Those looking for a clue to Sunday evening’s worst-kept musical secret got one when the sound man at Toronto’s Cameron House was told that the Montreal-based duo AroarA would need a third microphone for vocals. And then, when Leslie Feist, acoustic guitar in hand, showed up for the sound check, the mystery was solved. Earlier in the day, the Juno-winning artist had tweeted that her comrades Andrew Whiteman and Ariel Engle would play a surprise show – a makeup gig for the one snowed out on Friday at the Horseshoe Tavern. She alerted her followers to AroarA’s “ghost science faux-folk,” and that the performance would be a “camel ride through the pines,” a reference to the married twosome’s forthcoming album In the Pines.
The record takes its name from Alice Notley’s book of poems of the same name, a collection that Whiteman described as being set in a ghost land and full of crazy visions, and yet “strangely hopeful” all the same. An EP version is set for a March 2 release, with the full album to come later.
Notley’s poems are numbered, as are the inspired, corresponding songs of AroarA. The project took shape when Whiteman detected old folk lyrics in the poems – 5, for example, includes a mention of Goodnight Irene, a mournful traditional recoded by Lead Belly and others. In the small backroom at the Cameron (with a tiny stage crowded even further by props from a small play performed immediately prior to the concert), AroarA’s song droned to a West African rhythm, set against a sampled, slightly funky beat. Engle, playing a cigar-box guitar, is a commanding, pure-voiced singer, recalling Joni Mitchell on 5, but not usually.
She sang more urgently on 4, a heavy, humming, tightly strummed Mali-stye blues delivered straight to the chests to the 70 or so audience members. Feist had joined the duo, adding harmony vocals and thick chords on her acoustic guitar. The piece named 11 was ambitious and galloping, with an ominous, sampled string part adding to its weight.
Feist was not there simply for support or star power; she’s exhibited a taste for circular riffs and droned grooves in her work, and so her presence was absolutely compatible. That being said, AroarA, poetic, intoxicating and arresting, is more than enough on its own. The pair is plenty for this unique, significant project – nothing by the numbers here.
AroarA opens for Katie Moore, Feb. 14, at Montreal’s Casa del Popolo.