Monday, 20 May 2013

Alexi Murdoch at Cabaret du Mile-End

Alexi Murdoch  |  Cabaret du Mile-End


Alexi Murdoch. You might not know the name, but there's a good chance you've heard his songs. Stop me if you're familiar with any of the following TV shows:

The O.C., House, Prison Break, Ugly Betty, Dirty Sexy Money, Grey's Anatomy, Dawson's Creek, Without a Trace, Stargate Universe, Everwood, Brothers & Sisters, One Tree Hill and Scrubs.

I hope you didn't really try to stop me after any of those. If you did, maybe now's a good time to learn that concert reviews are rhetorical media. This comes to you from the past. Please don't raise your hand. I cannot see it.

But yes, all those shows and more featured songs from Murdoch. His mammoth debut, "Time Without Consequence", is one of the most licensed albums of the past decade.

There's something about his singing and guitaring that adds a Merlinian vibe to moving images. Play a Murdoch song during a funeral and the tears will plock down hard. Jam his track over a countryside cycling scene and feel the blinding wind as you speed downhill without even getting up from your La-Z-Boy.

Hollywood execs claw at each other's ties for Murdoch's songs, as they should. I am not a Hollywood exec, so I went to Cabaret du Mile-End that night simply to hear some smooth, forthright folk stuff.

Brad Barr took the stage first, his smirky southern aura glowing. These songs about the devil and women gone away on trains rolled as smoothly as a well-built train should. His guitaristry was a mix of traditional country chords and virtuosic upper neck hammer-ons and pull-offs, the arpeggios implying wheat fields and rocking chairs on a clear day. He'd build up to something loud during instrumental breaks, then switch to chunky palm mutes, thickening the air in the room as he pulled us in. Wonderful how acoustic guitars tend to screw with the laws of physics.

Alexi Murdoch then entered the stage, brilliantly bearded. Watching him prep for the set and seeing the practiced motions of his hands, I got the impression that he was indeed a man of many folk tales to tell. We were to hear a few of them that night.

His first song was cold and haunting. It kept us frozen in place until it was over, the wise man on the platform telling us, “be kind to the living, remember the dead.” Halfway into the song, after two motionless minutes, I felt as though I could taste the microscopic dust particles in the air in front of my face. That part was not altogether pleasant, but I blame only myself for sticking out my tongue.

He was on stage with a trumpeter and drummer who both knew what they needed to do to accompany Murdoch’s brand of smooth. The drummer made himself known to us gradually as the set progressed. At first he played hands-free, riding the kick. Then he added shakers where they needed to go, and later on was given freedom to explore the downtempo rhythms his babies could do. The trumpeter glued himself to the back corner of the stage, providing long, light like tones to Murdoch’s singing. Whenever the trumpeter would make a sound, it added a graceful absurdity to the songs in a manner reminiscent of Neutral Milk Hotel.

Murdoch’s guitar playing is characterized by simple picking patterns and clear, distinct plucks under strong fingers. In terms of note choices, his songs don’t vary very much between each other. Despite this, each song is evocative of a number of different scenarios. You can close your eyes at any point during his set and see a library of film scenes in your head. I was at the cabaret the whole night, but depending on what song was playing I could have been fighting an evil dwarf army alongside a loyal dragon, or holding my grandson’s hand as he lay on his deathbed, or surfing a moon sized tidal wave single file with a million of my best friends.

The man chose not to park himself on his guitar chair all night. He visited the piano for one vaudevillian sounding track; playing sharp, penny arcade chords, which the other stage members aptly followed. A kalimba then made its way into his hands. That was a special five minutes, where the aforementioned downtempo drums came in along with the low buzz of the trumpet and Murdoch’s deep, solemn humming. All of it gave the cabaret an end-of-days air, but one we weren’t too worried about.

Still, guitar is Murdoch’s first language, and that’s what dominated the night. Most of what he sung was what he was born to sing - clear, wistful, old fashioned yet somehow modern folk music.
As the phone neared midnight I found my eyes scanning the crowd. There were people like me; alone, hands pocketed, here for the sounds. There were students and teachers, bartenders and bouncers. People old and young, good and maybe slightly bad. But then I’d see rosy-cheeked couples resting on each other’s skulls in the dark room, hand in hand. The strums and plucks and Mmm’s provided for them an escape from the mundane, a quality night in a quiet room with quiet folks and intimate music playing in the background. I found myself appreciating these star-crossed couples appreciating the few hours they can spend together, without thinking about anything too serious.

So I’m indebted to Alexi Murdoch, and to all musicians really, for providing an escape from the mundane. If you feel the same way you can thank him in person with your presence next time he’s in Montreal. Or check out either of his albums, “Time Without Consequence” and “Towards the Sun.” It’s all good stuff.
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