Gotye At the Koolhaus in Toronto on Saturday
A big hit can be a mixed blessing when it’s all anyone knows about you. Wouter “Wally” De Backer, known to radio listeners as Gotye, is riding high on the success of Somebody I Used to Know, which went to No. 1 in Britain and Australia, and is rapidly climbing the Canadian charts. The Brussels-born, Melbourne-based singer is such a hot commodity that his Toronto show was moved from the Phoenix to the larger Koolhaus, which he quickly sold out.
But bigger isn’t necessarily better, and Gotye’s performance in that cavernous club space alternated between the sublime and the inaudible.
Sound and Vision
Although Gotye’s backing band loosely adhered to a standard guitar-bass-drums-keyboards arrangement, there were so many synth triggers, samplers, loop stations and other electronic paraphernalia onstage that it was sometimes hard to tell what was actually being played, and what was the result of pre-programming.
On the other hand, all that tech made it easier for Gotye to sync his performance to the videos which ran on the screen behind the band. Some were eerily atmospheric, like the semi-abstract shots of smoke and oozing colour that illustrated The Only Way, or the creepy animated monks who scuttled about behind Don’t Worry, We’ll Be Watching You. But the cartoony State of the Art, about a demonic Lowry organ, made for a perfect, large-scale blend of music and theatre.
Boom Boom Pow
Given the scale of the visuals, Gotye was more or less obliged to deliver a larger-than-life sound. Given that he couldn’t do this vocally — as a singer, his pleading, underpowered tenor would best be described as Sting without the stinger — he relied on the heavily groove-oriented arrangements to lend the requisite kick.
He made excellent use of the backing vocals, whether live (on the moody Smoke and Mirrors) or Memorex ( Learnalilgivinanlovin, featuring invisible female vocalists). But the best received moments came when Gotye picked up his drum sticks and bashed away, whether by simply keeping time, whacking a tambourine through the Motown-ish I Feel Better, or matching licks with his drummer during the moody, dub-wise Heart’s a Mess. Nothing like a big bang to make the fans take notice.
Truth be told, though, the Koolhaus crowd wasn’t the most attentive audience imaginable. Although they were more than happy to cheer the loud bits, Gotye’s attempts to intensify the music’s drama through sudden shifts in dynamics didn’t result in a dramatic hush so much as remind us of what a chatty crowd he had.
Perhaps the most embarrassing moment came during the first encore, when Gotye dialled it way down for a delicate rendition of Bronte. At least, I think that’s what he was singing, but his vocals, along with most of what the band was playing, were largely drowned out by the chatter of the crowd. Did he really imagine that the best way to get people to quiet down was by asking, “Who’s had too much to drink tonight?”
Out of Memory
On the whole, Gotye doesn’t seem to get that pop success often means dealing with the masses at their most maddening. Introducing Someone I Used to Know, he noted that this was when audiences usually got out their cellphones, and tried valiantly to make the point that memory was better than video.
It was a nice thought, and the band’s performance — particularly when Kimbra Johnson came out to sing the final verse — was definitely something to remember. But as I replay that scene mentally, I can’t help but recall the forest of smartphones that sprang up to capture the performance despite his request. And given the amount of digital gadgetry supporting his performance, don’t you think he should recognize that technology cuts both ways?