I will always have a very special place in my heart for La Sala Rossa. It’s not the biggest venue in the city – but it’s taken on a mythic quality for me. It’s the place where I saw my first shows, standing at the back of the room or looking up at the stage to watch otherwordly figures create something amazing. That’s why I was surprised to show up on Friday night and see that The History of Gunpowder had set up all of their gear on the dancefloor. Instead of playing to the audience like beings from another planet, the incendiary Montrealers and their guests worked with the crowd to build an intimate showcase from the ground up – and then burn it down together.
The blood, sweat and fire would come later, but Opale primed the pump with a cool and soothing set of breezy dream-pop. Also coming from Montreal, Opale’s Francophone lyrics bring a refreshing twist to the familiar airy vocals and soundscapes of bands like Grizzly Bear and Beach House. With songs like “Le Miel” and its bed of synth and relaxed quasi-bossa-nova guitar, Jérémy Delorme, Hubert Jobin-Tremblay, Christian Sean, Tom Tartarin and Nicolas Gaudreault appear pretty firmly rooted in the low-key. With big smiles on their faces lasting throughout the set, the band clearly has chops and passion for what they do – but Opale seem just as comfortable to float in the ether, swirling their tunes together to create a brief escape from the heat and humidity of summer.
That heat and humidity came rushing right back with Peregrine Falls, a scorching guitar-and-drum duo from Vancouver. The guitar is Gordon Grdina, and the drums are Kenton Loewen – and while they have worked together many times before (maybe most notably on Dan Mangan + Blacksmith’s excellent Club Meds from 2015), this instrumental act looks and sounds like their opportunity to really cut loose. Touring their freshly-released self-titled LP, Peregrine Falls mix heavy metal riffs, jazz drumming, bowed strings, punk grit, and mallet percussion into a fascinating and visceral gumbo that drew everyone fifty steps closer. Even with this proximity, Grdina and Loewen don’t make much eye contact with the crowd while they play – and that’s totally okay. It’s because they’re busy staring at each other, pushing their instruments to the breaking point through songs that manage to sound both meticulous and totally unhinged. With Grdina’s fraying violin bow and Loewen’s shifting toms and snapping sticks as collateral damage, Peregrine Falls roared their way across sounds, genres, and time-signatures to make us all sweat through the globe-trotting organ effects of “Gaza” and the oily jig of the “La Villa Strangiato”-quoting “Barrel Fire”.
Ol’ Savannah might have turned the intensity down a notch, but they did not let up on the heat. While the five-piece are based right here in Montreal, their music’s heart lies somewhere out between the Appalachian Mountains and the bayou. The instruments might be traditional, with liberal use of banjo, accordion, and harmonica – but Ol’ Savannah doesn’t over-romanticize history or geography. Even when they’re uptempo, like the appropriately-named “Swamp Stomp”, these songs (and frontman Speedy Johnson’s Cajun growl) emphasize the muddy, greasy, and dusty side of humanity. Despite their Montreal roots and Americana sound, the group’s performance never comes off as insincere or put-on. Ol’ Savannah’s swampbilly sagas just want to transport the crowd somewhere far away, where even the “normal” of “Back to Normal” is marked by death and danger around every turn.
I first saw our hosts for the evening back in January, when they worked with local heroes The Rising Few to turn the chilly Divan Orange into a sweltering rager. This time around, it’s summer – and even with a shorter set, The History of Gunpowder came back with even more flames and fury.
This is a band with a reputation for explosive psychedelia and freaky theatrics, but while there were no surprise drop-ins from burlesque artists at this particular gig, guitarist and vocalist Alex James Morison brought plenty of thunder with his own strings, howls, and showmanship. With the throat of Nick Cave and the wardrobe of a zoot suit scarecrow, Morison stalks the stage like he’s possessed by his guitar, wandering feverishly through the many twists and turns of songs like the dynamic highlight and set-closer “Buenos Aires”.
But the group’s fiery travelogues are no ego trip, and Morison is less of a frontman and much more of a bandleader and facilitator for his top-notch crew of musicians. Swapping an upright bass for the electric four-string and adding the blistering tenor sax of Michael Johancsik to January’s lineup, Morison is flanked by the perfect team of collaborators to bring these sometimes-sinister and sometimes-sweet songs to life. Morison clearly knows this, and he’s just as happy to invite the fiddle and sax to trade jaw-dropping licks while he stands in the crowd, nodding in admiration.
Morison wasn’t the only observer in the crowd, either. A film crew had also been invited for the evening, shooting the set from the vantage point of the dancefloor. And while the cameras may not have captured the biggest crowd I’ve seen at La Sala Rossa, they were definitely lucky to catch one of the more intimate ones as they surrounded the makeshift stage area, bouncing and throbbing. In fact, because of this setup, the whole experience felt like more of a late-night party than a performance. That seems perfectly appropriate for a band that looks like they have as much fun playing with each other as they do playing for the people. The same goes twice as much for an audience that came to have a good time and got a chance to play with fire.
Review – Dan Corber
Photos – Gabriel Fizer