It's been a big year for Whitehorse: the band toured Canada extensively, was featured prominently at the SXSW music, released The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss an acclaimed followup to their debut album and is now embarking on a North American tour in support of that album which is finally officially available in the U.S.
Whitehorse, in case you haven't heard, is the pairing of Luke Doucet and Melissa McLelland. For the backstory on how the married couple came to be a band you can read this interview by Michael Bialas or this interview by Vancouver's Francois Marchand. Both artists were considered to be strong on their own, and the pair has received rave review since they started touring again.
The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss tour kicked off on Saturday night at Vancouver's always beautiful Commodore Ballroom, only a year and six days since their last show in the city. That show saw the band playing to a nearly sold out crowd at the roughly 450 seat Rio Theatre: the Commodore holds a bit more than 1,000 and the place was packed.
Daniel Romano took the stage first with a Nudie style suit, an acoustic guitar, a big old Kansas City Stetson and his friend Aaron Goldstein on pedal steel. Joking with the audience about having just driven from Ontario in four days (a true story, and about two days less than you should do that trip in if you ask me) and forgetting the lyrics to some of the material from his Come Cry with Me album--"It's gonna come to me. We've got 15 minutes"--Romano and Goldstein were clearly having a good time. So was the already sizeable audience: the classic country sounds had the audience quiet and attentive when the pair was playing but applauding loudly between songs.
There was a short break before the velvet curtain that had served as Romano's backdrop parted and Whitehorse took the stage immediate kicking into an audience participation version of Killing Time is Murder from the pair's debut album. The Commodore was nicely filled with the song's chorus of "When all is said and all is done / Time will waste everyone."
It was a stark contrast from previous Whitehorse shows, which typically began with Luke & Melissa singing a quiet duet into a single microphone at the front of the stage. The high energy set continued with material from the band's most recent album and the debut including Emerald Isle, an audience request when Doucet bumped into a fan on the street.
Luke Doucet's reputation as a guitar slinger is second to none, and those skills were in fine form throughout the set's opening numbers. When the band played Wisconsin--written in New York while the Occupy protests were in their infancy--Doucet finally strapped on the Gretsch White Falcon that's his signature piece for a brief appearance at least. That guitar is always nice to see--and it's has roughly the same effect on Doucet as a phone booth does on Clark Kent--but watching him play any guitar is a feat to behold and this night was no exception.
Mismatched Eyes (Boat Song) marked a quiet pause in the evening and the duet did a nice job of highlighting the beautiful results of pairing both Doucet's and McLelland's voices and the strong songwriting that makes The Fate of the World such a compelling album. Lyrics like "Well I remember to remember that without you I'm a shadow / I'm a drifter and a barfly and whatever else you had to be" are sentimental without being sappy, and the songs quiet vocal counter play at it's beginning leads nicely into a noisier finale led by Doucet's guitar work.
The band's made it a point of featuring sounds made by non-traditional instruments in their live shows, plundering thrift shops and dollar stores while travelling in search of found objects to use on stage. This tour was no exception and a rousing rendition of Devil's Got a Gun followed by Out Like A Lion used just about everything on stage to contribute to the sound.
It's the seamlessness of those sounds that makes Whitehorse such a joy to watch live. Switching effortlessly between a collection of guitars and keyboards connected to various looping and effect pedals, Doucet and McLelland make their entire stage presence look effortless. The two are so practiced and polished that it looks easy.
That level of polish could be boring if it weren't so consistently incredible to watch. It's tempting to look for flaws but they're hard to find: both artists are strong singers, songwriters and musicians in their own right. They're even better as a duo. This is band that's playing at the top of their game, and that's a game that's even better to experience live than it is in the studio. If you've seen the band before you can expect a treat: older material has been rearranged, and some songs sound dramatically different.
There may be no better tribute to the band and the quality of its live shows than this: I've resisted the temptation to give this review the first title that came to mind--The Fate of the World Depends on this Tour.
It just might though, and you should probably go see them--just in case. Or do you want it to be your fault if this all ends badly?
Whitehorse's new album The Fate of the World Depends on this Kiss has (finally) been released in the United States and can be ordered from Six Shooter Records or via the iTunes store. The band is touring North America until March 30th, and will be headlining Toronto's Massey Hall on March 2nd. Complete tour dates are on the Six Shooter web site.