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current 93 and friends

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The church is a beautiful place for a concert, excepting for the lack of air conditioning in a relatively hot season for Toronto. The show was small as only 100 tickets were sold per night. As they started letting folks in at about 7:30 PM we passed the merch table, where a bunch of new Durtro/Jnana stuff was for sale, including a new Current 93 double-live CD, a re-recorded Hypnagogue, a new Nurse With Would album, a new Simon Finn EP and full-length, a Rose MacDowall/John Contreras EP, new Baby Dee EP and an EP by some shadowy, mysterious act with a long, unpronounceable esoteric nonsense name.
St. George-on-the-Martyr church, Toronto, Ontario

Night One: Thursday
Flew to Toronto for three days of Current 93 and friends at St. George-on-the-Martyr church in Toronto, even though I still haven't even removed the bandages from my appendectomy yet. I am surviving on pain pills and weed, skillfully stowed in my luggage.

Steven Stapleton was creeping around the church, as was Matt Waldron AKA, who apparently just played a show last night in Toronto. Playing over speakers as people sat themselves in queues was the new NWW album, which sounded amazing. The crowd was a lively mix of radical faeries, old goths, TOPY veterans, young urban faggots, drag queens, music nerds, industrial scenester junkies and a newer contingent of beard-stroking Wire readers that I've never noticed at C93 concerts before. They might have come out because of the inclusion of Six Organs and Antony on the bill. One good thing about tickets that cost nearly $200, however, is that everyone who shows up REALLY wants to be there, is appreciative and respectful to the artists, and is not just looking to drink and score pussy.

First up was Simon Finn, who played a brief set of newer songs from his EP and album - "Subjunctive Mood" and "Magic Moments," among others. He also played "Walkie Talkie" off the Silent City Creep EP released last year. He sounded amazing, and I was so thrilled to see a guy that until very recently was a giant question mark in the minds of so many rare psych collectors. It's frankly shocking to hear the voice of the man who sang "Jerusalem" coming out of a real, live person. His performance was intense, and his songs are reminiscent of the best of Pearls Before Swine.

Next up was an unexpected solo set by Maja Elliott, David Late Tibet's frequent piano accompanist. Though her playing was very competent and her singing voice was also well-trained, her songs sounded very new-agey and Tori Amos-esque and she was completely out of place on this bill. When she started singing an a cappella song in Gaelic, I thought that I had somehow accidentally wandered into an Enya rehearsal. I hate to insult her, because she is obviously very talented, but this just wasn't my cup of tea. She should stick to playing with C93.

Next up was Ben Chasny AKA Six Organs of Admittance, who played a brief set, solo guitar and voice, material mostly drawn from School of the Flower. I've seen Six Organs play years ago at the Boston Terrastock festival, and he has improved by leaps and bounds since then. His fingerpicking technique is awe inspiring. It is absolutely amazing how much sound he pulls out of his intrument, and his sad, elegiac, hazy vocals are amazing too. A great little performance. David Michael (Tibet) could be seen off stage right enjoying Chasny's performance immensely, clapping louder than everyone else as each song finished.

Antony came out in a black wig and ripped punk sweater and played a suite of songs from I Am A Bird Now - "You Are My Sister," "My Lady Story," "For Today I Am a Boy" and "Hope There's Someone." He also played his great song "Man Is the Baby." He accompanied himself on grand piano and Joolie Wood played cello throughout his set. As always, he was beautiful and hypnotizing, and his performances of his album tracks made me love the songs even more than I did before. He got a standing ovation from a very homo-friendly crowd.

Pantaleimon AKA Andria Degens came out next, playing dulcimer and harmonium with some accompaniment from a cellist and, briefly, Ben Chasny. She played "Change My World" and a few other things from her releases, very drone-y, drawn out Appalachain/British dark folk that at times resembled Marble Index-era Nico in a weird way. One of the songs appeared to be an adaptation of the Eden Ahbez-penned Nat King Cole standard "Nature Boy" (The greatest thing you'll ever learn/Is just to love and be loved in return). I haven't really loved the Pantaleimon releases, but she was a very credible live performer. Again David Michael cheered his wife on quite vociferously.

Baby Dee was on next, looking quite fetching with a bright red springy, curly hair and dangle earrings. She played a few songs I didn't recognize, accompanying herself on piano for a couple and then harp for a couple. Very beautiful and creepy stuff, just like the albums. There was a very anti-religious bent to her set, and she started out by saying: "This is me in a church. Ever heard the expression 'Ratshit in the sugar bowl'?" Then she played a couple songs with lyrics about hating God, and another about Jesus beating up her mom. Then she chided the audience for applauding such blasphemous songs while in a church.

Current 93 was the final act of the night, an ensemble including almost everyone who had played previously (with the exception of Antony), and the surprise inclusion of Hymaenus Beta/William Breeze on the viola. TAFKAT (The Artist Formerly Known as Tibet) even joked as the set began: "I'm a born- agin Christian fundamentalist, and tonight's show is sponsored by the O.T.O." Then he launched in to a ferocious run of three songs from the upcoming Black Ships Ate the Sky album. The material sounded amazing, by turns sad, melancholic, fiery and apocalyptic and just-plain loud and frightening, atonal noise accompanied by accusatory screams from David Michael. The promised low-key set drawn from Soft Black Stars was nowhere in site, though he did follow-up with "Antichrist and Barcodes" which unceremoniously broke into a cover of "Under the Moon at Night." Then came a marvelously rendered cover of Bill Fay's excellent epic eschatological song "Time of the Last Persecution." That was the end of the very brief set, but the audience demanded an encore, so the whole ensemble came back on to accompany Tibet in a very intense version of "Calling for Vanished Faces I" from All the Pretty Little Horses. At one point amidst Tibet's palsied, Ian Curtis shaking, he fell to the ground and pounded on the wooden floors - "There's a knock at the door!"

It was absolutely stunning, and this was just the first night. Kudos goes to the kind and generous Mark Logan of Jnana Records for helping to put this whole thing together. Everything ran very smoothly indeed.

Night Two: Friday
On day two of Current 93 and friends' residence at the Music Gallery at St. George-on-the-Martyr Church in downtown Toronto, my friends and I were graced with the surprise arrival of Jon Whitney, who drove up on a whim to see the show, and perhaps shoot an episode of The Eye on Current 93. No dice on The Eye as David Michael specifically requested that no filming of his set take place, even though I observed at least three people ignoring this rule. David Late Tibet seemed concerned about the fact that much of his set on all three nights was brand new material drawn from his forthcoming album, so I suppose he was concerned about bootlegging or some other such vague fear. Still, it was pretty disappointing to be refused permission to film his set.

In addition to Matt Waldron, also in attendance tonight was the bald, bearding indie folk superstar Will Oldham AKA Bonnie "Prince" Billy AKA Palace, who arrived with the owner of Drag City. Oldham apparently has a little guest spot on Current 93's next album, and he's also contributing to Jnana/ Durtro's triple-disc African AIDS benefit CD, so his appearance at the show was perhaps not as incongruous as it initially seemed. The rest of the audience was mostly the same as the first night. I was sitting in a pew next to a big, stocky, bald guy who looked a lot like Tony Wakeford, but wasn't.

Simon Finn opened the show with a longer set, drawn from all of his releases, old and new. In addition to the fine compliment of newer compositions such as "Magic Moments," "Golden Golden," "Eros" and "Wounded Tiger," he also sang four amazing songs from his legendary, storied, sought-after 1969 LP Pass the Distance - "Courtyard," "Big White Car," "Hiawatha" and as his final song, a soul-shredding version of "Jerusalem," truly one of my top 10 favorite songs of all time. He tore the house down with his performance on this, his most legendary song, an impassioned please to the "200 million hypocrites" who praise Christ's name, but "were he now to come down/those hypocrites would crucify him again." The song ends with Finn repeatedly screaming the song's title, as his throat-stripped cries become ever more bloodcurdling and emotionally draining. Amazing stuff.

Next up was an extended set by Baby Dee, who played songs on the harp, the grand piano, and one on the accordion. She was once again bubbly and effervescent, and the songs were once again by turns amusing and harrowing. She sang the lovely "Love's Small Song," "A Book of Songs for Anne-Marie" and "Black But Comely." She also sang a rollicking little novelty piano song about incontinence, gay cops and crackwhores. All in all, a funny and engaging set.

After Baby Dee was a short break during which I indulged photo opportunities with David Michael and Steven Stapleton, ducked around the corner and smoked a joint and swallowed more prescribed (nobody held up a pharmacy here) oxycontin in order to allay the pain from my appendectomy incision, which flared up after sitting in a hot, uncomfortable church pew for hours at a stretch.

Then it was Current 93 again, who somewhat disappointed me by virtually repeating their set from last night with a few additions to the setlist. It was great to hear the Black Ships Ate the Sky material again, as well as the Bill Fay cover, but to hear "Antichrist and Barcodes" and "Calling For Vanished Faces I" performed note for note, and voice crack for voice crack exactly the same way as last night was a little much for me. Perhaps I shouldn't complain, as for an encore Current 93 played a great version of "Oh Coal Black Smith" that sent shivers down my spine. TAKFAT mumbled on between songs about menstruation and the British royal lineage, Jehovah's Witness pamphlets, and then thanked his fans over the years for giving him the strength not to put a gun to his head. It was a bit of an odd confession for his to suddenly make, but it seemed heartfelt. The ensemble of Maja Elliott, Ben Chasny, Simon Finn, Bill Breeze, Baby Dee, Joolie Wood and John Contreras once again did a marvelous job backing up David Michael, provoking J. Whitney to comment that this was the finest live incarnation of Current 93 he has ever witnessed. Truly a treat for all who were there to witness it.

Night three
The third night began with a longer set from Six Organs of Admittance. Unlike his brief set on Friday, this time Ben Chasny included pieces that required to the use of loops, samplers and electric guitar. One particularly amazing piece had Chasny playing a brief fingerpicked melody on acoustic guitar, which was sampled and looped as he picked up a flying "V" Stratocoster and played gloriously shredded third-eye guitar improvisations over it. Some of the pieces performed were recognizable as being from Six Organs albums like School of the Flower and For Octavio Paz, but a few seemed like off-the-cuff improvisations. Chasny's albums and performances have just gotten better and better over the years, since that first show I witness at Boston's Terrastock. I was completely transfixed by tonight's show, and was utterly impressed by the amount of startlingly lovely noise made by one man and couple of guitars.

Next up was a surprise, unannounced set from Pantaleimon. For this set, Andria seemed a bit nervous and a lot less prepared than she had during the more informal set on Friday. The setlist was almost exactly the same, but it sounded far more tentative, with Mrs. David Michael frequently quavering and pausing during her own songs. Again she performed that long, hypnotic song where she accompanies herself on harmonium, but this time it came off as much less effective, even with the added boost of Ben Chasny and John Contreras. She still got wild applause from a supportive audience, but her set seemed superfluous on a schedule that already included three long sets.

Then it was a longer set from Antony, who played an almost entirely different set from the one on Friday, playing a series of long medleys that included such classics as "The Lake," Current 93's "Soft Black Stars," and "I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy." He surprised everyone by playing a haunting version of Lou Reed's "Candy Says," then he led the audience in a humming, clapping and stomping version of a beautiful Civil War ballad called "Dust and Mortar." Once again Antony was in fine form, his voice tying gossamer, fragile silk cords around susurrant syllables. Lyrics both sad and celebratory, and loose, impressionistic piano technique that matched perfectly with Joolie Wood's gorgeous cello. He thanked the audience and left to a thunderous standing ovation.

After three days my ass was getting very sore and my sweat glands very overworked by having to sit in the hot, humid church in such uncomfortable seats. Even the frequent breaks between sets filled with stretching, walking, smoking and pain medicating couldn't allay the long-term effects of such discomfort. So everyone was relieved when Current 93 took the stage for their final set on the final night. True to past form, David Michael was partially disrobed for this, his final set at the three-day mini-festival, wearing only some loose short pants and a jacket with no shirt underneath. This nakedness gave his final set a vulnerability that worked for the selection of songs chosen, which included the same Black Ships Ate the Sky songs performed on the previous two nights, as well as some surprises from the back catalog. "A Gothic Lovesong" and "The Blue Gates of Death (Before and Beyond)" were two that the crowd instantly recognized and applauded, as well as that little nursery rhyme thing from Swastikas for Noddy ("It isn't very good/in the dark, dark wood..."). Considered all together, tonight's set was the strongest of any of the three nights, with both David Michael and the rest of the fine ensemble in prime condition, taking nary a misstep for the entirety of the long set. The big event of the night was the performance of a song from the upcoming album performed on stage by Andria Degens on harmonium and the not-so-surprise guest Will Oldham/Bonnie "Prince" Billy on guitar and vocals. Other than Oldham suddenly forgetting a few lines of the lyrics and frantically taking some crib notes from his shirt pocket, the performance was very good indeed, and the incongruity of the indie folk superstar singing with Current 93 worked much better than I might initially have guessed.

On the whole, this three days was an incredibly great showcase for the artists involved, and one which was well-organized and highly memorable. I met many fabulous people in Toronto, and Mark Logan and all others involved in putting these shows together deserve much credit for what must have been a daunting task. I'll be back on The Brain next week with some words about the new Current 93, Baby Dee and Simon Finn releases available for sale at the show. Thanks for reading.

Last Updated on Monday, 17 October 2005 05:04  


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