Matt Mays, Gentlemen Husbands, & Wild Wild North

On June 15, Canadian indie-rocker Matt Mays hit the stage at the Red Dog for a show with Cobourg’s Gentlemen Husbands and Peterborough’s own The Wild, Wild North. Mays played a good set – especially as he moved away from new stuff and towards some of his hits – but, for my money, it was Gentlemen Husbands that stole the show.

It can’t be easy to be an opening band. In addition to playing a great set, the opening band has the crutch of first having to ‘win over’ the audience, who don’t care a bit about what they’re hearing, and mostly just want the set to end so the main band can start. Gentlemen Husbands did not have this problem in the slightest. The band’s been around for only a few years now, but in that time, they’ve built a strong and loyal local following. And for anyone in the crowd who didn’t know the Husbands yet, Derrick Ballard’s boisterous, ambitious, opening wail on the song “Family Economics,” “I am going to be the pride of this pride / And I’m going to ride in on the top of this tide,” forced everyone to sit up, shut up, and pay attention.

It was a clear, confident, and powerful opening statement, and, somewhat surprisingly, it was one they were entirely able to back up with the rest of the set. This isn’t a band that’s going to change the face of music, and they’ll never be accused of being particularly ‘innovative’ or ‘genre-defying.’ However, they’re a band that understands and respects rock music – clearly drawing inspiration from 80s rockers like Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen (an excellent, though very straight, cover of “Born To Run” closed the set) – and, moreover, they’re a band that has the skill to pull it off.

Playing with the type of easy confidence that can only come from years of playing together and knowing how to do it well, Gentlemen Husbands delivered one of the tightest sets of rock music I’ve heard in a while. There was hardly a moment wasted. Even the guitar solos rarely lasted more than about fifteen seconds, and always had a very clear shape and organization to them. Perhaps it’s an overwhelming desire to escape life in Cobourg, or maybe it’s just a simple love of rock, but something is driving these guys to succeed, and it seems like they have what it takes to make it big.

So it came as a bit of a shock, then, when the evening’s headliner, Matt Mays, by far the more popular and more seasoned performer, hit the stage and delivered a much more wandering, looser, occasionally unfocused set. To an extent, at least, it’s a stylistic choice. Not everything has to be tightly organized and efficient. Chaos can be fun. It’s true that Mays often winds up on lists of male Canadian rock singer-songwriters such as Matthew Good, Joel Plaskett, and Sam Roberts, but really, his sound almost fits more with Brit rockers Muse than those other Canucks. At times, Mays’ songs have that that eerie, sometimes angry, borderline apocalyptic Muse sound, like the whole thing might just come crashing down around you at any moment. (To hear what I mean, check out Mays’ fantastic song “When The Angels Make Contact,” or even the second half of his biggest hit, “Cocaine Cowgirl.”)

It can create a sound that’s both tremendously powerful and somewhat terrifying, as a big, loud, energetic wall of sound washes over the listener. And, at least in theory, that’s the kind of thing that should work best live. However, with a six-piece band – including a somewhat masturbatory three guitars plus bass – it’s pretty easy for the whole thing to actually come crashing down, and, at least early in the set, it kind of did. Songs seemed incoherent, either under-rehearsed or maybe even under-written, with multiple guitars seeming to fight for solo time.

It also didn’t help that Mays started off the set with several new songs, because as he moved into older material, things improved significantly. Some of the best-known Mays material, like “Cocaine Cowgirl” and “City Of Lakes,” was also the material that actually worked with the large band, maybe simply because it was better-rehearsed than the new stuff. However, it was somewhat telling that some of the most powerful stuff of the evening came when Mays kicked most of the band off the stage to play a few numbers, including “Chase The Light” and “Travellin’,” on his own, or accompanied only by piano. It was only then that I truly realized what a powerful, raw, emotionally expressive voice Mays has, and what a fantastic songwriter he is. Gentlemen Husbands’ music worked partially because every instrument, and every beat, felt essential. Perhaps Mays could use a lesson from them.

And of course, mention must also be made of the first opening act, Petebrorough’s own The Wild, Wild North, composed of Chachi Robichaud, bassist for The Spades, and Jason Dufrane, along with an occasional rotation of drummers. Still a relatively new band, the North’s music is good, but they still have a ways to go in separating themselves from The Spades – currently The North’s producers, their record company (through the band’s 7th Fire Records initiative), half their membership, and their clear musical inspiration. It can be tough for a new band to distinguish itself, especially since the North’s songs, which range from lazy twangy country to tight indie-rock, fall into the same general genres as The Spades.

However, the North’s sound is much more acoustic than The Spades. And, of course, the main element that distinguishes them from The Spades (and likely the band’s best feature) is the rough, energetic, and expressive style of Chachi Robichaud. It certainly appears in his raw whiskey-voice vocals, but also in the way he nearly attacks his acoustic guitar while playing it, and his tremendously enjoyable, slightly flailing stage presence. It’s an excellent base on which to build a band, and with some pretty catchy songs under their belt, and given a little more time and effort, The Wild, Wild North have the potential to be something very good.

All photos by Scott Dancey.

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