Bell Orchestre / Clogs / Snailhouse Warm Up Montreal's Theatre Plaza

John Kelman By

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Bell Orchestre / Clogs / Snailhouse
Theatre Plaza,
Montreal, Quebec
November 10, 2005

It may have been the day that the first hints of snow were in the sky, but the atmosphere was warm and cosy at Montreal's Theatre Plaza on November 10, 2005, where Montreal-based Snailhouse and Bell Orchestre were teamed with more-or-less American-based Clogs for an evening that managed to stymie preconceptions—even for those who knew the music and background of any/all of these three intrepid groups.

Theatre Plaza is a 1920s-era movie theatre that's been lovingly converted into a live concert venue. While the lack of seating made it a somewhat surprising choice for the chamber leanings of Clogs, it actually worked to their advantage. With surprising attention given not only to the sound system (which was superb) but to the lighting as well (outstanding), the venue was the perfect place to stage a triple bill where all was not what it seemed. It was also proof positive to aging naysayers that there is, indeed, an adventurous young fan base out there whose ears are wide open to possibilities extending far beyond what MuchMusic and MTV would have you believe is defining contemporary music.

Calling Snailhouse a group is, in fact, a misnomer. Snailhouse is, in fact, the name used by singer/songwriter Mike Feuerstack to group together a number of recording projects that range from the solo effort Fine (Grand Theft Autumn, 2000), to The Radio Dances (Rhythm of Sickness, 1999), where Feuerstack is supported by bandmates from Wooden Stars, who recently regrouped and are expecting to record in 2006.

Feuerstack's self-effacing writing is as economical as it is direct. His brief set consisted of songs that were deeply personal, yet avoided the sturm und drang so often associated with contemporary singer/songwriters. For the first half of his set Feuerstack—accompanying himself on an electric guitar and, consequently, avoiding the inherent folksiness of the usual singer/songwriter aesthetic—was alone on stage. He'd probably not want you to know it, but he's a deceptively fine player—deceptive because he comes from the same kind of minimal approach of Daniel Lanois. Still, his purity of tone and elegant simplicity belied greater talent, the same way Bill Frisell manages to speak volumes with a single note. Not that he's comparable to Frisell—only that they both prefer the significance of one note in place of many.

For the second half of his set, members of Bell Orchestre joined him, fleshing out the material without cluttering it—an approach that would be heard more when they took the stage for their own set. Bassist Richard Reed Parry and drummer Stef Schneider propelled Feuerstack's songs gracefully, while violinist Sarah Neufeld, trumpeter Kaveh Nabatian and French horn player Pietro Amato developed long, languid harmonies that made, at one point, Feuerstack's own falsetto simply part of a larger orchestra. A beautifully understated start to the evening.

Clogs, with three albums already out on the Brassland label, were clearly the most established group to take the stage. While violist/violinist Padma Newsome has been the group's primary composer since inception, their latest release Lantern (to be officially released in January, 2006, but available at shows now) is something of a departure, with the majority of the material "composed and developed by Clogs. Still, that should come as no surprise, because anyone familiar with the group—guitarist Bryce Dressner, bassoonist Rachael Elliott and percussionist Thomas Kozumplik—know that it's never been anything short of a wholly collaborative affair all along.

With each album representing both a logical development and departure from the last, it should also come as no surprise that Lantern, while sounding like nobody but Clogs, represents something new as well. Texturally it's as varied an album as they've made, with Dressner bringing out his electric guitar for the first time (in addition to acoustic guitar and ukulele), Newsome playing piano, melodica and mandola, and Elliott also doubling on melodica. For their all-too-brief 30-minute set, Clogs concentrated exclusively on material from Lantern, which in some ways is the most song-based work they've created in their five-year history together.

While the inherent intimacy of their sound might have seemed at odds with the bigger, rock-oriented style of the venue, they not only fit in perfectly, but adapted seamlessly to their surroundings, playing at times with a fiery intensity only hinted at on record. Clogs excel at making the most unconventional of instrumental combinations not only work, but feel as if they've always belonged together—electric guitar, viola, bassoon and steel drums creating a delicate backdrop for the album's title track, which also featured Newsome's softly melancholic vocal.

Still, while Clogs played with more power than those familiar with them might have expected, neither did they let the inherent spaciousness of the venue prevent them from creating the kind of intimate and graceful blend of through- composition and improvisation that's been a fundamental from their very beginning. Dressner often created warm elliptical patterns over which Elliott and Newsome layered melodies that transcended stereotypical expectations of what their instruments are capable. Kozumplik shifted between more conventional drum kit and hand percussion, creating the eclectic rhythmic fabric that's also helped define Clogs' unique sound.

While their first release, Thom's Night Out, put them in the same general space as groups like Rachel's, it's been clear with each successive release that Clogs are as stylistically impossible to categorize as they are as they are hypnotically appealing. While the majority of the young crowd at Theatre Plaza were there to see hometown group Belle Orchestre, it was equally clear that Clogs made some new converts during this fine and rare Canadian appearance.

With a minimalist wash of ambient sound coming from the sound system, Bell Orchestre gradually took the stage, with Nabatian and Amato playing their respective horns as they gradually wound their way through the crowd.

Touring in support of their first release, Recording a Tape the Colour of the Light (Rough Trade, 2005), the group quickly established their potent blend of contemporary chamber music with a propulsive rhythmic edge. While many of the roots of the group are likely lost on its audience—the minimalism of Steve Reich, adventurousness of electronic music and elegance of chamber music—they demonstrated that it's possible to take these more esoteric elements and combine them in a powerful and accessible blend. While the group focused on their primary instruments, they also incorporated odd electronics, tuned percussion and some distinctly less-than-conventional ideas—as when Schneider sat down at the front of the stage between Parry and Neufeld for a trio of bass, violin and...typewriter.

Neufeld—like Clogs' Newsome—is, perhaps, the most visually arresting performer, animated and actively engaged with every member of the band. But while this is a band—again, like Clogs—that's less about the individual and more about the collective, everyone had their moments to shine. And while the instrumentation is equally unconventional— bass, violin, percussion, trumpet and French horn—the result was a rich sound where conventional instrumental roles were often dispensed with. While Parry has a deep bass sound that, along with Schneider, can create a powerful rhythm section, he was just as often found creating long arco tones along with Neufeld, while Nabatian and Amato created almost conflicting lines that magically coalesced through the constant pulse created by Schneider.

The Theatre Plaza performance was the second-to-last date of a tour that's seen Bell Orchestre and Clogs visit New York, Boston and other venues in the New England area. While there's no question that their hometown crowd was especially appreciative of Belle Orchestre, the fact that these two groups—as far removed from popular pop culture as one can get—can hit the road and play to strong audiences makes it a certainty that, while adventurous music is relatively marginalized, it does have a place—one that will most certainly not be going away any time soon. Encouraging news indeed.

Visit Belle Orchestre, Clogs and Snailhouse on the web.

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