The Twilight Sad: Toronto, Velvet Underground, May 16th, 2019.
The Twilight Sad have returned to Toronto with their latest album It Won’t Be Like This All the Time.
The Sad have built a fanbase here, as elsewhere, over many years, playing the circuit of gritty rock clubs and halls that we are damned lucky still exist. They’ve played the big stages, having opened for The Cure across their massive North American tour in 2016 (locally headlining Bestival Toronto that year). We first caught the Kilsyth band in 2010, as part of an exciting bill of up and coming Glasgow bands that were gaining wider recognition. At that time, the riveting stage presence of James Graham was something this not-yet-writer found overwhelming. Long distant, then, from the happy days of similarly sized concerts from bands who came over from the U.K., I was rusty, out of practice. It turns out I had been asleep. If I’d ever been at front of stage in my youth in the 90s, an alcohol and convivial haze was half the point, the precise memories sketchy and full of youthful blank spots. And stadium shows, pre-big screens and big sound, were wishful thinking, all of us sitting in the cheap seats, light blue plastic they were, all of us thrilled just be be there, at all. None of the nuances of performances, nor even full confirmation these were the same people from our posters, was really possible.
So seeing The Twilight Sad on an intimate stage before a passionate crowd was something I wasn’t ready for in 2010. Graham’s stage presence is by now, famous to all who’ve been in those rooms and festival fields. But I’d never been around (or close enough) to see an artist give it all from his marrow, eyes white and rolled back, body possessed, clothes melted, singing from somewhere primal, somehow looking good doing it, but doing everything that repressed cultures are told will get you labeled. I lived in a land defined by measured lawns of puritanical social codes and tall poppy syndrome. I had forgotten (never seen up close) that true art and bloodletting performance is rare, special, what music fans wait for or may never get to see. That they aren’t something of flat, priceless images from the 1970s, you-missed-it, New York. But in 2010, I had not yet learned to hold myself un-self-consciously in a crowd with full ease and abandon, even alone, not needing liquid courage anymore, finding my religion in the chords of our few stalwart, saintly poets who miraculously return to us year after year, despite airports and border patrols having not one art-loving bone in their entire structures. I hadn’t swayed, eyes closed, beyond the need for visuals, photos unnecessary, phone away, in a place of transcendence that artists build with their audiences, each of us a vital part, a temple constructed and dismantled in 90 minutes anywhere the bus can take them, or us.
Now, Velvet Underground, a former nightclub / bar haunt of ours, has been refurbished and decluttered as a central downtown site for excellent club-sized gigs, and is run by people who still value links to important bands from overseas. I’m ever aware of the history of even this new paint, our limited and fragile Toronto landmarks, and the great fortune that conspires to enable this lifestyle at all, when there is a movement in the corporate, corrupted media arena that tries to convince all of us who know better around the world, that guitars and real music made by hands and voices is something dying, retro, uncool or obsolete. It’s all lies. Rock and Roll still has enormous, incorruptible power to threaten the establishment no matter how the establishment shakes its ass or how much smoke and mirrors they trot out to soulless arenas. We go on.
En route to this gig, The Twilight Sad updates their fans on their tour from the road. A necessary cancellation due to illness for the lead singer means doctor-ordered rest for two days, in order to be able to make Toronto’s show. Then, the airline loses essential band equipment. At the gig, Graham, a man of few words but much sincere feeling, tells us that the band were the guests of Border Services for three hours today. Getting to Canada is not easy, and the bands who make the effort mean more to us then ever.
Now to the gig. Due to unavoidable delays we arrive midway through Kathryn Joseph’s set, regrettably, as it’s clearly not to be missed. The crowd of The Twilight Sad fans is silent, respectful, enraptured at this lone figure curled over her keys performing her award winning debut double album Bones You Have Thrown Me and Blood I’ve Spilled. Toronto Bros have been chased out of town with pitchforks: this is why we (forever) need more female representation up on our rock stages. Joseph commands the room with a syrupy voice full of life and heart, her evocative, clean lyrics repeated until I see the story unfurled before me of this specific love, this pain, this universal dirge we must grapple with as humans. No talking is permitted by strangers who’ve adopted a code unusual for Toronto gigs, a single, withering dirty look as effective as a young mother to her child was, in my day. It’s impressive in every way. This is her atmosphere, one made by music alone, and it is a perfect complement to the Sad. Joseph is a fellow Glaswegian and support for their whole tour. Don’t be late.
As expected, James Graham emerges in full physical force, perhaps front loading his energy in case his still very ill throat and body lets him down later. He touches his chest like you do when you need your nana-nurse, and yet his vocals never flag, causing worry amongst a devoted crowd who care about him even more than their night’s entertainment. He’s earned it over years of hard graft, and great music. The set is a full one, as the rest of the room drips sweat in the strange mid May humidity of Toronto that swings up and down by 25 degrees in a few hours. We know and empathize with persistent flus and colds around here, and we aren’t even trying to sing.
The set moves through seven songs from the new album It Won’t Be Like This All the Time and finishes with an emotional wallop: “Cold Days From the Birdhouse”, followed by a cover of Frightened Rabbit’s “Keep Yourself Warm” in honor of the late Scott Hutchinson, a friend whose death rocked his community of fans as well as his music family. We must all keep ourselves warm. We must keep each other warm. Alive. It is a war cry against the darkness we must fight. The final song of the gig, “And She Would Darken the Memory”, which has been in the set since 2007, is a mic drop moment of modern music that tells everyone that real music is the farthest thing from dead, like many great and organic art forms has just been badly treated by an industry. But music is not an industry. And so, in free-fall, the music that can flourish now is only, ever, art.
This band, back in 2010, was too big for the stage I saw them on, in my town that I believed then did not let people stand to their full height (or reach beyond it). They gave the same, major performance and sound that would enable them to fill The Cure’s massive stage as support for the massive, historic 2016 North American tour, a record-breaking route that carved a map like a joker’s smile, taking a continent to church in three-encore sessions. By then, the Sad were more than ready. And they are still perfect on the rock club stage where fans get the best of both, like it was a private party. This band can do anything and has only grown with the opportunities they’ve been given – for how do you not learn from the best, and the biggest changes? The Twilight Sad is a band now in full flight, who must be seen live at every opportunity. Nobody moves from their spot. Most of us have a perfect, tight view, even eye contact. Shouting distance. Trust.