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Stars

At the Mod Club Theatre

In Toronto on Saturday

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The last notes of a rally call had barely faded, and for many of the crowd, the night was over. It wasn't too far after 10 p.m., and they'd been invited by Stars front man Torquil Campbell "to stay, do drugs and dance to Oasis," but they instead chose to leave, shuffling off to the exits.

Final encore Don't Be Afraid to Sing, an uplifting number that dissolved into a George Martin-style orchestral freak-out, came too late. The cause was lost, at least for the night, and it had begun with such possibilities. Stars were aligned, the armies of one were in place, but the revolution -- the soft revolution -- had failed to take.

So often bands struggle to carry live-performance promise and energy to the studio recording, but for the Montreal-based Stars, the opposite had happened. The inspiring material of Set Yourself on Fire, the band's often-dramatic new disc, had failed to spark on stage, when by rights it should have.

Taking the stage with horn and string players (introduced by Campbell as "orchestra friends"), the band properly began with the momentum-building Your Ex-Lover is Dead, a baroque-ish number with a hovering refrain sung sweetly and encouragingly by Campbell and co-front woman Amy Millan: "Live through this and you won't look back."

The hushed lyrics of the next number, Soft Revolution, set to a strict New Wave beat that switched to strings and sunny harmonies in the chorus, gave clues and indications of the letdown that was about to come. Campbell's soft revolution is just that -- a personal rising that happens within, no bonfires to be built, no barricades to tear down except your own. "Sing it when you feel alone, backwards through the megaphone."

That's a nice line, but perhaps not the stuff of incendiary live performances. Toronto-born Campbell, a precise-looking man in a boyish double-breasted blue suit, grew up on Brunswick Avenue, we learned, and not all his high-school memories were fond. In his introduction to the bouncy, melodic-bass-driven Reunion, the affable Campbell was explicit -- apparently Oakwood Collegiate was some sort of depository for excrement.

So, the show (and a second sold-out one, yesterday, at the same venue) was a bit of a homecoming. Excitement was high, as were the chances for disappointment. 'Tis the season.

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Don't the let the descriptions "letdown" and "disappointment" lead you to believe that the performance was an abject failure -- it certainly was not. Highlights included a few gorgeous duets by Campbell and the chime-voiced Millan -- ballads such as the stringed Heart from last year's album of the same name; The Big Fight; and the poignant Calendar Girl ("December is darkest"), sung perfectly by Millan, with angelic narration by Campbell.

After the show, a young woman heading toward the door was overheard saying she had "expected more passion." She may have expected more volume as well -- even if Stars didn't have to compete with the throbbing beats rising from the basement club beneath our feet, a little more oomph would have been nice.

Or maybe it was none of that. Maybe it was the crowd's own failure, not the band's. We were supposed to ignite ourselves, but it hadn't happened. We were afraid to sing.

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