Thursday, 2 October 2008

The High Dials and The Disraelis at the El Mocambo, September 27, 2008

Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I attend few live shows, though I enjoy seeing bands perform immensely. Watching a good live performance is often cathartic and usually occasions in me deep feelings of regret that I am not on the stage with a group of like-minded musicians.

Music, particularly live, is primal and carries the power of the simple soul. I imagine the first singers must have shocked themselves and their audiences with their expression, regardless of their intention. I'm sure I feel some of that wonder when I see a great performance. I was certainly impressed on Saturday night.

The Disraelis are a strange beast. They are three talented musicians trying to do something old and somewhat obscure in a time when audiences seem always to demand new (even when that new is often regurgitated old). The band has been together for a few years now, but I hadn't had the pleasure of hearing their music until Saturday. They are all friends of mine for many years, but I have been away, even while at home. Actually, I wasn't expecting them to be good, since I had heard some negative things in their early days. Nonetheless, I wanted to see them—after talking to two of them the day before the show for the first time in a long time, I was excited to see them—and I couldn't go wrong with a bill featuring The High Dials at the El Mo.

For a bunch of current or former mods, you might expect a rehash of The Who or The Jam, but The Disraelis' influences are clearly more recent—if still not current. I suppose they show their ages, being approximately my age. Here is where I feel conflicted. I find music reviewers lazy when they write 100 or 1000 words simply comparing their subject to other bands. Music writing should be creative; most is just sad. But I, myself, have a hard time watching shows or listening to albums critically without making such comparisons. Maybe the creative act in music writing lies elsewhere. So, if you want the simple overview, here it is: The Disraelis sound like a band from the Manchester scene of the 80s transplanted into the present day, but without the firm guiding hand of a great producer. (I'm not sure Toronto is lucky enough to host a producer as talented as Stephen Street or Martin Hannett.) From the first notes, I heard New Order, and the impression stuck with me throughout. They clearly also show a reverence for The Stone Roses. And I suppose I might say that that says it all, but that would be lazy, wouldn't it?

It was simple post-disco drum beats—not quite the kind that all cool bands seem to offer—but played so earnestly and almost certainly with clear knowledge of their source; it was driving bass lines, mostly unpretentious and unselfconscious; it was straight-up vocals, in the vein of Bernard Sumner, that didn't try to overpower the music but willing and ready to burst out in the moment; and it was melodic, playful guitar, nonchalant and flowing, that brought the sound together. These guys know their influences and aren't afraid to show it.

What I find refreshing is that, while so many bands try to emulate "the 80s sound"—because electro-pop is so cool—The Disraelis live it because they lived it. Not only that, but they are recreating or revisiting or reinvesting a side of music that hasn't really been revived, and they don't seem to care if it has mass appeal. The 70 or so people at the club watching seemed to appreciate them, too, though you can be sure that many among the audience were friends. In any case, if you like poppy rock music, particularly that Manchester style, this is a Toronto band worth seeing.

The High Dials must be one of the hardest-working bands in Canada, and now that I've seen them, I think they must be the most under-appreciated. I followed these guys when Trevor Anderson headed the Datsons, but foolishly I haven't followed since they grew out of their mod phase. Now I know just how foolish I was. The Datsons were tight back in the day, and they put on an excellent high energy power pop show. Apparently, I missed a few years of kick-ass shows by not paying The High Dials much (er, any really) attention until now.

Adding to the excitement of the night, the band's bass player was involved in a car collision on his way to the club and had to visit the hospital to get checked out. So the crowd waited over an hour between bands and The High Dials finally went on after midnight. You may have guessed that I thought it worth the wait. Unfortunately, quite a few others didn't. By the time they came on, there were probably only 40 people in the audience.

Anyway, it didn't matter. I was under the rock'n'roll magic from the first moment. The sound in the club was exquisite—each note rang out, even in the half-empty room, and the band came together like I don't often see. These guys are good, and if you like rock music, I think you will have a hard time finding better.

I wonder what it is that keeps this band below the radar. Their music may not be the most innovative thing coming out these days, but that doesn't mean it's not exciting. Over the last few years I've noticed a thoughtfulness and even a sort of wisdom entering the music and words of new bands, especially in the words. It often takes the form of a simple, stripped-down, and rootsy rock music, unconcerned with the schizophrenia of contemporary rock and avant garde pop. Instead the music is a vehicle for an experience and the expression of this new ethic. The High Dials are such a band, and their music is exciting in spite of its familiarity, and heck, it's definitely danceable, in a cool way.

The Soundtrack of our Lives was the first band that really conjured in me this depraved notion of simple wisdom in rock music. But I recognize it now in The Brian Jonestown Massacre and a number of others, as well as in some more cutting edge stuff, like !!!. I saw it in the High Dials at the El Mo, as I stood impressed throughout the show—and the extra long two-song encore.

It wasn't a perfect show, but it was pretty easy to forgive the late start and forget about the off moments. On a few occasions I saw The Datsons rock a club full of people, and I'm certain that The High Dials can do better. So I recommend everyone see them. Luckily, Toronto will host them again, after they finish a brief U.S. tour. Check them out at the Horseshoe, November 11.

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