Friday, 10 May 2013

The Unsettlers at Bar de Courcelle

The Unsettlers  |  Bar de Courcelle


They say all good things must come to an end. They say that disappearances are part of the ineffable course of things. They claim that the world is a constant cycle of renewal, that certain things must vanish for others to come to life. Fair enough, but I have never held much belief in the reasonable. Rather, I tend to air on the hedonist side of things. Call me a fiend, if you please. You are probably not completely wrong.

Did I know that, one day, a massive 11-piece band such as the Unsettlers would end up splitting? Of course I did. However, during the length the local act’s 6-year long existence, I refused to think about the day of their inevitable break-up.

Until that day came.

The reason? Rumour has it that Brie Neilson, Genevieve Schreier and BW Brandes, three core members of the unit, are moving away to begin a new phase of their lives, which is fair, of course. The selfish part of me still cannot resist yelling, “Noooooooo!” internally, though. Which is also fair.

In an old school move very classic of its personality, the band decided that the Bar de Courcelle, a tiny country-flavoured taverne in St-Henri, was going to be the setting of its farewell performance. As small venues usually mean good sound, I rejoiced to find that out. On this gloomy day, at least the music was going to sound crisp. Small consolation for my otherwise weary, sad spirit.

A few pints into the faithful Sunday night, my friends and I witnessed the crew getting set up for its final tour de piste. BW, bearing his eternal tight black tuque and equally black beard, grabbed his guitar. Santosh, his hair tied in a messy ponytail, took hold of his beaten up duck-taped accordion and sat on a stool, front stage. Genevieve, who was wearing a classy, kind of burlesque black and red dress, ran her hand through her long wavy hair as she took her position behind a stoic microphone. Eli, sharply attired, seized his trombone, and started twisting the left corner of his massive beard. Dustyn, with his slick little crooner hat and his thin golden glasses, sat behind his keys, solemn-faced. In the corner, Ram tuned his bass in a series of slow, self-assured movements, typical of his classic “I got it under control” demeanour. Elie, smiling warmly in his dark suit, snagged his clarinet from its case. Laura, looking cute as ever in her navy blue puffy ballerina skirt, dropped her chin on her violin. Patrick, who looked like a well-dressed pirate thanks to his black bandana, untrimmed beard and white tie, stretched his neck as he got set up behind his drums.

In the space of a minute, all was ready. The nine souls stood still. The nine sets of eyes met in a series of short encounters. Then, softly, the music started.

The Unsettlers began unsettling its already swaying crowd.

The Montreal-based crew delivered a selection from its stellar repertoire of dark stories, morbid tales, and tenebrous poems, accompanied with its signature musical atmosphere: a blend of fast whiskey-stained folk rhythms, spooky polkas, haunting waltzes, with a dash of klezmer here and there. As it did so, the bottle of Jameson was going around. I could not help but notice that Santosh was downing especially long swigs. One classic song after another, the crew of gifted musicians got its public dancing slowly, or frantically, depending on the piece. The first set was kind of mellow, the second a bit more upbeat. Of course, there were numerous sing-alongs:

Show me the way to the next whiskey bar! Please don’t ask why!
You’re gonna haaaaaang, boy!
Dance, dance, dance, disco junky!

It was pretty hard not to be choked up from time to time. That band’s music is characterized by a very atmosphere-driven approach; it possesses what could be described as a cinematic aesthetic. Thus, given the nostalgic nature of the event, this touch of epic seemed to amplify everyone’s already very volatile emotions. The die-hard fans could not help but tear up on several occasions: they traded glossy-eyed looks in between songs, with one hand on their chest.

Is it really, completely over?

“The idea of never playing together again just seems absurd to us,” BW told me between two drags of cigarette smoke, during the intermission. It reassured me to hear him say that.

The Unsettlers are one of those bands that marked Montreal’s folk scene. Thanks to their powerful and intriguing macabre concept, they charmed audiences all over the country, without forgetting to keep the local fans in awe with colourful ideas. At their shows, I have seen a man spit fire and swallow swords, a contortionist (who ended becoming a permanent part of the band!) twist her body in the weirdest shapes, and a strong man dressed in a leopard suit bend a metal rod into a pretzel. An Unsettlers’ live performance never lacked a healthy dose of spice, it was always infused with a very strong sense of showmanship. In line with its usual habits, the band ended its farewell with a strange poem delivered by BW’s mouth, while every single instrument was busy generating purposefully dissonant noises. Gleeful.

To see such a unit drift apart was, understandably, heart crushing. The package that the Unsettlers offered was so complete, it displayed some much depth, both conceptually and technically, that it is hard to be at peace with their upcoming absence from the Montreal circuit.

All guess the only thing left to do is...

Drink whiskey with the boys
To drown out all the noise
Of all of our perfect memories

Farewell, Unsettlers.

For now.

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