Lake Street Dive Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, March 15

Lake Street Dive Danforth Music Hall, Toronto ON, March 15
Photo: Lindsay Duncan
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Together for over a decade (they met at music school in Boston) Lake Street Dive are nothing if not extremely polished. Returning to the Danforth Music Hall with their new album, Side Pony (the band's first for Nonesuch), the four-piece soul-pop-folk phenom were in top form last night (March 15), with bassist Bridget Kearney (literally) rocking a high side pony.
 
On record, Lake Street Dive tunes are clever, catchy and cheeky, but I wasn't prepared for how sing-along-able they'd be live, especially "Clear A Space" (off 2012's Fun Machine EP) and "Hell Yeah," a new one by Kearney.
 
Singer Rachael Price seemed genuinely pleased to be back in Toronto ("Toronto, you always bring it," she said), but beyond tossing a pretty sweet scrunchie out into the crowd and providing a little background to a few of the songs, Price's banter was sparse, in marked contrast to the big personality of Kam Franklin of sprawling, raunchy openers the Suffers, from Houston, Texas, who called a guy in the front row her boyfriend and drilled her band's name and hometown into our heads. (It was a good pairing, actually, because the night moved from a loose, relaxed party vibe — a little like a female James Brown — to a more focused, controlled one.)
 
Price is a fantastic singer — especially on the slower, jazzier songs — and the clear focal point of Lake Street Dive, but she isn't the band's persona — she's more like a funnel or vessel for all the songs and stories of each of the members of the band, who all contribute songwriting, and who literally shared the spotlight (Mike Olson took a trumpet solo and then Mike Calabrese took a long drum solo, while Price stood back). Price is the ambassador of the band's collective persona. Hence, her lack of banter; Price lets the songs do the talking.
 
And talk they do. Despite their overall upbeat peppy vibe, the songs of Side Pony lyrically veer towards the sly and mischievous, their sweetness pretty much always subverted. "Mistakes," for example, is about carrying on with three different lovers, while "Saving All My Sinning" is about waiting until the end of the week to be not so good with someone.
 
The musical arrangements followed analogous twists and turns: slow songs suddenly became fast ones and the band — despite being only four people — used basically all the tricks in their toolkit to sound like more than that.  
 
Though they were touring Side Pony, I was hardly alone in hoping to hear some songs off of 2014's Bad Self Portraits. Lake Street Dive can play at a ripping pace, but they're often most effective when they exercise restraint: Kearney's "Better Than" was an early set highlight, and they brought out "Bad Self Portraits" and "Seventeen" in the encore.
 
Strong writing comes from strong listening, and what was most flooring about the set was arguably its covers: Price's phrasing on Annie Lennox's "Walking On Broken Glass" and the entire ensemble on Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," which they closed the encore with, were particularly strong. Price nailed Freddie Mercury's vocals, while Olson threw in a trumpet solo in place of the guitar shredding/head banging part enshrined in Wayne's World.
 
For a band that got its start doing a jazzy minimalist soul cover of Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" on a street corner, it seemed a fittingly ambitious place to end.