Bernice Drake Underground, Toronto ON, June 6

Bernice Drake Underground, Toronto ON, June 6
Photo: Jennifer Hyc
Sufficiently lubricated by a barrier-breaking warm-up exercise that had everyone chattering nonsense, singing communal tones and navel-gazing (literally), by the time Bernice took the stage Wednesday night at the Drake, everyone was ready. The band have developed a following for their outside-the-box approach to performance and composition, and even as the gig functioned as the reception for their freshly issued Puff LP: In the air without a shape, their live treatment of the album material emphasized how much their songs still belong to a natural state of becoming.
Exploring each song as a living, breathing thing, the band dug into their experimental roots to smear excited new textures across the breezy atmospheres, with liberal avant spatters of noise and displacement, applying improvised gestures in flamboyant warps, squiggles and skronk. The synthetic pneumatics maintaining "One Garden" compressed and decompressed with extra velocity, "David" got an expanded a cappella breakdown that had the whole band transposing the song to onomatopoeia, and Phil Melanson and Thom Gill emptied out the tickle trunk extra hard with trap snares supplying marching fills and synth gunk that made the top half of "Glue" stick and rip like funky velcro, singer Robin Dann ultimately tacking a soulful ad-libbed verse about "frozen grapes" and "retain[ing] a healthy balance in your diet" to the schoolyard breakdown.
And though the emphasis was on the new songs, the dreamy R&B of their 2011 debut's "New Bodies" got a rhythmic facelift that gave its positive vibes a starry sense of propulsion, and later in the set, the group debuted "Lone Swan," a drifting, regal piece inspired by a poignant encounter Dann had with a swan while visiting the Toronto Islands.
Between songs, Dann distributed bottles of bubble solution amongst the audience and fielded entries for a Mad Libs template, so even the moments in between were coloured with the giddy energy the band embody in their performance. When they capped off the set with a freaked-out version of "St Lucia," the encore call came in the form of an audience demanding more Mad Libs. Dann read out the goofy results, and then the band carried the crowd into the night, backing vocalist Felicity Williams taking the helm for a gorgeous (and surprisingly faithful) rendition of Amanda Marshall's "Dark Horse."

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