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Tuesday, 27 November 2012

The Unsettlers at Quai Des Brumes

The Unsettlers at Quai Des Brumes

Bewitched, Bothered, & Bewildered | Jesse Creatchman

I had the chance to experience The Unsettlers for the first time last Friday night. I enjoyed a driving wall of sound projected in waves by the emerging Toronto band known as Catl and smoked too many cigarettes, allowing time for my ears to regain consciousness, that I missed the beginning of the headliner’s performance!

As I stood outside filling my lungs, I spoke briefly with a stiffly-dressed fellow in for the night from Vancouver. His name was Marek. He paused on the corner to bum a light and observe the scene. We stood outside Quai Des Brumes on the corner of Mont-Royal and St. Denis; the Plateau of Montreal. Next door, venue Rock Roulette spun electronica down a staircase entrance and onto the sidewalk. With the adjacent L’Esko Bar featuring a live folk-rock band as a third option, the corner was brimming with an eclectic concoction of multilingual musical action. The men wore bowler hats, beanies and fedoras. A girl with silk skin in a white fur coat and electric blue hair smoked a cigarette to my right. Marek poked fun at all of the plaid jackets. "When did people start wearing those again?" To him it was as if the nineties had never died.

The crowd quickly dissolved and I followed suite to catch Quai Des Brumes’ main act. Posted on the front door was a white sheet of paper that read “NOUS SOME COMPLET” signifying that a promoter Indie Montreal's happy face stamped onto your wrist bound you to your share of sweat and spirit chambered in a tavern of unsettling swagger. As a party of three, Catl had been very loud. Dynamics set by deaf musicians regulated by deaf sound engineers? My expectations for the chief ensemble was an adjustable knob titled “main” set to “max." 

As I entered the bar with apprehension, I was welcomed by the ghosts of a depression era traveling circus band. I was enchanted by the drone of klezmer horns. The eerie, ethnic clarinet voicing old ideas. The impending trumpet pronouncing warnings so often ignored and yet it persists! I was stiffened by a staccato violin who then set off on a trail of rock and sand. I was beguiled by the keys-man with the odd smile so heartfelt and innocent and fiendish and knowing. The sound was bang on.

A shift in light unveils decrepit bone.
A waltz regards offbeat syncopation.
A hollow body guitar leaps and dodges the downbeat.
And words revealing poetic injustice...

...You have my attention.

Founded by lead singer and songwriter Baltimore Washington Brandes, the spirit of what is now known a The Unsettlers was born in his native (you guessed it) Vancouver. Sensing that the right environment would allow for the act to flourish, he and three other members, pianist Dustyn Lucas, singer Genevieve Schreier, and singer, songwriter Brie Neilson relocated to Montreal. They have since established their place in the cultural grounds of the city, adding to the line-up once bassist and now accordionist Santosh Lalonde who often shares lead vocals with Baltimore Washington and Brie. Meanwhile Elie Jalbert and Eli Richards create the live horn section playing trumpet and clarinet respectfully. On violin is Laura Lee Officer who has been performing in and around Montreal seemingly forever. Unfortunately Neilson was absent from Friday’s line-up as she is presently on tour promoting her newly recorded solo album.

Brandes’ gamble paid off. Playing for a sold-out house, an audience of over one hundred and fifty on a brisk autumn evening, The Unsettlers shined clearly in their element. Fans swung and staggered immersed in the poetry and dark humor sung by Washington and Santosh. A true cohort of outsiders marginalized by popular culture and stereotypes, the band with their audience found common ground through funeral folk rock and haunting big-top dixie jazz arrangements. If nothing else, it was an honest evening. A circus inspired road show lead by a passionate grumbling ringmaster.

As a bass player, Ram Krishnan carries the rhythm section of The Unsettlers in tandem with Patrick Dugas who has recently replaced D’Arcy Nichol on drums. They synchronized to exceptional imperfection, often sounding the unexpected. Stand out performance was “Two dead at a five and dime”, driven by a menacing batter. “Dear Delilah” just took me away. In transit, I couldn't take my eyes off the rhythm section, not even to blink.

The dream world conjured up by Brandes’ unsettling lyrics is enchantingly distant yet familiar. But this wasn’t by any means a one-man show. I wasn’t just watching a band either. For a moment, I was offered the perception of a time and place that isn’t mine, or is it? Had I encountered a time traveling depression-era carnival band who once ignited the spirits of poor cotton farmers and now appeared to perform as a local Montreal band with synonymous intention? Who once on horse-trailed evenings framed by forests sang songs to celebrated life and death, the poverty of misfortune and the richness of chance? 

A voice sang out with grit and rasp over dead whiskey of a return to sprit, over dead spirit of return to whiskey, and through the corridors of cold iron truth. Erie and aggressive and but vulnerable and timeless. The band reflects those same qualities, creating an exceptional agreement. They don’t step on each other’s toes. They move. Just the right amount of cadence uplifting their comrade's motif. A bridge is formed and much is generously left for the listener. The literary interpretations are endless as is the visual environment to be explored. The audience danced and shouted. 
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