There aren't too many folks around who can describe what it was like to see Hank Williams perform, but what you often hear is that his power over audiences came from a subdued intensity, and that kind of intensity is what separates Romano from so many other singer-songwriters. An audience gets a special charge from knowing they are seeing a singular figure onstage.
If that Hank Williams comparison seems extreme, it might be noted that not every one of Romano's offerings was solid gold. "Chicken Bill" offered many of the same novelty elements as the Viagra song but felt under-realized, more like half a song. Given the number of excellent tracks Romano has written, and the relatively short time he was allotted, "Chicken Bill" should have been nowhere near the set list. A vocal duet to close Romano's opening slot with steel guitarist Aaron Goldstein showed some signs of nerves as well.
An intricate, pounding sonic landscape and a multi-instrumental challenge bordering on stunt-work made it clear from the opening song of "Killing Time Is Murder" that Whitehorse's performance was going to exist in rarified air. But as each song began with the same percussive onslaught, this foundation became a little less fulfilling. Stronger lyrical offerings like "Broken" and "Devil's Got a Gun" were improved to no end by the keyboard layers, drum loops and first-rate lighting, but some of the duo's weaker compositions seemed propped up by all the dramaturgy and dynamic soundscapes.
Whitehorse's performance was a study in extremes. At times Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland seemed to possess a raw power reminiscent of the White Stripes when they were ascending to the top; at other times, the show bordered on affected musical theatre. What made the more tedious moments forgivable was the knowledge that at any point Doucet was capable of ripping off a world-class guitar riff. That he meted these out sparingly is testament to the grander ambitions of the duo.
"Wisconsin" had a sinister Tom Waits vibe and drew a roar of applause on the line, "They're busting unions in Toronto," McClelland's vocal power shone brightest on "Out Like a Lion," and "Achilles' Desire" was a tour de force from start to finish.
One of the many charming touches was a photo of an old white dog taped to the mic stand. The dog, named after Levon Helm, was rescued by the couple. McClelland used a story about Levon's adoption to promote Ladybird Animal Sanctuary, which she started with friends. Doucet gave a sincere speech of his own, talking about what it meant to a Toronto musician to headline Massey Hall. He then plugged their recent EP The Road to Massey Hall. If they'd only played a song from that record such as "Strawberry Blonde" or "If You Could Read My Mind" after the speech, the place would have exploded. And it could have lessened the burden on some of Whitehorse's lesser efforts like "Annie Lu."
A powerful encore included the lovely "Emerald Isle" and then, most beautifully, a rendition of "When the Lights Went Out in Hogtown" performed in complete darkness with no amplification. Romano rejoined the lovebirds for some killer three-part harmony on Bruce Springsteen's "I'm on Fire," and the only unfortunate thing about this was that the solo verse given to Romano was completely drowned out by applause. Doucet and McClelland encouraged the audience to serenade them offstage with the chorus to that simple gem of a song, one of those closers that had all the white-bearded men whistling it afterwords, meeting eyes in a way that communicated, "Hey that was pretty good."
To see Exclaim!'s Whitehorse photo gallery, courtesy of Fil ZuZarte, head here.