Last Saturday night, The El Mocambo—a can’t-miss-this fixture in Toronto’s long list of dirty rock clubs–was transformed into a winter wonderland. Long strings of Christmas lights, an audience clad in holiday-themed cardigan sweaters, and a gigantic, inflatable Santa Claus were all brought in for the Exclaim Christmas Bash.
Prince Edward Island-based Paper Lions were back in town, their first Toronto show since wrapping up a September residency at The Supermarket. They headlined after two openers, Ottawa’s The Love Machine and local indie-pop darlings The Elwins. The openers both played well-crafted sets of indie rock—especially The Love Machine, who definitely rose to the challenge of a half-capacity bar and won some serious fans–but it was clear by the time Paper Lions took the stage who the audience was there to see.
Reminding me of other down East rockers Hey Rosetta!, Paper Lions eagerly careened from genre to genre, blending a prototypical indie sensibility with mainstream FM guitar rock and more. Skillfully blurring influences beneath a sheen of strong hooks and tight musicianship, the band’s genre-shifting seemed more a conscious effort to stretch the audience’s ears than a lack of creative focus.
If that was what the audience was looking for—a dozen different bands inhabiting the same four members–Paper Lions certainly delivered. With tight harmonies, driving rhythms and some of the best lead-guitar acrobatics I’ve seen in years, the PEI rockers blew away those who braved the cold weather and late start to see them. The band hit hard and fast, beginning their set with “Lost The War,” the first track from their newest record, Trophies. After that they switched moods repeatedly, the harder-hitting songs in their two-album catalog giving way to the kind of spacey, indie-pop reminiscence that first brought them to notice on their self-titled album. “Don’t Touch That Dial” was clearly a fan favorite, with the whole crowd bouncing and singing along as Matthew Sweeney from The Elwins joined Paper Lions guitarist Colin Buchanan with a tambourine and a bag of confetti.
Guess which he tossed into the crowd with the help of a big metal fan set off to the side of the stage.
The crowd was disappointingly small for the first two thirds of the event, but all the bands played with just as much enthusiasm as if the house was full. The musicians really seemed to be having fun onstage, with plenty of corny jokes—“What’s in egg nog, anyway? Is it just egg and nog?” the Elwins’ frontman Matthew Sweeney mused in a Seinfeld-esque manner during a break between songs–as well as sing-alongs. All the positive energy crowding the stage fed into the audience, coming back as wide smiles, loud cheers and at least one Christmas dance contest.
The high point of the show was definitely the encore, when Paper Lions had both the other bands as well as the staff of Exclaim, who promoted and put on the show, come up onto the stage to sing Christmas carols. They handed lyric sheets into the audience—“Does everybody have one?” asked Paper Lions’ frontman John MacPhee–and led us all through a few holiday standards. It was that spirit of inclusivity that made the Christmas Bash at the El Mocambo a truly special show. The bands involved were all talented and interesting musicians, yes, but their purpose was above all to engage and share a feeling and an experience with those who attended, rather than just to perform. Which is just awesome. Any time you see Paper Lions, The Love Machine or The Elwins on a bill, ‘Get Up, Get Up’ and GO SEE THEM.
On a personal note, my apologies for the infrequent site updates these days. Last weekend, I covered three shows; unfortunately, one of them was terrible, another in Barrie, and the third (this one) never quite made it into print. So, I’ve posted it here for posterity’s sake. I’m working on some very long-term stuff these days, which would be wonderful if I wasn’t going back into the studio this week / next week to rerecord some things. Look for a ‘Studio Diary’ style post in the next few, hopefully with some original music, if it’s fit for human consumption.
But if I don’t see you, have a great holiday and take some time off work! You’ve earned it!