Words by: Kevin Schwartzbach | Images by: Adam Scotti
Stars :: 11.28.08 :: Metropolis :: Montreal, Canada
To say that Montreal-based quintet-and-a-bit Stars revels in excess would be an understatement. A more appropriate description of the band's music would be indie melodrama. Throughout a modest cluster of EPs and two major-label full releases, frontman and woman Torquil Campbell and Amy Millan have, at their best, elaborated on love and loss in fantastical, theatrical laments that require a certain suspension of disbelief. Let's be frank here, with songs titled "Ageless Beauty" and "Take Me to the Riot," Stars are not your typical, self-conscious indie rockers. Each song is designed to either follow or immediately lead into the climactic scene of an imperfect romance movie - even though the plot was impossible, the characters too perfectly tortured and the side-story suddenly irrelevant, it doesn't matter. An undying love saves all. Likewise, despite any shortcomings of their oeuvre, when Stars hit the right buttons, they hit the right fucking buttons, sweeping you up in these slices of nostalgia and romance. It's like watching the scene where the guy and the girl finally embrace on repeat. Imagine the moment they kiss in the rain in The Notebook. No, I won't admit I've seen The Notebook either, but pretend you did. And you loved it.
With this in mind, it was hard to imagine how such material would translate at Metropolis, Montreal's big venue of choice these days. Most Stars tracks, even the biggest, rely on soft atmosphere and lyrics to melt even a snowman's heart. From the outset, though, one could sense something different: the beer guys in the crowd were serving mixed drinks. The crowd was the least pushy I've ever seen, and I even felt compelled to step aside politely for some 15-year-olds trying to get up front. Toronto's Gentleman Reg kicked things off, offering up a smattering of pop-folk tunes with a gay twist. Relaxed in his stage banter and casually sifting through songs that could be sung by your average folk singer (if he sung about "missin' my boyfriend"), the band's slightly repetitive hooks were more than redeemed by the frontman himself, who came off like the buddy you talk to while waiting for the main event.
Then, the stagehands got to work. Stars' modest setup took no time to assemble, but carefully placed roses filled every available gap – mic stands, speakers and the drum kit, to name just a few spots – heightening the sense that something slightly beyond the average show was about to happen. Then, following a short musical interlude, the members poured onstage and took their positions. And their roses. Throughout the night, especially early on, the band picked roses out from their infinite bouquet, throwing them to the crowd and even drumming with their stems. Opener "The Night Starts Here," well, started the night in a slow burn. Amy Millan picked out her notes hesitantly, with Campbell's usually bold voice appropriately subdued as to allow the audience to take in the dark synthesizer backdrop and steady bass filling out the sound. Beautiful if understated, the meandering track led into crowd-pleasing "Take Me To The Riot," itself a continuation of the modesty of "The Night" until the outburst of the chorus. On the balls of his feet, Campbell yelled in ecstatic release, hinting at the sheer emotionality to follow. The guitarist, in his nook behind a synthesizer setup, fiddled with his gear, which obviously wasn't giving these tracks the proper kick.
|Stars :: 11.28 :: Montreal|
Immediately afterward, Stars tapped into the drama and excitement they're capable of. "Soft Revolution" was anything but soft, the band locking in with one another, shifting to a comfortable, faster gear. The roses shot out like a barrage, the guitarist finally got the roadies to do something about his sound (i.e. make it louder) and Campbell seized the opportunity of a now-galvanized crowd: "This is being recorded for broadcast by the CBC, so let's take this opportunity to say, 'Fuck Stephen Harper!'" Appropriately golden lights made the band only silhouettes, emphasizing the profiles of Millan on guitar and Campbell's trumpet. It was a reminder: Stars are unapologetically all-movie. His explanation, "We are here to take the blame/ To take the taunts and the shame," was all delivery, no humility. Somewhere, a director must've told him to grip the microphone like his life depended on it, and he over-acted.
Like so much of their music, the show depended on interplay between Millan and Campbell, especially on newer material that lacked a certain finesse. Millan's bowlegged girly posture under searching spotlights on "Window Bird" managed to compact the huge venue into an intimate gig for a few minutes, her clear vocals seeming so close. When she finally put down her guitar, she graced the audience with a feminine counterpoint to Campbell's sometimes overbearing enthusiasm. Her mermaid dance grooves teased us, hunched over the microphone backwards, breathing in heavy staccato. Campbell's energy worked best with the louder numbers, stretching and twisting his body to match the pronunciation of every syllable. His undeniably sincere proclamations, whether "trying to say I love you" or telling us he feels "violent for you, lover," weren't as cringe-worthy as they might seem on paper. As the guy who delivers some of the most darn-it-all love lyrics for the group, he does what any good frontman should - match the sentiment with the delivery. When not busy declaring his undying devotion to just about everything and everyone, he shot roses like javelins, used their stems to help out drummer Pat McGee and spasmed on the keyboard. Every cliché was there – singing in profile to one-another and then stepping away, grooving along with keyboardist Chris Seligman and bassist Evan Cranley – but in the lush swell of synthesizers and dramatic flair of these numbers, they felt appropriate, even necessary gestures.
|Torquil Campbell - Stars :: 11.28.08 :: Montreal|
As anyone would expect, well-worn hits fared best live. There was a noticeable jump in the step of everyone in the room – not just the band but the audience as well – as soon as a familiar synthesizer loop or guitar chord jabbed out. The band also seemed comfortable in the space of the familiar riffs. The rare chances Cranley got to shine, aside from a full-on funky bass ending to "Undertow," were the recognizable "What I'm Trying to Say" and "One More Night." I daresay he might even have improvised a tiny bit. "Bitches In Tokyo" was the only stumble of the night, a track that doesn't have much purpose on the album, In Our Bedroom after the War, to begin with. Campbell didn't know what to do with it, opting to splay his fingers randomly across a keyboard. Thankfully, the biggest misfires of the night were roses not music.
Stars, ultimately, put on the show – not just concert – nobody expected. Like watching How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days with your girlfriend and actually being more interested in what's going to happen to Kate Hudson instead of how you can just get to making out (hey, she almost loses the love of her life!), Stars pulled the hometown crowd in with a set, a stage presence and a strong selection of songs that made us suspend our disbelief for one night. With this gigantic performance, Stars could be playing bigger events. Just give them a red curtain and they're good to go.
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