The Silver Dollar is only lightly populated when Hamilton-based country rockers Espanola take to the stage to play their brand of sugary hit-the-road stories. Espanola is Aaron Goldstein, of Huron fame, plus supporting musicians. Goldstein does everything himself in the studio, but obviously needs some help for performances. He has a neatly receding head of hair but wears a scruffy beard; a dichotomy reflected in his songs. Restrained verses (whose chords taste of the Moldy Peaches) blossom into sweet roaring choruses.
Goldstein stands to play lead, then sits to play steel. He has a confident vocal style and knows how to direct a band. Between songs, the well-drilled backing drummer simmers under Goldstein’s introduction. His words are invariably brief, but well chosen. He smiles and says “this is a tune I wrote with my friend Tom, who’s tall with a big head”. At ease on stage, he’s happy to laugh with (and at) the swelling crowd.
Tonight his band is a four piece: drums, rhythm guitar, and bass, with Goldstein leading the pack. And the bassist needs to take his lead because it’s clear they haven’t played together for long. Goldstein introduces a song as “This next one’s called ‘Rudey’, and it’s in G” nodding at the bassist. The song itself is the first slow number of the night and with backing vocals from the rhythm guitarist, it’s a sweet country ballad. “Can’t Stay Here” is claustrophobic southern rock in which Goldstein sings “I’ve lost all my hubcaps, my bags are all made up, I’m heading out on foot come the sunrise”. And when the rhythm guitarist doubles up the vocals, favourable comparisons with Ocean Colour Scene come to mind.
Goldstein is not very active onstage, expecting – dangerously – that the songs will do his job for him. For the most part, they do. There’s plenty of country in there, but also a debt to pop and rock. Neil Young is audible, though not in the vocals, which are deeper and have more grit. The rhythm guitarist gets to show his versatility later on by switching to steel guitar, and he’s even given rare space for a solo in their final song, but Goldstein remains in charge. The guitar work isn’t riproaring and the melodies aren’t always bold enough, but it’s a well-executed performance.
The place is warming up when the Shotgun Wedding Band begin their set. The band, led by James Plouffe, play violin-driven gypsy-infused indie, with a blues influence acknowledged lyrically in references to Robert Johnson.
Plouffe sings and plays guitar with good energy, as does the dark-haired, lipsticked fiddle player. There’s a lot more movement onstage than with Espanola, but Plouffe misses Goldstein’s controlled sophistication. He looks just the wrong side of a certain age to take him seriously in this role, though his MySpace describes the band as playing “melodramatic popular song” so perhaps he doesn’t take himself too seriously either. Regardless, he wears a slightly too tight t-shirt and the look of a man who’s been playing the same circuit for too long.
The band work their way through vamped rock with fine harmonies contributed by the bass and violin players, though they can overpower the lead vocals. The violin is put to crowd-pleasing effect later with a classical introduction to a dark gypsy-style thing. And it’s when they let the off-beat jazz out that the Shotgun Wedding Band sound at their best, replicating Flipron or Sheelanagig.
The driving rhythm is enough to keep the crowd moving, but I can’t distinguish the vocals to judge the songwriting. Plouffe invites Goldstein up for their final three songs (he produced their album – what an incestuous music scene we inhabit!) He looks a little lost at first but pulls out a superior solo nonetheless. The final song is straight from the blues-rock mould of Cream et al, with a victorious final crescendo.
But tonight is about Little Foot Long Foot, after all. Led by the witty Joan Smith (vocals, guitar), who originally started the band as a duo with Isaac Klein (drums), they’ve recently added Caitlin Dacey (organ and vocals), and are joined for the night by guitarist Adam Burnett.
Their website says that LFLF were borne out of “necessity and practicality.” This makes sense if they thought it was necessary and practical to put together a polished and well-crafted band. The floor is full when midnight comes around and Smith and co pick up their instruments. The set starts with warbling guitar and organ, and tribal drum rhythms. The audience stands patiently. “This microphone smells like feet” Smith beams, “which is awesome because our name is Little Foot Long Foot”, and with that they launch into their first number.
Comparisons with the Black Keys and the White Stripes (and other duos with colour-related names) are inevitable. But to me, LFLF are most like British female-led indiestas Howling Bells. Smith is young and slight, with curly, mousey hair, leading with authority. The songs are clearly the vehicle for her thoughts and opinions. A modern-day Alanis Morissette (a girl with balls, if you get my drift), we’re one song in and Smith’s hair is hanging over her face. The place is hot and sweaty, the band is tight and the energy is undeniable. Two songs in and there’s a break for the band to do shots. “It is a party after all!” Smith giggles.
Klein keeps time at the drumkit in vest and kilt (not a wise choice when you’re the only one sitting down), while Burnett lets his long rocky hair hang down. Smith explains that Burnett is here “to make us sound fatter and bigger”, and that he does. Making herself larger than life, though, is something Smith manages to do all on her own. Though she is sometimes swamped, her voice is surprisingly powerful. The voice is stretched to a piercing vibrato for the crunching moments of songs; a welcome break from the usual sound of men screaming. Headbanging in her cream dress, she’s dwarfed by but unafraid of her guitar. The guitar play is not the most powerful but Smith’s voice and the words they sing more than make up for it.
“Neko Case Hate Fucks Kurt Cobain” begins with bubbling bassline and spoken lyrics. Then it kicks into gear so suddenly that I’m frenetically putting pen to paper to keep up.
LFLF obviously listen to the heavy rock of Led Zep and Black Sabbath, but the desirable punctuation of the hippie-ish Dacey’s backing vocals, and the use of more sophisticated rhythm and tempo shifts, bring them into the now.
On “Sell Out While You Can” the vocals come from the soul – on the edge of breaking, just the right side – and this is paramount to LFLF’s sound. There’s a truly forgettable guitar solo, but the band is in the pocket. Between vocal lines, Smith likes to lean her head back and grimace, like BB King during solos. The stage at the Silver Dollar has played host to thousands of bands, but Smith is making it her own.
By the end of the first hour, though, I do feel like I’ve heard the same song a few times. So I’m relieved when Smith says they’re going to pull out a cover: “it’s from an album called Funky Divas” – an inaudible cry from the crowd – “No, ‘Jolene’ was not on an album called Funky Divas…” They run though En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind” confidently. The audience stands, nodding slightly. One man among us is working on a one-man mosh pit, jumping and flailing with all his might.
It helps that Smith is a natural charmer in front of a crowd. She thanks Ian Blurton, who produced Oh, Hell and informs us that he “looks like a hobo”. Someone shouts “we love you Little Foot!” to which she replies “we love you too, random voice!” with such warmth that it’s believable. Later, she’s dryer: “We love your faces, and your asses, and the rest of you. We accept you for who you are!” Hopefully the world will do the same for Little Foot Long Foot: not perfect, but real, honest and well worth the cover charge.
By Liam Ward