I was cautiously optimistic as I stepped into Toronto’s Horseshoe Tavern this past wednesday evening. There to see SOHN (touring his debut album Tremors, 2014), the gig seemed to have the odds stacked against it from the get-go: early doors (8:30 PM); a mid-week booking; uncharacteristically cold weather; and, last I checked, the show hadn’t sold out. However, as I made my way through the bar and towards the venue at the rear, my concerns evaporated. Opening band Mr. Little Jeans had already taken the stage, the seating area was entirely occupied, and the standing room in front of the stage was packed shoulder-to-shoulder – all this just before 9:30.
Touring their debut album (Pocketknife, 2014), Mr. Little Jeans’ sound is hard to classify. Frontwoman Monica Birkenes’ vocals have been compared to Lykke Li and the HAIM sisters, although they wouldn’t sound out of place alongside Portland’s Blouse or London’s Still Corners. Tracks from the album range from contemporary chord-driven rock (think The Raveonettes) to lo-fi, synthesizer-based ballads. Currently best known for their cover of The Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Birkenes makes a sly comment about the next song being “borrowed from one of our own” before launching into it. As dreamy as the song is tucked away at the end of the album, the lethargic, snare-driven beat and Birkenes breathy vocals are transcendent live. Using a break in Mr. Little Jeans’ set to shuffle through the crowd towards the stage, I hear Birkenes mention that this is the group’s first time in Toronto. Local debut or not, the LA-based group is confident during their short set, and the crowd responded in kind with toe-tapping, head-bobbing, and even a shuffle or two.
Mr. Little Jeans is off the stage by 10:00, and the next half hour is spent setting up the headlining act’s equipment, as well as a series of LED towers. Ever punctual, SOHN and his supporting musicians walk on stage and take their positions just before 10:30. Seated in front of his microphone and synthesizer set-up, SOHN, dressed entirely in black, launches into Ransom Notes. The song’s simple melody and repetitive lyrics lend themselves to SOHN’s intimate delivery of the song, which sets the mood for the rest of the show. Left off for Ransom Notes, the LED towers (staggered around the stage) flash red, blue, green, or purple for each of the remaining songs. SOHN leads the crowd through Bloodflows, Hesitation, Lights, Veto, and a handful of other tracks from the Tremors album, stopping to quietly thank the crowd between each song. Although SOHN’s melodies and vocals are more hypnotic than they are danceable, the crowd reacted strongly to Tempest, which was also delivered without the light show.
Following a particularly mesmerizing rendition of Lessons, SOHN made a brief exit from the stage before being all but dragged back for an encore. Having logged every song up to this point, the die-hard fans in the audience had already figured out that Aritifice and The Wheel (SOHN’s first release) had been held back. Sure enough, it was these two tracks that made up the encore, and the crowd’s reaction to both was off the charts. And, after quietly thanking the crowd a few more times, the mysterious SOHN excited the stage for a second time.
Neither SOHN nor Mr. Little Jeans fit into any one musical genre discretely. And, in the case of SOHN, it’s even difficult state his influences with any real confidence. However, together they were able to completely hypnotize a venue packed shoulder-to-shoulder with enthusiastic fans… mid-week no less.