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Ryan Gosling of Dead Man’s Bones performs with a choir from Etobicoke School of the Arts in Toronto. The band plays Vancouver October 24.

Della Rollins

Dead Man's Bones

  • At the Opera House
  • In Toronto on Tuesday

Hell, according to George Bernard Shaw, is full of musical amateurs. The motto of Dead Man's Bones, as stated on its debut self-titled album, is "never let a lack of talent get you down."

The heebies never met their jeebies at an awkward, if adorable, performance by Dead Man's Bones, the special fright-night music project developed by actor Ryan Gosling and his friend Zach Shields, neither of whom are trained musicians. Enlisted for the concert was a children's choir from the Etobicoke School of the Arts. (The night before in Montreal it was Every Kid Choir; for Vancouver's Saturday concert, that city's Carson Graham Secondary's vocal jazz choir will perform.) At the Opera House, the teens wore white robes and ghoulish face paint and sang their little hearts out, shouting and melodically chanting about flowers growing from graves and spelling out "Z-O-M-B-I-E." They were undead, but not without charm, and the soloist named Zoe was the winner of the applause-o-meter at the end of the night for her murder ballad.

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In a superb break with convention, a collection of sideshow talents preceded the headliners. We saw a mesmerizing mind reader, a so-so pair of acrobats and a glittering lady with a trained peck of pigeons and oodles of poodles. The main feature was more unprofessional theatre than indie music. The backdrop (sparkly lights, a graveyard and a haunted house) promised a somewhat serious production, but, really, the only frightening thing was how close the show came to collapsing at any given moment. At mid-show, a home movie was shown on a white sheet. Gosling, who played guitar, piano and keyboards and sang credibly in a disembodied baritone croon, remarked that both his and Shields's mothers were in the balcony. Those women must have been proud, in the nervous way of parents who watch shaky grade-school pageants. Shields wore the same black-vest/white-shirt outfit as Gosling, except that the girls didn't squeal when he took his jacket off.

("We love the Notepad, Ryan," one swooning fan squeaked. She meant The Notebook , the tear-jerking feature film, which starred the London, Ont.,-born star and his one-time paramour Rachel McAdams.) Shields, an inhibited vocalist who cloaked himself in reverb, was generally unsure of himself. "We're new at this," he admitted, superfluously. He banged a drum, offered the duo's top tune (the gliding pop of Pa Pa Power ) and often turned his attention toward the singers behind him, as if to coach them. The choir was doing fine.

The bones of dead men aren't any different than those of the living, they just clatter more. The rudimentary, ghostly rattle of the band (the two principals and three others, including Shields's cousin, the drummer) came from the album's original material: Buried in Water is a creepy waltz, and there were melancholy zombies-in-unrequited-love numbers. Influences would be the Shangri-Las, ethereal Johnny Cash, Earth Angel -style doo wop, Boris Karloff and the Langley Schools Music Project, an obscure scheme involving a British Columbia school choir in the 1970s.

On their album, Gosling and Shields used the Silverlake Conservatory Children's Choir, but, for any number of reasons, that California ensemble does not accompany the touring production of Dead Man's Bones.

And so what you have in each city is a different choir, with little time for rehearsal, thus ensuring every concert's endearingly slapdash appeal. To its credit, Dead Man's Bones does not take itself too seriously. And neither should you.

Dead Man's Bones stalks Vancouver's Venue Oct. 24.

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