A decade or so ago, Broken Social Scene broke out of Toronto as part of the ‘Canadian Invasion’ with such acts as Arcade Fire, a new wave of indie-rock. Five years ago, BSS went on a hiatus after 2010’s Forgiveness Rock Record (QRO review), as the various members of the sprawling collective pursued their own projects. This year, the band played their first shows south of the border since then, coming to Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg on Thursday, July 21st for an amazing performance.
Technically their first U.S. show in five year was the Thursday prior in Chicago, and the second was the day after that at Pitchfork Music Festival (QRO photos), but we New Yorkers consider the first New York show the first ‘real’ U.S. show (sorry, Second City…). And the day following, Broken Social Scene played the new ‘Coachella East’ festival, Panorama (headlined by Arcade Fire), but this was the intimate and extended show. “Intimate” in that it was at a venue small for the group (who’d previously headlined Bowery Presents’ much bigger Terminal 5 – QRO live review), and sold out fast. “Extended” in that it wasn’t a festival-shortened set, and they played past curfew, which they weren’t force to live like life was.
Not that BSS hadn’t played this space before. Frontman Kevin Drew remarked that they’d played it back when it was Northsix (before Bowery Presents bought the space on 66 North 6th Street and remade it). Indeed, Music Hall of Williamsburg (QRO venue review) was ‘small-for-them’ six years ago when they did a phenomenal set there (QRO photos – one of the best shows that your correspondent has ever been to). Hell, back in 2008 they played Bowery Presents’ even-smaller Mercury Lounge (QRO venue review) to celebrate (QRO live review) the release of Broken Social Scene Presents: Brendan Canning’s Something For All of Us… (QRO review) before headlining Siren Music Festival on Coney Island the next day (QRO photos). Meanwhile, their last NYC show, in 2011 opening for TV On the Radio, was at a venue that isn’t around anymore (QRO live review).
But enough history; let’s get to the historic music. Broken Social Scene, and Kevin Drew in particularly, are somewhat notorious for preferring to play new songs to the old ones that got them notice (and made you fall in love), but this show had the oldies-but-goodies. They opened with “KC Accidental” from 2005’s self-titled record, including its signature ‘guitars in the air’ from guitarist Andrew Whiteman (QRO interview), bassist Canning (QRO interview), guitarist Sam Goldberg, and multi-instrumentalist Charles Spearin (QRO interview). Drew entered the stage to cheers, and in good cheer. Next came maybe the band’s biggest single, “7/4 (Shoreline)”, from 2002 breakthrough You Forgot It In People. “Shoreline” has a rotating female vocalist role that has previously launched the likes of Emily Haines (of Metric – QRO live review) and Leslie Feist of/is Feist (QRO live review); this time it was the other reliable Canadian songstress, Amy Milan of Stars (QRO live review), who might have been quite pregnant this night (as Drew remarked), but completely gave it all. You Forgot stayed In People with “Cause = Time”, before the return to Broken Social Scene with “Fire Eye’d Boy”, classic sung by the Apostle of Hustle (QRO spotlight on), Whiteman.
Drew has long been the frontman, but Broken Social Scene truly is an ensemble, and not just because Whiteman got to sing a song. Canning jokingly cut off Drew when the latter started in, “There’s a lot of interesting things going on in your country…”, Canning saying that they weren’t going to talk about politics – with which Drew interjected, “We’re gonna sing about politics,” for Forgiveness’ “Texico Bitches” and all the “Whoo”s from the crowd. After it Drew remarked, “That was the beginning of the show, everybody…”
Drew added that the soft-spoken Spearin (who never sings…) had corrected Drew once, that they’re not a band, but a family, and welcomed to the family was Whiteman’s wife, Ariel Engle (also his partner in AroarA), for an actual new song (because they are indeed working on a new record), “Gonna Get Better”. A much more restrained and relaxed piece, chill and sexy, but tinged with sadness, like Forgiveness’ title track, Engle had it working.
But then came perhaps the most special moment of the night. After mentioning that he played the next song from the crowd in Chicago, Drew got the big response he needed, and gingerly entered the audience for Forgiveness’ “Sweetest Kill”. It was the sweetest way to do the slow, touching & carrying piece: Drew got people to crowd up close, saying, “I don’t need space,” and also got people to watch and not document by adding, “How about we put away those phones?…” [which is why your correspondent didn’t get any photos of this] Going into the crowd isn’t new, but for a song/band/space like this, it was extra-special (even if, as one girl trying to get close to Drew noted, those around him were mostly guys…).
The set list continued the mellower and more atmospheric side of Broken Social Scene with Forgot’s “Late Nineties Bedroom Rock for the Missionaries” and “Shampoo Suicide”. After Drew introduced those on stage he hadn’t already (like drummer Justin Peroff, the horn section, and man-of-many bands Goldberg), Canning got his own intro, including mention of his own solo record coming up, Home Wrecking Years, with which the band launched into a song from it, “About a place I’ve never been,” “Book It To Fresno”, an up-tempo anthem.
After Drew finally mentioned the election (“I lost a lot of money betting that Trump would make Vince McMahon his running mate…”) and asking the crowd that, whatever happens, “Please stay in your country and make it better,” he dedicated Broken Social Scene’s “Superconnected” to Canada’s own Gordon Downey. The ladies returned to the stage for Forgot’s “Anthem for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl”. Like “Shoreline”, it’s a great showcase for female vocalists, but in this case can take in more than one, with Milan and Engle singing directly to each other at times. There might not have been a more emotionally enveloping time this night than singing along with them to the “Anthem” chorus, “Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor / Dream about me.”
Broken Social Scene had to chill things out with Forgot instrumental “Pacific Theme”, but reached back for the epic to close out with Broken’s “Ibi Dreams of Pavement (A Better Half)”. Drew asked the crowd to let it all out, to scream at the top of their lungs.
But of course they weren’t done. The whole band pretty quickly returned, with which Drew wished happy birthday to a friend there named Karen, and even celebrated BSS having new management & crew. “Looks Just Like the Sun”, his personal favorite from Forgot, was another chiller one, and led into the massive Forgiveness close, “Meet Me In the Basement”, with its numerous big closes.
A show that well deserved a second encore, the band returned to the stage once more. Drew said that they were told they were “five minutes past curfew,” which made him think, “Forced to live like it’s a curfew / Translation means I love you,” the lyrics for a fast version of Broken’s “Major Label Debut”.
It’s been ten years since Broken Social Scene broke out, five years since they stopped activity, and yet they feel as alive, fresh, and exciting as ever.