Toronto Tales: Paint by the numbers

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Paint @ C’est What? 67 Front Street East, Toronto.

I could never understand people who travel to foreign countries only to eat at McDonalds and here I am in Toronto getting ready to listen to a band I first heard in Vancouver. Despite his postal code, I will always consider Robb Johannes and his band, Paint, to be a Vancouver band (we’re territorial that way). It only makes sense that while in Toronto I would come and see them play. As for C’est What?, I would have ended up here anyway. Four years ago it was voted number one for beer selection in the GTA and it came highly recommended by a friend of mine whose taste in beer I will always respect. Wherever a good beer is to be had, I am likely to be found.

Robb is there when I arrive. Thankfully, when I say hello, he doesn’t remind me that I’ve owed him a review for months now.  I received a copy of their new album, “Can You Hear me?” a while back. It’s incredible, but like everything else I do, I found a way to put off the review until now. I’m introduced to Rachel, his wife/manager (hopefully in that order), and we talk shop for a while. She’s a bright, beautiful young woman who will do very well as a manager when she learns how to smile when she kills, if she hasn’t already…

10pm rolls around and Paint take the stage. They’re a four piece (two guitars, bass, drums). The guitar player, Mandy, straps on a Fender Telecaster and my heart sinks. I hate that guitar; it’s an old grudge. However, with the first note she hammers out of it, I am content again. I hate the Telecaster because it is so often a “poseur” guitar, wielded by wannabes looking for some type of rootsy, alt-rock cred. Mandy, on the other hand, could very well be the reason people want to play a Telecaster. As they crank out the first song on the set list, there’s an underlying sound, a musical aftertaste, I can’t quite put my finger on. But more about that later.

As the set progresses, Robb and Mandy cycle their way through two Telecasters, one Stratocaster, a Les Paul Goldtop, and a mind numbingly beautiful cherry Gibson. The music is hard to nail down. Some people always have a need to find a place for music, a section where it can be found in the record store. For my two cents, Paint is Paint. They play original music in a genre that forbids it. Everything has been played. All a band can do is play their addition to the musical universe with passion, conviction, and talent. Paint most certainly does this. In a world where too many bands are “too cool” to write danceable hooks, Paint is ice-fucking-cold because they do. They are not content to cater to the scarf-wearing, college radio mafia.

Paint’s music has an edge but is not alien. It is user friendly art. Their live show is entertaining and lively without being contrived. The set is a healthy 40 minutes long and I think I’ve given myself a cramp contorting into strange positions to get the perfect picture. They close a set of originals with Elvis Costello, always a nice choice, and about halfway through the song, it dawns on me what that underlying sound is: Sonic Youth and Rush.

When I mention this to Rob after the show, he seems a little taken back by the Rush aspect of the comment. I mean it as a compliment, but not every Canadian is going to take it that way (I hate Trailer Park Boys, Air Farce, and want to strafe the Road to Avonlea with an Apache gunship: sue me.).

I think what I was getting at (for those of you who need it explained), is that Paint have hit an easy medium between order and chaos, “the marriage of heaven and hell” as William Blake would say. Paint is a very tight combo that play with reckless abandon. Rush’s music is highly structured. Sonic Youth’s is a gang fight with guitars. Paint somehow manages to combine the mathematical structure of one with the melodic anarchy of the other. The end result is a show that is not to be missed and an album that is more than worth your time.

After the set, I ask Robb about relocating to Toronto and it is a move he won’t regret.

“The line-up in Toronto has this real take-no-prisoners attitude,” Robb tells me. “Everyone is driven with the same goals. It’s amazing what that will do to a band’s productivity when there’s a shared vision and ambition… It’s difficult to find that kind of ambition in Vancouver, and it’s hardly the fault of musicians.”

After a few days walking around Toronto, I feel and understand his pain in regards to Vancouver’s music scene.

“[Vancouver] has been experiencing a major crisis in the last six or seven years where venue after venue is closing. At the time I left, there were only three good rooms left to play (The Railway Club, The Media Club, and The Biltmore) and they wouldn’t really book a band more than once every couple months because they didn’t want you to ‘over-saturate.’”

It hurts to know that Robb is right. For myself, and Vancouver’s musicians, we need to think seriously about what we can do to change the death-trend growing in Vancouver.

And Paint’s future in Toronto?

“In Vancouver, there was a lot of ‘indie’ in the scene, and for us, as a very unapologetically ‘rock’ band with some serious pop elements, it was difficult to find our audience and our place. So, having that outlet in Toronto has been a good validation that we don’t need to feel like we’re somehow less hip for just playing straight up rock ‘n’ roll. And that’s a good feeling.”


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