Andy Shauf Was a Mystery in Vancouver

Orpheum Theatre, March 11

With Katy Kirby

Photo: Michaela DW

BY Francis BaptistePublished Mar 12, 2023

Standing solitary in a single spotlight — electric guitar slung around her and the light glancing off her black framed glasses — Katy Kirby opened Andy Shauf's headlining show at Vancouver's Orpheum Theatre with "Alexandria," a new song not found on 2021's Cool Dry Place. Her presence was a gentle lull that eased the growing audience into the night.

She spoke softly after her opening tune, her reserved sense of humour gradually blooming as her set ebbed forward. With the ushers of the Orpheum continually guiding late-comers to their seats as her set progressed, Kirby playfully joked between songs, reflecting comically on how her mother always assumed the track "Juniper" was about her; years later, Kirby realized maybe all these songs were ultimately about her mother.

Without a band backing her, the set was intimate and heartfelt. The tone of her electric guitar was warm, soft, and low as she alternated between gentle thumb strumming and more pronounced fingerpicking. In her last bit of banter, she mentioned that Shauf, unlike herself, tends to do a lot more singing than talking. "So you have that to look forward to," she joked.

After a short intermission, the lights lowered again while Shauf and his band emerged from the dark and onto the stage. All of the equipment on stage — mic stands, guitar amps, drum set, keyboards — were festooned with greenery. The decor, along with the backlighting of the band, gave the impression that the musicians were hiding in the bushes; it's a fitting set piece for Norm, which finds Shauf telling the story of a forlorn stalker who spends much of the album's narrative watching a woman from a distance.

The stage lighting was set in such a way that all five musicians stood as darkened silhouettes against the beautifully ornate backlit wall of the Orpheum. Hardly a face could be seen throughout the night; were it someone's first time being exposed to the music of Andy Shauf, they easily could've left the Orpheum without knowing at all what he looked like.

Shauf's set was divided into three sections, and just as Kirby foretold, there wasn't a lot of crowd interaction throughout. For the first of the three sections of Shauf's set, he and the band played Norm's first six songs virtually uninterrupted. The first six tracks of Norm, which introduce the album's protagonist, seemed to set a somber and introspective mood upon the crowd, and songs were followed by brief bits of polite clapping as the band pushed forward into the next track. One couldn't help but feel submerged in the songs, almost as if Norm himself were in the room —  the audience watching Shauf, Norm watching us all from somewhere in the dark, and God (who appears in several tracks on "Norm") watching from above. 

Shauf himself appeared somewhat mysterious and enigmatic, his gentle, high singing voice filling the room eerily. It wasn't until after playing "Norm" that he broke his silence and gingerly engaged the crowd. "Do you have any questions?" he asked, prompting the audience to break into laughter, perhaps a bit relieved to finally hear the artist's speaking voice.

The crowd, who seemed eager to interact with Shauf, quickly barked a barrage of questions —  "What's your sign?" (Gemini); "What'd you do today?" (Walked to the water); "How is it touring sober?" (He'd probably be asleep fifteen minutes after leaving the stage). 

This short bit of interaction was followed by a stretch of songs from 2020's Neon Skyline and 2016's The Party. The mood shifted noticeably during this section, as the stage lighting changed and the crowd became noticeably more boisterous after having broken the ice with Shauf. In contrast to the pensive, tightly wound first six tracks from Norm, the songs from Neon Skyline now felt like feel-good drinking tunes, with the title track getting particularly lively. 

This middle section of throwback tunes was concluded with a wonderfully tasteful drum solo that led perfectly into a powerful rendition of Neon Skyline's "Living Room." After this, the stage darkened again, and the crowd seemed to sense that we were moving back into Norm territory as Andy asked again, "Any questions?"

The final leg of the night was the concluding half of Norm, which granted the evening a sense of carefully curated balance. It also brought to light the symmetry of the album's narrative arc as it's written — the haunting, open-ended conclusion to Norm seemed to gently deposit the audience back into reality and out of the melancholy dream that is Shauf's latest.

Shortly after the final track "All of My Love," Shauf said a quick thank you and exited the stage, though he hardly seemed to even turn the corner before circling back for the encore everyone knew was coming. Shauf and his band concluded the night with fan favourite "The Magician," a warm and bittersweet palate cleanser to end a night of shifting moods and shadows.

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