Right now, if I were to mention Broken Social Scene to the friends I listened to music with a few years back, the sad reality is that many would probably dismiss them as a band they “listened to in high school.” This is a bit unfair to the Canadian indie collective, whose five studio releases have been consistently engaging and dynamic, from their 2001 debut Feel Good Lost through this year’s Hug of Thunder, all the while maintaining as many as 19 members over more than a decade and a half. What is it about them that seems to not age well for some past listeners? Is it the adherence to general “indie rock” tropes without a more specific sub-genre to make them seem instantly unique? Or the adolescent associations that come from sentimental songwriting (see: Bright Eyes)? Maybe it’s the earnest ambition that they clearly embrace? The combination of what can be seen as an edgy band name and their hopeful attitude on this year’s Hug of Thunder probably doesn’t help their popularity with 2017’s pessimistic college kids, at least. Regardless of whatever the reasons may be, Broken Social Scene drew a devoted audience at The Fox Theater Thursday night, and delivered a euphoric performance that made me proud to still be a fan.
The whole night felt celebratory, which makes sense considering how difficult it must be to still assemble their army of musicians for twelve tours over the past sixteen years. Given, with members as busy as Leslie Feist, Metric’s Emily Haines, and Stars’ Amy Millan, (and the list really does go on exhaustively), the touring group lacked the three just mentioned, but was able to bring eight of its core contributors to this tour—which is still a ton of people on the stage by any measure. Regardless, each one of them had notable (and surprisingly discernable) contributions, even with almost everyone playing guitar at some point in the night. The group played twenty songs spanning their past four albums, mostly spurring the momentum with thunderous favorites, such as opener “KC Accidental” from You Forgot It in People (2002), but occasionally easing the energy with steadier, moodier songs like “Sweetest Kill” from Forgiveness Rock Record (2010). The sheer amount of fan favorites they played, while still leaving out a considerable selection of their discography, speaks to how much meaningful material they’re produced over the years. Smiling widely as they switched off instruments, the members seemed to be proud in recognition of the feat.
Studio albums are their own beasts however, and adapting a huge array of musical components from a decades-spanning discography to a live performance understandably has its challenges. The natural consequence of having so many different voices shape a full sound is that the quieter parts in a live setting can feel sparse without all the members. Luckily, Broken Social Scene generally overcame this issue. A few times throughout the night, certain songs opened with fewer interlocking parts than recorded, teasing potential disappointment, but sure enough, summoning immense amounts of power for the remainders of the songs never seemed to pose much of a difficulty. That said, as one might suspect with the previously mentioned absences from Feist, Haines, and Millan, there was an immense void to fill for strong female vocals. AurorA vocalist Ariel Engle, who joined the group officially for Hug of Thunder, rose to the occasion as best as one could do, but was best when accompanied by Andrea Lo and/or Katrina Jones from self-described “crush-pop” opener The Belle Game. The sole song that featured all three was You Forgot It in People’s immensely popular “Anthems for a Seventeen Year Old Girl,” which closed the pre-encore set beautifully with wistful harmonies that blossomed as the three vocalists patiently spread to the front of the stage.
Appropriately matching the band’s internally inclusive attitude of retaining the same members year-after-year (Hug of Thunder featured all 15 original members plus Engle), they welcomed and encouraged inclusivity in the theater however they could. In addition to The Belle Game’s singers joining along, two separate horn sections joined the collective at different points in the night, both groups strangers to the band, yet casually jumping onstage to get in on the fun. The first emerged from the side of the stage mid-song for the climax of earlier mentioned opener “KC Accidental,” and the second joined for a few songs mid-set by what seemed like spontaneous surprise to everyone on the stage. For audience involvement, it only took four songs into the setlist for de facto bandleader Kevin Drew to start moving into the crowd. The mass of fans knew the drill well, not only singing along as is usual for a Broken Social Scene gig, but also perfectly timing the rapid clapping in You Forgot It in People’s “Stars and Sons,” with an accuracy I’ve never before seen from any audience. It’s hardly a surprise that two fans were invited to contribute percussion to the beginning of the encore.
Drew knew well how to draw the energy from the crowd in between songs. His continued praise of each band member throughout the night set an air of appreciation, with introductions still being made during the encore (I don’t think Drew himself was even ever introduced). He and BSS cofounder Brendan Canning took several instances to name and thank The Belle Game, their touring crew, the Oakland friends and professionals who have helped them build their careers, and the fans who have supported them for so long. Towards the end of their set, Drew directed his previous mentions of existing in solidarity with our city and country into something cathartic and collaborative: he encouraged the audience to scream on his count and set aside stress and inhibition to feel alive and connected. “We’re gonna do some therapy… this moment can be ours and nothing can take that away from us.” Unsurprisingly, the thoroughly engaged audience followed through and lit up the theater with a communal scream, brilliant and euphoric.
It was clear at every moment of the night that Broken Social Scene simply loves making music with each other and getting to share their passion with their audience. With minimal lighting rigs and a plain backdrop, the band never let the focus sway from the pure bliss in helping each other craft a spirited performance. Helping keep the energy fun and stress-free, Canning and Do Make Say Think’s Charles Spearin were always moving as they played, and even took time during the first encore to lean against each other’s backs and sink, continuing the lead guitar and bass melodies with their feet in the air. The second encore closed with both “Lover’s Spit” and “Cause = Time” from You Forgot It in People, despite Drew originally gauging interest for only the most popular of the two—one last expression of gratitude. With five guitarists all lined across the front of the stage, “Cause”’s electric guitar climax was possibly the most powerful moment of the night, surging far beyond the power of the studio recording, and closing the night with a celebration that felt simultaneously cathartic, nostalgic, and welcoming. I can’t recall another band that has more deserved to feel reciprocation of the love they put out.
Written by Dylan Medlock
Photos by Roann Pao