SummerWorks featuring Hidden Cameras, Wilderness of Manitoba, Matthew Barber, Colleen and Paul Toronto ON August 5-15

SummerWorks featuring Hidden Cameras, Wilderness of Manitoba, Matthew Barber, Colleen and Paul Toronto ON August 5-15
Theatrical chamber pop ensemble Hidden Cameras were a smart choice to kick off the musical component of the increasingly popular SummerWorks theatre and music festival, even if the band's approach wasn't overly audience-friendly. Coming on late, they performed just 30 minutes before taking an intermission, and never once spoke to the audience. Still, there was no denying the strength of the music of the eight-piece group (many of the songs coming from their most recent album Origin:Orphan). Powered by the strong voice of leader Joel Gibb, they deliver a sound that was, by turn, atmospheric, aggressive and danceable (as on the catchy "Walk On"). The biggest drawback was the constant presence of actors running around the front of the stage in various shambolic routines (one featured an authoritarian principal disciplining his students) that seemed to have little connection to the songs. There's enough dynamism and drama in the music that this annoying distraction should have been dispensed with. The projected images didn't fare any better.

New Toronto duo Colleen and Paul played the Performance Bar, a cosy and intimate spot that neatly matched their playful sound. There's a decidedly retro vibe to their psychedelia-laced folk-pop style, and their voices harmonize superbly. This pair aren't novices, with Colleen Hixenbaugh having paid dues with the likes of By Divine Right and fluent guitarist Paul Linklater currently working with Bidiniband and Brent Randall's Pinecones. Together they've come up with something fresh, as on a tune like "TV Summer." Joining them onstage for a romp through Beatles tune "I'm Looking Through You" was Ron Sexsmith and a guest singer. The theatrical element here involved people doodling and having their work projected during the set.

A superb fusion of music and theatre was provided by the play The Haunted Hillbilly, presented by Montreal's SideMart Theatrical Grocery. A musical adaptation of Derek McCormack's novel of the same name, it has already been a hit in Montreal. It's easy to see why, given its excellent cast and witty, well-written script (a sample line: "my tears are like my shoes, crocodile). The cast occasionally broke into song, with convincing country tunes written by Matthew Barber. He, pedal steel player Joe Grass and bassist Julian Brown (Feist) were onstage throughout, subtly underscoring the action. A festival hit, for sure, as attendee Justin Rutledge affirmed.

A strong roots-based bill featured the Weather Station, Entire Cities, the Mountain & the Trees and Wilderness of Manitoba. It attracted a full house, and headliners Wilderness of Manitoba deservedly earned a warm response. Fresh off touring and clearly pleased to have a hometown gig, they dazzled (albeit in an understated way) with tunes from their acclaimed EP Hymns of Love & Spirits and debut full-length When You Left the Fire. The quintet's trump card is their impeccable vocal harmony work, with most tunes featuring three or four voices meshing superbly. The result is a somewhat retro feel recalling the likes of anglo folk rockers Steeleye Span. Cello, banjo and guitars added atmosphere, while songs like "St. Petersburg," "Summer Fires" and the ghost story of "The Great Hall" proved their strengths as songwriters. Thankfully there were no theatrical touches to detract from the performance of a band that is clearly one to watch.