I don’t hate Broken Social Scene, but I don’t understand the love.
At their best, Broken Social Scene is frenetic post-Yoof indie rock with Rothian psychosexual hangups. At their usual, they are bland college rock, and at their most boring, they are a Canadian Springsteen tribute band (and a tribute to his most flawed music, at that). On Tuesday at the Orpheum, Kevin Drew and company took a leisurely two and a half hours to explore all three angles. [Continue reading…]
The Orpheum, the third hall of that name built in downtown L.A. in the 1920s, is one of my absolute favorite venues. Only the facades of the other two remain, and the third Orpheum has had a rocky history, but it culminated in a glorious recent restoration. It’s one of the few old vaudeville halls that have sneaked through the city’s ongoing commitment to bulldozing everything of historic import, and it gives us a lot to be thankful for.
Behind an art deco facade in the Historic Core District, the palatial confines of the 2000-capacity Orph unfold in an orgy of gilded baroque Spanish Renaissance decor. It’s divided into a ground floor, a balcony – originally “negroes only” – and cascading boxes, all with ornate new seats. It’s not just the architecture that is so great; the hall also has a crisp, sweet and dark reverb that must be the envy of theaters and clubs across the city. It would be impossible not to sound good there.
I took my center aisle seat, seven rows from the stage, in plenty of time to see the full set of opener New Buffalo. I hadn’t heard any of her music and was disarmed by her deceptively well-crafted piano pop. Few enjoyed it with me; there were, at most, only about 200 people in the house to see her set. Broken Social Scene fans, I thought to myself, must be a fickle bunch. That opinion was buttressed when the most boisterous applause New Buffalo received was for saying, “I’d like to thank Kevin Drew for taking me out on tour and letting me play for so long.”
About five minutes after she wrapped up, the hall began to fill. It was all but packed with seated hipsters when KCRW DJ Dan Wilcox took the mic and said, “Thank you. By coming here, you’re supporting public radio and local music. And now, I am not joking, this is the best band in the world: Broken Social Scene.” Never mind that the band is not local, but Canadian – that’s high praise.
Drew took the stage with a red Solo cup and a surprisingly spare ensemble – only five musicians backed him, all of them male. (More like BROken Social Scene, amirite?) They opened with a bloated, Springsteenesque number and, though I’m not intimate with the whole catalog, I took it to be from Drew’s new “solo” effort, Spirit If. The crowd remained seated through this, causing Drew to remark, “I feel like I’m in a play! This is act one.” As the band laid into “Cause=Time” from BSS’s sophomore album, people began to come to their feet. One more new number and then it was “Stars and Sons,” which removed all asses from chairs except for the two kids sitting next to me, a rail-thin teen in a white track jacket and his Asian girlfriend. They were frantically groping the floor for a lost “small baggie” that, from their demeanor, probably contained a substantial quantity of coke.
Having gotten a standing ovation for “Stars and Sons,” Drew dryly inquired, “How’s the play going?” It was less clever stage banter than attempt to assert himself as front man. Both times I’d seen BSS before, Drew had been happy to be an ensemble player, but here, he was making himself the star of the show. I found it somewhat off-putting, but the other 1,999 people in the auditorium didn’t agree with me; they cheered hysterically for everything he said and did, and were whipped into frenzy by countless noisy guitar solos and meandering jams. During the hour or so that Drew called acts two and three, my interest began to wane. Others seemed only to become more enthralled.
It was during this time I began to realize the scale of adoration this Canadian band has somehow managed to garner. While Thurston Moore booked the 400-capacity Echoplex in friendly Echo Park, 2,000 hipsters had forked out $30 a pop to see these relative newcomers in markedly more intimidating Downtown, and they were rapt for every note. Judging by their frenzied, near-tears outpourings between songs, Broken Social Scene spoke to them in the kind of personal way typically associated with bands like Radiohead or the Beatles. While I liked both You Forgot It in People and their self-titled, I’m only a casual fan; as such, the show made me feel like an atheist observer at an orthodox religious ceremony. I didn’t understand most of the interaction, and got the feeling that I was somehow unwelcome.
Of course, act four brought me around. This was when they dimmed the lights and introduced Emily Haines. Let me excuse myself: I’m not one of those pervy writers whose loins dictate his critical discussion of the blonde Canadian songstress. It’s just that the co-ed Broken Social Scene songs happen to be the best ones by a mile. Joined also by the horn section and careening through “Anthems,” “Almost Crimes,” “Shoreline,” and so on, it was impossible not to be won over. The creepy sexuality, the buoyant energy, and especially the absurdly dense over-arrangement – it was all there, and it was irresistible. This was what people were connecting with in that profound way.
Haines left the stage, and the frenzied crowd chanted for “KC Motherfucking Accidental.” Drew rejected the request. He realized he could do whatever he wanted for the rest of the show without the faintest objection, and took advantage of that. Among other lowlights, there was a forgettable cover of a forgotten Canadian pop hit, and a spectacularly overlong and pointless version of “Lover’s Spit.” I felt like whatever good will was earned in that earlier miraculous 20-minute stretch of perfect pop was being squandered. Then again, I was obviously alone in this opinion. If ever there was a show where I missed the point, it must have been this one.
As “Lover’s Spit” drew to a close – a full two and a half hours after Drew had taken his band and Solo cup onstage – he invited roadies and friends to the mics for an a capella singalong of “When It Begins,” a new album song which he insisted on prefacing with endless drunken ramblings. The band and the audience wrapped arms around each other and swayed, and the whole thing finally turned the corner from concert to lovefest.
Here I was with my cynicism, under the Orpheum’s golden domes, singing from the hymnal with the true believers.
We bring our cameras to shows. Click below for more Concert Photos.