The triple bill of real life friends (Sandy) Alex G, Japanese Breakfast, and Cende share overlapping fan bases, and the level of stoked-ness was high for the Philadelphia- and Brooklyn-based bands as they made their way to the sold out Velvet Underground in Toronto last night (July 2). While their music isn't all that similar, each act emanated the same alluring warmth and honesty, letting their DIY roots show.
Fresh off the release of their cheekily titled debut album, #1 Hit Single, Cende was up first. The quartet, featuring members of Porches and LVL UP, ripped through a 30-minute set of sizzling power-pop filled, blending breezy and muscular guitars with clean melodies. On "Bed", singer-guitarist Cameron Wisch's strained howl was fitting for the simple, catchy breakup song. For their final song, Japanese Breakfast's Michelle Zauner joined Cende for the bittersweet "What I Want," giving gentle contrast to Wisch's harsh vocal style.
Following a residency at the recently closed Silver Dollar Room and an opening set for shoegaze icons Slowdive in Toronto in the last two months, Zauner joked that, "Toronto is basically my second home now." As such, Japanese Breakfast seemed tighter than ever, seamlessly jumping from the loose, jangly pop songs from last year's breakout record Psychopomp, to the futuristic sounds of their upcoming album, Soft Sounds From Another Planet. On the former's "Jane Cum," the band beefed up the dreamy tune with extra distortion, climaxing with Zauner powerfully screaming the chorus.
Ending with Soft Sounds From Another Planet's lead single "Machinist", Zauner mixed spoken word and soothing auto-tune with nebulous electronics, as she danced around the stage and into the crowd; it was an exciting sneak peek at the direction Japanese Breakfast is heading.
Headliner Alex Giannascoli — better known now as (Sandy) Alex G — took to the stage with his four-piece band, immediately launching into "Judge" from his recent eighth album, Rocket. The group then played rocking versions of the alt-country tracks "Bobby" and "Proud," with brilliant violinist Molly Germer providing both songs' standout feature. Although some of the twangy nuance was lost in a live setting, the versatility of G's songs shone through, proving their capability as sticky earworms no matter how they are played.
Aside from "Bug" and "Kicker" from 2015's Beach Music (which the crowd went nuts for), the first half of the show was devoted mostly to new material. G swapped guitar for keyboard during an abbreviated, but superfast and heavy industrial pounding of "Brick," segueing the noise into the jumbled "Horse." "County," meanwhile, heard the band go into full jazz mode, culminating with G leaning over his keyboard open-palmed, hitting random keys and adding to the ruckus with the instrument's built-in tinny drum beat.
Regardless of the recently added "(Sandy)" to his stage name, the delightfully unpredictable spirit of G's live show remains the same as ever, and the band took audience requests for the second half of the set. Appeasing the screaming fans, the band played "Sarah," "Mary," and "So" from 2012's Trick, each triggering a mini mosh pit at the front of the stage, and a collective sing-a-long from the rest of the audience. Slower fan favourites like "Harvey" from 2014's DSU and "Gnaw" from 2010's Race were equally well-received, moving the crowd to sway back and forth in unison.
Despite all the energy he generates, G is a relatively relaxed performer — a glazed look in his eyes, gritted teeth, maintaining a wide stance as he bounced from side to side.
After self-recording and self-releasing his first five albums and several EPs through Bandcamp, G gained a sizeable cult-like following for his off-kilter songwriting. He isn't afraid of trying new, weird techniques or delving into multiple genres on his records. With the messy charm of his live show, G pushes that philosophy further, adding spontaneity to familiar songs, tweaking performances according to who's on tour with him. So in the spirit of collaboration for last night's final song, G invited Zauner back on stage to sing the calm, reassuring "Brite Boy".
Both Zauner's Japanese Breakfast and (Sandy) Alex G are on the verge of breaking out beyond their grassroots beginnings, and last night's show captured both bright talents on the brink of the tricky transition from revered bedroom songwriters to acclaimed indie superstars.