The Singing Exhibition, Day 1

Photos by Jon Healy

Nardwuar the Human Serviette does jumping jacks with that goofy grin and clucking nonsense into the mic while his band of preppy punk rockers, the Evaporators, belt tunes ranging in subject matter from rashes to lack of government subsidies for the homelessness. The Serviette is, without a question, the most irritating personality to have been berthed by Canadian media but he’s entertaining. He runs through the audience, assembles a measly version of the wave in the sparse clusters of people sitting comfortably on their blankets, enjoying the sunshine. The music itself is, well, less than stellar.

“It’s like chaffing up your ass,” Jon the photographer says, “and we have to listen to it.”

Indeed, but the people are smiling and they seem to enjoy it. It’s not about the music, anyway. The Evaporators are a band we watch for “kicks,” for a “larf,” even as Nardwuar takes his shirt off and reveals to the humble below his nappy, hairy chest, as thick as a fleece pullover. And this, Faithful Reader, is how the day begins.

Thank Christ it’s sunny out. The weeks before had been less than miserable and we’ve needed a healthy dose of Vitamin D. This might be our last shot, especially for the students, who roll back to school in two more days. Alas, this is our last stretch of freedom. So enjoy that breeze folks, because it’s the last of summer you’ll see for quite some time…

Anyway, the crowd’s filing in for this two-day festival at the tree-lined Malkin Bowl put together by New Pornographer’s Neko Case and Carl Newman for charity. It’s not so much a festival as a showcase for 10 bands over two days. Maybe Pemberton has spoiled us but there’s not much in the way of tents: only three food stands, one for merchandise, one for coffee and no beer garden. People are smoking the dope, of course, but they’re sparse – rare for an outdoor Vancouver gig – and most smokers, tobacco and otherwise, have moved to the fringes of the venue, either out of respect or self-consciousness.

DeerhoofBy the time Deerhoof hit the stage, a small gathering of indie kids have assembled at the front. I’ve never listened to the band before and would confuse them constantly with Deerhunter (until I discovered in the not-too-long-ago that Deerhunter is flippin’ amazing). I had unfairly pegged Deerhoof were just another Pitchfork-endorsed indie outfit.

But within their first three bars, it was clear this was something fresh, something different. The crowd was bobbing along to the beat, smiling and soaking it all in as the band played, looking rather subdued – except for drummer Greg Saunier thrashing and flailing to their riff-driven weirdo rock. Vocalist Satomi Matsuzaki is as charming as a baby panda, delivering sweet and simple melodies like she’s been hired for a Japanese toy commercial jingle. Who said Hello Kitty couldn’t be cool?

Is that racist? Does it matter? I decide not. I’m no racist; I like Hello Kitty, in a detached sort of way. And now I like Deerhoof too.

As I bob along to this music indescribable, I see a redheaded fellow watching the set from the sidelines of the stage. It’s Carl Newman, New Porno extraordinaire. He catches me staring. I look away but keep pulling back to his glance. It’s hard not to look in the eyes of a person whose voice has moved me in certain ways over the years. Now here’s his face, in the flesh, out of context from the stage and the songs. He catches me staring again so he side steps to the right, behind a wall of speakers, where I can see him no longer.

Andrew BirdAnyway, by the time Deerhoof finishes their set, the Malkin Bowl is filling up quick with an eclectic crowd between the ages of 18 – 40-something. There are families too; lots of them, with toddlers wearing oversized protective ear equipment. I’m pointing a few of these kids out to Jon the photographer when some flannel-clad stranger sidles up and says, “ Mark my words.”
“Um, I will,” Jon says.
“But we need words to mark,” I say.
“Ok, uh, we’ve been talking about this and…,” Flannel Stranger says and tells everything he knows about Andrew Bird, the next performer, for the benefit of both Jon and I, since we have no idea who this Bird fellow is. Should we? Does this make me an insufficient music reviewer? Will I pale in the eyes of music snobs for being out of tune with the fine tunings of Bird or Deerhoof?

Whatever. Flannel Stranger tells us that Bird’s a musician from Chicago recording for the Righteous Babe label. He’s also a NY Times blogger and has quite the cult following. Flannel Stranger finishes up speech and stands silent next to us, looking awkward, as I scribble notes and Jon snaps some shots of the crowd.

What Flannel Stranger didn’t tell us, and what was apparent the minute Bird took the stage, is that he (Bird) strums, plucks and draws the strings of his violin and whistles his harmonies into an eclectic concoction of classical, indie and popular musical styles that defies any particular genre. This Bird can’t be pigeonholed (eh? eh?). His songs are haunting, complex and emotional. It’s the kind of music couples should be snuggling too and, indeed, quite a few in the crowd are doing as such. By the end of his 40-minute set, there was no doubt that Bird had earned more than a few new fans. “Pleased to meet you,” he tells the crowd and we are pleased as well.

DestroyerDestroyer’s next up. I’ve never been sure what to make of Destroyer – people either love them or hate them. There’s no in between, and that’s mainly due to lead-Destroyer Dan Bejar’s voice. His New Pornographer’s songs are either the best or the worst, depending on where you stand, but for me, it’s a matter of what kind of mood I’m in. Slight crankiness has settled when they hit the stage – I was cold, didn’t have a sweatshirt and the queue for coffee was worse than the wait for Space Mountain’s so I wasn’t swayed much by their performance. The energy is strong, though, and people seem to enjoy it, and we do live in a democracy, so they’re general opinion prevails. Destroyer didn’t exactly destroy but they killed a few. A success? I guess.

The darkness is settles now and the chill factor cuts through my long-sleeve T-shirt like the teeth of a wildcat. Summer, sadly, is over. All I need is a coffee but the wait, as I said is atrocious. I keep wandering past, looking for a space to cut in the line but to no avail.

Neko CaseI’m too tired and drained to stand around and report any longer. Jon the photographer is starting to fade as well, lying back on the grass with his arm covering his head. The comforting stench of pot smoke billows from every which way. The venue’s poorly lit at this time of night. People could be tripping and stepping on small children and animals, for all they know. It makes note taking very difficult

“This is boring,” he says.

“Yes, yes, suck it up Jonny, we’re here on assignment.”

Neko Case finally hits the stage. People are shivering. She waives to the crowd.

“Hello Vancouver! I know it’s cold,” she says. “Cold is sexy.”

No, Neko, you are, you sultry, sexy redhead. Sing me songs, Neko, and I’ll take your hand in marriage. I’ll treat you right, oh yes! You charmer, you foxy songstress. It might be cold out here but you warm us up like a campfire. Those pipes – they’re calling, the pipes of a country angel. I’ll happily raise out children, Neko, and watch you play every time you come around.