Wintersleep hit Vancouver (and then Victoria) before turning their current tour for latest album The Great Detachment back towards home. The Halifax-originating band may now have members living in various Eastern Canadian metropoli, but when called upon, they come together like so much peanut butter and jelly and make some beautiful music. The band has been around since the early naughties, but started to gain some traction across the country with the release of their 2005 self/un-titled album, their second full-length. That’s where I came into the picture as about a year into a music website I was running at the time, singer Paul Murphy contacted me looking for West Coast press. I was hooked immediately, and when they popped into Vancouver to play a show at The Media Club, I was there. They steadily gained more fans, and shows grew from that sparsely-attended Media Club gig, to packed Media Club gigs, to venues double that size, to venues five times that size. Amusingly, they were originally booked into the 400-ish person Imperial, but I guess that sold out in about 5 seconds and the show got moved to the much more appropriate 1000-person Commodore Ballroom. The band is no stranger to that room, and the show still sold out.
There was a bit of a gap after their previous studio record, Hello Hum, came out in 2012, with seemingly good reason. They were busy cooking The Great Detachment somewhere in that time, and worth the wait indeed. The album feels fresh and polished, with a certain anthemic elegance, without losing Murphy’s distinctive vocals, and drummer Loel Campbell’s unmistakable skittering drums (and wait… bass on one of the songs by Geddy Lee?). Additionally, the lead-off single “Amerika” is launching them up the charts (the actual Billboard charts, I’m not just saying that). The big, chugging, sing-along-worthy tune is catching on quick and was a brilliant choice for a radio single.
Opening the show tonight was Halifax band Walrus. I had already been warned they bring a big energy into the room. Four unassuming guys came out onto a stage in Vancouver for the first time and played through a set that varied all over in tempo, interspersing big, driving up moments with interludes of mellow, trippy guitar. Singer Justin Murphy’s vocal delivery has an unusual fractured flow to it, like falling out of a tree and bouncing down a rocky hill. Kind of cool. At one point in the set between songs, he called out for some friends of his who he figured would be in the room. He was met with silence followed by a light chuckle from the crowd. “Oh… maybe they didn’t make it,” he said before turning into the next song. By the time their set ended, the floor was getting pretty full, and people were packed up to the stage. The crowd (also, lots of plaid on said crowd tonight) seemed to highly approve of Walrus.
Next up was Evening Hymns, hailing from smalltown Ontario. I had a only a bit of familiarity with this band, latching onto their gentle, sweet song (and its ultra-beautiful, ultra-romantic, ultra-nude video) “Dead Deer,” from about half a decade ago now. We were not to see a full band tonight though. Instead, onto the stage behind a compact collection of synths, pedals and looping effluvia came the Evening Hymn-self Jonas Bonnetta plus one. The whole set was bathed in dim darkroom red, so it was not exactly easy to shoot, hence the solo photo of worth I got when they were sort of still and a bit of a blue spot washed over the back of them. Anyhow, they made the mellow duo sound like much more of them, including Bonnetta near the end of the set, looping is own anguished wail over and over on top of itself. If Walrus had vocals like bouncing down a hill, Evening Hymns had vocals like lying motionless in the wash of a rippling lake. Serene and fluid, the set was like a palette cleanser of calm rollers between the riptide of Walrus and the big wave of Wintersleep. They were also helping promote a new album on this tour, called Quiet Energies. Bonnetta seemed befuddled by the city, the crowd (who I thought were actually being pretty rude, chatting loudly enough to really compete with the soft songs from the stage), the venue and the *smell* in the room. Wintersleep’s Paul Murphy would bring this up later too, claiming he was pretty sure he was getting high from the ‘ambiance’ in the place.
Onwards to the main course, Wintersleep! It’s actually a pretty short tour this time around, having had some isolated shows in the east, then running from Calgary, Vancouver, and Victoria before turning back to Saskatchewan and Winnipeg. So, we can feel pretty blessed for them heading over the Rockies to see us, though again, I think they have had a pretty good go in this town. I somehow managed to weasel into a spot just on the very edge of the stagefront, in such a way that I was able to glimpse the band a moment before they walked on in a big group embrace just sidestage as a droning musical interlude heralded the dawn of the show. I did look it up – after seeing them every show in town (and sometimes beyond) from 2005-2008 (and there were a lot of them! More than one a year), they then seemed to come through the city only when I was on vacation, so it has actually been nearly eight years since I last saw them play a show. Even I’m startled by this factoid. I know there was a little bit of chatter online somewhere about what songs people wanted to hear in Vancouver. I’m not sure how much they took that to heart, but there was a big presence of older material for sure, getting the crowd really amped with their favourites instead of just bombarding them with new tracks that they may not have even heard yet.
They kicked off with a new one though, called “Santa Fe.” It’s an uptempo tune, great to get the room into it right out of the gate, but immediately after that, they dove back in time to “Archaeologists” off of 2007’s Welcome To The Night Sky, and then I could hardly believe it to hear them yank “Orca” out of the vault from their 2003 debut record, a song that climbs from a tense quietness to an aggressive and jarring crescendo. Murphy addressed the crowd shortly afterwards, simply mentioning that they have a new album out and that they were going to play some songs off of it. A lot has changed for the band in the past four years, part of why there was a gap in albums. Murphy had a kid, the band’s previous label EMI was bought out and so they moved to the more intimate Dine Alone label, they swapped management. Four years later, everyone is older, wiser, embarking on a totally new leg of the journey with a new supporting cast, and it shows in the music. Many of the new songs feel more open and optimistic than some of the gloomy past tunes. That doesn’t mean they can’t still pull off a great lying-in-the-woods contemplation song. As mentioned, Campbell’s drumming is still massive, has this way of tripping over itself and contains brilliant precise control over the volume of each strike that makes you know who’s playing. Live, he is something and a half to watch and hear. Sometimes you might not notice those beats effortlessly carting a song on its back, but when he’s let loose in a solo, hold on to yer butts! Murphy, when not playing his guitar, clings to the microphone with one, sometimes both, hands as if he’s relying on it for support while his trembly voice sings into it. Behind him, lost behind a wash of lights much of the night, bassist Mike Bigelow unassumingly plugged away. Another instrument that is so masterfully inserted into each track, you might not even realize it, but listen in close – some of the melodies are completely strung together on the bassline. I was delighted to see guitarist Tim D’Eon and keyboard player Jon Samuel switching roles periodically. Both of them also contribute a heap of vocals to the mix, and on many songs, gang vocals and background harmonies play a big big part. Actually stunning, really. D’Eon is possibly the most active of the bunch, perhaps emphasized by his longish hair whipping around. You can barely see his face beneath that and an ample beard. Samuel was surprising too. Studiously outfitted with heavy black glasses and a sweater over a collared shirt, he was the last person you’d expect to see pulling some rock moves, but when he got to the stagefront with the guitar, he was cranking some rock n roll faces and lofting it over his head to the cheers of the crowd at his feet. If you paid attention to him when buried behind the keys and D’Eon’s hair and the wash of lights, he was actually gesturing and moving away back there the whole night.
They played a lengthy regular set, then left that stage to acres of whoops and cheers, only to come back and play a handful of additional songs, including “Breath Normal, Nerves Normal” from the 2005 album, which has always, and, I’m happy to report, still, includes an extended ridiculous drum solo by Campbell. Not as long as some I have heard from him, but of course, there was a time when they only had a couple dozen recorded songs to pull a set from. Now with six albums under their belt, they don’t have time for that to go on as long. The recorded version of this song is seven minutes long anyways! As I stood along the side of the room one tier up, I noticed a group of people sitting on a bench seat on the floor level below me, eyes closed, heads resting back against the lighting booth behind them, mouth corners turned up with satisfaction, completely blissed out by the music. That does sum up the listening experience for Wintersleep, though many channeled that joy by pumping fists in the air, sitting on peoples’ shoulders, clapping, singing, and generally having a great time. They have a way of making you feel cozy and all right with the world. They are not big showy rock stars with glitzy gimmicks. They are just a bunch of intelligent and thoughtful East Coast guys-next-door who possess a talent that speaks for itself. As they left the stage to a hungry crowd, Bigelow spent a few moments walking across the front of the stage high-fiving people, and then up came the lights to signal the true end of the show. Hopefully we will see them back here a little sooner next time (and hopefully I won’t be on vacation that day).