Published on October 10th, 2013 | by Adrien Begrand0
Gwar + Austra: Navigating a Night of Eclectic Live Music
“I want your blood
I want it in my hair.
I want your blood
I want it in my hair!”
– Austra (Shoot the Water)
As much as I love live music, I’m the perpetual outsider. Which works well being a music critic, I suppose, because I can assess a performance with more detachment and objectivity than, say, a scenester. But still, it’s strange how I’ve written about different scenes for so long yet there’s a sense of disconnect wherever I go. I’ve been a metal nerd for 30 years now, yet I’ve always been far too mild mannered to fully integrate with the hesher crowd. And I don’t grow a beard. On the other side, I’m just as tuned-in to indie music, but I lack the fashion sense, plus I’m almost 43 friggin’ years old, old enough to be a U of S student’s dad. And I don’t grow a beard.
Because of that perpetual sense of ‘otherness,’ it creates very interesting contrasts when I do attend live shows. When I’m at a metal show, I get annoyed with the ‘skid’ crowd who want to pummel each other in mosh pits, forcing me to keep my distance for fear of being elbowed in the back or worse, and I find myself wishing I was among an indie crowd where all everyone does is stand with their arms crossed. Then when I’m at an indie show I’m irritated with how jaded the audiences tend to get, missing the unabashed fandom metal folks have in spades. I’m awful in my compulsive contrarianism, I know. Anyway, when a pair of certain-to-be well attended shows from each side of that fence were scheduled in Saskatoon for the night of October 7th, I thought it’d be a fun idea to attend both to see where I’d have the best experience, which one of my split personalities would win out. And it doesn’t get any more disparate than blood-spewing shock rockers GWAR at the spacious, antiseptic Odeon and dulcet electropop act Austra at cozy, welcoming Amigos.
By now you know the story behind GWAR, the lovable dudes in wonderfully outrageous latex costumes whose live performances take rock theatre to an insane level, combining hilarity, violence, and gallons upon gallons of fake blood to create the messiest possible music experience one can have. Led by the inimitable Oderus Urungus, the Virginia band — by way of Antarctica — has been working Western Canada aggressively over the past decade, hitting Saskatoon nearly on an annual basis. Metal bands that return to ‘B’ and ‘C’ markets are adored by fans in those centres, and consequently GWAR is always rewarded with a healthy crowd in this city. The Odeon was filled to a healthy, approximately 500 people, most adorned in new white t-shirts with the intent of getting them as stained red as possible, shelling out cash at the bountiful merch table, which included bottles of the band’s own ‘GWAR-B-Q’ sauce (“It makes all dead things taste good!”).
And the blood and goo did indeed fly from the get-go, from various costumed creations that did battle with Oderus, to several sacrificial celebrities — Justin Bieber and the Pope, most notably — and of course, Oderus’s gigantic latex proboscis. As usual, with GWAR, the hijinks always get the bigger reactions than the songs, but despite a rather sketchy mix the band was solid in its thrash-derived sort of way, holding its own during such standouts as ‘Bring Back the Bomb,’ ‘Let Us Slay’,’ ‘Hail, Genocide’, and ‘The Salaminizer.’ When GWAR kicked into its most famous song, the Beavis and Butthead-approved ‘Sick of You,’ the place erupted into a soggy, red-hued mass of bodies moshing and crowd-surfing deliriously. The band capped things off in clever fashion, performing its recent Internet hit, a cover of Billy Ocean’s ‘Get Out of My Dreams,’ originally recorded for the AV Club, their minions carrying various young women and feeding them through a meat grinder, which inevitably led to the evening’s biggest blood spray yet.
I’d seen GWAR many times, far too many to remember the exact number, but this night was probably the soggiest I’ve ever seen the band render an audience and venue. The mess was unbelievable, people coloured red from head to toe, the Odeon floor a veritable lake of crimson, which had stragglers playing Slip ‘n Slide through the puddle after the show. Everyone exited the building with big, stupid smiles on their faces, with many loitering on the street, gushing about how fun the show was. As I walked back down 2nd Avenue, noticing the trail of blood on the sidewalk and hoping it wasn’t real, I had to mentally prepare for a severe change in mood at the Austra show, a five-minute drive away across the river.
Have you ever gone to a show at your favourite music venue only to find it overrun by so many undesirable people that it felt like a hundred blathering, preening idiots had invaded your living room? But that’s what happens when a popular, buzzworthy indie band plays a venue about half the size of what it would usually draw. In the two years since the Toronto band played cozy Amigos in support of the acclaimed debut album ‘Feel it Break’ — which should have won the 2011 Polaris Prize — its popularity has grown, thanks to acclaim from tastemakers and most importantly, sheer word of mouth based on the strength of their live performances. But when indie music is fashionable, that will inevitably attract a good number of people who simply attend a show just to be seen, and it was with dismay that I walked through the door to find Austra’s set already underway, with half the friggin’ audience chattering rudely during a mellow song.
I knew it was my own fault for arriving late, and figured the show would feel different the closer I got to the front. After all, Austra is best experienced when you’re being obliterated by the force of Katie Stelmanis’ singing and her band’s pulsating, gothic-tinged synthpop. So in my bloodstained jeans and black metal hoodie I inched my way through the mass of hipsters dressed like extras on Girls and tried to lose myself in the entrancing music. As Stelmanis led the way through such gorgeous newer songs as ‘Home’ and ‘Annie (Oh Muse, You)’ amidst a pretty display of synchronized lamps, I could only partially get into the performance because of all the distractions, from people obnoxiously talking non-stop to bored bros constantly fetching drinks for the women who dragged them there and expecting to get their spots back (sorry dudes, that’s not how it works in a packed room). It was an egregious display of disrespect, reminiscent of when Leslie Feist battled her way through an even worse situation at Louis’ in 2005.
Only when the band kicked into their two most popular songs did Amigos approach anything near transcendent. ‘Lose It’ was greeted euphorically, and when Stelmanis’ microphone cut out midway through, the entire crowd sweetly helped her out by belting the words. Set closer ‘Beat and the Pulse,’ meanwhile, remains Austra’s showstopper, and it has remarkable power, propelled by Maya Postepski’s insistent dance beats and some gloriously heavy synths that got the audience moving.
The band returned to play an encore of ‘Hurt Me Now,’ but despite pleas for more, that was it, a brilliant yet painfully brief performance that only felt properly appreciated by half the crowd. Shocked that it was only ten minutes past midnight — by far the earliest end to a show at Amigos I’ve experienced in a very long time, perhaps ever — yet glad I was getting home at a decent hour, I headed out into the unseasonably warm autumn night thinking, this time, anyway, the metal show was the better one. Although metal writing is my main source of income, I greatly prefer to listen to Austra than GWAR; however, the camaraderie of the GWAR fans created the better live music environment on this night. It’s not often I have a negative experience at the beloved Amigos, but the way Austra was treated by the Amigos crowd left me sour. Thankfully, I have a bottle of GWAR-B-Q sauce to wash the bad taste out of my mouth.