Dream Serenade (featuring Hayden, Feist, the National, Billy Talent, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett and more) Massey Hall, Toronto ON, October 25

Dream Serenade (featuring Hayden, Feist, the National, Billy Talent, Barenaked Ladies, Sarah Harmer, Jason Collett and more) Massey Hall, Toronto ON, October 25
Photo: Lucia Graca
There was a lot of love for Hayden Desser inside Massey Hall on Saturday night (October 25). The respected singer-songwriter filled the hallowed venue for the first annual Dream Serenade benefit concert, which he co-organized with his wife, Christie Greyerbiehl, as a fundraiser for the Toronto's Beverly School. The massive audience seemed both extremely enthusiastic about the cause and entirely open to the somewhat unconventional format — short sets from a wide range of performers, including Feist, members of the National, Billy Talent, Barenaked Ladies and Hayden himself, among others. Meanwhile, pretty much everyone who graced the stage came bearing stories and kind words about the show's organizer. Though Hayden was the de facto recipient of all this affection, the outpouring of love and creativity showed that he has clearly tapped into a very special idea for a very extraordinary cause.

Dream Serenade was created to benefit Beverly School, a small institution that supports children with learning and developmental disabilities. Hayden's five-year-old daughter, who was born with a rare chromosomal deletion, has been going there for two years now. Barenaked Ladies member Kevin Hearn's daughter is also a student there. (The audience was treated to a look inside the school thanks to a video from last Friday's (October 17) music class in which Hayden, Sarah Harmer and three-quarters of BNL played for and with the students.) The event itself is not unlike Neil Young's annual Bridge School benefit concert to raise money and awareness for the California school assisting children with severe physical disabilities that Young helped found. For nearly 30 years, those shows have taken on a whole other life as a place where all manner of high profile artists (Tom Waits, Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen, for example) deliver unique performances in a stripped-down setting. Similarly, Dream Serenade found a number of artists ascending to a whole new level by getting outside their respective comfort zones.

Early evening performers Sarah Harmer and Jason Collett, both of whom are music curators in their own right (Harmer's Line 9 protest concert and Collett's Basement Review shows) are consummate pros at going it alone in front of any size of crowd. Collett treated the audience to "Lonely is as Lonely Does," a song he wrote for Hayden to sing on the collaborative Arts & Crafts X album, while Harmer brought lush Smashing Pumpkins–style chords for an exquisite acoustic set. Barenaked Ladies closed out the first half of the show, pairing Hearn's plaintive song about his daughter ("Reeling" from his Havana Winter album) with a burst of classic jams ("Pinch Me," "One Week," the theme song from Big Bang Theory!). Only an ill-advised joke about mass murder (too soon, Tyler Stewart) marred an otherwise exuberant set that culminated in a bonkers medley including everything from "Walk on the Wild Side" to "Royals" to "Wrecking Ball."

After the Beverly School video intermission, Hayden took the stage to kick off the second half of the evening, and to reclaim his glasses (they'd been sitting on a music stand all night, and were subsequently tried on by a few of the performers). Backed by a full band, he delivered the upbeat "Rainy Saturday" from 2012's Us Alone — an album largely about the circumstances surrounding his daughter's birth — before bringing out Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner for an intense rendition of "Dynamite Walls," a tune that the National have covered a number of times (including one notable performance at the Phoenix featuring Hayden). Billy Talent kept up the classic Hayden action by laying into a cover of "Bad As They Seem," complete with singer Ben Kowalewicz's introductory tale about first seeing the singer-songwriter play at a mid-'90s Canadian alt-rock showcase, where they became instant fans.

One of the evening's biggest draws — at least based on the rapturous cheers at the mere mention of their band's name — was the National's Berninger and Dessner, who proved that they didn't need all those crescendos to get their songs across. Bare-bones arrangements of "Bloodbuzz Ohio" and "Pink Rabbits," with Dessner on guitar and piano respectively, showcased Dessner's expansive guitar playing and the nuances of Berninger's baritone. A guest spot from Hayden during "I Need My Girl" preceded back-to-back anthems "Terrible Love" and "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," both of which seemed to resonate with the audience even without the usual crowd surfing and unplugged singalongs.

In contrast to the National's powerhouse performance, Feist brought the proceedings down to a hush for the start of her set, opening with a mesmerizing a cappella version of "The Circle Married the Line." The push-pull moodiness of "The Bad in Each Other" led into a thoroughly dramatic "Undiscovered First," wherein Feist backed off the microphone completely and let the hall's natural acoustics carry the tune's climactic questioning finale. Radically reworked takes on "1, 2, 3, 4" and "I Feel It All" (the former complete with intricate audience participation and the latter saturated with enough crusty distortion to make Neil Young proud) underscored Feist's jaw-dropping talent as a singer and guitarist, as well as her drive to continue evolving as an artist.

The evening culminated with all the performers crowding the stage while Hayden led them on an "If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out" singalong, which, while a lovely gesture, fell somewhat flat, mostly due to the decision to do so sans microphones. Still, seeing everyone on stage together was a testament to just what a remarkable event Hayden and Greyerbiehl have created. Here's to many more Dream Serenades.