Festival Santa Teresa, Sainte-Thérèse QC, May 18

Photo: Nadia Davoli

BY Matt BobkinPublished May 19, 2018

Leslie Feist is a master at making the most out of life's little inconveniences. Not only has she built a career out of embracing the mistakes and curveballs that make us human, but that ethos — which has endeared her and her music to millions worldwide — translated seamlessly and brilliantly to her headlining set at l'Église Sainte-Thérèse-d'Avila, a Catholic church opened in 1887.
When a few intrepid concertgoers tried to sneak onto the church altar to occupy the 20 feet of room between the stage and the first pew midway through the show, they were instantly ushered away by security, until Feist stepped in and asked them to return. It led to a crowd of 50 strong flooding the altar, turning the front of the church into a slumber party, dance party, campfire sing-along: whatever Feist needed it to be.
It was the turning point of a set that didn't need one, but one that showcased Feist's mastery as singer, performer and enchanter nevertheless, a beautiful payoff of the work she did in the first half of the set.
More importantly, it showcased Feist's mastery in relation to physical space, an extension of the vivid, often nature-focused imagery found throughout her discography. Even in the traditional confines of a church, Feist was able to craft an atmosphere that was distinctly her own through music and banter, confidently bending it to her needs while honouring the space's history and culture.
A tall order, to be sure, but an even taller one thanks to the language barrier. Sainte-Thérèse is a French-speaking suburb 30 minutes northwest of Montreal, and Feist, an Anglophone, did her best to address the Francophones in the crowd in their mother tongue. It was a charming, self-effacing and hilarious effort that quickly won the crowd over, even more so each time the singer committed to the bit with the ease, dedication and pacing of a seasoned comic — never overdone, but never too far out of mind either.
The set began innocuously enough as a tribute to her 2017 album Pleasure, and the tracks — buoyed on the album by an off-the-cuff sensibility and peals of spontaneity — only seemed to have gotten looser and more effective in the interim, as if the songs themselves had taken another shot of bourbon before the set. Opener "Pleasure" opened with the sound of pipe organs and exploded in a raucous rock climax, transforming the church into a stadium.
The aforementioned flooding of the altar took place midway through the set, turning the crowd at the front into Feist's mood ambassadors, a choir of voices attuned to her every whim, with Feist as conductor. It was her sheer charisma that got them there in the first place and kept them hanging on to her every direction until the set's conclusion.
During the bridge of Pleasure highlight "A Man is Not His Song," Feist took the time to break through the crowd's inhibitions to teach them the sing-along lines, which made them willing and eager participants for later crowd participation in "Any Party," "Sea Lion Woman," "Century" and "1234." The excitement continued with a small string of guest stars, including Stars' Torquil Campbell, who recited the spoken word outro of "Century," performed on the album by Jarvis Cocker; Broken Social Scene bandmate Ariel Engle, who opened the show as La Force, for a cover of BSS's "Hug of Thunder"; and folk-popster Safia Nolin, who joined Feist and Engle for a haunting rendition of Metals cut "Cicadas and Gulls."
But Feist needed no guest stars for the night's crowning achievement, her rendition of traditional folk tune "Sea Lion Woman," which got the entire audience on their feet, shouting and hollering in reckless abandon. The song's folk roots were honoured by the ensuing hootenanny, and any inhibitions that had momentarily hindered earlier numbers were, by this point, fully eradicated.
After the song's rapturous climax, Feist spoke about Bernini's statue "L'Estasi di Santa Teresa," which shares a namesake with the festival, town and church. Indeed, we were in ecstasy for the entire set, which both dismantled the traditional confines of the space but, yet, in its own way, honoured them and paid tribute. It fundamentally altered one's perception of the space and the way performers can interact in it. Anyone can call people to the altar, but few can actually sweep you up in messianic fervour. Though completely, almost defiantly, secular, Feist delivered a religious experience.

Feist's album Pleasure is out on on vinyl or CD via Umusic.

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