Dogstar Turned Toronto into Reeves's Palace

Lee's Palace, December 9

With Archer Oh

Photo: Brian Bowen Smith

BY Alisha MughalPublished Dec 11, 2023

An hour after the frothy cinematic surf of California's Archer Oh washed away, a hush fell over the full house at Lee's Palace. 

The garage rockers had performed their unruly sound — at one point, lead vocalist Arturo "Archer" Medrano, guitar in hand, climbed onto drummer Juan Cabrera's kick drum in the heat of a headbang — to an excited audience. Medrano, with his strident voice and bleeding, romantic lyrics, flanked by capable bandmates, warmed an audience still shivering from the night's rainy din. With their beautifully hazy cohesion, skillfully leaning this side of discord in the way all the best garage rockers do, the young band whipped the excited audience's frenzy into shape, leaving the crowd breathlessly panting for the night's headlining performers: Dogstar.

When a light flicked on in the green room, visible from the floor through a narrow rectangular window high up on the left wall of a dimly-lit stage, the seamless whole of the crowd seemed to hold its breath: Dogstar had entered the building. Drummer Robert Mailhouse poked his head out the window for a hair of a second, clapping, trying to get the crowd to cheer. Though a few haltingly clapped, most seemed still to be holding their breath, for in the corner of the window could be seen a man with medium-length brown hair, glistening in the warm light, bending over to place something down on the couch. When he stood up, the blur of movement concealed his face. Most all in the crowd had their eyes trained to that little rectangle of light, many positioned their phones set to record. 

It was Keanu Reeves. The anticipation, like a thick fog, was palpable. 

Where Archer Oh performed on a stage adorned only with an 8.5'' by 11'' sheet of white paper with their name scrawled across it in black Sharpie, taped with painting tape to the back wall, Dogstar's presence was even more sparse. Each member walked onto the unadorned stage in all black; After the opener left, a stagehand had removed the sheet of paper, only to notice that on its back, in the same hand, was written Dogstar's name. He taped that sheet in the stage's left wing.

Lead guitarist and vocalist Bret Domrose, Mailhouse, and bassist Reeves wordlessly took up their positions, immediately kicking off with the bright "Blonde," the opening track of their latest album, Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees. The band, who'd been active in the '90s and early aughts — finding middling success but plenty of attention because of Reeves — reformed during the pandemic. After peppering three singles across the latter half of this year ("Everything Turns Around," "Breach" and "Glimmer"), they finally released their album in October, and have been touring through Japan and North America since August.

The night showcased the entirety of the latest album, but sprinkled through the setlist were not only tracks from 2000's Happy Ending, but also a couple of new tracks like "Lava Lamp" and "Shallow Easy," which, Domrose noted, Reeves titled before the band had any lyrics to flesh its sentiment out. Their live renditions hewed closely to the band's recorded sound, with Domrose's deep, smooth voice ringing similarly to Matt Berninger's; he sounded pitch-perfect. As lead guitarist, Domrose was beguiling, glittering and roaring in equal measure, and as lead vocalist, he was charismatic. He shone during his powerful guitar solos, such as the jaw-dropping tightrope walk between gauzy reminiscence and rushing passion on "How the Story Ends," and the mournful slow-dance at the end of "Glimmer." Wielding the instrument impeccably and effortlessly, Domrose moved about the stage with confidence and grace. Mailhouse was likewise impassioned, at one point pulling out a harmonica as he kept perfect time with his pounding drums.   

With a sound striking a breezy balance between Soundgarden and Foo Fighters, Dogstar delivered an impassioned and expertly-honed performance. Each of their tracks explored a muted kind of heartbreak, in whose damp face they still managed to find a flowering hope. Many tracks considered the importance, the necessity, of another, of a "you," to help stabilize the self. On the romantically fervent "Everything Turns Around," Domrose's voice became stable in an indifferent sort of way when singing of the absence of the beloved "you," then sweetly wincing from a delightfully overwhelming pleasure in that same person's return. So many of the tracks on Somewhere Between the Power Lines and Palm Trees speak to the experience of flat loneliness and hungry yearning, a wondering about or a grasping for another, a friend, a lover — Domrose's booming voice allowed these feelings to swell and come alive.

And then there was Reeves, who stood to the right of the stage with his bass hung low on his tall frame. While Domrose sang into a mic, and Mailhouse played mightily into his variously positioned mics, Reeves stood without anything to speak into. But then he didn't really speak, anyway. His presence was all gestures — throwing up the hand-horns, a thumbs up, folded hands in thanks — smiles, and a few words (as he walked onto the stage at the beginning of the set, he flung an almost shy "Hi" into the crowd). If you know anything about Reeves, then you know that this unobtrusiveness was intentional; his entire appearance and demeanour were meant to focus the music, to focus Domrose and Mailhouse. But despite this humility, the crowd had eyes only for him.  

All night, the crowd was hungry for Reeves's face, in the way that Domrose's lyrics were hungry — that face hidden behind the fall of his long, straight hair. For most of the night, he had his eyes trained on his hands as he wordlessly played, and I wonder if he knew that most in the crowd had their eyes and their cameras (looking through the crowd, every glowing rectangle of the camera app framed only Reeves's figure) fixed to him. When he looked up every now and then, the crowd would roar, people threw their hands up as if reaching for his gaze, his attention, a grasp of his aura. 

What was present last night, impossibly squeezed within the close quarters of Lee's Palace, alongside a starry-eyed audience and Dogstar, was not only Reeves's larger-than-life celebrity image, but also the various multitudinous meanings he — his performances, the whole of his public being — has come to hold for each in attendance. Many of the members of the endlessly diverse audience would have had Reeves's work punctuate pivotal moments of their lives, would have turned to his films searching for a salve or meaning or respite, in moments of joy, sadness, loneliness; for many, he would have been that salutary "you" immortalized in Dogstar's own lyrics. Somewhere Between the Powerlines and Palm Trees is too young yet to have had fans live their lives soundtracked by it, but Reeves's career isn't. 

What was present at Lee's Palace last night was the collective immensity of what Reeves's roles have meant to us, those films that helped us survive life, along with our understanding of his star image: his enacted goodness to others, the pains he's suffered in the public eye.

Domrose and Mailhouse were great and kind bandmates to Reeves, holding patience for the audience so obviously enamoured of their movie star co-conspirator. Domrose and Mailhouse seemed to understand Reeves's psyche in the way only a bandmate can, with the intuitive intimacy and knowing achieved through shared artistic and physical space, through years of friendship. When an audience member gleefully yelled "Johnny Utah" during a moment between tracks, the name of the character Reeves played in 1991's classic Point Break, Reeves' face bloomed into a smile, but his eyes remained on his hands. He later laughed softly and repeated "Johnny Utah" with an airy shake of his head, and Domrose satisfied a smidge of the audience's hunger. "I've known Keanu for years, but I only recently learned that Johnny Utah was named after [footballer] Joe Montana," Domrose explained with a grin. All the while, Reeves effortlessly riffed on his bass, smiling that charming smile of his.

One of the most noteworthy aspects of the night was the crowd's silence and stillness. There was a reverential quiet settled over the audience, with many members nodding their heads to Mailhouse's heartbeat-like drums as if in a trance. Everyone seemed simply to stand in place stunned; even when the band left perfunctorily ahead of the encore, audience members applauded in a demure sort of way, clearly wanting the band to come back, but still only managing to clap shyly. Though many nimbly moved and swayed to Archer Oh, many stood stiff and still, breathlessly observant, for Reeves and Dogstar, to the extent that a woman's voice rang clear to many around her when she whispered to her friend, giddily repressing laughter at an inside joke, "Keanu I'm 37, let me have your babies." It was the most truly polite crowd I've ever witnessed. 

When he did look into the crowd, it seemed as though Reeves had to remind himself to do it; but quite distinct from seeming as though it was something he bemoaned, when he looked at us it seemed as though it was with a start, as though he had so lost himself in his playing that he forgot there were others watching him. 

We music lovers and filmgoers, we have been taught to revere celebrities, to look upon them as towering idols — on the silver screen and grand temple-like stages, they do indeed tower. When Old Hollywood star Rudolph Valentino abruptly died at 31 in the '20s, it was reported that some heartbroken fans committed suicide; more recently, devoted fans of Taylor Swift and Beyoncé are known to viciously attack anyone who publicly criticizes the musicians. Fandom has a curious effect on people, and last night it secured people in place, in a respectful awe. 

Last night, Reeves, though just a person, seeming so small and earthly on Lee's stage, who so clearly was having a blast jamming out with his dearest friends, was also Keanu Reeves, one of Hollywood's greatest towering stars. Even the security personnel slipped a moment from their watchful duty to film Reeves play bass alongside the rest of us.

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