I felt like an old man setting foot into St-Hubert street’s near-centennial Plaza Theatre last night. This was in part because I couldn’t actually remember the last time I’d set foot in this venue (much less for what purpose), only that it was a *long* time ago. The other reason why the passage of time weighed heavy on my shoulders last night was that the crowd skewed overwhelmingly young, hip, and stylish – though that’s in no way a slight on the evening, just a tragic bit of self-appraisal.
I was only slightly familiar with both Men I Trust and Charlotte Day Wilson. I’d been enjoying the former’s recent few singles after hearing them recommended by music blogs, while the latter’s Stone Woman EP had come highly recommended by friends. On record, both artists come across as meticulous studio craftspeople, creating lush, if not quite fussed over, sonic tableaus. I was really anxious to see how these compositions would come to life in a live performance setting.
Curiously, both acts this evening had the exact same band composition. Charlotte Day Wilson and Men I Trust’s Emma on vocals and guitar, accompanied by their respective bandmates on keys, drums and bass. Despite very similar band makeups, both artists sounded refreshingly different, nicely illustrating the growing constellation of indie pop and r&b mutations.
Men I Trust mine from a very specific strain of r&b indebted indie pop that is at once smooth, sophisticated and wistful – all diffuse light, soft-focus shapes and warm colour tones. Hailing from Montreal, they’ve been slowly making a name for themselves internationally following a handful of recent singles and some well-received touring, including two shows at SXSW 2018.
The band’s Jessy and Dragos, sans vocalist and guitarist Emma, started as a kind of indie-pop Sly & Robbie, a production duo crafting songs and working with a slew of collaborators. They put out two records with a rotating cast of vocalists. Emma eventually joined in 2015 and became the group’s sole singer.
Last night, the trio, aided by a touring drummer, played sprightly renditions of their new songs, a particular highlight being “Tailwhip” with its super catchy refrain of “This country dog won’t die in the city.” The band’s italo-disco meets 80s yacht rock sound was elevated by their rock solid rhythm section, with every tasteful bass line and swinging drum fill given plenty of room in the mix. This same mix, however, did no favours to Emma’s aqueous arpeggiated guitar, which was unfortunately almost inaudible for most of the set. Thankfully her voice sounded great and anchored every single song. It was also just a blast to see the band seemingly enjoying themselves in front of a packed hometown crowd. Their smiles and palpable enthusiasm were genuinely contagious.
My initial impressions of Charlotte Day Wilson’s music placed it somewhere around the intersection of modern blue-eyed soul, Sade, and most excitingly, the mid to late 90s neo-soul of the Soulquarians collective, especially the work of D’Angelo and Erykah Badu. Imagine my surprise when both those latter artists received nods during Day Wilson’s set.
It all started off strong with a performance of “Stone Woman”, the title track from her most recent EP. The titular mantra echoing over the sonar-like pulse of the arrangement evoked John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”, or perhaps (and much more on the nose) the song “Woman” from Mike Milosh’s Rhye project.
The band followed this up with “Doubt”, perhaps Day Wilson’s best song so far. The song’s escalating chorus reached new heights in a live setting, Wilson’s drummer furiously beating the skins before everything fell away at the climax. I wasn’t expecting this level of live energy, but it was definitely welcome.
My favourite moment of the set came during “After All” from the 2016 *CDW* EP. What started off as a Sade-esque ballad mutated into an interpolation of D’Angelo’s “Spanish Joint” off of his stone-cold classic “Voodoo”. Anyone familiar knows how much of a jam that song is, and the band definitely kept up, unleashing a furious boogie straddled by an electrifying saxophone solo from Day Wilson herself.
Towards the end of her set, Wilson addressed the crowd and attempted to rationalize her use of triggered vocal samples for harmony during the set. She explained that while she tried to keep the live set as raw as possible, she felt that the vocal samples were fair game because they were all created by her as she takes care of all her production. It was an endearing, yet wholly unnecessary moment. Wilson’s enormous talent and attention to craft is immediately apparent upon seeing her perform, and truly she needs not rationalize her creative choices. It was a lone moment of vulnerability in a set that otherwise exuded the quiet confidence of a seasoned pro.
The back half of the set emphasized quieter songs, especially evident on some of the new material the band performed. Despite the lowered intensity, the audience remained rapt. You could hear the faint clinking coming from the venues two bars as Wilson and her band worked through these spare arrangements, but you couldn’t hear a peep from the crowd.
Wilson ended her set with a cover of Erykah Badu’s “Out My Mind, Just In Time”. Alone on stage, playing soft piano chords, she sang the heart-rending chorus of “And I lie for you, I cry for you/And pop for you and break for you/And hate for you, and I’ll hate you too” before bidding the crowd farewell. It was a perfect set closer, a respectful acknowledgement of her influences (and of the giants that preceded her) and hopefully an indication of where she aims to take her music in the future.
I left the Plaza Theatre a fan of Charlotte Day Wilson, and I’m truly excited to see what she does next.