Broken Social Scene are the polar opposite of a short, sharp shock. The Canadians’ latest eponymous album sprawled across two CDs and meandered wherever the 17+ members of the collective felt it should.
Tonight in London they are at the sold-out, packed to the rafters Astoria, a venue with a sizeable stage – yet they’ve achieved a cluttered look for it.
Immediately it’s clear that Broken Social Scene are well named. This is not a band but a neighbourhood, and one populated with an array of curious characters. On bass, a rescued castaway brought on stage specially to throw rock star shapes and waggle his whiskers. Amongst the vocalists, a ditsy looking thing wearing jeans and a dress. Stage left, a guitarist-keyboardist-drummer-vocalist paying one man homage to heavy rock, wholesome Canadian features topped by a mop. On drums, lots of big hair with someone presumably underneath.
There were others, including what would, in band terms, be front men but here are simply the village elders. Stage right, Harry Connick, Jr’s elder brother composed of baritone, fretboard and nuanced dishevellment. Centre stage (for most of the time) a guitarist-singer surely the thinner brother of that bloke out of Keane (though the voice was never a match). Somewhere in amongst all this, a female fiddler, some brassy boys and surely – was it? – a kitchen sink near the back of the stage. (I made that up.)
Three years ago Broken Social Scene (a less populous version of) shimmied in to the tiny Barfly in Camden. It’s amazing what word of mouth in this city can do – but bigger venue or no, those dastardly security barriers just had to be overcome. Ordinarily, crowdsurfers would head from the audience to the stage, but tonight two members of the band went the other way. They didn’t surf – it was more of a hoiking over the barriers followed by a goodwilled stroll amongst kindred spirits. And that was fine – with no time for a support act, each member of this extended hippie commune needed their chance to shine. For this, the entire evening and nothing less was necessary. Several musicians had to swap instruments – guitar for bass, keys for drums, trombone for guitar and so on.
Lest it be thought they’re getting a bit too big and popular, Bassist Bligh let it be known that no “brasseires” should be thrown in these ‘ere parts. A smitten young thing had, see, but our man had problems about credibility. “That’s what happens at Tom Jones gigs,” he reasoned, before launching the offending garment back whence it came. An offer of a packet of fags later was welcomed, however.
There were references too to the phenomenon known as Arctic Monkeys – even Celine Dion wouldn’t sell 170,000 CDs in Canada, we were informed – and how, by the end of the first set, a Monkeys gig would already have ended. Maybe – but if Broken Social Scene had ended their set at this point too, maybe they would also be known for their music rather than for having lots of members and gargantuan set lists.
The music. Here and there it suggested politely that it might form itself into some kind of recognisable structure, but for the most part the set amiably meandered nowhere in particular. Calls for the catchy Hotel from the current album were met with the record’s most hook-laden track (all things being relative), replete with repeated synth choir refrain and vaguely funky beat, while various versions of what sounded like Ibi Dreams Of Pavement (A Better Day) were aired. For the most part though, song titles seemed of secondary importance to being a part of the evening.
With the homage to Ravel that is the final movement of It’s All Gonna Break blasting the Astoria’s speakers, some two and a half hours after they arrived Broken Social Scene finally left the scene. The audience had endured, somehow, and coaxed its feet out onto Charing Cross Road amid stretches and grumbles. Much of the elongated set worked fine, but sometimes less really is more.
The neighbourhood are back next month for a visit to the Madge and Coldplay endorsed Koko – where members of the audience would be well advised to head to toilets first and find some wall space to lean on.