It was a Wednesday night and the vibes were infinite. Scores of fans had gathered outside the famed Massey Hall in order to catch the indie heavyweights, Grizzly Bear.
The Brooklyn quartet composed of Ed Droste (vocals), Dan Rossen (vocals/guitar), Chris Taylor (bass), and Christopher Bear (drums) were fresh off the release of their fourth record, Shields (out now via Warp). Anticipation for the album had been building since the release of Veckatimest way back in 2009. Fans were also extra-psyched to hear them in what is arguably Canada’s most acoustically-sound venue, Massey Hall. (To be clear, the band’s tunes would have sounded gorgeous even in The Molson Amphitheater.)
Standing outside the venue and glimpsing the group’s ostentatious orange tour bus, anyone could guess that Ed and the rest of the band had outgrown the humble confines of Droste’s bedroom a long time ago.
Unknown Mortal Orchestra were slated to open and not surprisingly, almost a full theater turned up to catch the psychedelic rockers from both New Zealand and Portland. With only a self-titled debut currently out, the group played a tight set, highlighted by distorted hits such as ‘Ffunny Ffrends’ and ‘Jello and Juggernauts’. Signed to Jagjaguwar, Ruban Nielson (Vocals/Guitar), Jake Portrait (Bass), and Greg Rogrove (Drums) are at work on a followup to be released in early 2013. Those in attendance had the pleasure of hearing the tour-exclusive 7-inch track, “Swim and Sleep (Like A Shark)”. Ruban was just as good-natured as one might expect from a guy whose Kiwi accent makes girls swoon. After receiving some feedback from one of Grizzly Bear’s amps, Ruban stopped the show for a minute and said, “Thank you for putting up with this. I want you to listen to the rest of the set and if you hear this…(pauses to let buzzing be heard)…that’s not supposed to be there.” Naturally, a roaring applause greeted UMO at the conclusion of their set. The group were more than happy to chat with fans after the concert, asserting themselves as all-around nice dudes.
While the stage was prepared for the main act, chatter could be heard amongst all tiers of the audience debating about which Grizzly Bear LP was the strongest. Some were stark devotees to the intimate Yellow House, while others adored Veckatimest’s sophistication. But everyone was in agreement that Shields was the band’s most ambitious album to date. It’s swarthy melodies and dense sonic layers made up for the fact that, as Pitchfork says, it was “without an instantly gratifying single like ‘Knife’ or ‘Two Weeks”. Given that the album had been out for a while before the show, fans had allowed multiple listens to reveal the intricacies of sprawling stunners such as ‘Sun In Your Eyes’ and ‘Yet Again’.
Fame hadn’t robbed Grizzly Bear of its punctuality. Ever polite, the quartet trotted on stage at 9:15 with their touring keyboardist, Aaron Arntz, in tow and launched right into the melodramatic ‘Speak In Rounds’. It was clear that the band realized the enormity of the venue, and they brought a big sound to match. Dark instrumental interlude, ‘Adelma’, proved that acoustics weren’t the only thing that the band had under control. Suspended behind the band were a row of jellyfish-like light fixtures that moved throughout the set, pulsing in different coloured lights, and adding a whole new eery element to an already engaging show.
If there ever was an example of equalitarianism within a band, it’s how Grizzly Bear lines up horizontally across the stage, pushing each member to the forefront. This sense of balance is resuscitated in slow jams like ‘Lullabye’ where Rossen’s gravelly voice combines with Droste’s own silvery delivery. Such a hush fell over the eager crowd that when this piece’s author began to wind up his disposable camera, the entire left balcony turned to direct their disapproving gazes at him.
Perhaps one of the most beautiful moments of the night came when the band dimmed the lights and played ‘Shift’, the sole cut performed that night from Droste’s self-recorded first LP as Grizzly Bear, Horn of Plenty. An ambulance could be heard screaming past on the way to an emergency as Droste crooned “I wouldn’t have it any other way”, but it just as well could have been rushing to save all the females in attendance whose ovaries had just simultaneously burst in exultation.
Being in a city as rich in musicians as Toronto, one could expect a surprise or two. That said, seeing Owen Pallet stride onto the stage with his violin made many a heart soar. The group had a rich history with the Canadian solo-artist as Droste ecstatically pointed out, having joined Pallett on his tour throughout Ontario before. Their acute understanding of each other was evident on a soaring version of “Half-Gate” where Pallett’s playing was a welcome addition to an already beautiful chord arrangement He stuck around for ‘What’s Wrong” as well.
‘Sun In Your Eyes’, the longest track on Shields, was masterfully done with Chris Bear’s spastic drumming bringing the haunting song to its violent crescendo with seizure-inducing lights to boot. From personal experience, it was the best rendition of a song I’ve ever seen. A plethora of emotions were captured within those 7 minutes and all of them were confronted in the amazingly cathartic conclusion where Rossen ironically sang “so bright, so long”.
When Droste exclaimed that they had brought another guest with them to close the set out, fans rose to their feet. Allowing themselves a breather for the first time in a while, Droste and Co. beckoned “the lovely Miss Feist” to the stage where she lent her sweet vocals to the poppiest hit that Grizzly Bear have to offer — the radio-ready ‘Two Weeks’.
Naturally, a lengthy standing ovation ensued. The band’s jaunt back onto stage was a confident one and who was to deny them that? Chris Taylor’s rousing background vocals on crowd-favourite, ‘Knife’, never sounded as stunning as they did during that encore.
Having praised the venue’s rich history and referencing Neil Young’s famous Live At Massey Hall 1971 record throughout the set, Grizzly Bear sought to leave their own mark on Toronto. Announcing that they had to take advantage of such great acoustics, all of them huddled around one mic as they went unplugged for a stirring performance of ‘All We Ask’.
The band are known to take lengthy hiatuses between tours and the recording of new albums. Anyone who’s heard Shields or seen them perform would do well to echo the words that Rossen sings on ‘A Simple Answer’: “But please, not so long this time”.
Because fans will always be eager to support Grizzly Bear. Perhaps by purchasing their amazing vibes t-shirts that come in both White/Black and Grey/Rainbow (see way below)
- Speak In Rounds
- Sleeping Ute
- Yet Again
- Shift (Alternate Version)
- Ready, Able
- A Simple Answer
- Half-Gate (with Owen Pallett)
- What’s Wrong? (with Owen Pallett)
- While You Wait For The Others
- Sun In Your Eyes
- Two Weeks (with Feist)
- All We Ask (Acoustic)
Note: Photos with a watermark are property of Sidewalk Hustle.