Canadian Music Week’s Best Kept Secret

You won’t find it in the program. It isn’t listed on the website. And when I arrived at the venue for Thirsty Thursday, Canadian Music Week’s invite-only industry, media, and artist mixer on Thursday, March 22, I had to look twice at the street address on Spadina, a nondescript doorway tucked between a couple of independent electronics retailers.

But when I got up the narrow staircase and into the second floor unit, a labyrinthine apartment where each room leads into the next, what met my eyes was a mingling crowd of musicians, camera-toting music journalists, and industry reps from event sponsors Audio Blood and Jagermeister. Over the entrance hung a giant orange banner advertising Jagermeister, and at the door stood a pair of ladies wearing skin-tight pants and tank tops emblazoned with the drink company’s logo, offering drink tickets that entitled the bearer to free shots. In the front room, a carved black dog sporting a yellow hat cocked over its ear stood on top of a piano pushed against one wall, beside vinyl and CD copies of event host Ben Caplan’s latest album, In the Time of the Great Remembering, which were also propped up on the piano.

Set up in front of the windows overlooking the Spadina streetcar tracks were a drum kit, keyboards, amplifiers, and mics for each of the bands slated to perform – and what a line up.

In order, there was Hue, the indie rock/folk-infused act making their Thirsty Thursday debut; Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers; Sydney Wayser, currently making waves south of the border; Sandman Viper Command; and the Balconies, the punk-pop, rock ’n’ roll, Joan Jett-reminiscent outfit.

Being the newbie journalist, I consciously sought out other young writers – meeting Gaby, an intern from The Verge, and Justine, a four-year veteran of Canadian Music Week from York University’s Minus the Stains radio show.

But in a surreal twist, I also encountered Toronto writer Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, known for his deep cover account of life in Toronto’s infamous Tent City, Down to This: Squalor and Splendour in a Big-City Shantytown, as well as a darkly funny and deeply disturbing crime novel, Ghosted. He lives upstairs.

Before the first band began playing, Ben Caplan kicked off the event with introductions to the sponsors Audio Blood and Jagermeister. Then Hue kicked off with a new song from their latest album, Starting Fires. The five-piece band made up of Danny Paton, Jr., Andrew Schmidt, Darcy Finck, Andrew Jones, and Jessica Paton, played energetically and the grins on each of their faces were as infectious as the thumping beats of the song “Changes.” Their style switched seamlessly from folk-pop to indie rock, and all the while frontman Dan danced around the floor, pounded on the keyboard, and on some songs, shared the microphone with fellow band members Jess Paton and guitarist Darcy. It was a joyful, energetic start to the evening, and the unconventional location – an apartment living room – made for an informal, house party-like atmosphere.

“I love this,” Dan said at one point during Hue’s set. “I can see everybody’s eye colour!”

In between each set, Caplan took the . . . well . . . stage, and made humorous banter with the gathered and growing crowd.

His band, Ben Caplan and the Casual Smokers – in its latest incarnation as a three-piece with Caplan on guitar, B.C.-native Mark Luongo on upright bass, and Ottawa-based Jamie Chronic on the drums – was up next.

As he did in between sets as the host, during his own performance, Caplan kept up a running patter of laughter-inducing commentary. Talking about the unseasonably warm weather, he mentioned, “I just got back from Austin, Texas (for South by South West [SXSW]), and I can officially say it is hotter in Toronto than it is in Texas; so that is f**ing weird.”

The songs, off the band’s latest album, In the Time of the Great Remembering, are full of soul and grit. And when sung in Caplan’s low growly voice and booming roar, with his huge shaggy blonde beard, horn-rimmed glasses, and black cap, it all combines to create the impression of a grizzled sea captain with stories to tell. He frequently enlisted the audience to sing along – as in the case of, “I Got me A Woman” – but his sharp wit never flagged. After a quick tutorial on what lyrics the crowd was to sing back, he went, “Hey, drunk guys at the back, did you catch the sing-along?” And when the initial crowd response was less than vocal, his response was, “Your enthusiasm is uncanny.”

Next up was Sydney Wayser, fresh from New York via Austin, Texas (she was also at SXSW), on her first trip to Canada. In the States she has been creating quite a stir, and going by the response of the Thirsty Thursday crowd alone, she looks set to take Canada by storm as well. With a clear, contralto voice reminiscent of the likes of Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson, Wayser and her band produce experimental indie folk music that is catchy and 80’s pop-infused, with bass-driven rhythms and repeated refrains like on, “Dream It Up,” off her upcoming album Bell Choir Coast: “I build it up, I build it u-up, and I dream it up, I dream it u-up . . .” It’s hard to resist clapping along.

After Wayser, Sandman Viper Command took to the stage and pounded out a set that kept the fair-sized crowd bobbing their heads to the rhythm and dancing to the beat. About this point, I went outside to the wraparound second-floor patio, where many guests lingered, drank complimentary beer, and mixed, mingled, chatted, and laughed. But from the sound of the music coming from inside, it seemed that Sandman Viper Command continued to receive a raucous response from the crowd as they played.

This indie pop-punk outfit hailing from Burlington, Ontario, is another group under the Audio Blood umbrella, and their debut release, Everybody See This, conjured admiring references in the music media to Sloan and the Strokes and garnered them the kind of attention that usually pays off –before long their hit single “Yo Bobcat” debuted on the Fan590’s “Prime Time Sports” with Bob McCown, gaining them nationwide coverage. A band to watch indeed.

Wrapping up the night was the much-anticipated act, the hard-rocking, hair-whipping band known as the Balconies. Comprised of brother and sister Jacquie and Steven Neville on electric guitar and bass respectively, and Liam Jaeger on the drums, the Balconies riled up an already energized crowd into a frenzy of dancing and singing. Frontwoman Jacqui strummed furiously, her rouged lips and wide-eyed singing lending a manic vibe to the whole set. With frequently suggestive comments thrown out to the crowd – “I want you closer to me; I want your bodies pressed up against mine” – and hard, pulsing rock driven by furious riffs and pounding basslines, the Balconies wove the energy of their performance with that emanating from the crowd. In the end their performance was a very satisfying wrap up to a great night.