October 8, 2011
Glenn Gould Studios
Something strange has happened since Feist made us dance around with our iPods to The Reminder back in 2007.
And that strange thing is Florence and the Machine, Lykke Li, Lights, Jenn Grant, Dum Dum Girls, Warpaint, St. Vincent, Ohbijou, Rebekah Higgs, Bat For Lashes, My Brightest Diamond, Lavender Diamond, She & Him, Priscilla Ahn… The list goes on, but basically, in the time Leslie Feist has been out of the spotlight, her place in the musical hierarchy has more than ably been filled by a revolving cast of diverse, dynamic, world-class women who don’t resort to parading around in short shorts to peddle their art.
It would seem, then, that the position of Queen of Indie Rock has about as much job security as being a wife of Henry VIII.
That said, at an exclusive concert held Saturday (Oct. 8) at Toronto’s Glenn Gould Studio, Feist showed that with her new album, Metals, she maintains dominion over a loyal legion of followers.
The show — taped as part of the CBC’s 75th anniversary celebrations and set to air on CBC Radio 2 on Nov. 2 — wasn’t about royal courts so much as it was old-time radio variety programs — even if there were was a non-stop parade of guest musicians who came to swear fealty to the petite singer.
Biggest among these names was Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy. They sang “You And I,” their duet from 2009’s Wilco (The Album), and their performance was one of the simpler renditions on a night that saw most Metals songs amped up significantly and many older Feist numbers rendered barely recognizable.
Feist and Grizzly Bear’s Ed Droste did a quick run-through of his band’s AIDS charity song “Service Bell” before he helped out on Metals track “Cicadas and Gulls.”
Country crooner Doug Paisley temporarily brought us to the Grand Ole Opry with his song “Don’t Make Me Wait,” and theoretically, Joel Gibb of the Hidden Cameras and Feist’s take on the traditional “The Wagoner’s Lad” should have done the same thing. Unfortunately, that one mostly just felt awkward.
Probably the most natural union was the one between Feist and former Constantines singer Bry Webb. Considering Feist’s longstanding ties to Webb, the Cons and the Cons’ old foundation-building label Three Gut Records, the pair’s takes on the Metals track “The Bad In Each Other” and the Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton classic “Islands In the Stream” felt effortless, even if Feist seemed a bit intimidated with Parton’s parts.
For all the excitement of having a gaggle indie stars in the building, Feist was at her regal best when the men weren’t interfering.
She was accompanied, in various permutations, by a string section, keys, drums, the backup singing trio Mountain Man and Happiness Project/Broken Social Scene member Charles Spearin, who seemingly played every instrument known to man throughout the night. It was this setup that brought out the best in the Metals songs.
In recorded form, Metals often comes across as too soft and gauzy. There are seemingly random choral stabs and clompy percussion bits rising out of that murk, but you’re frequently left wishing for the return of the finger-snapping, shimmy-shaking Feist of old.
Live, though, these songs are transformed. The melancholy “Comfort Me,” which may turn out to be the secret gem of Metals, started slow before roaring to life, becoming a percussive beast filled with multiple people drumming and Feist and the Mountain Man trio stretching themselves vocally. The song exists almost completely outside of the known Feist musical template, and if you ignored the fact that the central figure on stage was a beloved Canadian songbird, you could have momentarily thought you had stumbled into an …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead show.
Songs like “Bittersweet Melodies,” a relatively innocuous piece on Metals, got made into something far more vital with the help of Mountain Man, and their accompaniment added greatly to the set. Then there were those drums — played by two, three, or even four people on any given song.
Let It Die breakout single “Mushaboom” and Metals tracks “Caught a Long Wind” and “The Bad In Each Other” all benefited from this newer, heavier, more primitive treatment. And in an age when a little extra percussion has become a common musical hallmark of Feist’s contemporaries (Lykke Li’s single drumstick dance-drumming, in particular, comes to mind), it felt as though she was using the skin-beating for sending a message, not following trends.
These were not drums for dancing so much as they were drums of warning — war drums. Feist may have been as personable and sweet as ever Saturday night, but there’s a darker streak to her music now. And that thumping, pounding, smashing racket her cohorts were making was telling us something: Leslie Feist has returned, and she won’t be giving up her crown so easily.
This review was originally published October 9, 2011 via AOL Spinner.