It can be a little awkward being at an undersold show. One audience member graciously summed it up as Nashville singer Tristen’s opening set came to a close, simply by stating: “Man, it just got really quiet in here.” That would prove to be the big theme of the night, headliner Jeremy Messermsith remarking on it throughout his Toronto debut.
The crowd – or, if we’re being honest here, the small spattering of people who turned up for the show – kept respectfully silent for most of the evening. But while there was an unprecedented allowance for personal space going on (not to mention a huge gap between the crowd and the stage,) it was oddly fitting for the performance and felt entirely intimate.
If you were thinking the Drake was perhaps just slow to fill up on a Tuesday night, that wouldn’t prove to be the case. While 20 people had witnessed Tristen’s showing of powerful vocals and understated guitars that ended with the smart “Bourgeois Bouquet,” by the end of the night perhaps 40 bodies had walked through the door. I don’t want to dwell too much on this whole lack-of-people aspect, but obviously it informs the way the performers react and the entire atmosphere of the night. Messersmith, to his credit, handled it all pretty well.
“If we could all be 15.3 per cent more drunker, that would help me out a little bit,” he told the audience early on, joined on stage by a four-piece backing band.
The Minnesota musician has four albums to his name already – including the recently released Heart Murmurs – but is still, clearly, relatively unknown in Toronto. But perhaps 2014 will be the year he finally breaks through. After all, TIME placed him on their “14 Musical Acts To Watch in 2014” list, Messersmith signed to Glassnote Records in 2013, and he really does have a very good voice on him.
“Dillinger Eyes” was upbeat and swinging, featuring great guitar work, while “Heart Murmurs” is a pretty bleak song. The latter’s lyrics of “I’m going to hurt you, make you cry, only thing I need is time,” is so earnest and drab, but they were delivered in such a romantic way that you’re already forgiving him. It was also a song that felt quite Llewyn Davis-ish: depressing, talented, and deserving of your empathy.
Messersmith explained that the new album was about love songs, but further clarified that he doesn’t really know what love is – and still doesn’t. It was an amusing introduction to his song “One Night Stand” which was lyrically pretty simplistic but nevertheless captivating. He delivered it sans-backing band, showing his ability to handle himself on an acoustic guitar.
There’s definitely a lot of disparity between his lyrical content – some songs are crafted very well, while others come off almost in childlike rhyme. “Ghost,” from his new album, was strong, but the song preceding it in which Messersmith talked about needing an assassin for his heart was considerably less so. There were times when I felt myself rolling my eyes at the lyrics and times when I found myself completely amazed at the stories he was tell with him. It was a very strange juxtaposition.
“I Don’t Trust That Boy” was another song delivered solo and felt entirely Belle & Sebastian like thanks to its twee-packed verses. He followed it with “A Girl, A Boy, and a Graveyard,” from his 2010 album The Reluctant Graveyard. It understandably received the strongest audience response of the night. It’s a beautiful song – the type that people would fall in love with if they only knew it existed – and one that Messersmith delivered gently, taking his time with it.
As his band rejoined him on stage, Messersmith asked if there were any audience requests. It was, after all, his first time here and he wasn’t sure when he’d return. A request for “Beautiful Children,” off of his 2006 debut The Alcatraz Kid, seemed to catch him off guard, responding with: “Man, you guys are going for deep cuts.”
As mentioned before, he also thanked (or was it slightly mocked?) the crowd for their attention, saying: “Thank you for being so deathly quiet and polite… As a Minnesotan, I can respect that.” Someone in the audience responded to his follow-up dig at the crowd standing there with their arms crossed with a well timed: “We’re really sorry, eh.”
Messersmith also chose to forgo leaving the stage for an encore – a smart move because there weren’t enough people to really draw one out – instead just staying up there to fill the earlier audience requests. “Love You to Pieces,” from 2008’s The Silver City was handled well, as was the melancholic “Beautiful Children.”
“These are all really sad songs,” Messersmith noted. “Isn’t the polar vortex enough for you guys?” He explained, however, that writing sad songs let him feel happy for the rest of the time. He’s clearly got a sense of humour, so I can see how the two relate.
Messersmith ended the set with a song based on an inspirational phrase he read on reddit – Heart Murmurs’ “Someday, Someone.” As he ended solo with a guitar in his hand, delivering the opening line of “Someday, someone will love the fuck out of you,” the audience met it with a laugh. I have to believe it’s true though. He’s fairly understated in his performance, but there’s a lot of talent there and eventually, some nine years into his career, people are going to notice. Hopefully it’s more people than the handful that showed up to his Toronto debut.
Thanks to Live Nation Ontario for media access.