On a dangerously cold night on Queens Street in Toronto, at a dark music venue named after the “The Velvet Underground”, Cate Le Bon, a young woman from deepest west Wales, who is now four terrific albums into what I believe is a crucially important musical career, is poised to begin a show before an expectant crowd of about 400 people. Surprisingly, her first words were to announce that due to recent U.S border policies, her band’s drummer was going to be absent for the night. Apparently they were worried he might not be allowed back into the States so they didn’t risk bringing him up to Canada; someone else would have to sit in. Now, as a drummer myself, I’ve always had this fantasy that one day I’ll be at a gig and the band declares that they need a substitute drummer immediately due to one reason or another (usually a broken arm; often I was inadvertently involved), and is there a drummer out there who knows the music and if so, would he be kind enough to make himself known? For a few nervous moments, I honestly thought my chance had finally come. I was just beginning my windmill arms stretch routine when she introduced Tim Presley, the evening’s support act, as the stand in drummer, and cursing under my breath, I zipped up my winter coat again.
The façade of “The Velvet Underground” is made of ugly, diagonal, creosoted planks, while above hangs a white illuminated billboard announcing to the street some of the venue’s impending acts in black letters. Inside, there is an open space stretching towards the stage, with a brick wall flanking the left hand side and a long, austere bar on the right. Small rotating lights hanging from the ceiling project purple, pink, rose, mauve, red and violet while freaky sounds seep out from the speakers; muffled human voices tangle with high-pitched whinnying bleeps from some sort of sampler machine and standing alone, I feel like I’ve walked into an episode of “Black Mirror”. There’s nothing to do but stare at the shiny lights, await the band and pray I’m not going mad.
Taking to the stage and smiling coyly, the band quickly began the intense opening crescendo of the song “Crab Day”, the title track of Cate Le Bon’s latest album of the same name. Next, in keeping with the chronological order of the album, Presley immediately hammered the introductory drum roll to the exquisite “Love is not Love” across his borrowed toms before anyone could draw their breath. The third track, an upbeat jingle-jangle of a tune called “Wonderful” with a sharp guitar riff and a DNA code programmed for celebration, ensured that this fine young band was out of the starting gates in unison, inspiring smiles and steady movement in the crowd. And, to be honest, I never would have guessed that the usual drummer was absent.
While Cate sings lead vocals and plays the electric guitar, her band consists of three young men, one on bass, Tim on drums, and a third swapping keyboards and guitar throughout the evening. Modest drums and bass-lines accompany twangy, exposed chords on one electric guitar while the punky riffs of the other electric guitar dance above the music in a complicated but pre-planned meandering. Note patterns meet occasionally like ocean-waves frothing up onto a small sandy bay, before being separated again by a rude rocky coastline, until another peaceful cove comes into sight. The intelligent design of her songs means that for the listener, there is always something to focus on. This is creative, electric guitar based music at its best, and the combo of drums, electric bass, electric guitar and the option of keyboards or a second electric guitar playing alternative rock penned by a gifted writer is in my opinion one of the greatest pleasures of life.
They played a good portion of the “Crab Day” album, including “I’m A Dirty Attic”, “We Might Revolve”, and the hypnotic “What’s Not Mine”, as well as a couple of tracks from the new “Rock Pool” EP, and a handful from 2013’s “Mug Museum” album such as “No God”, “I Can’t Help You”, and, at the finale, the much-loved “Are You With Me Now?”.
Some of the songs in her repertoire seem to delve from similar creative conditions that inspired 70’s British folk-rock, while others seem to share comparisons to 90’s American alternative rock. However, Cate Le Bon also displays a unique and beautiful voice of her own, one enhanced by such a thick Welsh accent that it sometimes sounds German. She seems to have an eye for the weird and the wonderful and the avant-garde and you get a strong impression that music is only one facet of her creative expression.
The sorriest looking merchandise table I’ve ever seen consisted of two of her LPs, a neglected, tatty tour poster, and another sheet of paper that could have been an email sign up list. There wasn’t anybody on duty so for all I know it was a piece of abstract art or a social experiment. But then again, she’s obviously more focused on music and art than she is on sales, and my impression of her is that she is a genuine mix of the poet who wanders the lugubrious welsh hills composing as she goes, and the polite, down to earth young woman very much at ease with herself who was gracious enough to chat with me after the show. On stage, she doesn’t talk a lot, but the atmosphere remained charged and was never awkward. Too many spoken words might have been superfluous because she was saying all she wanted to say through her music.
I’ve been fortunate enough to see most of my favourite bands and artists live, and now that I’ve seen Cate Le Bon, there aren’t many left on that list who I would travel long (or even short) distances and pay good money to watch. (Incredibly, tonight’s show cost a mere $15). There may be one or two others but if it doesn’t happen, I’ll get over it, and who knows whether any bands of the future will grab me by the throat like so many others have done in the past? From seeing Genesis at my first ever gig to this evening’s show featuring the revelation that is Cate Le Bon, I’ve now pretty much seen everyone I could ever hope to see who is still alive. Which makes me question, is this the end of the road?
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