Carly Rae Jepsen and Bleachers Transcended Their Hits in Toronto

Budweiser Stage, September 22

Photo: Stephen McGill

BY Ian GormelyPublished Sep 23, 2022

On paper, Bleachers and Carly Rae Jepsen occupy different corners of the poptimist landscape. The former is essentially a vehicle for pop star-whisperer Jack Antonoff's bombastic '80s-indebted production and ever-changing aesthetics. The latter, a musical theatre kid, has subtlety tweaked and refined the same soft-light dance pop sound for over a decade.

Yet, as Antonoff noted at the second of two co-headlining gigs with Jepsen, their paths have crossed many times over the years. "Carly Rae Jepsen was the first person that let me write a song with her," he said, bringing her out twice to sing with him and his band.

Their kinship shouldn't be that surprising. Both are unabashed pop music fans who aren't about to let a high concept or fleeting perception of cool get in the way of a good hook. Like ABBA, whose music played throughout much of the gaps between the headliners' sets, Bleachers and Jepsen aim to be classic with relatively little regard for being hip.

Bleachers' set started obnoxiously early, with more folks still in line at the merch booth than sitting in their seats. Antonoff kicked things off sitting on a stool in front of a flickering screen, singing "91" to a backing track — a rare moment of calm for the singer. Joined by the five other members of the band, he soon had everyone shouting along to "Let's Get Married."

Live, Bleachers lean into the rock side of their sound, with Antonoff playing the Billy Joel/Bruce Springsteen everyman gang leader riling up the crowd as his bandmates tussle around behind him. Jepsen came out for "Hate That You Know Me," and again later in the set for "Shadow," while the band offered both Tom Waits ("Jersey Girl" swapping out references to Antonoff's home state for more regionally appropriate ones) and the Waterboys ("The Whole of the Moon").

At times, Antonoff was visibly frustrated by both malfunctioning in-ear monitors and a perceived lack of enthusiasm from the crowd, which swelled to capacity during the set. He even stopped "Rollercoaster" when the audience didn't sufficiently pop off the way he had hoped. This could have been part of a shtick, but Antonoff seemed to be searching for a catharsis that requires a level of subtlety his maximalist tendencies can't quite reach.

Outside of his day job producing pop hits for others, Bleachers have amassed a sizeable cache of bangers, deploying "I Wanna Get Better," "Don't Take the Money" and "Stop Making This Hurt" as their finale, dancing off stage in a sax and tambourine jam.

Where Antonoff seemed comfortable leaning into some controlled chaos, Jepsen struck a cool smoothness with her set, despite a creepy animated moon voiced by Jepsen that offered "escapism and a safe space" to the crowd ahead of her arrival on stage. Backed by a four-piece band and two singers, she arrived backlit at the top of a short staircase, before opening with two songs from her most recent B-sides collection. But it was the epic sax run of "Run Away with Me" that really got the crowd going. "I write lots of songs where I say the things I really mean to the people that I'm no longer in a relationship with," she announced, essentially laying out her musical M.O. before singing "Julien."

"Call Me Maybe" came early in the set, a subtle flex from Jepsen that she wasn't going to let any one song overshadow the rest of her career. Based on the crowd's reaction to each of her songs — even new singles like "Talking to Yourself (an absolute banger live) and "Beach House" were greeted with rapturous adulation — she's managed to get out from under "Call Me Maybe," a feat that's tripped up many a singer before her.

Maybe it comes down to relatability. A practiced performer, Jepsen's stage moves and banter are neither flashy nor clichéd. She and her backup dancers pulled out some choreographed moves, but nothing so complicated that an average high schooler couldn't memorize them for TikTok. She's self-deprecating about her love life, as evidenced by the new acoustic ballad — and borderline country number — "Go Find Yourself or Whatever," which she debuted from her forthcoming The Loneliest Time. And the thrill she clearly gets from leading the crowd in a singalong to set closer "When I Needed You" was palpable.

That might ultimately be the tie that binds Antonoff and Jepsen: despite success at massive scale, they're still just two people continuously chasing and revelling in a childhood dream.

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