Walk off the earth achieved great success by doing elaborate, uplifting covers of already-popular contemporary songs. It’s a pretty interesting approach to musical performance, and what seems to have started as a bunch of friends doing quirky things (like 5 people playing a guitar at once) has turned into a Blue Man Group-esque, high-energy extravaganza. The Toronto band’s videos go viral in seconds, and the whole phenomenon has really launched them to great popularity here (even winning Group of the Year at the recent Juno Awards). I wasn’t certain how this would translate on a live stage, especially one this big, and as it turns out, there is a massive amount of people involved in the band’s live show. Even folks who seem to be classified as crew members (judging by their t-shirts) appear on stage frequently to play instruments, change the set, and just dance around and contribute to the general onstage, feel-good love-in vibe. Colours! Bombast! Gang vocals! Exercise routines! This set had it all.
The large stage was crowded with risers and instruments, including brass, keys, a pile of percussion, light towers dangling with vintage lightbulbs and busted instruments, 3 different bright, HUGE banners that dropped one after the other through the set, smoke cannons, and of course, band members. They were all smiles and all a blur of activity, bounding around the stage and up and down on both stagefront and rear risers. For me, the highlight was probably Adele’s “Hello,” which they gang-vocaled while standing behind a table covered in percussion sticks and flexible plastic tubes that looked like giant bendy straws. They twirled the tubes as they sang, each one making a different tone, creating some pretty interesting layers to the tune. And of course, they did all cluster together on one riser to to the 5-person version of Gotye’s “Somebody that I Used To Know.” In the middle of that song, they rolled in snippets of a few other pop songs. All in all pretty impressive, but what got to me most was aptly-named keyboardist (and later, accordion player) Mike “Beard Guy” Taylor, who looked like a stoic lumberjack most of the time, was tasked with doing barely more than holding up the headstock of the guitar the rest of them were playing, occasionally plucking a hand across the strings, when he suddenly let out a high-pitched wail. Obviously the rest of the band knew that was going to happen, but their feigned expressions at that outburst where delightfully comical.
They come across as really friendly, easy-going people. Sarah Blackwood (who sings, runs around, and plays a ton of instruments) tried to get everyone involved in a sing-along, but when prompted to do their part, she stood back up on her podium and gave a feigned-disappointed “Oh… okay.” Someone else on stage (I didn’t notice who) said, “Toronto was louder,” which of course prompted an uproar from the Vancouver crowd. They tried it again, apparently to the band’s satisfaction, and Blackwood held up a signed ukulele that she said they were going to give away to the loudest person there. The band also got down into the media pit and Snapchatted themselves with the big stadium crowd. Basically, they know how to get an audience riled up, for themselves and for the main act. Late in the set, the stadium was filled with cel phone flashlights swaying to a ballad, and Blackwood did lean down at the very end of the set to hand the ukulele to someone in the audience as promised.
But, this was Marianas Trench’s show. An end-of-tour homecoming gig, it was sure to be quite the event. I’d like to say they always had a following here, but, they didn’t. I met these guys almost a decade and a half ago at a music showcase and watched them toss around ideas and directions and incredible talent for years with very few people noticing, but finally, something stuck to the wall they threw it at and it’s just been steadily growing from there. Heralding the impending start of the show, the in-house audio system suddenly dialed up a few notches and blared out Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” It’s know secret that Jackson and his brothers are a major influence on the band. Finally the lights dropped, and one a vast and vacant stage, the band stepped out as faint images of neon light palm trees flickered to life on the massive video screens flanking them. Okay, I mean when I first met them, they were very boy-next-door, and I obviously knew they’d gotten a healthy rock n roll makeover since, but I was pretty unprepared for what a pile of showmen they have become! I barely know how to adequately describe this. I was grinning like a dope the whole time. I felt superbly proud to see them attain such success after so much hard work, and the audience was just all over it. I know every band starts small, but there’s something really special when it’s someone you watched rise up. Drummer Ian Casselman was all but obscured behind a massive drumkit at the top of a huge, simple riser with steep staircases leading up to it on either side. Bassist Mike Ayley lurked stage right, a clear acrylic bass glowing in the stage lights. Matt Webb, on guitars on stage left, was bedecked in a fringed leather jacket that spider-legged out around him. Out came lead singer Josh Ramsay, covered in a sleeveless, subtly-sequin-patterned cape. He hid his head for part of the opening track – you could only see his lips moving as he sang. Finally, he tore the hood off his head as big fans on the stage floor sprung to life and whirled his blonde hair up behind him.
Things only got livelier from there, and heavier than you might expect from the recorded material. You know, no matter what sort of music you wrap them up in, the thing that initially attracted me to them all those years ago and still stands out more than anything is the powerhouse vocals in this group. The faces have changed a bit over the years, but the requisite was always a need to fit into the vocal puzzle they put together. They can harmonize like nobody’s business, though it’s a bit harder to pick up on amidst the heavy guitars these days, and Ramsay has a shredded wail that is utterly unmatched when he truly lets loose. But, it’s a show, and the showmanship was over the top. Again, the stage was simple. The drum riser and stairs, the big video screens, and a simple catwalk leading to a podium on either side of the stage, where audience members would do their best to lean over to whichever band member happened to be on those risers at any given moment. Ramsay has become such a consummate showman, despite the others interacting with one another and the crowd, it is really, really hard to take your eyes off Ramsay. His saunters, shimmies and swaggers around the stage, hauling a mic stand draped in strips of faux fur in a glammed-up homage to Steve Tyler, or whirling a variety of light drifty shirts around him, or slinging one of his collection of super unique designer guitars, or stripping down to just his tight black pants and showing off a bare, toned body. Actually there was a lot of skin on the stage! The boys like to dress light. Ramsay is also not short on sass, and is happy to tear lightly into someone for holding a sign up, for example. “Okay, I acknowledged it – now you can put it down so the people behind you can see.”
Partway through the set, he hopped off the stage and went for a spin around the arena, covered in security guards as fans descended down the aisles and squished across the floor to get closer to him. Girls were squealing and dying all over the place as he swept past them, singing shut up and kiss me. He stopped at the back of the floor and just remarked about how much less intimate stadium shows are than club shows, and how he wanted to have a moment with the people in the back. He carried on then, like the pied piper of pop rock, before cutting across to the middle of the floor where, just in front of the soundboard, a white baby grand piano had popped up on a riser inside ‘the cage.’ He sat down and said that it was time to class it up a little bit. He popped on a shirt that was waiting for him there and casually crossed one leg over the other, grabbed a glass of red wine that had also magically appeared. “I just walked through a crowd of teenage girls with no shirt on – amber alert! – So let’s class it up.” The piano just showcases even more that these guys are proper musicians with incredible talent to play – they aren’t the faces of some pop machine or anything. The cel phone flashlights popped up again and he sat there playing the piano and singing “Lover Dearest.” After that, he took off to spin around the back of the room again, at some point getting beyond the limits of one of the spotlights. The security guards surrounding him tried to shine their flashlights upwards to attract another spotlight but it never actually happened.
The band left the stage here and we were treated wo a video of silhouettes of Victorian-looking fellows in some sort of struggle. One guy eventually pushed the other guy over, and then, Ramsay came out and he was the guy who pushed the other guy! He looked rather Tim Burton-designed as he strolled out in a dark coat and hat, and started into “Fallout.” As Ramsay stripped down slowly again, I was wondering from my new distant vantage point what sort of strappy Edward Scissorhands-esque outfit he was wearing, but I soon realized what I was looking at was the harness that would attach him to the single beam poking out high above the stage and over the crowd. I knew this was going to happen, and soon he disappeared behind the drum riser and then lifted like and angel above Casselman before being set twirling madly and getting pulled out the the end of that big beam. He swam through the air down towards the crowd who reached up for him. The aerobatics were brief, but if he ever gets tired of music, he has a promising start in Cirque Du Soleil. When he got back the the stage, he got serious for a moment, talking about earlier struggles songwriting after the success of his writing for Carly Rae Jepsen’s stupendous hit “Call Me Maybe.” He told us that he got stressed out thinking that everything he wrote would have to sound like that from now on in order to be successful, until he had an epiphany one day that he didn’t care to make hit singles – he just wanted to write for himself. And hey, it worked out anyhow. It wasn’t long until serious turned to fun, and Ramsay got into vocal-coach mode while trying to get the crowd involved in a singalong. Casselman was behind the drum kit raising his striped-arm-warmered arms up to indicate when people should sing out. Ramsay chided the crowd for a poor performance. “I feel I have to give some productive criticism…It’s not your best moment.” He continued to do a little ‘Simon Sings’ routine where he’d sing a melody and then get the crowd to sing it back to him. He ended that segment by getting into an involved, warbling signature wail of his that the crowd had no hope of repeating properly. I expected disaster, but instead, the crowd just cheered madly for him. “Keep Practicing.” Wise words.
They disappeared again for a wardrobe change disguised as an encore, which began with “Dearly Departed.” After, the crowd recognized the intro to “Haven’t Had Enough” and sang the band in themselves. Ramsay was back in his harness as well, but before any more acrobatics, he went on a long roll call to thank the hardworking crew who put this impressive show together. The stage lights dropped, and in the ensuing darkness, Ramsay had gotten hooked back up to the rigging. As the lights came back up, he whizzed back into the air and out to the crowd. He up-ended himself and hand-of-God descended towards the eager fans below, touching fingers with a few of them. He was singing “End of an Era” during this portion of the set. He touched back down to the stage, was swiftly unhooked, and immediately handed a clear acrylic Flying V. The ended the whole spectacular shebang with a blasting off of a pile of glitter confetti cannons. The crowd continued to go bonkers. What a great thing to see these guys doing so well! Onwards and upwards!
Walk Off The Earth