Over the Top Festival 2008

Live Indie music in a church? I found myself in St. Stephen-in-the Fields Church, at College and Bathurst, on a Friday night for day two of the Over the Top Festival. The festival, now in its seventh year running, features a series of all-ages concerts (as well as some films). Performing this night were Rebekah Higgs, The Wooden Sky, Will Currie and the Country French, Major Grey, and Laura Peek.

When I first arrived, I was a bit surprised by the venue. Two shows were on simultaneously: one in the grand main room of the church, with pews removed; the second “stage”, much more intimate, was a marked-off corner in a backroom. The lighting was, well, austere, and at least one performer commented on the oddity of being on stage without the effects of alcohol. Thankfully the lack of a stage (or alcohol, for that matter) didn’t seem to affect the night’s music. Another performer likened the domed roof room in which they were performing to an “inverted Noah’s ark”; fitting, given the torrential rain that was pounding that night outside the church.

Rebekah Higgs is a 24-year old musician from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Her debut-album-opening (and most catchy) song, Parables, is something I’d first heard on CBC Radio 3. I missed her at Canadian Music Week so I jumped at the opportunity to see her show in Toronto, as part of a Canada-wide tour. Higgs’ songs range from straight-forward folk to more peppy folk-electronic, using a Kaoss pad on a second microphone to modulate, distort, and add electronic flourishes to her voice, adding a psychedelic effect to her music.

Although these flourishes are creative and add an extra dimension to her music, what’s more interesting is Higgs’ vocal talents. Her voice has the pleasant richness and endearing slight croak you’d expect from an older folk singer, and occasionally an airy, breathy, almost ethereal lightness which has a haunting effect on some songs. She also has great stage presence, swaying and shifting to her music, entertaining the small crowd packed into the room. You can check her out via her website at www.rebekahhiggs.com.

The Wooden Sky are a Toronto-based band also gaining some notoriety via CBC Radio 3. Front-man Gavin Gardiner provides the vocals, guitar, and harmonica for this folk-rock band. Andrew Wyatt, in addition to being Gardiner’s roommate, brings a lot of the on-stage character as the second pillar of the band, bringing additional vocals, bass, xylophone, and occasionally banjo (when the banjo isn’t locked in the church office for half the show). Adding an interesting touch on this particular night was Mika Posen on violin.

The Wooden Sky have a very clean and well-executed Indie folk-rock sound. I particularly like their catchy self-titled track, The Wooden Sky (written when they used to be known as Friday Morning’s Regret), with its careful layering of different instruments behind Gardiner’s “folk” voice. Other songs are well-executed as well, but very much all squarely fit into the same folk-rock genre. Overall, an enjoyable show. You can check The Wooden Sky out on MySpace.

Meanwhile, in the front room of the church, Will Currie and the Country French were performing their breed of Indie-folk-piano-pop. The band was conceived in 2006 in the basement of the music faculty of Wilfred Laurier University (in Waterloo, Ontario, just down the street from my own alma mater), by six students of the aforementioned faculty. The heart and soul of the band is Will Currie, who plays the piano and provides the main vocals with enthusiasm and energy that’s quite entertaining to watch.

Most of their songs are upbeat and chipper with youthful exuberance, which makes you want to stand up and dance (but in this big airy church, most of the crowd elected to stand and sway instead). Rounding out the rest of band are another pianist, guitarist, bassist, and drums, as well as a female vocalist who also doubles as a saxophonist. For this show, a special guest on cello added a nice touch. But then again, I’m a sucker for a well-placed classical instrument. A solid performance by this group of very talented musicians, especially with some very expressive Will Currie solos providing some extra variety in a few solo songs.

Check them out on their website, www.thecountryfrench.com.

Opening for these bands that night were Major Grey and Laura Peek.

Major Grey is a band of four relatively young musicians from Toronto. It was founded by two childhood friends, Andrew Haughton (vocals, guitar) and Rob Gildemeester (bass, vocals). I was particular impressed with Haughton’s voice — I can’t put my finger on it, but it’s got a catchy and pleasing twang to it. Although the room was still quite empty and lethargic when they began their opening set, when they finished the room was full and buzzing. Check them out at www.majorgrey.com.

Laura Peek normally plays with two extra musicians as Laura Peek and the Winning Hearts, but was alone for this show. Having flown from Halifax, and a bit nervous to play solo — piano and vocals — tonight, a take-out order of whiskey prior to the show seemed calmed her nerves. Unfortunately, a few of her songs sounded a bit odd without the backing of her two band-members (I suppose the Winning Hearts?). You can listen to her music, this time with band, on MySpace.

2 May 2008 | grc | Music | Comments

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