These guys brought their soulful sounds to a packed Commodore Ballroom. Even I didn’t entirely realize the runaway popularity of this group. In a world full of indie folk and hip-hop, this comes as a breath of fresh air perhaps. As the lights dimmed, a mellow intro played across the room from an empty stage backed by the stylized stained-glass cathedral window of their Sea of Noise album cover, which included imagery of hearts, diamonds, tear/raindrops, guns, wings, stars, a streetlight and a UFO (etc etc). Slowly they emerged, with most of the large band outfitted in simple black suits to let singer Paul Janeway really shine. He strolled out in a bronze smoking jacket/cape thing that was flung off his shoulders very early on (to great fanfare, I might add) to reveal a bright red suit with houndstooth lapels. The set began as does the album, with the short introductory moody noisescape of “Crumbling Light Posts, Pt. 1”, turning an abrupt corner into the brightness of “Flow With It,” (punctuated by the aforementioned flinging-off of the cape). With 8 people on stage, it is a crowded place, though you mostly notice and watch Janeway as he paces the stage with a band-leader bravado, accenting his own notes or big moments or big finishes in the music with zippy conductor-style hand gestures. Early on, he draped the mic cord over one hand and let it freely swing there during a musical section, then picked it up with a flourish, as if performing a magic trick, before placing the cord between his teeth. He is great at striking a pose to appear exalted, welcoming the praise coming from the audience at his feet.
I always find a horn section makes a show ‘showier’ somehow. Glittering brass underneath bright stage lights, some sort of light choreography, and an ability to lift the music up a little higher or bridge over areas between bits of songs – they truly fill the music up. In addition to the brass, plus a guitarist, a keyboardist (ranging from sounding like a regular piano to a thrumming church organ at times) and drummer, Janeway introduced bass player Jesse Phillips early on, asking the room if they felt a little extra love coming from a certain instrument. Phillips is originally from a small community in BC, so this was as close as he was going to get to a ‘hometown crowd’ on the tour.
Musically, these guys are on fire. The audience was dancing up a storm, cheering away – and I had to giggle every time, somewhere deep in the crowd pushing up to the front of the room, someone raised a crutch up and pumped it in the air periodically. The tunes cascaded through big flashy soul numbers to ones that would accompany a slow dance in the 50s. Through it, Janeway’s passionate, throaty vocals soared all over the register, at times reminiscent of a Marvin Gaye, Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill, or even a southern version of Steven Page. His exquisite vocal control has him leaping from a soft, high-pitched- barely-there lilt to a booming ululation in a heartbeat. During the song “Broken Bones and Pocket Change,” there is a lyric that includes the phrase oh I’m down on my knees, and Janeway literally collapsed to his knees on the floor, where I then lost sight of him behind the cheering bodies lining the stage, but it seems he writhed on the floor, pulling the mic stand down over him at one point. The exertion coming off the man, I half expect someone to come out and mop off his brow or fling his cape back around him a la James Brown. When he did finally get back up, he simply mentioned he gets to play with one of the best bands in the world, and he was going to let them play. He then quietly left the stage as the band played us a little musical interlude in which everyone got a solo. Possibly the biggest reception of the night came during the song “Grass is Greener,” where Janeway really worked out his vocal range, accenting each change in pitch with a hand gesture of some kind – arm in the air, or a little tickling motion with his fingers. The crowd chuckled at each little action, and Janeway laughed as he bowed after the song wrapped up.
The main set ended with “Sanctify,” prefaced by Janeway as, “it’s time to get sexy…” and featuring some appropriately church-y sounds and a stained glass filter light shining on the backdrop. The slow jam and soothing purple lights built up to bright lights and big gestures and sounds, crashing out to end the set with a standing ovation all around the room. Shortly, Janeway crept back onto the stage and asked the room, “Do you wanna hear one more song? I said do you wanna hear one more song?!” The audience hollered in response. “All right, we’ll play three more songs.” With no signs of slowing down, they ripped into the encore. The crowd helped by clapping along to carry the beat, as Janeway gyrated to emphasize lyrics, and guitarist Browan Lollar coaxed cheers out of the audience as the brass took centre stage again for a solo and Janeway wiped his brow himself with a black towel before waving it as if before a bull. The encore and show ended with “Burning Rome,” during which Janeway walked around an introduced the band members one by one, including Lollar’s guitar “Goldilocks”, trumpet player Allen Branstetter as the mini version of trombone player Ben Griner and of course much fanfare reserved for Phillips, who was urged to speak the name of his town for the room, Grasmere, BC! Following the rounds of intros, Janeway exploded into a set of “I wanna take it a little bit higher” vocals, before again dropping to his knees and punching the stage floor, getting back up, whipping out a few more band leader moves, then saying a quick thanks and saunter off the stage while the rest of the band played on to silence.