The Molson Canadian Altered States concept is billed as a “series of concerts in the unlikeliest of places,” and as a crowd began to gather outside the Victoria Pavilion in Calgary on Friday night I couldn’t help but agree with the description. The historic venue is best known as the house that Stu Hart built, as the patriarch of wrestling’s first family ran Stampede Wrestling shows here for more than five decades. Owing to the fact the building is now used for agricultural exhibits, an odd, musty smell permeated the air – a mélange of lingering stenches of livestock, hay and animal manure. “Are you here for the Katy Perry concert?” yelled a random passerby, reminding me that the princess of pre-packaged pop was playing just a stones throw away at the Saddledome, and making me glad that of the two concerts taking place in Stampede Park that evening, I had been tasked to review the one where Metric was headlining (despite the farm smell).
In the lineup, patrons chatted excitedly about the prospect of seeing a band like Metric in such a setting. They’ve been one of the most active bands in the world when it comes to touring, achieving stadium status both as headliners or while opening for the likes of The Rolling Stones and Arcade Fire, not to mention playing for crowds of upwards of 90,000 at festivals like Osheaga and Lollapalooza. As we filed through the doors and got a glimpse of the inside of the venue, it became apparent that we were in for something unique.
The Victoria Pavilion holds a modest 1,800 even at capacity, but judging by the guests spread comfortably throughout the bleachers it became clear the purpose of this show wasn’t to pack people in like cattle in a stock car, and it was more about rewarding the few hundred lucky folks who were there either as contest winners or plus-ones. Though it could have held at least four times the amount, only 100 people were allowed on the floor at a time, and the small stage was set up in such a way that brought floor patrons within a few feet of it. We had just enough time to grab a few Molson Canadians and rush to our seats before the lights dimmed at 9:45 sharp for surprise opener Mac Demarco.
Mac and his band of misfits launched into a short but sweet set of his own brand of slacker rock that he has branded “jizz jazz.” The set list included songs from his most recent offering Salad Days, which was shortlisted for this year’s Polaris Prize, as well as crowd favourites like “Cooking Up Something Good” and “Stars Keep Calling My Name” from his 2012 LP 2. This was my first time seeing him live and despite him looking more like a partied-out frat boy than a respected rocker, he put on an impressive, albeit short, show. His sleepy yet sweet voice lent itself well to the intimate atmosphere, and sounds even better in real life.
I kept waiting for him to stick something up his ass or take off his pants to crowd surf, but alas, Mac kept his infamous gross-out stage antics hidden on this particular occasion. Even his mid-song banter was fairly PG-13, besides a quick reference to Shania Twain’s pussy. In between songs he and the band took swigs of liquor, while Mac and his bassist would launch into absurdist mini comedy sketches; his bassist even had the deadpan delivery of a Mitch Hedburg or Steven Wright down to a tee. Mac, in a cute tribute to what was to come, dedicated the last song to Emily Haines of Metric. It was the crowd-pleasing “Still Together,” which had many singing along to the wailing chorus.
After a short intermission and another trip to the zoo enclosure bar area for a few more of those Molson Canadians, it was time. Metric took the stage to an enthusiastic welcome from the eager audience, launching right into “Nothing But Time” from their 2012 album Synthetica, which garnered a Polaris nomination and won them a gaggle of Junos. And I hope she wouldn’t be mad at me for writing this, because it’s not at all meant to downplay her position as one of rock music’s strongest, smartest, most socially-aware females and a role model for all young girls out there, but Emily Haines has gotta be one of the most bad ass megababes ever! In short shorts and a black leather jacket, she pranced around the stage while swinging her platinum hair back and forth, while a captive audience watched her every move. I know that James Shaw, Joshua Winstead and Joules Scott-Key deserve as much attention as their front woman for their role in the music, but Ms. Haines charmed me from the get-go.
The energy slowly built over the next string of songs that included “Youth Without Youth” and “Synthetica” from the album of the same name, as well as “Sick Muse” and “Help I’m Alive” from the 2009 Fantasies. The one risk with intimate shows is that with less bodies naturally comes less energy from the crowd, but by the time Joules hammered the intro to “Dead Disco,” it was a party: the floor crowd were dancing and waving their arms and many in the bleachers were on their feet. “Dead Disco” was the only pre-Fantasies track they performed, but it became apparent there were more than a few longtime Metric fans in attendance as it drew one of the bigger responses from the crowd and had everyone singing along.
Seeing them perform “Stadium Love” live was a highlight for me, despite the fact that the music snob in me felt the need to write this track off when it became the Toronto Blue Jays’ official anthem in 2013. Performed live, it came off just a touch harder in every area compared to the album cut; the guitars were beefier, the bass line more prominent, the drums even more commanding and Emily’s vocals perched perfectly atop them all. Not to mention there’s something so oxymoronic about a song called “Stadium Love” being performed in a glorified barn with just a few hundred people.
Metric closed their 10-song set with the crowd-pleasers “Gold Guns Girls” and “Breathing Underwater.” The latter saw the band break from their regular diamond formation to come stand in a row at the front of the stage and, backed only by Jimmy on the acoustic guitar, lead the crowd in a moving sing-along of the song’s haunting chorus: “Is this my life? / Am I breathing underwater? / Is this my life? / Am I breathing underwater?” Despite the somewhat somber subject matter of the song, it seemed the perfect end to a night that encouraged us to expect an intimate experience in an unexpected setting. It was one of those memorable concert moments where the intrinsic marvel of live music was evident: everyone was in it together, and the Fourth Wall between band and audience seemed to disappear, even just for a moment.
Jospehine Cruz is a writer living in Calgary - @jayemkayem