Live instrumental music – particularly that of the acoustic variety – is always kind of fascinating. People can’t exactly sing along, and so the audience is left to immerse themselves in the sounds. You engage with the music in a way that is perhaps less immediately comprehensible. This is especially interesting when the venue is the Twisted Pepper, and the instrumental musicians in question are the captivating duo of saxophonist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld.
A quick digression first seems necessary, to acknowledge the impressive support from Australia-born Margie Jean Lewis. Her songs showcase a disarming fragmentary prettiness, like light glimmering over a shattered mirror. While some of the more upbeat songs towards the end were perhaps less striking, Lewis has an affecting penchant for melismatic vocal loops that at times sound almost middle-eastern, atop of her quivering violin and electronic beats.
The quietness of the room that Lewis evokes sets the scene perfectly for Stetson and Neufeld. As soon as they begin to play, the duo build into a dazzling, whirring cacophony of sound that leaves everyone somewhat in awe. Touring in promotion of Never were the way she was (their as-yet unreleased collaborative record), the standard on display certainly makes the LP seem like a must-have. The intimate harmony they seem to have is beguiling, and there are moments where it seems as though the pair are just playing to one another.
Insistent staccato melodies and intricate polyrhythms that swirl almost-violently are contrasted perfectly with near pindrop silences, undertoned with the sometimes ominous drone of Stetson’s bass saxophone. Then there’s the occasional flourish of Neufeld’s voice, wailing gorgeously, wordlessly, like a siren on top of it all. Songs like With the Dark Hug of Time, and In the Vespers highlight the visceral nature of the music. At its most melancholy, the performance is like an awakening punch to the gut – a standout being Neufeld’s solo violin encore. And yet, it’s all affirming somehow; their set overall retains a positivity, like crisp light through plumes of stormy cloud.
It doesn’t seem incongruous, for example, when Neufeld (better known as a member of Arcade Fire) asks if anyone in the audience can tell a joke. Her response to the joke that is offered (“how do you find Will Smith in the snow?…Follow the fresh prints”), is charmingly bemused: “That’s a real double-edged sword,” she remarks with a wry smile.
There are some feedback issues towards the end, and – while Stetson seems displeased – it doesn’t detract from the positive, overwhelmed atmosphere that seems to have encapsulated the room.
It is surreal seeing a gig like this at the Pepper – there are no sweaty walls and troubling dance moves – and yet that ultimately adds to the experience. Amongst the packed crowd, there’s a girl punching her fist in the air, and a guy standing perfectly still with his eyes closed – both during the same song. And, strangely, both reactions are fitting.
Stetson explains the premise of the record: the idea of a girl who ages as slow as trees or mountains, who falls in love with someone normal. That cinematic, odd, organic sound is very much apparent throughout the show. As the evening comes to an end, there is no doubt that Stetson and Neufeld are doing something truly special.