10 Sep MusicfestNW 2013 Live Show Review: Tobacco, Natasha Kmeto, Royal Canoe (Portland, OR)
It seems that every other year, I find an indie pop band that I instantly fall in love with. I need not hear an entire record to know these folks resonate with me; I need only the first track to sense familiarity. In 2009, that band was Nurses; in 2011, it was Gardens & Villa. 2013’s candidate for “band I’m going to pimp out to all my friends” is Royal Canoe.
The six-piece Winnipeg-based band traveled across the country to play an opening MusicfestNW slot for !!!, and despite the fact that very few people in the crowd seemed to know who they were, Royal Canoe were instant crowd-pleasers and dance-insinuators. They rolled through tracks almost exclusively from their recent LP, Today We’re Believers, with one exception: the ridiculously sex-groovy “Summersweat” from their 2012 EP.
Twas a set full of falsettos balanced by deep mutated vocal effects, and topped off by — not one, but four — vocalists harmonizing or shouting gang vocals as necessary. Also notable were the double drummers, one of which triggered numerous sounds on an electronic drum pad, and a series of sick ass synths that sprang awesome leads like unstoppable leaks.
Royal Canoe are the first indie pop band I’ve seen in a while who truly seem like they are doing something irreplaceable. Their set is something wholly and bizarrely themselves, and unparalleled. As if in response to my bitching just the day before about the fact that live shows rarely wow me anymore, in Royal Canoe swooped, to uphold my high expectations for them. I’m only sad that even with all my proselytizing, I failed to rouse up much interest from my friends, who were busy with other MusicfestNW events. They missed out.
It has been a long-time desire of mine to see Tobacco in action, and I headed to Holocene soon after Royal Canoe’s set because I didn’t want to get “shut out” from a potentially sold-out show. Unfortunately, the show was not sold out, and I missed !!!, in exchange for sitting apathetically to Magic Fades’ vaporwave antics.
I was initially thrown off by Tobacco’s lack of wall-dominating projections — but standing near the front row, as I was, I had a clear view of his latest digs: a cloth-covered LED rig. What hasn’t changed is the horror-porn (or the porno-horror) content of Tobacco’s visuals, though they now have slightly muted shock value because of their pixely LED presentation. Not that they have lost any of their car crash appeal, though; a woman sexually lapping up a sausage is just as head-scratchingly enticing in LED form as it is in hi-def, though in different ways.
What stood out to me most about Tobacco’s set at Holocene this evening was not the visuals, though; it was the crowd — for it was one of the most diverse, high-energy groupings of human beings that I’ve seen in a minute. Part synth nerds, part goth kids, part bros; part Burners, part hip-hoppers, part people like me (?): all gathered for a combination of gratuitous stage-diving, loud chanting, unexpected moshing, joyful dancing, stoic standing, reluctant amusement, and any other generic concert tendency you might imagine. They had it all.
Such is the way of Tobacco, I guess — and the implications of his seriously terrific and terrifying audio-visual output, which blurs the lines between genres with unrivaled synth razoring and challenging rhythms; with pop songs as well as absolutely bizarre stylistic turns that sometimes leave even hardcore fans scratching their heads. In the crowd and on the stage, anything goes — and that is Tobacco’s particular magic.
As people are inclined to do these days, a stranger at the Tobacco show praised Tom Fec’s approach to electronic music while complaining about laptop musicians. “No one wants to see a performance where they don’t know what’s happening behind the screen,” he said. “They could be doing anything!”
Nevermind that I already didn’t much value his opinion — he kept insisting Seattle was terrible and challenging me to find an un-kind Portlander in the venue because it would be “impossible” — but I still failed to agree with his conception of what was “right” and “wrong” in the electronic music world.
Having spent many years up to my neck in DIY rave culture, I have a deep appreciation for live electronic music, however it’s presented, with or without live instrumentation. Anyone who says that Flying Lotus, for example, is not a skilled electronic musician just because he stands behind a laptop simply doesn’t know shiet.
To be fair, though, lots of electronic musicians in this day and age do totally suck — but hiding behind their screens is just one reason for their ineptitude. Also attributable to their potential suckfestness might be: an inability to adequately read or work a crowd; allowing oneself to become a slave to the technology; having no visibly expressed personality; and so on.
So, all that being said; let’s talk about Natasha Kmeto — who does know how to work a crowd and who doesn’t just hide behind a computer, even though she is essentially a “laptop musician”. Though I have seen her perform before, MusicfestNW was the first time I have seen a non-DJ set from her — and her training as both a live jazz/rock woman and a DJ certainly make her a shining musician in (especially) the local scene and beyond. Soulful vocal hooks and live loops, when smashed in together with her widely gamut-running club beats, create a mixture both externally and internally stirring, both dance-centric and introspective.
To a degree, dance music can always be introspective if you let its rhythms overtake your mind and body. But in a case of Natasha Kmeto’s recent sets, which incorporate much from her latest heartbreak record, Crisis, the emotional qualities are both implicit and explicit, firstly through the minor key melodies and then expelled out lyrically by Kmeto’s powerful voice. Snaps, pops, and drops of expertly-transitioned dance music incorporate everything from far-out droney experiments with live-manipulated vocal samples and industrial-sounding rhythms to R&B clips of Toni Braxton (remixed) and Frank Ocean (not remixed).
Indeed, the Natasha Kmeto live experience is wide, varied, and a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. Her ability to transition from a crowd-pleasing DJ — complete with Fly Girl dance moves — to a show-stopping diva vocalist is a pleasure to witness. It is also a “hear me roar” reminder that there is no one thing that truly defines a good electronic music performance — other than the art of the performance.