November 28th, 2007 was a day off amid an epic (and expensive) three-night stand that found m’lady and I on the edge of our seats for a trio of Neil Young concerts at Toronto’s Massey Hall. It was a Wednesday night and we were eager to find something to do within easy reach of our room at the Delta Chelsea near the corner of Yonge and Gerrard Streets.
And by “something to do” of course I mean we were looking for “someone to see”.
We ended walking to the Horseshoe Tavern, one of Toronto’s more legendary live music venues. On the bill was Elvis Perkins In Dearland, an act I had barely heard of, and Bon Iver, an act I hadn’t heard of at all.
In comparison to the exorbitant price of the Neil Young tickets this show felt pretty much free; no matter how much money we threw at the bartenders we wouldn’t come close to what the other three nights were costing us. But we tried.
We ordered a couple of double Jack & Cokes and found a table near the front. The utterly unknown Bon Iver came out and sat alone on the stage and proceeded to completely blow us away. Most of his set was extremely mellow, but the sound the guy had already developed was so engaging he easily held the crowd’s attention for the whole set. Reminiscent of Radiohead, his voice could soar unabated into the upper echelon of what is manly possible without ever sacrificing his solid and full timbre. Iver’s range included the low notes too, and he traveled up and down the octaves without invoking direction; he sang high and dug low and it made me wonder where the spectrum in between went.
We were enthralled by this newcomer, it seemed like we celebrated every great song by ordering another drink. Simply put, we couldn’t get enough.
But again, we tried.
With apologies that he was without product to sell until his upcoming release in February, Bon Iver closed the set to very appreciative applause and made way for Elvis.
The man came out to start his set solo. He started with the final cut from his disc, and it was downright dirgeful. Perhaps capitalizing on the relaxed atmosphere of his opening act, or maybe just gauging what kind of crowd he was up against, either way the audience was polite and attentive throughout a set opener that never hit 60 db or bpm. His band sauntered onstage and joined in, blending into a different song replete with sax and trombone, double bass and drums.
The drinks kept hitting the table and Elvis Perkins In Dearland kept pumping out tunes in the style of almost every member of the Travelling Wilburys without ever coming close to capturing the essence of why those that are imitated are imitated; their sound is unique and memorable. And while Elvis Perkins was neither, he could have looked to his opening act for a taste of both.
The image that remains in my mind is of a tall, thin young man wearing an imitation Nudie suit and a genuine twangy hollow-body guitar fronting his band through a string of slick, forgettable alt-country songs that rang hollow in the gritty, hard drinking Horseshoe Tavern.
I might be being a little hard on poor Mr. Perkins but one thing I can promise you is the opening act was the one to see at this particular concert. Elvis was fine; Bon Iver was memorable. Not bad for a Wednesday night at the ’Shoe.
At the end of the slippery, sloshery evening we walked back to the hotel, or at least we tried to. We made it all the way down Queen Street fine enough but rounding the corner onto Yonge Street m’lady insisted we lay down for a little rest. After a lengthy discussion we decided to press on, somehow arriving safe and sound back at the Delta Chelsea and falling into bed as hard as we could.