Concert Review: Basia Bulat @ Polish Combatants Hall, Toronto, Ontario

Last night was night 1 of a 3 night residency (does 3 nights count as a residency?) for Toronto’s Basia Bulat. She’s celebrating the release of her third album, Tall Tall Shadow, and I’m sure she’s celebrating the interview she just did with PeteHatesMusic (note: okay, I’m the one celebrating that).

We caught a special Basia Bulat show earlier this year at the Ago Gallery of Ontario, where she teamed with Stephanie Comilang to mix music with visual art and projections. I brought some sock puppets and a projector to enhance the performance last night, but they were all confiscated at the door. Instead, this review (sans sock puppets) will have to suffice.

When the venue was listed as the Polish Combatants Hall, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. It’s essentially like a Legion, and I was pretty excited about getting to drink a Tyskie (through the sophisticated “buy a beer ticket in one line, trade in beer ticket at the bar” system). The performance area had chairs put there for the show, so my late arrival not only meant I missed the beginning of Fiver’s set, but it also meant I was the awkward guy standing at the back under the bright lights. After lugging a few chairs from the stack, I now had seats in my makeshift back row. Although this might sound like a complaint, the venue was quite intimate, and people would kill for seats this close at Massey Hall.
Pro tip for Friday and Saturday attendees: arrive before the opening act.

Fiver played some solo guitar rock in a story telling fashion that seemed pleasing to the ear and she is worthy of further investigation. Sorry Fiver, this is all I got – totally my fault for missing the majority of the set.

Basia Bulat came on at 9:30 and opened with The City With No Rivers, which just happens to be my favourite song off of the new album. Basia smiled and swayed side to side as she played the “dark folk” song. Basia was joined on stage by her brother on drums and 4 other musicians, although the songs ranged from just Basia on stage to every combination of people from 1 to 6 members.

Basia played Promise Not To Think About Love next, switching from the ukulele to the autoharp. Her playing of instruments is second nature, as she doesn’t look once at what she’s doing, and she’s totally in the moment. This is talent, folks. The song featured a backing male and female vocalist, and was an upbeat pop track of sorts.

“I have a new record but should play some old stuff”, which was the cue for the high tempo Gold Rush. Without a break, Basia launched immediately into Heart of My Own. Despite having 6 people on the track, the chorus was lacked the power of the studio version, but it did feature excellent vocals throughout.

Basia put down the autoharp and moved to piano. “Anyone have perogies downstairs?” Basia asked, to which I sadly replied no. “Here’s a new one – every two you get a new one” Basia joked with the crowd, as we got to hear From Now On. The song had two male and one female on backing harmonies, which was a nice touch to the song.

Basia played another new track, Paris or Amsterdam, in a solo acoustic setting, which was once again sung extremely well.

The 7th song brought out the mop lady, to sweep up either a broken beer bottle or a spilled beer, which was sort of comical to see at a concert. This was perhaps somewhat fitting as Basia played Rower’s Mark (okay, the only connection is water, and it’s a weak link at that).

The band rejoined Basia for the next track, which she proclaimed “I used to be real folky but then I got all these pedals.” Little Waltz followed, as did another Basia joke – “Just as I said I was going electric I’m going to pick up this 100 year old dulcimer harp thing.” It’s a good thing she picked up the old dulcimer harp thing, as her intro to The Shore was amazingly executed. Even the backing singers in her band were staring in disbelief and awe as she played the track.

An old favourite, Snakes and Ladders, was played next. The full band made the song really full sounding, and was a strong version of the song.

Someone requested Five, Four, which stunned Basia, with her noting “Woah, calling out a new song. That’s a first.” We got a new song, but instead it was Wires.

The song Someone started off with a thumping, un-Basia-like sound, with the use of a drum machine (I think – I was in the cheap seats, remember). After this, Basia ran over to the piano and announced that she only had a few songs left, as the predictable groans were made by the crowd. I’m pretty sure announcing that you only have a few songs yet if one of the worst things you can do at a show, yet every artist does it.

Lead single Tall Tall Shadow was next, and as much as I like the track, it’s actually improved upon live, with a rich and full sound from the band. The haunting vocals of Never Let Me Go closed out the regular set after an hour.

The previously requested Five, Four kicked off the encore, and was a great, rousing rock track. I Was a Daughter followed, with some members of the audience mimicking the frantic clapping beat to the song.

The band members left the stage, leaving Basia all alone for the final track, the ukulele-featuring (update: actually, it’s a Charango, which is not a rejected SUV name) It Can’t Be You. The vocal range displayed on this song was simply stunning. Doing it in the studio is one thing (note: you would think I was murdering cats if I tried it) but executing it live – and flawlessly – is fantastic stuff. Basia deservedly left the stage to a big round of cheers (presumably to go back stage and have some Zubrowka).

People who haven’t picked up the new album might not have known many songs, as all 10 songs were played, making up 10 of the 17 tracks played last night. After witnessing them played brilliantly live, hopefully people flock to the stores to grab Tall, Tall Shadow. Basia plays two more nights in Toronto, and she will definitely switch instruments multiple times, blow you away with her vocals, and smile while doing all of the above.

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PHM Rating for Basia Bulat: 9.0 out of 10

Setlist for Basia Bulat @ Polish Combatants Hall, Toronto, Ontario – October 10, 2013
1 – The City With No Rivers
2 – Promise Not To Think About Love
3 – Gold Rush
4 – Heart of My Own
5 – From Now On
6 – Paris or Amsterdam
7- Rower’s Mark
8 – Little Waltz
9 – The Shore
10 – Snakes and Ladders
11 – Wires
12 – Someone
13 – Tall Tall Shadow
14 – Never Let Me Go

15 – Five, Four
16 – I Was a Daughter
17 – It Can’t Be You

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2 Responses

  1. Thom Bartleman says:

    I was in the front row at the Fri night show. I vehemently agree that it was a fantastic show. The ” ukulele-featuring” instrument on “It Can’t Be You” is a Charango (a small Bolivian Andean stringed instrument of the lute family). I was also very fortunate to witness this song being performed two years ago when Basia played two shows with the KW symphony. For the Friday show the opening act was Casey Mecija.

  2. Pete says:

    Awesome – thanks for letting me know about the Charango, Thom. I should’ve known that from researching my interview but too many Tyskies messes with your brain.