Sunday night, and I was so excited for the Stars concert. I met up with my sister at Cadet, to catch up and get a little wine buzz going for one of my favourite Montreal bands. We’re at Cadet because the venue changed just a few weeks ago from Corona Theatre to l’Astral, and we discuss why this happened – turns out, it didn’t sell very well – and who else is coming to the show as we dig into our (ostentatiously delicious) scallop ceviche and sip our wine.
I have been following Stars since a co-worker introduced me to their second album, Set Yourself on Fire, which is still my favourite, even after I read that Vice interview where Torquil Campbell ranks his own albums and places it next-to-last. I’m telling her about the bizarre album-ranking and she laughs and asks if I’ve ever heard what her boyfriend has to say about Stars’ frontman. Here is a direct quote: “He has this breathy, emo voice and fake British accent that make him sound like he was wrenched off the stage of a high school drama club Shakespeare production by a bully who is now sitting on him.”
It’s hard not to quote the entire Vice article here, but even for those who can’t stand Campbell, there is one bit very worth-reading, and that might even be an appropriate response the critique above. Torq says, “I went through high school being called a fag and getting beaten up and being ostracized for being an emotional person, and so bands are a way of starting your own gang, and proselytizing your own worldview. Everybody should have a revolution inside themselves and start a band with their friends. Even if it’s just a hobby, it’s a great thing to do. Start a band with your friends and accept that it’s not gonna work out the way you wanted it to, but it’s gonna be beautiful. Beauty is a powerful thing and there’s not enough stress put on that these days. We should spend more time with it and less time with fucking Instagram.”
Anyway. I will be on the lookout for an accent.
We arrive at l’Astral as Shara Nova, a.k.a. My Brightest Diamond is performing. She is spectacular in gold sequins and is performing a ballad, “A Million Pearls,” that showcases her incredible vocal range. A classically trained singer, she goes from singing huskily to hitting high notes, and never misses a consonant. It’s Sia-esque, and theatrical – a Bond theme song.
We find our friends, and, since we missed her first few songs, ask them how she’s been. The prevailing opinion is that she is “Florence + the Machine derivative” and “weird.” After witnessing the experimental stylings of Thus Owls a few weeks ago, I’m pretty sure that nothing will ever seem weird to me again, even when she announces that her last song, “White Noise,” is about her white skin.
It’s dangerous ground, but My Brightest Diamond treads it carefully, tapping into white privilege and white fragility and leaving no room for self-congratulation or saviour complexes. She isn’t preaching, just remarking on it: the space that white people claim, that she is claiming at that moment, that the overwhelmingly white crowd is there witnessing and supporting. It’s not her only song that speaks on racism – when I read up on her later, I’ll note she wrote a song about Tryvon Martin’s murder called “You Wanna See My Teeth,” but she doesn’t sing that one on Sunday night.
I respect how she uses her platform and her talent – Nova’s sound is subversive, and sometimes unsettling, but it’s inventive, current, and she has a lot more than this act under her belt. Looking at her list of accolades, one could see (hear) how her range, willingness to experiment, and artistry make her someone to know and to have on your album.
When I discovered Stars, back in 2004, I played it on repeat for a month, and soon after discovered bands like Editors, Metric, and their ilk. Stars were the starter band that got me into bands like Broken Social Scene and The XX. Without them, I might not have discovered what I really like. I started to investigate music the way I hadn’t done since I was fifteen. For me, without Stars, I’m still listening to whatever’s on the radio.
They came out and performed “Fluorescent Light,” which is a pretty classic opening song for them, melodic, catchy, and romantic without being sappy. This, it seems to me, is the Stars’ formula: a call and answer between co-leads Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan that spins a tale of crushes and conquests under the guise of romance, providing an honest picture of dating in Montreal.
“Ageless Beauty” is next – a classic, pardon the pun. In spite of Millan’s sweet harmonies, it is truly a rock song and fulfils the band’s raison d’être. I love how Campbell puts it in his Vice interview: “Stars have always partied like we’re in Guns N’ Roses, even though our music sounds like we work at a florist.” That night, he tells us that at the tail end of their longest tour in ten years, they were stoked to come home and play a dirty rock show. It means a lot to them that we came out, he says, but I have to wonder at the sincerity of that statement when they’re coming off of two shows at Danforth Music Hall in Toronto, which has a capacity of over 1000, and a show played at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa with the latter’s orchestra. Our show, in contrast, was moved from Corona Theatre to l’Astral, which has room for 600 standing and I don’t think we’re anywhere close to that, especially since the balcony is reserved for the handful of VIPs.
Perhaps it’s because they don’t say a single word in French. Perhaps Campbell’s very public no-filter politics put some off. Knowing this makes the situation we witness next that much more bizarre – a couple of girls up by the stage are grabbing the ass of the keyboard player. It’s very fucking weird, and though we don’t notice the band or security step in, it eventually stops.
When they play “14 Forever,” the only song they play off the 2008 EP Sad Robots, it’s dedicated to Murray Lightburn of The Dears, a little easter egg for Montrealers in-the-know, which, in this tiny crowd, is pretty much everybody. (Except me. I had to google it.) Speaking of our hometown, Campbell calls Montreal “a place where you can fall apart” and in reply to the oft-asked question of why it’s such an affordable place to live (fall into that google hole here) he says it’s “so cheap here because we are all losing our fucking minds.”
The crowd loves this because as obsessed as we are with ourselves, we are all not-so-secretly self-loathing and falling apart feels safer together. This brief conversation is followed by an Amy and Torquil original, the song where you think maybe their on-stage personas met: “Elevator Love Letter”. It’s a throwback, a fifteen-year-old song off of Campbell’s favourite album, Heart. As he puts it: “I am Torq, and this is my heart.”
It’s a show full of heart and hits: “Take Me to the Riot” and “Real Thing” follow, and they slow it down for some more flower-arranging before playing their commercial hit, “Dead Hearts,” which you know is probably not their favourite song to play, but it gives the audience to witness some of his and Millan’s acting chops. She does her thing of facing away before it’s her line, and he dramatically hides his face against her chest as the music swells towards the end of the song. You get the impression, as I always do when I’m face-to-face with Stars, that they are all great friends, and that they love to play their parts on stage.
It’s pure hits until the finale: “Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It,” “Backlines,” and “Trap Door” – building up the energy for the inevitable sing-a-long to “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.”
Every Stars concert I attend (this is my fourth) I feel like they play less and less of the songs I fell in love with and more songs I don’t know, and somehow, I fall for the new songs and I don’t think I’ll ever stop wanting to hear them play live. That doesn’t mean I don’t wish, every single time, that they would play “One More Night,” which I don’t think I’ve heard live… ever. Something about Amy and Torquil’s voices singing my city to life calls to me, and even though the crowd grows smaller each time, I do hope they’ll keep coming back to us. Because, yes, it’s a smaller show, but it’s home.
My Brightest Diamond Setlist
It’s Me on the Dance Floor
A Million Pearls
I Have Never Loved Someone
Ship to Shore
Elevator Love Letter
Take Me to the Riot
Are You With Me?
Hold On When You Get Love and Let Go When You Give It
Your Ex-Lover is Dead
My Favourite Book (encore)
Midnight (did not play)
Loose Ends (did not play)
No One Is Lost (did not play)
Review – Carrie-Ann Kloda
Photos – Steve Gerrard