Sean Nicholas Savage Handlebar, Toronto ON, July 22

Sean Nicholas Savage Handlebar, Toronto ON, July 22
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Something is up with Sean Nicholas Savage. While undoubtedly the most underrated artist to grace the roster of Montreal's Arbutus Records (pals like Mac DeMarco, Doldrums and Majical Cloudz made a tribute album earlier this year), he's also too bizarre and eclectic to warrant major attention. It's a tricky fate that's been borne out in a series of releases, nine under-produced and overlooked albums, which plateau with this April's likeable Other Life. Sometimes the singer-songwriter's performances represent a master class in a strange and glorious new lifestyle. Tonight though, he seems distracted.

Elaborate, unpredictable and fantastically compelling live, he's a curiously postmodern phenomenon. Because we don't know whether — or rather, to what degree — he's laughing at himself, it's hard to tell whether, or to what degree, we're laughing at him. To say the least, the audience-performer relationship is complex; watching Savage play, it's like we're both in on a joke too brilliant and difficult to decipher.

Where solo performances see Savage add layers of self-consciousness, blasting deliberately primitive backing from an iPod, tonight features accompaniment from a lank-haired and efficient guitarist. "This is Perry; he plays with me now," Savage says with oratory composure, as if announcing a defected cowboy warrior. What follows is a mirage of tunes that feel underdeveloped, but conventionally so. The presence of an onstage comrade grounds the man in functionality, when in truth, his mightiest moments submit to higher forces that seem at once drunk and transcendent.

Not that things get too normal. Savage eases us in gently: "She Looks Just Like You" is an artwork of furtive and tropical tones, before, two songs in, he rips off his shirt and commences to groove on with quasi-flirtatious snake hips. Though cramped and restrained, he possesses unshakeable charm. As ever, he looks hungry, slightly rabid and perennially startled — the prolonged groans of "You Changed Me" would feel sinister were they any less sincere.

Indeed, anyone hoping to fall back on the comforter of irony, something to qualify enthusiasm for such soul-baring weirdness, are thwarted by a mesmerizing encore: holding in one hand a memo pad, the other a skyward-clenched fist, he enacts two new poems of wit, nuance and stark essentiality. Though simple on paper, the eye-to-eye effect is melting and tingling. "I love all these people / Giving those giant eyes to me," he utters, staring out like a freaky Lou Reed. "Eyes that I love / And despise." Whether he enjoys the attention or not, Savage's performance — while flawed — is utterly unique and unforgettable.