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Pop Montreal 2006

Giant Sand, Under Byen & Mike O'Brien at Cabaret

Posted by Scott / October 8, 2006

This night began uncomfortably, with the Cabaret’s guest list cops stopping me from going in. It seems they couldn’t find my name or the venerable Midnight Poutine (nominated for the Canadian Blog Awards for god's sake !) on their list. After several explanations of who I am and the handing over of cards, I was (rather brusquely) told to just buy a ticket as, “they are very reasonable, and would support the band.”

The ticket counter informed me that this reasonable price was $22. I went back to the guest list cops and told them it was unrealistic to expect writers to pay to cover bands at their venue, and give their club free promotion. Suddenly, they found my name on page two of the guest list – the second name down. Well, well. There were no apologies or explanations from the Cabaret’s staff, just a handing over of a square of paper and direction to get my hand stamped. Whether all this was a deliberate attempt to sell another ticket or just an honest mistake, it was still the work of total dipshits.

However, I was pleased to see that at least all three groups on the bill knew what they were doing.

Mike O’Brien took the stage first. He was supported by trio of bass, guitar/mandolin and drums, and played a sort of rootsy, bluegrass influenced Canadianna. They reminded me at times of The Band, and the audience seemed to really enjoy what they were hearing, woo-hooing several times and taking part in the (I kid you not) stomp-and-clap collaboration. On a few occasions, O’Brien drew attention to the fact that the songs were often written about girls – a fact that even his own band acknowledged as “twisted”. O’Brien’s music was a little straightforward for my tastes, but I recognize the skill involved and as noted it was well received by the audience. There was a piece played with just an acoustic guitar accompaniment, and I am pretty sure O’Brien was doing the harmonic fingerstyle fan invented by Lenny Breau – which is completely crazy.

underbyen.jpgNext up were art-rock group Under Byen, a seven piece from Denmark, featuring cello and violin, looped vocals, bass, keys and double drummers. Their sound was like the Rachel’s meets an analogue Portishead, aloof and cool, at times euro-cute. Probably the craziest part of the set was when the violin player took up a saw running through guitar pedals. Electric saw, in other words. With this, he was able to create squealing feedback and glissando sweeps that ducked in and out of the band’s sound. Over rugged floor-tom-and-snare drums, the other instruments came in bursts, arranging the songs in explosions of sound. I didn’t know this group before this show but I will certainly check them out. When they finished they stood in a line and bowed, prompting my accomplice to say, “how cute, how foreign!”

Finally, Giant Sand meandered onto the stage and the audience began shushing each other, trying to set the atmosphere for the group. Singer Howe Gelb asked the audience to continue the shushing, and then led the band in and impromptu, jazzy version of “Frère Jacques”. This perhaps set the tone for the evening, with songs morphing mid-way into vamped improvisations, or through variations that referenced standards like “Fly Me to the Moon”. The group seemed to follow Gelb’s lead, worked without a set list, and fashioned the spare-and-explosive desert rock found on their albums from each other’s lead. The four-piece (lapsteel, bass, drums and voice/guitar/keys from Gelb) pulled the audience into a dusty, sepia-toned place where songs are off-kilter and wry, wrinkled around the eyes from too much sun. They evoked a time and place that never existed, yet still feels familiar: no mean feat. The finest part of the set was when Giant Sand were joined by the singer of Under Byen (curiously named “Hank”) to do some songs off Chore of Enchantment. Given that it has been 10 years (or 15, depending on who you ask) since Giant Sand last played Montreal, those who saw the show know they enjoyed a rare spectacle they may not see again.



frank / October 8, 2006 at 05:02 pm
the singer for under byen's name is henrietta - hence the hank. And that's a lot of alliteration.
scott / October 8, 2006 at 07:09 pm
ah! that makes sense. you never know w/ gelb et al how much fiction is fact and fact is fiction, so it could've gone either way.
thanx for the info...also: enjoyed yr input in the 'future of music' panel.
Gerry / December 22, 2006 at 04:20 am
Mike O'Brien's website is

/ January 28, 2009 at 06:55 am
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Tom / February 4, 2015 at 04:40 am
I think he is just the cutest and would join a very large falmiy of owls here I have in my collection - all shapes, sizes, some furry and some china. When I looked at him, I thought he looked like a Hugo!You have such a great style. I love all your work.
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