The Twilight Sad with Port St. Willow – Biltmore Cabaret – March 08, 2015

Ah, a Sunday in Vancouver. Sounds like a great day to go check out a show. Tonight I was heading up to the Biltmore Cabaret to check out a band that had been floating around on my player for about 5 years that I knew not much more about than that they were incredibly Scottish sounding and so very very befittingly sad. Just a quick scan through any tracklisting from a Twilight Sad album will give you an idea of the epic moroseness, but they are also wonderfully self-aware and good-humoured about that tendency, describing themselves upon Twitter thusly: “Scottish band who enjoy drinking & making miserable music.” If The Smiths are too cheerful for you, you might want to give these guys a go.

Opening the show was a New York trio known as Port St. Willow. As the curtains were finally drawn back from the Biltmore stage, a curious and impressive array of pedals and boards, and a trombone, were there to pique our interest. Quietly and unassumingly, the band took the stage and began to build a wall of sound that soon grew beyond what three bodies should be capable of. At once quiet, lilty and breathy, and enormous, noisy and shattering, with vocals you almost don’t know are there, the sound became immense. Considering the overall genre of music, I’m amazed at the intensity – intensity so strong that within a song and a half, Tommy Crane managed to drum a cymbal right off his drum kit. High, chilling vocals from Nicholas Principe brought to mind a Sigur Ros/Jeff Buckley vibe (and I apologize for making such easy comparisons). Those vocals snuck up on you, coming in soft and serene and suddenly leaving you sharply inhaling with your heart caught in your throat. By using the myriad of pedals at his feet and on a stand, as well as Andrew Dunn rotating between a similar array, plus a keyboard and the trombone, the band created some incredible wave-washing noises. The only thing marring this all was a very chatty crowd that bled through the music despite the volume, sitting on top of that softness and requiring a discerning ear to get through. Principe spoke not a word until the break between their last two songs, where he swiftly and almost shyly thanked the audience and welcomed the headliners.

The curtain was drawn, the crowd crunched forth, the changeover happened, and out came the Twilight Sad. Well, holy toledo. Again, a band that is surprisingly bone-shakingly loud despite the overall tone of the music. The stage was set up in a pretty wide open ring and it became apparent quite quickly why this is. While the entire band, including core members Mark Devine on drums, Andy MacFarlane on guitar, and touring members Johnny Docherty on bass and Brendan Smith on keys, do their job beautifully of making a big, warm, sonic bed for the songs to lay in, the main goal seems to be keeping out of vocalist James Graham’s way. A front man who is not shy about being a front man, he is hard to take your eyes off of, if for no other reason than trying to remain un-lassoed by the microphone cord as he whirls about the space he’s been left on stage. He did lose the mic stand once, and it chose my shoulder to bounce off of, which just served to slow its descent into the hand of a photographer who was crouched on the floor beside me. The fellow left rapidly after that, a fact that seemed to stress Graham out after the tune finished up as he sought the health status of the individual, hoping he’d not been already carted off by an ambulance when he heard no ‘I’m all right!’ yelled back at him from anywhere. He continued by introducing a song in that we’re-serious-but-not-that-serious manner by saying, “Here’s a cheery one. It’s called ‘Drown So I Can Watch.'” Amazing. The songs off the new album were clearly well-represented and they are spectacular. Loud and full of life, the music rolled out over the crowd, digging deep and taking hold. The sound here was massive, almost bigger than the basementy Biltmore could hold in.

Graham sings with a noticeable burr, one of the standout things about the band, and seems deeply immersed in his songs, with closed eyes much of the time, even when addressing the audience. When he does open his eyes, he blinks rapidly skyward as if he’s just been woken up by falling out of bed. Notably, he blindly felt his way around the stage during one song break, bouncing off a monitor, then MacFarlane’s guitar headstock, then off the abandoned mic stand like a pinball. He shudders around the stage as if channeling some kind of body-bending Robert Smithian spirit, or occasionally as if swatting flies off, and after each song, he displays clenched fists or prayer hands towards the ceiling as if he can’t believe he managed to make it through another one of his songs. On a related note, no one really believed it when they stated there would be only one more song and no encore because they were out of time, but it really was true – no encore. An intense yell and game-winning-goal clenched fists marked what was truly the end of the show, only The Twilight Sad’s second time through Vancouver and first as a headliner (not to mention the only Canadian stop on the tour. Take that, Toronto!). The audience largely remained stagefront cheering for more, even after the house music was turned back up.

Having just gotten back from Scotland and the rest of the UK myself a week and a half earlier, it was nice to have this band show up with their gracious manner, deep brogue, and appropriately downtrodden music befitting of my post-trip depression. The crowd looked pretty good for a Sunday night, and I honestly had no idea so many fans of this band were hiding in Vancouver. One does feel a little less alone in one’s misery when among so many people who are into the same thing! Four albums in, I might have expected them to have hopped across the pond a bit more frequently, but since they haven’t, I’m not too sure where everyone found out about them, but it’s a great thing to see and hopefully they will choose to come back sooner than later.

Learn more about Port St. Willow
Learn more about The Twilight Sad

As always, thanks to Timbre Concerts for having me out.



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