Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Ohbijou's Farewell Show

Farewell concerts tend to be memorable occasions. Five years ago Cara and I went to Hamilton, Ontario, to see the final show by A Northern Chorus, and I still consider it the best concert I've ever attended (review here). On Saturday I again made a trip up north, this time to Toronto, to see Ohbijou's farewell concert. Over the past few years, Ohbijou became one of my favorite bands, despite my never having gotten the chance to see them perform live. When they announced they were going on "indefinite hiatus" and playing a single farewell concert on September 7 at Toronto's Great Hall, I knew that I had to go. As I anticipated, it was well worth the trip (a trip in which a period of about five hours spent at the concert venue was sandwiched between two five hour drives!)

I've felt for a while that Canada has a really disproportionate amount of great music coming out of it when you consider that the country has only about one-tenth the U.S.'s population. Many Canadian indie bands (Arcade Fire the most notable example) have gained great popularity here in the States, but at the same time, there's a whole scene of really exciting indie music in Canada that I feel most American indie fans are fairly oblivious toward. I've become familiar with more and more of this music over the past several years, largely through exploring similar artist connections on the website The band that kicked this all off for me was Woodpigeon, but Ohbijou was another key in the discovery process. Other favorites of mine include Forest City Lovers, Evening Hymns, and Bruce Peninsula. What I didn't realize until fairly recently was that many of these bands were and are members of a Toronto music scene with Ohbijou at its center. Ohbijou's frontwoman Casey Mecija lived in a house on Bellwoods Avenue in Toronto where many local musicians would often gather, and this led to the creation of two "Friends in Bellwoods" compilation albums featuring songs by Ohbijou's many friends and collaborators, with proceeds benefiting a local food bank. I recently picked up the second of the two albums, and it's really a fantastic collection; I still need to check out the first album. With Casey Mecija and her band serving as the core of such an exciting community, it was only fitting that the members of Ohbijou were joined at their final concert by probably two dozen plus other musicians, who were both members of the audience and, at times, performers in the show.

The format of the farewell concert was unique. There was no opening band; rather, Ohbijou took the stage first, at 9:30, and played (sublimely, I might add) for about an hour, after which the concert was far from over. In the second portion of the night's proceedings, a number of Ohbijou's friends (mostly groups of two, with occasional solo or trio performances) took turns taking the stage to play Ohbijou covers. Between each song, there was a lot of talking about how the people on stage had come to know Ohbijou, and what Ohbijou meant to them. Admittedly, this section of the concert did drag at points, and I sensed that I was not alone among the audience in feeling this way. Some of the covers were better than others. But looking up toward the balcony and seeing the reactions of Casey and her bandmates made it all worthwhile. One of my favorite performances of this section came from Evening Hymns. Jonas Bonnetta, the lead singer and creative force behind the band, spoke of how his music career had essentially been kickstarted by Ohbijou asking him to open for them at several concerts in a row, and how if it weren't for Ohbijou, he wouldn't be a professional musician. Considering the two stunningly gorgeous albums Jonas has released as Evening Hymns, this is another reason to be very grateful toward Ohbijou! The best cover, I thought, was saved for last, a mesmerizing rendition of "Echo Bay" by Daniela and Dan of Snowblink.

After this interlude, Ohbijou took the stage again to play a second set, which lasted all the way until 1:30 in the morning. Between the two Ohbijou sets, they played a majority of the songs from their three studio albums, and there were memorable moments and marvelous musicianship throughout the night. As I mentioned, I'd never seen Ohbijou live before, so I couldn't help but be struck by what a small woman lead vocalist and guitarist Casey Mecija is - and what power she brings to her performances in spite of it. Her vocals are often sweet and angelic sounding, but when she wants to, she can really pack a punch. Her sister, violinist Jenny Mecija, added some wonderful backing vocals. Their two voices together were heavenly.

I thought that I knew every Ohbijou song, but they actually played two that I wasn't familiar with, and both were stunning. The first I don't remember the title of, but it was from the Zips and Zings EP, a release preceding Ohbijou's first full-length which I was previously unaware existed. (Does anyone know if it's possible to obtain a copy? Google didn't help me.) The second new song to me was a cover of Nathan Lawr's "Barking At Your Door." If you're an Ohbijou fan and don't know the song, check out this video of Ohbijou performing it - really gorgeous stuff. During the farewell concert, Casey and Jenny split the audience into halves and, toward the end of the song, traded off leading each half in singing the chorus.

A highlight from the first set was "Balikbayan," off of Ohbijou's last album, Metal Meets. A balikbayan box is a shipping container used by overseas Filipinos to sent items back home. Casey dedicated the song to her parents, who were at the concert and who she said had brought their children to Canada so they would have a better life. The string section of Jenny Mecija on violin and Anissa Hart on cello really shone on this song.

The numerous special guests from the local musical community were not just there for the set of covers, but also joined Ohbijou in performing many of their songs. This resulted in some really memorable performances. Rolf Klausener of The Acorn shared lead vocals with Casey on "Steep," an Ohbijou song that was also covered by The Acorn on a split EP with Ohbijou. Evening Hymns and Nils Edenloff of The Rural Alberta Advantage provided outstanding guest vocals on other songs. (I wouldn't have guessed that Nils's distinctive, somewhat nasal voice, so familiar to RAA fans, would work so well on an Ohbijou song, but it was a real thrill to hear.)

As the main set neared its conclusion, "Make It Gold" provided another standout song. It's one of my favorites by Ohbijou, and it was fantastic in person. The rich trumpet sound was great live. There's a moment toward the end of the song where Casey just takes her vocals to a totally different place than anywhere else in Ohbijou's catalog. I was anticipating this moment all night, and it was just as intense and thrilling as I'd hoped. "Turquoise Lake" followed as the main set closer, and Casey's guitar playing at the end of this song had even more intensity than her vocals on the previous song. Ohbijou left the stage to thunderous applause. A chant of "OH-BI-JOU! OH-BI-JOU!" soon resounded through the Great Hall, prompting the band to return for their final encore. And although the concert had been great up to that point, I have to say that the encore was what really set it apart. I'm ready to declare it the best encore I've ever seen.

The encore started with "Anser," one of my favorite songs from Metal Meets. Soon after the song began, Casey descended from the stage, carrying her microphone into the crowd. I've seen musicians do this before, but never in quite the same way as this time. As Casey wandered through the crowd, singing, she paused at each person she came to and looked at them with an expression of sheer gratitude in her eyes. She came to me, looked at me and touched my arm, and it was as if she was saying, "Thank you so much for being here and for sharing in this moment with us." As the song continued, she returned to the stage, and standing on its edge, urged the audience to clap in time with the music. "Louder! Louder!" she cried, even as the clapping was about as loud as it could possibly get. She continued to shout as the band continued to play and the audience continued to clap; most of what she said I didn't understand and I'm not quite sure how coherent it all was, but it was one of the most visceral emotional displays I can remember. And then she came back down to the floor, and laid down on her back in the middle of the crowd, singing, and looking like she wanted to capture that moment and bask in it for all eternity. Earlier during the concert she had mentioned that performing was like being in a dream. With her lying there on the floor (and me in the front row of the crowd encircling her), I had a strong sense for what she had meant. It was a staggering moment.

There was one final song after "Anser." Casey said she wanted that last song to feel like a house party, and urged all of the musical guests to come down from the balcony and onto the stage. So there were probably close to thirty people on stage, dancing and singing and banging on various objects, as Ohbijou concluded their final concert with "The Woods" from their first album, Swift Feet for Troubling Times. Although tinged with bittersweet emotions, this final performance was full of exhilaration and joy. It was a true demonstration of the power of community, and the power of music to bring people together. It was an unforgettable night, and I'm very grateful that I could be there.

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