Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Northern Chorus's final show and the power of music

Note: this was a journal entry I wrote on on June 30, 2008, about what may have been the very best concert I've ever attended. I'm reposting it here because (a) I think it was a pretty good journal (b) it will make my blog less empty and (c) damn, that was an amazing show.

A Northern Chorus have been one of my favorite bands for about two years. Over the course of four albums, the Hamilton, Ontario-based dream pop outfit excelled at creating lush soundscapes of rare beauty. No other band I know is quite like them. Low are a definite influence, although a better description of some of ANC's more epic tracks might be to take Explosions in the Sky and add some deeply stirring vocal and string parts. The bottom line is that, to my ears, A Northern Chorus had an unparalleled ability to create aural beauty. I first saw them in concert for free at my school in the spring of 2006. I had never heard of them before, and had only listened to a few songs prior to going to the show, but the experience was one of sheer bliss. Ever since, I hoped that they would play another show in Ohio, but it did not happen. When I found out via a MySpace blog post that they were calling it quits, I was saddened. The same post announced that they were playing two farewell shows, in Toronto on June 27 and Hamilton June 28. I immediately decided that, despite Hamilton being four hours away, I had to go to the final concert.

It was a very good decision. This concert was one of the most emotionally intense musical experiences of my life. The performance, lasting a good two hours when all was said and done, had all the grandeur of my previous ANC concert experience, along with a passion that could only come with a special occasion like this one. I was in the very front row, and could clearly see in the faces and body language of each member of the six-piece that they were deeply affected by the fact that they were playing their final show after all those years. They put their all into their instruments and voices, and the audience responded with enormous enthusiasm. The setlist was stunning, containing all of the songs that I most wanted to hear. It was dominated by tracks from their last album, The Millions Too Many, and 2005's Bitter Hands Resign. The latter is the most gorgeous album I have ever had the pleasure of hearing, and certainly in the running for my top five albums of all time. The former is not that far behind in my rankings. Thus, this setlist was quite pleasing to me. Several older standouts from 2003's Spirit Flags rounded out one of the greatest collections of songs I've ever heard at one show. They did not play anything from their debut, Before We All Go To Pieces. This did not actually bother me, because, while I like the album a lot, it does not quite compare to their other works. It doesn't have the same majestic quality that makes so many of A Northern Chorus's songs so breathtaking live.

The full setlist went as follows:

The Millions Too Many
Remembrance Day
Costa del Sol
Victory Parade
Red Carpet Blues
Let The Parrots Speak for Themselves
Ethic of the Pioneer
The Shepherd & the Chauffeur
Skeleton Keys
Candle Song 3 (Mojave 3 cover)
Fragile Day
Subjects & Matter
No Stations

*first encore*
Prisoners of Circumstance
The Canadian Shield

*second encore*
Louder Than Love

There were some great moments beyond the music itself, too, such as when guitarist/vocalist Stu Livingstone announced that his parents were there celebrating their 37th wedding anniversary. This got a nice round of applause from the audience. Another fun moment was the whole band, in between encores, taking a round of shots on the house.

(Cara, who went to the show with me, took these pictures.)

Things got really, really emotional during the encores. Tears were visible on the faces of the majority of band members. Cellist/vocalist Alex McMaster in particular was really breaking down.

A very surreal moment came after the first encore, when the band appeared ready to call the show over, but relented to audience demand for one last song, the last one that the band still had available to play of those they had rehearsed. Then it was discovered that the sound for the cello had just stopped working. After an incredible emotional display with what was supposed to be the last song, they were left to stand around on stage bantering for several minutes while fixes were attempted. Nothing worked, and finally Alex, visibly holding back her emotions, said something like "fuck the cello, I'll just sing" and they launched into one last epic performance.

It's hard to really put into words just how amazing an experience this concert was. In a way, it was profoundly sad. The reason for A Northern Chorus's breakup was not that they no longer liked each other, nor that they had no more desire to make music. It was that, financially, the band just wasn't working out, and after all those years this had taken too much of a toll. I'll certainly always consider them one of the most underappreciated bands I know. But while they never reached a particularly wide audience, the crowd at this show made it clear that their music was beloved.

And while this experience was at times a sad one, it was also profoundly exhilarating, life-affirming, even. Truly great live music has an effect on me that few other things do. For example, I saw WALL-E, the new Pixar movie, the previous night. It was stunning, gorgeous, unbelievably imaginative, and one of the best movies I've seen in my life. But its effect on me did not come close to this concert's. I will continue to wish that A Northern Chorus could go on making more of their wonderful music, but I'll also be eternally grateful that I got to be there for this, their unforgettable swan song.


  1. thanks for sharing your experience. living on the west coast i never had the chance to see ANC live, but to know that they went out on their own humble terms is oddly comforting. they seem like a homegrown band who simply wanted to share their art with whoever was willing to listen. and of course they bestowed the world (or at least those fortunate to stumble upon them) with some truly magnificent albums. i still remember first hearing "red carpet blues" on pandora back in, oh, 2006 or 07 it was? (seems like i've known about them forever.)

    anyway... i had this page bookmarked and thought i'd revisit it. thanks again for sharing.

    cheers from a fellow ANC fan,


    1. Thanks so much for the comment, it's nice to know after all these years that people still appreciate their great music and that someone enjoyed reading my review. It was an unforgettable night.