Jason Collett had been excited for months, and when he walked onstage at the Great Hall on Thursday, the secrets he’d been keeping would finally be revealed. Collett is the singer-songwriter who, for six years, has curated an offbeat December series of shows in Toronto, events of music, readings and a parlour trick or two – ragged, real and magical moments with guest performers in the downstairs confines of the Dakota Tavern. This week, he moved down the street and up the stairs to a bigger room, where 500 or so showed up without knowledge of who would be performing (other than him). Collett thanked them for their faith, told them to forget their holiday anxieties and to live in the moment. He introduced the first act, local dream-folk duo Snowblink, whom he described as delicate and mesmerizing. Remember that second adjective.
Blink and you’ll miss them
Snowblink performed just one song (the droning, shimmering and lightly soaring Unsurfed Waves) before giving way to a new band: Aroara, comprised of Broken Social Scene’s Andrew Whiteman and his wife Ariel Engle. They worked up something called 5, a darkly humming number inspired by the Alice Notley poem of the same name. A drum machine thumped away as the pair, intently and with stable emotion, sang about being out on the edge where they could see. Stay tuned for 2013 things from them.
The Elk Lake serenader surfaces
Mumbling, gifted singer-songwriter Hayden made a rare appearance – rare, in that his Wikipedia page apparently had listed him as deceased at one point in the past few years. He first offered the melodic, loping, electric grunge-folk of Home by Saturday, from 2004’s well-remembered Elk Lake Serenade. His short set of chunky alt-country and some things more poppy and jangly, included material from his forthcoming album Us, Alone.
Please be Patient
After Andy Kim’s sing-along of his old Archies hit Sugar, Sugar, there was a slight delay to reset the stage. And then The English Patient author Michael Ondaatje walked out onstage and read his poem Last Ink, about ancient things that are indelible. And speaking of lasting impressions, that was Leslie Feist backing the Booker Prize winner on acoustic guitar for the excerpt from his latest novel, The Cat’s Table. She offered a slight, curt blues riff behind his story of a journey by ship. Earlier readings included poetry from Karen Solie and Jeramy Dodds, and a dark story from CBC Radio 2’s Rich Terfry (a.k.a. musician Buck 65).
‘This is happening right now’
A woman off to the side of the room called a friend to tell of the one-off indie supergroup that was happening. Onstage was Feist, with Snowblink and Aroara. The introduction was a bluesy Moroccan-roll jam, which led comfortably to Feist’s Malian-flavoured Caught a Long Wind. The beat was heavy, and the singer gracefully flirted with it, like the nightingale about which she sang. The set ended with an Aroara number based on a simple, heroic chord progression that sucked up everything in the room. “I was born to be your poet,” Engle sang. “I am the woman, your poet, all that I am.”
“Thanks for taking a chance on us,” Collett said simply, the captivating night he had arranged now over. His hosting had been immaculate. With his long hair and dark thrift-store blazer, he possessed the guiding air of a frontier-town preacher. He politely but firmly quieted the crowd when the room became restless, and he read his eloquent introductions from what looked to be a hymn book. Collett is trying his hand at stage acting in the new year. I like his chances.