It’s not uncommon to hear indie folk echoing through halls of St. Matthew’s. In a city lacking in mid-sized all-ages venues, the Barrington Street church has become a staple of Halifax local music culture, its large wooden doors regularly opening for hipsters and scenesters to fill its pews. Over the past five years it’s hosted everyone from Tegan and Sara to Jose Gonzalez to Belle Orchestre.
My first concert at the church was in 2006. I went to see a violinist who I mostly knew from his contributions to a more famous band, and whose recorded material I found a bit underwhelming. But there was a certain novelty to seeing a performance in a church, so I decided to give it a shot. It ended up being one of the most revelatory concert experiences I can claim to have witnessed, a tour-de-force of virtuosity took me completely be surprise. I unconsciously made a commitment to myself to see this “Final Fantasy” character whenever possible. And so I did: a follow-up show came one year later, and then this past fall brought a unique performance with Symphony Nova Scotia.
Last night, Owen Pallett bettered all of them.
I wasn’t surprised, actually. After all, Pallett is touring a record that finally matches both the quality and the ambition of his live show. Heartland, the first album released under his proper name, brings together Pallett’s pop sensibilities and symphonic tastes in perfect balance, reinforcing rather than competing with each other through song after brilliant song. Reportedly Pallett laboured long and hard over this one – hence the four year wait between albums – and it shows in the best way. If his previous albums sounded like tiny symphonies, this one feels like the real deal: massive, orchestral and downright huge.
There’s a quote from Pallett recently – it might have been Exclaim – where he says something to the effect of Heartland being the first album he’s made with the conscious awareness that others are listening in to his work; that he’s not just writing and recording for himself. It’s perhaps fitting, then, that he’s finally added an extra performer to his live show in multi-instrumentalist Thomas Gill. And what a change: though Gill played with Pallett at his Symphony show last year, he spent most of it at the other side of the stage. At St. Matthew’s, side-by-side, the entire dynamic changed. Pallett was no longer playing off in his own little world: he was trading notes and glances with Gill, building and amplifying their chords and arpeggios larger and lounder as the night went on.
With Heartland material making up most of the show – unless I’m mistaken, all but one of the album’s 12 songs were performed – Pallett’s back catalogue was less on display but never sounded better. Songs like “This Lamb Sells Condos” and “The CN Tower Belongs to the Dead” gained a scope that I’ve never heard in them before. As with previous shows, Pallett’s weapon is his sampler that allows him to combine multiple parts with one violin (including rhythms), but his skill with the device after four years on the road is incomparable and elevates past songs to unheard heights.
But it’s songs like Heartland’s two astonishing centerpieces – “The Great Elsewhere” and “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” – that best represent the Owen Pallett of today. With electronic keyboard patterns at their centre, both spend their five-plus minutes in perpetual crescendo, never losing the pop song at their centre as they evolve into something otherworldly and magnificent. I kind of wished that Pallett had saved one of them to close out the show (“Midnight Directives” just didn’t hit the same) but no matter: they were every bit the revelation I wanted them to be: an amplified echo of that first experience four years ago.
Pallett wasn’t the night’s only revelation, though. Special mention is reserved for the wonderful Basia Bulat, who opened the show the way Pallett used to play his: alone on the stage with only her instruments for support. Thankfully, Bulat’s voice is a knockout, her Joni Mitchell-esque flourishes delivered with a self-amplified force. Best of all she’s killer with the autoharp, using it for equal parts melody and rhythm to create a surprisingly large sound. She’s one to keep an eye on.
Photos of both Bulat and Pallett after the break…