar chops.
But, maybe over the length of an hour plus set, there were slightly too many mid paced rockers to impress me without reservation on first listen. And the best song of the night was undoubtedly their last song, a cover of ‘Ohio’ (and I doubt that they’ll be overly offended by that.)
Yet a weird thing happened when I got home and played some tracks on Spotify to see what I could remember from the show. Perhaps the performance was all what was needed to attune me to the duo’s song writing but I fell for everything I heard – and fell hard.
So, today, I’d be more than happy to suggest that the likes of the aforementioned ‘Devil’s Got A Gun’ and ‘Baby What’s Wrong’ amongst others deserve to be regarded as keeping the same company as ‘Ohio’.
Jully again with fabulous drummer far right
Overall, there’s no doubt that the Harbourfront shows were a resounding success for us as we saw three full performances of music (and a small bit of another) that were all different from each other, yet all enjoyable. Had that been all we got we would still have considered it a positive result. But being introduced to Whitehorse was an unexpected bonus to top off a wonderful weekend of music.
My partial attempt at a Whitehorse setlist can be found here.