Published Apr 08, 2014Leslie Feist struggled to recall how long it had been since she played a show by herself.
"Maybe eight, nine, ten years?" she wondered from the stage of Halifax's Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. "Time flies when you have a really loud band," she added.
Last night was Feist's first time performing in Halifax in over five years, and her first and only Canadian stop on a four-date solo tour with old friend and Broken Social Scene-mate Kevin Drew in tow as opening act. With only Feist, her guitar and a small VOX amplifier on stage, it was a far cry from the small army of musicians that toured for Metals and gave those performances a symphonic, boisterous sound.
The thing with most acoustic/solo shows by well-established artists is that they depend on the novelty of absence: hearing songs that you know stripped bare, almost under the presumption that you're able to fill in the blanks in your head. In contrast, Feist's set was all about presence, a performer actively and ably navigating the twists and turns of her back catalogue while finding new and exciting voices within the material.
That's not to say that there were always radical reinventions taking place. Many of Feist's best compositions are already sparse and skeletal, so songs like "Gatekeeper" and "Cicadas and Gulls" sounded pretty much as you'd expect. But the show found its voice six songs in with a piercing, thunderous take on "Undiscovered First," a track that, on record, gains its force from distortion, horns and a massive-sounding choir. Alone under red lights, Feist harnessed every ounce of that escalation and channelled it into her overdriven guitar and distorted vocals. Far from losing its power, the songs never sounded more compelling.
One of the most interesting things about Feist's evolution as a recording artist is that over the course of her career, but particularly on Metals, a hint of menace has begun sneaking into her songs, a dark fever expressed through punctuated rhythms and minor keys. Last night's highlights — a possessed-sounding "A Commotion," a noisy take on "Lonely Lonely," a tightly wound "The Bad in Each Other" — openly embraced those darker, knottier angles of her work. Even the more joyous moments, like the solo electric take on "I Feel it All" that closed out the night, had a welcome edge to them.
It's easy to wonder the degree to which that sense of menace was a deliberate reaction on Feist's part — a measure to avoid getting trapped in the indie twee iPod-commercial box that The Reminder's success threatened to put her in. Last night's take on "1234" — a song she's played only sporadically over the past few years — was somewhat telling.
While it closed her main set, it was hardly its celebratory self; instead, it was subdued, slowly paced and quite mournful, ripping out the broken-hearted little song that's buried under horns and background vocals in its recorded version. Yet, almost as if it couldn't help itself, the song gathered steam, and by the end, Feist was leading the crowd in a massive singalong. Even at their smallest and saddest, her songs simply sound too big to be denied.
Like Feist, Kevin Drew was also a little out of his standard element last night. "I'm used to having 19 people on stage with me," he said, adding that it was his first time ever performing a proper set by his lonesome. His nine-song performance, which leaned heavily on songs from new album Darlings, saw Drew switch between a grand piano and acoustic guitar, the latter with effects to make it sound like a wash of synths were playing along with him. There was a bit of sameness to the material — Drew noted how often he writes in the same key — but it was enjoyable nonetheless, with particularly gorgeous takes on Broken Social Scene classics "Lover's Spit" and "It's All Gonna Break."
And although they were billed as solo performances, both Feist and Drew were more than happy to invite a friend onstage for a couple of collaborations. Gord Downie joined Drew first during his opening set for an absolutely gonzo original composition about freezing rain, a secret path and a windbreaker. It was a bit of an odd duck stuck in between Drew's trademark sex-and-friendship anthems, but certainly captivating on its own manic terms.
Then, for her second encore, Feist invited both Drew and Downie to join her on a sweet, sombre take on the Tragically Hip classic "Flamenco" — a CanCon all-star collaboration that earned one of the loudest cheers of the night from the capacity crowd.