The Deadly Snakes
At the Horseshoe Tavern
In Toronto on Friday
Just as the goings get good, the good gets gone. The song on the speakers is Have Love Will Travel, but the band hitting the stage is at the end of the road. Toronto garage-rockers the Deadly Snakes, after a 10-year run as one of city's top live acts, is set to play what's billed as its final show ever.
The sendoff is well-attended: a sold-out house of your average indie-rock fans, and one tall note-taker at the side of the stage who hears from the drummer that the band plans to run through "like 40 songs or something" over two sets. And although the band charges bronco-like initially, the first set is actually marked by a sort of calm fury -- fierce, forward noises that aren't conservative, but are conserving. Professional, we'll say.
The sextet employs a serpent-tongue lineup, with horn players and rhythm players supporting the two frontmen. Despite an arresting resemblance to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, the singer-keyboardist (Max McCabe, who stands with his rump and feet far from his instrument, as if leaning over an imaginary roadie) does not command attention like the bearded André Ethier. He's the Euro-looking, oval-headed fella who asserts himself on the opening Graveyard Shake. With its thrusting saxophone and trumpet, and chunky organ sounds, the Band-like number offers Ethier as a throaty singer and jackknifing guitarist. Things slow down nicely with "old song" Cotton Stained Red, a loud-then-soft soul-rocker in the vein of Irma Thomas's Time Is on My Side.
The decision to retire the band from the road is outwardly a weird call. After beginning humbly in 1996 (with an informal gig in a Kensington Market basement), the band earned a growing list of fans and appreciative critics with its idiosyncratic mix of robust punk, soul and blues. Last year's album Porcella was an advance in style -- a murky "magnum opus." The album is on the shortlist for the inaugural Polaris Prize, this country's version of the United Kingdom's Mercury Prize.
But the band members -- no longer teenagers -- are pulled in different directions. They've reached as close to the top as they'll ever likely get.
At the Horseshoe, the Snakes do what they do, pilfering from a host of influences but never thieving any vaults empty and never spending the musical loot in any one place. The Kinks and Mississippi hill-country blues are heard on Everybody Seems to Think (You've Got Some Kind of Hold on Me). Whiffs of the Animals, the Doors and Bob Dylan are detected.
On Gore Veil, the sinewy McCabe takes over lead vocal chores, juxtaposing reedy-voiced dark musings with the tune's jangly, sunny music. The sing-along hook is "bap-ba-dap-ba," but the lyrics concern mortality and the calm simplicity of a knife's edge. "What am I for," McCabe asks, "if not to die?"
Thirteen songs completed, the band heads backstage for a break. At the same time, the tall man who had scribbled laboriously during the set folds up his notepad and moves for the street. "Dude, they're not done yet," he hears, just as the doorway is breached. "They're just getting warmed up."
Right on, the scribbling man thinks -- enjoy it while it lasts.