Elliott Brood chooses Oshawa

As the night faded, so did the audience at The Grad Club.
As the night faded, so did the audience at The Grad Club.
Credit: 
Photo by Claire Ward
Ass Machine played to a small crowd.
Ass Machine played to a small crowd.
Credit: 
Photo by Claire Ward

Concert Review: Justin Bird with Ass Machine @ The Grad Club, Oct. 22

A cursory investigation of show listings revealed up-and-coming “death country” trio Elliott Brood was booked for two shows on Oct. 22: one at The Grad Club and one opening for Blue Rodeo in Oshawa.

Evidently, the prospect of playing a half-hour set for thousands of GM workers politely pretending that they’re not just waiting for “Lost Together” was too enticing for Elliott Brood to resist, and so it was that fifteen mildly confused people filed into The Grad Club at 9:45 to the crunching hometown sounds of Ass Machine—or, more accurately, Ass Machine’s belated sound check, which became immediately apparent when the trio nonchalantly ambled over to the bar for a few more pints. After this brief introduction to Ass Machine, one could tell that the audience was regretting headliner Elliot Brood’s cancellation.

Half an hour later, when it was evident that The Grad Club wasn’t going to get any less sparsely populated, Ass Machine retook the stage. They played an amiably sloppy set of jokey neo-grunge on borrowed equipment, bantering among themselves instead of with the audience (aside from bassist Ursula asking who needed a shot of tequila—tellingly, no one volunteered), giggling through the botched intro of their final number, and giving the drummer a rare Ringo moment to sing one of his compositions. Their last-minute duty done, they returned to the bar, swelling the audience population by approximately 15 per cent.

The night then fell to slated opener Justin Bird, touring in anticipation of his upcoming sixth record, which sports the “whoa, dude” title of Beyonder. Bird has been around for more than a decade, first as a member of the Gaudi Birds and then as a solo artist, and his solo experience informed his performance for better and worse. He didn’t let the minuscule Grad Club stage and small, intermittently distracted audience prevent him from showcasing an energetic panoply of frontman moves, from crouches and collapses to high kicks and spastic dancing. Regrettably, his recently-formed four-piece band was content to stand and play the songs, pre-empting the possibility of Bird attempting the more difficult but satisfying “shoot and kill the lead guitarist” or “catch and reel in the bassist” moves.

Though they played well together, Bird’s disconnect with his band was evident in other ways—he was outfitted in a dapper jacket, screaming orange shirt, impressively wide white tie, hip-hugging jeans and pointy-toed leather boots, while the shaggy-haired band could’ve blended in with the casually-dressed crowd. Bird has only been with this band for a month and a half, though, and they will likely gel into a more cohesive unit musically —if not sartorially—given time.

Justin Bird’s consistency in song writing made for two relatively long sets without any noticeable dead spots but gave way to a sense of numbing repetition as the night wore on. Bird’s experience manifests itself again in his slightly weary lyrics, shot through with tentative reassurances and pledges to go on. Even the infectiously hand-clapping standout “Do You Really Want Me” is underpinned with an introverted suspicion.

Bird is undeniably a very capable vocalist, switching effortlessly from honeyed bedside croon to energetic whine to intimidating growl as his songs demanded. As is frequently the case in the compact Grad Club, the drums threatened to overwhelm the other instruments, but aside from conspicuously quiet keyboards, the sound was satisfying and clear.

Despite Bird’s best efforts, though, the audience largely maintained a respectful distance, with most people sitting or leaning against the wall. As the night stretched on well past 1 a.m., the dynamic was closer to friends hanging out at a jam session than a show.

The last-minute promotion from opener to headliner isn’t something any artist desires. To their credit, Justin Bird and his band played a long, involved, energetic show despite the odds stacked against them.

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