Published Jul 11, 2014For the fourth and final entry in this season's triumphant "Live at Massey Hall" series — a run of double bills at the storied old venue devoted to boosting the profile of emerging artists — we got perhaps the oddest pairing imaginable. Destroyer (the nomme de guerre of Vancouver's decidedly standoffish Dan Bejar) and Basia Bulat, among the most convivial artists on the scene right now.
It was a study in contrasts, to be sure.
Destroyer's set opened with a shrug as Bejar sauntered onto the empty stage, meticulously unfolded the piece of paper containing his set list, and then tuned his guitar for three minutes. (That may not sound like a very long time, but I'm here to tell you that if you're standing in front of 2,000 people who don't know what to expect from you, it is an excruciating eternity.) Mumbling his way through songs he claimed to only half remember, and making wry and often inaudible comments between the indistinguishably similar songs, Bejar was never at home up there on the big stage. He seemed either nervous or aloof. Neither is a great quality in a solo acoustic act. And he stopped everything in order to tune his guitar for several minutes between nearly every single song. (Standard tuning each time, by the way. Unless he has a terrible instrument that falls out of tune every four minutes or so, constant retuning is utterly unnecessary. A tic, or a stall tactic? Hard to say.)
Bejar's remarkably successful career (an appearance on the Polaris Music Prize shortlist, celebrated work with the New Pornographers) has demonstrated that he is, above all, a deeply eccentric artist with an unmistakable signature. But his repetitive, poorly presented material kept us all at a distance, and the audience was left puzzled, unsatisfied. Indeed, following his set, my friends debated whether what we had just witnessed amounted to a kind of contempt for the very idea of a stage show. (My perceptive colleague reminded me that this is a legitimate way of describing Bob Dylan's performances, too. I'll admit that this insight complicated my feelings for Bejar's set. But I still landed on: "Oh my god I hated it so very much.")
But where Bejar's set was baffling, Basia Bulat's was beguiling. Enjoying a break-out year following her triumphant 2013 album Tall Tall Shadow, Bulat was clearly the belle of the ball last night. Two thousand or more met her entrance with hearty cheers, and her every move onstage seemed to be greeted with hoots of approval. Playing through several songs from 2010's understated Heart of My Own and covering much of her more expansive recent material, Bulat even dared to try out a new song on the appreciative crowd, name-checking Neil Young's famous 1971 gigs on this very stage as her inspiration.
Backed by a full band and moving between an autoharp, an electric guitar, an old hollow-bodied acoustic, and some kind of oversized ukulele, Bulat's set had dynamic range and emotional depth. Too bad the sound was so washed in reverb that her compelling lyrics bled into the watery mass of her accompanying bass, drums and keyboards. A problem at several of the "Live at Massey Hall" shows, this needs to be cleaned up.
Overall, though, pulling from the dark, creative Britannia of Sandy Denny and the dreamy psychedelic folk of Karen Dalton, Bulat's performance was both comfortingly retro and thrillingly progressive. And, above it all, remains her astonishing voice. Basia Bulat's singing is as powerful, as moving, as any I've heard — ending the night with "It Can't Be You" (the highlight of the show for me, and many others I am sure) she performed unamplified and yet still managed to fill the hall with that unmistakable, husky, ancient voice. It was, in a word, breathtaking. If this sounds exaggerated, go see her. You'll understand.