Guster, Phoenix Concert Theatre, Toronto, ON- 4/29
Guster has become an anomaly in our modern music industry. Successful enough to garner an extremely loyal following, the band remains constantly unable to crack the glass ceiling of mainstream success, despite the band's penchant for writing catchy, tight and marketable pop rock. Along with that, the virtuosic percussive work of drummer Brian Rosenwercel, along with the improved harmonies and loveable humour of guitarists Adam Miller and Ryan Gardner consistently raises Guster above the bar of most touring frat rock bands, turning any given Guster show into a spectacle for the eyes, as well as a feast for the ears.
On April 29th, the band returned to Toronto for the third time in six months, fresh off a sold out show at Lee's Palace in November while riding the coat tails of their extremely mature and groundbreaking fourth album, Keep It Together. Keep It Together, which took two years to complete, was well worth the wait. Combining tight and emotional pop rock, with a hint of jazz soul and improvisation, Guster released one of the best albums of 2003, albeit quietly under the radar of the mainstream press. Songs like Come Downstairs and Say Hello' and I Hope Tomorrow is Like Today' are marketable frat rock masterpieces, complete with the complex melodies, approachable lyrics and awe-inspiring percussion work that the band has built a cult following on. Keep It Together ushered in a new era of the decade old band, one that continues to inspire old fans while steadily attracting the new.
Taking place in an old concert hall in a rundown and generally unassuming neighbourhood in downtown Toronto, the Phoenix was the perfect venue for the band, too big for them to sell out but big enough to return and grow into. Holding about 800 people and normally home to DJ's and the odd radio station sponsored concert, the Phoenix is one of the better sounding rooms in Toronto to see live music, which fared well for a band rich in percussive layering and heavy and intricate harmonies.
Just after 10:30PM and after an extremely ordinary opening set from Canadian songwriter Danny Michel, the band broke into a quiet and somber I Spy', a version that stayed true to its studio counterpart. The quartet, (now with multi-instrumentalist Joe Pisapia on board), stuck to the popular fan favourites throughout the set, opting to play the more common numbers, instead of dipping into the deep well of older originals. While the songs were extremely well played, especially the always climactic Airport Song' and the sing-along Barrel of a Gun', the setlist was downright predictable from the onset, because the band seemed reserved in playing lesser known songs, in an effort to win over the relatively newer fanbase in Toronto. The one surprise and hands down highlight of the evening, was a choralesque rendition of their introspective concept song, All the Way Up To Heaven'. In an effort to celebrate the fact that the band was playing two Christian Universities before and after Toronto, they invited an all-female Christian youth choir to join them, creating a demandingly intense wall of sound that Phil Spector would have been impressed with.
Unfortunately, while the band was playing their well-known material and playing it well, the crowd overall were more present than active throughout the show. Only a handful of fans at the front of the stage interacted with the quartet, leaving most of the half-capacity crowd on the outside looking in, instead of sharing and complementing the energy of the band. Even through classic originals like Happier' and Fa Fa', the crowd remained rigid, almost afraid to participate in the Guster experience, lowering the energy in the room significantly, making it feel like the band was playing to a crowd of mannequins.
Throughout the ninety minute set of soulful pop rock, the band seemed overtly content with playing the tried and true, hoping to ignite the audience with through commonality, rather than taking chances to reverse the subdued mood. While the band played their repertoire well in Toronto, the night never took off like it should have, and the show felt awkwardly like watching the band play their studio album live, rather than watching the band expand on their studio album live. Yet, with their continued success, including scheduled appearances at Bonnaroo and a week-long opening stint for the Dave Matthews Band this summer, this live act is working, despite the unfortunately quiet mood that surrounded the Phoenix in Toronto. Still, the band continues to sell out college auditoriums and theatres south of the border on a consistent basis, leading me to believe that the standardized live show is working, because even though Guster are beginning to squelch their spontaneous appetites, the songs they play are played really well, and despite the intransigent crowd, that fact did not change in Toronto.