The Rickshaw is quite a place to see a live show. In the heart of Vancouver's East Hastings, the theatre has character. It is a lot bigger than it looks and I spent a few minutes making a list of band that would kill a venue like this in my head.
We waited quite some time before anyone hit the stage. Just as Christopher Smith hit the stage, some of the Balmorhea line up came out to the merch table. I walked over and introduced myself, bought a t-shirt and asked for the set list. They proved to be a very approachable group of people and agreed to give me their setlist.
Christopher Smith and his full band played a very solid warm-up set. I had never heard of him before so I was excited to see what local talents I had been missing out on. His music is very soft and almost glimmering. The drummer was fantastic and played the steel set with pure devotion as well as providing the back-up vocals. The harmonies in the songs were very well done and you could just tell that the band enjoy the type of music they play. They played a 6 song set which ended with a bang. Their second last song ended with the entire band just going crazy on their instruments. The result was a wave of sound that penetrated and silenced the crowd. We were all just standing their watching these guys pour their souls out on the stage. One by one the band members started to put their instruments down and walked off the stage. Before Chris and the drummer walked off, Chris walked up to the front of the stage and got on his knees with his guitar. The drummer picked up the bass and has, cross-legged on the opposite side of the stage and began playing a reverbered full, feed-back packed riff at a very peculiar volume. The two played on completely different time signatures while Chris sang a long, gloomy, beautiful ballad called "Gang of Pricks". Chris walked off the stage next leaving the drummer playing the bass on the floor of the stage, swaying back and forth as if possessed by a sound demon. He stopped suddenly as if he had awoken from a long dream and realized there were others in the room. He put the bass on its rack and walked off without saying a word. The crowd was silent for several seconds before we remembered we had hands to clap with. I immediately walked over to the mercy table, now manned by Chris Smith himself, and bought the album.
Balmorhea did not waste any time getting on stage and I immediately noticed the absence of the banjo on stage. My favourite song of theirs, "Bowspirit", required a banjo so this was a disappointment. However, I was very excited to hear their new material off of Stranger, which was released about a month ago. The album is very different from their prior releases all the way down to the album art. But different in this case was a very good thing.
I love when I have the pleasure of watching very talented musicians do their thing. This is exactly what was unfolding right before my very eyes. It is my belief that every one of them on that stage could play every instrument on there as well. The are such gifted people it makes me embarrassed to say "I play guitar". They started off with Days, the opening song on Stranger and it prepared the crowd for a great night. a few songs in they switched it up and played Settler, a popular release from a previous album. After switching back to the new material, they played a song called Clamor, which I have never heard before. It is not on any of their album so it could be a sign of an E.P. to come perhaps.
On they played. When the last song announced, all our hearts sank. We knew there would be an encore, but to admit the night was almost over was devastating. To finish the initial set they played Dive, which is a powerful new track that is full of lush piano fills, beautiful strings and the closest thing to lyrics you'll get from Balmorhea. The choral singing they do is just perfect for their sound.
They walked off the stage only to return almost immediately due to our near blood-thirsty French cry for more. Little did we know what we were about to witness. The encore was only two songs. Truth is perhaps one of their best songs because it covers so many different levels regarding tempo, harmony, melody and textures. The song starts off slow only to build to a point where one could imagine every surface in the venue to bend from anticipation for some kind of cadence. The piano feeds that need with a concluding yet re-assuring riff that fills the soul. It seamlessly evolves into the last song November 1, 1832. At this point we are all just smitten with admiration. The piano plays as the rest of the band put down their instruments and make a line on the stage. The expressions on their faces, solemn and thoughtful. I wish I knew what they were thinking at that moment. And then the choral singing began, and was it ever a splendour. The achingly gorgeous harmony they created in partnership was enough to raise your hairs and make you want to pull out an onion to blame for tears. The final "ooohhhh" was a moment I will never forget. We stood there bewildered at what had just happened. In awe. In astonishment of the pure grandeur presented to us by these modest musicians. For them to give so much of themselves must have felt like an outer body experience. Their hearts and souls exiting from their chests, out their mouths on to the stage where we picked them up and poured them into our ears. We stood in silence as if to connect one hand with the other would almost break the membrane that had formed around us. Then...we clapped our hands raw.
For their first time in Canada, I think they left quite an impression that will not be soon forgotten. I look forward to the day when these fantastic people make their way north again. Until then
Full Set List
7. Steerage and the Lamp
9. Fake Fealty
November 1, 1832