Jason Williamson and Andrew Fearn are used to the shit, piss and stench of British pubs, but for their first-ever Toronto show, the minimalist post-punk duo known as Sleaford Mods were upgraded (due to massive demand) from downtown venue Lee's Palace to the slightly swankier, multi-floored Opera House in Toronto's east end.
The concert hall — set in a speedily gentrifying area with endless amenities and all manner of bars (cocktail, juice, Ping-Pong, nail, wax) — was strangely the perfect place, what with its comfortably bourgeoisie surroundings, for them to ply their confrontational working class anthems for the disaffected.
Starting out the evening were Toronto noise-rock duo Not Of. The only similarities between the two acts were their ages (mid-forties) and amount of members (two each), but that contrast made them ideal openers, as guitarist John Ex and drummer Jason Séance acted as palette cleansers before the main course, releasing waves of feedback, riffs, pummelling drums and an all-out fury that at times rivalled local like-minded musicians METZ and even subgenre progenitors Unwound.
During a 30-minute break between bands, the floor area seemed to fill to capacity and stagehands stripped away almost every item on the stage, save for some monitors, a microphone and a trio of milk crates stacked one on top of the other.
Arriving on stage to little fanfare, Fearn — wearing sweatpants, a baseball cap and a Chief Wiggum t-shirt — took a laptop out of his backpack, plugged it into a power bar, and raised a single thumb up to massive applause. With Williamson taking his place at the mic, Fearn cued up their first song, pressed the space bar, and off they went.
Sleaford Mods' sound is often described as some combination of the Fall, John Cooper Clarke, Suicide and the Streets, but really, they sound (and look) like no other band live. A producer in the studio, Fearn acts almost like a silent hype man on stage, drinking a beer, bobbing his head and bounding from one leg to the next as Williamson stalks the stage like Foghorn Leghorn, violently spitting into the mic while delicately moving about on his tippy toes.
Touring North America for the first time on behalf of their biggest album to-date (and first for venerable indie label Rough Trade), the two-piece got to English Tapas early, playing "Army Nights" as their opening song, and later performing tracks like "Carlton Touts," "Moptop," the bass-heavy "Times Sands" and "B.H.S.," all of which were met with rapturous applause and, as the night wore on, constant slam dancing from the front of the crowd. But for a band totally new to the continent, it was their older material that got the venue chanting along to choruses and spilling their beer as they shifted from side-to-side, Chubbed Up + cuts "Routine Dean" and "Jolly Fucker" being clear highlights.
Early on in the night, Williamson seemed to almost downplay all the positive attention, circling near the back of the stage between songs and offering wide, silly smiles before thanking individual members of the crowd. But by the end of the night, he was blowing kisses to everyone in the audience and genuinely seemed surprised by the band's reception. "We love you, Toronto," he said before their encore. "You've been really, really fucking good."
On record, their tracks convey a sort of exhausted, angry introspection about the sorry state of the world. But watching them live is a way more cathartic experience, as evidenced by the crowd singing along full blast to "Jobseeker" and "Tied Up in Nottz," both of which confront living a bleak, purposeless existence filled with drink and drugs, and with no end in sight. For Canadian audiences, the songs' references to Norbert Colon, Nobby's Nuts and the NHS may be difficult to decode, but the sentiments they express are easy to understand.
"I feel like we've connected," Williamson told the crowd before playing one last song and leaving the stage for Fearn to pack up his belongings.
The best music transcends boundaries. Watching Fearn smile and raise both thumbs to the crowd one last time, it was hard not to feel like everything, at least for the rest of the night, was going to be alright.