Broken Social Scene
Oct. 1, 2011
Better than: All but a handful of other '00s-era indie rock bands.
It was billed as the last Broken Social Scene show for a long while -- maybe forever, as this populous Toronto rock collective plans to go on indefinite hiatus after a handful of live dates in South America. Whether it ends up being The Last North American Broken Social Scene Show or not, Saturday's nearly three-hour, sold-out performance at the Fillmore, following the band's afternoon set at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, had all the makings of a heroic rock band's grand exit.
There were famous guests, including Modest Mouse's Isaac Brock, and Amy Millan and Evan Cranley from the BSS-related indie-pop band Stars. There were many impeccable performances and a few unscripted bits of chaos, including a Brock-led version of Modest Mouse's "The Good Times Are Killing Me" that barely came together after three false starts. There was lots of emotional commentary, mostly from figurehead Kevin Drew. And there were a few good-natured jokes about whether this time Broken Social Scene would actually fulfill its long-threatened plan to go on hiatus.
Mostly, though, there were excellent songs -- 25 of them in the end -- played with the kind of desperate, heartfelt energy that happens when everyone believes this might be it.
Broken Social Scene classics like "Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Day)" and "KC Accidental" -- which were always huge -- swelled into looming hemispheres of sound on Saturday, inflated by the small army of musicians onstage. (Four guitars! A real brass section! Even two drummers and two basses during some instrument rotations!) Much of the show sounded truly massive, bordering on grandiose. But risking a little excess in the pursuit of transcendence is what Broken Social Scene is all about, and anyone looking to lose themselves in an ocean of gorgeous noise got plenty of chances Saturday.
Of course, this band can pare itself down to haunting skeletons of sound, too -- quiet songs that feel all the more so after the heights that preceded them. So Broken Social Scene meandered through more intimate territory like the simmering "Hotel," the gentle sways of "Looks Just Like the Sun," and the searing recollections of "Sweetest Kill." (The latter was introduced by Drew as a "ballad about divorce.") The setlist (see below) drew mostly from the band's three best-known albums (and curated thoughtfully from each), while adding a bit of color from Drew's solo record and the work of the guests present: During one interlude, Stars fans got treated to an acoustic "Ageless Beauty" performed only by the band's Millan and Cranley.
Our guide on this night was Drew himself, who got chattier the more Stella Artois he swilled and seemed a bit surprised by the crowd's unwavering enthusiasm. "It's gonna be a long one, alright?" he sort of threatened at the start of things. And he continued to gauge the crowd every few songs: "That was the beginning of the show," he chirped after eight. "We're just gonna keep playing them," he reminded after 14. Two hours in, after 20 songs, he seemed to be closing it down: "That's the end of the show," he said, as many of the band members walked offstage. "Now it's time for the afterparty, motherfuckers!" But, no, it wasn't. Given so much disclaiming, we thought maybe Broken Social Scene would just keep playing until everyone left, so it was actually a tiny bit disappointing when it finished after a mere 25 tunes.
After all, there was no shortage of big personalities to keep things interesting. Well, there was only Drew, Brendan Canning, Amy Millan, and Brock in terms of bigger names -- but Brock's about 1,000 times bigger a personality than anyone in Broken Social Scene. Brought out about halfway through the set, the stocky Modest Mouse frontman ribbed Drew's seriousness right off the bat by welcoming everyone to the "first annual Broken Social Scene last show ever." Drew called Brock's "The World at Large" one of his "favorite all-time songs," and the assembled played a decent version that, with Brock's voice, sounded damn close to the original. Much better was their fuck-it-all take on the classic Modest Mouse stomper "Paper Thin Walls," which had Brock shaking his guitar and lunging belligerently at his mic stand.
Things didn't go so smoothly with the third Modest Mouse number of the night. Near the end of the show, Drew pulled everyone back onstage to play "The Good Times Are Killing Me." It started seemingly okay, but hobbled along for only about 10 seconds before Brock shouted for everyone to stop, looking pissed. The bass and guitars weren't lining up timewise, and it took Broken Social Scene and its guests a few clumsy tries to get the song moving according to Brock's specification. (Brendan Canning mumbled meanwhile that they'd gotten it right in practice earlier in the day.) Finally everyone pulled it together, and the resulting anthem was even more moving after having had its guts awkardly laid out onstage.
We thought it might end there. Drew had called that one "one more song," but then, he made a lot of unfulfilled promises to bring Saturday's set to a close. In retrospect, the finale was obvious: It's called "It's All Gonna Break," it ends Broken Social Scene's self-titled album, and at nearly 10 minutes long, its episodic soaring and crashing served as a readymade finale for a night likely as sentimental as any this band has played.
Like Saturday's show itself, the song is a drawn-out, uncertain, overwrought, gorgeous, roundabout, wavering goodbye. It started off brash and loud, fell to quiet, rose to another screaming height, ("It's all ... gonna break!"), sunk back down for another swaying breakdown, and then built up slowly, slowly, slowly -- finally arriving at The Last Climax, a gigantic fanfare of trumpets and trombones and guitars and everything onstage blaring single notes in sequence like someone pounding the period on the last sentence of a great novel with a sledgehammer: "BA-BA-BA-BOOM!"
And with that, Broken Social Scene was done. "Enjoy your lives, don't forget us," Drew said, as the band members filtered off the Fillmore stage. It may sound trite, but please forgive us, because it's true: Shows like that are very difficult to forget.
Setlist after the jump