I arrived early for Born Gold’s sleeper CD release party, not wanting to miss any of opening act Jessica Jalbert. This was because I had never before seen Jessica perform, and also this was my first concert review for Sound and Noise and I didn’t want to fuck it up by missing anything! I arrived so early that I was able to spend almost two whole hours sampling different beers and being schooled in Wagner and other things uber-German (thanks Nina!) before Jessica began her set. Standing alone on the small stage with her Danelectro plugged straight into the amplifier, Jessica’s quiet intensity drew the audience’s attention in a way I don’t think I have seen anyone else pull off at this venue. For any readers who have never been, Wunderbar is this writer’s personal favorite live music venue here in Edmonton, largely because it is the kind of place where the energy is usually high and if you suddenly feel the need to share a thought or an image or a phrase, you can simply find yourself a marker and scrawl it on the wall. Or carve it in the table top. Or what the fuck ever. It’s cool. Jessica had this room as quiet as a church while she sang her songs, which she said were “all about the same shit,” namely intimacy and death. Later in the night, Cecil Frena would remark that he had never seen a crowd here listen to anyone so intently. It was simple and it was lovely.
During those first two hours before the performances I found myself reflecting on the last time I had seen the evening’s headliner Born Gold. The Sounds of Old Strathcona festival was sadly absent from this past summer’s festival season, but back in July 2011, the newly christened group (Frena’s glitchy psych-pop act was formerly known as Gobble Gobble) played to a crowd of hundreds in the middle of Whyte Avenue. The stage was massive, the band was made up of six, seven or eight (it was a lot to take in!) members chopping beats, banging drums and doing an incredible job of making sure everyone in the street was having as much fun as they were. The set featured most of their first LP Body Songs, and the frantically joyous sound of that record could not have been a better fit for the atmosphere in the street that day. We danced in the heat of the afternoon sun and Edmonton truly felt like a great place to be in that moment.
Thursday night at Wunderbar turned out to be an event that will remain in my mind just as well as that SOS fest performance. It was nearly as much fun but with a drastically different tone. From the size of the venue and crowd to the sound and atmosphere created by the performers, almost everything about my second Born Gold experience was the opposite or reverse of the first. Like a negative of a photograph of a sunny day.
I had wondered how the large band I had seen a little over a year ago in the open air and July sunshine was going to squeeze themselves and their boisterous energy into the dim and graffitied confines of Wunderbar. The answer was simply that this is no longer a large band. Or at least, it wasn’t on this night. Cecil and one other member were the entirety of the group. The show was sold out, but the maximum capacity of this venue is about 75 people. At the end of Jessica’s set I watched Cecil walk onto the stage and select something on the iPod he had running into the PA system. I immediately recognized “Mr. Self Destruct”, the opening cut of Nine Inch Nails 1994 opus The Downward Spiral. It didn’t occur to me until after the show that this was anything but an arbitrary choice, just something to act as background music between acts. We heard a little more than half of this dark, intense and noisy record before Born Gold began their set and this was definitely intended to prepare the audience for what was about to happen to us.
The songs from the new LP Little Sleepwalker have a much darker, more introspective sound than you will hear on Body Songs and most of Frena’s work as Gobble Gobble. This is not to say Born Gold are approaching the industrial roar of NIN; these new songs are still just as danceable as the old ones. But Body Songs is full of sounds that practically demand to be experienced in a communal setting, where you can let your body move and be moved. I can imagine listening to the sounds of Little Sleepwalker satisfyingly in the isolation of my home or the interior space created by headphones while I watch the snow fall through the windows of the bus.
That said, once they began the two performers played without pausing between songs and had most of the audience dancing, except when they stopped to take in the shining electro-cyborg inciting us to move our feet. Between the LED jacket, masks, and lighting arrays this was the most elaborate and effective stage show I’ve seen in a venue this size. The crowd kept dancing and the energy kept rising.
And then it stopped.
Everyone present seemed to think that they were saying thanks and catching their breath. It had been almost half an hour and this was the first actual pause in the performance. There was a distinctly awkward moment while we shuffled our feet, everyone clearly wanting the rush to continue. And then the lights came up. And we all looked around at one another as if to ask, “really?”
Perhaps we were being greedy. It had been a high energy set and probably featured the entirety of the new album. Body Songs runs less than half an hour. And of course, they had to do it all again Friday night. Myself and most of the people I spoke to afterward were left a little unsatisfied. But hey, I suppose there is something to be said for leaving your audience wanting more. I for one am already looking forward to my next taste.