Published May 01, 2016Earlier this month, M83 ringleader Anthony Gonzalez released Junk, one of the more polarizing anticipated albums in recent memory. Both long-time fans of the band's grandiose theatrics and newer fans drawn in by 2011's danceable hit "Midnight City" were confused; from its Microsoft Word Art and McDonald's fry kids-inspired artwork, to its cheesy '80s sitcom theme, Junk is a left-turn from the expansive epic-ness M83 was built on.
However, the band's show in Calgary last night (April 30) found them demonstrating that they're more than their latest work, opting to play only choice cuts from Junk and balancing the rest of the show with material from their previous two records.
Like the calm before the storm, opening act Kaya Wilkins, a New York-based Norwegian singer-songwriter with the moniker Okay Kaya, shyly came on stage with only a guitar under a single spotlight, noting, "this is the most amount of people I've ever seen in my life." Her sparse, chilling collection of songs about loneliness and love quieted the room. When asked what her stage name meant, she said with a giggle, "Well, my name is Kaya, and I'm okay ... I'm alright." The 25-minute set was a short but sweet performance and a definite contrast to the flashiness and bombast of the main act.
The audience, unsure if M83's live show would equal the magnificence of the band's tour in support of Hurry Up, We're Dreaming in 2012, immediately forgot their worries as soon as M83 hit the stage under a set of thin, glowing fluorescent lights. The current iteration of the band, featuring singer-keyboardist Kaela Sinclair and guitarist and bassist Jordan Lawlor, set the tone with "Reunion," a standout track from Hurry Up. Later in the night, "Steve McQueen" and "OK Pal" were met with an equally warm reaction from the crowd.
The set was largely anchored by Hurry Up, We're Dreaming tracks, but the bright silliness of Junk showcased a looser, more playful band that looked like they were having fun throughout the night. M83 seem to be taking themselves a lot less seriously these days, which made for a good time, even if came at the expense of their usual beautiful, cohesive performance.
Gonzalez has quietly become a slick performer, switching from his modular synth and keyboard set-up to guitar while lending his echoing yelps. Gonzalez was grooving for some of the more straightforward tracks like Junk's lead single, "Do It, Try It," but he was stoic and emotional for soaring ballads like "Wait."
He's not a typical frontperson; he let the other members of his five-piece band have the spotlight and lead the way. Sinclair, who Gonzalez hand-picked from an audition earlier this year, nailed down the studio vocals from Morgan Kibby, Zola Jesus and Mai Lan on "We Own the Sky," "Intro" and "Go!," respectively. It was admirable that she was able to insert her own personality and strong voice while keeping true to the songs.
Lawlor, who spent the entire night jumping and prancing around on the stage with endless energy, was also a joy to watch. Steve Vai was not present, but Lawlor did such a fine job shredding the guitar solo at the end of "Go!" that it was almost like the guitar legend was there for a brief moment.
However, the unsung M83 hero may be multi-instrumentalist Ian Young, who whipped out the saxophone on a number of tracks, including one of Junk's best songs, "Road Blaster," and of course fan favourite "Midnight City."
The uplifting, towering instrumentals with far-reaching vocals are what M83 still does best. "Couleurs" particularly stood out, employing the highly satisfying build-and-release invincibility that the band are known for. The Saturdays=Youth cut was the only encore song, making the 70-minute set feel a little short, especially since the band has been playing four or five more songs on previous dates.
M83 are a band in transition. Their new, tongue-in-cheek and at times garish direction may not be for everyone, but this era in M83's history finds Gonzalez exploring familiar themes and pairing new sounds with them. It's boldly experimental for a band with M83's clout, but dismiss it at your own risk; Gonzalez is moving forward while still performing with his trademark gravitas.