Radical Face @ L’Astral – 6 March 2020

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Radical Face in Montreal

Usually, when a concert review request gets denied, you feel pretty disappointed.  Tonight, however, I am pretty happy about it. The Lumineers apparently don’t want to hang out with me this time around, so I finally get to see Radical Face instead, the musical moniker of Jacksonville native Ben Cooper, about 15 years after I was first introduced to his genius.  Result!

L’Astral is pretty busy on this Friday night too, which is particularly impressive given the acoustic folk vibe for which Radical Face is renowned, and the competition playing a similar sound a few blocks over at the cavernous Bell Centre.  It seems like many others in the crowd have been waiting a while for this evening too; as soon as Ben and band arrive on stage, before a note is even played, one guy yells out: “I’VE WAITED 10 YEARS FOR THIS!!!”  Ben smiles in response, before responding “No pressure!

Ben continues to chat with the crowd between almost every song, which makes the whole show an intimate experience.  At times, it almost feels like we are all around a campfire together! He starts out with a disclaimer: “I write a lot of songs that are not a very Friday night vibe; sorry if it’s a bummer!”  He’s not wrong either; set opener A Pound Of Flesh is introduced as “a song about walking home after just stabbing someone.”  It’s a fragile number, that gradually pounds into life in conjunction with Ben’s gentle Grandaddy-esque vocals.  Bassist Josh Lee switches to a cello on The Crooked Kind (“this is about a kid who sees his dead relatives!”), which adds an extra layer of beauty to the already emotive sound.

Ben proceeds to explain the content of the show: “the setlist is from a poll we ran on the songs we should learn, so if you don’t like the songs, I’m not responsible!”  Hard Of Hearing follows, starting with a heavy tapping hi-hat that is soon complemented by Josh’s funky bassline, before being roundly sabotaged by the sound guy who throws in a crow squawk sound effect to elicit laughs across the stage and around the room.  Still, the band manage to compose themselves and finish the song without missing a beat. After Severus and Stone (”a song about a brother watching his twin die… you’re welcome!”), Summer Skeletons is introduced as “definitely the happiest song we have!”  Cello’s swirl, guitars strum, and the crowd spontaneously join in during the clap-along breakdown; it’s a truly uplifting experience.

Ben is more than happy to kill the joy right after the song’s conclusion: “now we’ll continue with the theme of young children and dead things.  This song is about a girl who raises animals from the dead, but is afraid to tell her neighbour… but it’s the kid who sees dead relatives from a few songs back, so it has a happy ending!”  The song in question is Secrets (Cellar Door), which is a moody folk strum right up until the sound guy drops the crow squawk soundbite once again, sending the band into hysterics once more.  

Ben takes up the mandolin on Ghost Towns, which so perfect, so chilling, it almost brings a tear to the eye, before the sound strips down even more on The Moon Is Down, with just Josh and Ben playing softly, accompanied by whisper-quiet singing from a few in the crowd.  It’s the most delicate moment of the set so far, ending in spell-binding fashion as Josh whistles into the pickups of his cello to spectacular effect.

Things take another turn on Black Eyes: “This is about a guy who wakes up drunk looking for his wife who left with the kids, to beat her up.”  Heavy subject matter for sure, the anger of which is perfectly depicted by the menacing heavy pounding bass drum, and you can almost sense the palpable terror as Ben spits “my heart will be blacker than your eyes when I’m through with you…” to close out the song.

Always Gold elicits more singing from the crowd, before slowly dismantling to just a strumming Ben.  The main set closes out with Wrapped In Piano Strings, with another humorous intro: “This is about a guy who shoots himself in the head but haunts the house and watches his wife re-marry and move on… Welcome to my head!”  The crow squawk crashes the song again just as the first vocal starts, to which the guys laugh, but again don’t miss a beat.

After a quick break, the band returns and Ben declares “you guys are still here, I guess we’ll play more songs!”  Now sporting a glittery baseball cap that makes his entire head resemble a disco ball, he jokes “it matches my personality; let’s play another sad song!”  The Mute is another warm strum with beautiful vocals and is greeted with a big singalong from the crowd, which gets even bigger at the swirling “ooooh ooooh” chorus.  

After the song winds up, Ben pays tribute to a few of his favourite reviews from past shows: “one in Germany said I had ‘a voice like an old woman or a small child.’  Or in France, one said ‘body of an ogre, voice of an angel.’”  That gets the loudest laughs yet!  After leading the crowd through a singalong rehearsal for the chorus of the next song, Welcome Home, I can tell that the actual performance is going to be amazing; sure enough, it doesn’t disappoint.  It’s every bit as goosebump-inducing as I had hoped, and fully deserving of the huge cheers and applause that greet its conclusion. The show ends for good with We’re On Our Way, “kind of a hoedown ‘cos I’m from the South!”, and is every bit as “fun and mildly optimistic” as Ben promises it to be!  Claps resonate around the room from start to finish, and Radical Face’s first show in Montreal ends in jubilant fashion after 80 wonderful minutes.  Thanks to them for such a phenomenal show… and, I suppose, thanks to The Lumineers as well!

Setlist

  1. A Pound Of Flesh
  2. The Crooked Kind
  3. Hard Of Hearing
  4. Severus And Stone
  5. Summer Skeletons
  6. Secrets (Cellar Door)
  7. Ghost Towns
  8. The Moon Is Down
  9. Black Eyes
  10. Always Gold
  11. Wrapped In Piano Strings

Encore

  • The Mute
  • Welcome Home
  • We’re On Our Way

Review & photos – Simon Williams

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