I’m a little conflicted about Lo-Fang’s set – specifically Matthew Hemerlein’s decision to open the show with a fairly lengthy question-and-answer period between him and the crowd. On the one hand, it’s nice that he’s offering up that intimacy and engaging with his fans. I can also appreciate the fact that it’s not usually something that happens; he was covering for cancelled opener Kate Berlant.
But on the other hand, it absolutely destroyed any chance of mystique. Therein lies the problem, because I feel like that’s a big part of Lo-Fang’s appeal.
His Q&A was, for the most part, light and fluffy. Hemerlein handled it with humour and, frankly, a fair bit of cockiness – a disconnect from his moody, emotional music that’s worth comparisons to the work of Owen Pallett. The Los Angeles-by-way-of-Baltimore musician put on a German accent to answer questions about his hair, his breakfast choices, and his favourite Simpsons’ character.
He joked about his title as “the bad boy of strings” and he pretended to huff a can of WD-40. A request for a selfie was obliged; inevitable talk of his opening stint with Lorde came up; and he mocked the crowd for using the stage as a table for their discarded drinks, remarking: “If you have a drink, please bring it forward. There’s a séance happening later.”
He was engaging, it was fun, and it was indicative of a big personality – but it also made it difficult to separate his boisterous persona from his emotional, symphonic music. There was an absolute disconnect, truth be told, and as much as I willed myself to ignore the man and instead focus on his music, it wasn’t happening.
Hemerlein was last in Toronto in mid-March, then opening for Lorde at the much larger and much more sold-out Sound Academy. He clearly piqued the interest of some Lorde fans then; the front-row reminisced about the previous concert and there was definitely a selection of Lorde-inspired outfit choices nestled amongst the crowd.
A classically trained musician on a variety of instruments, Hemerlein spent much of the set switching between microphone, violin, cello, guitar, and looping pedals. Touring his February debut, Blue Film, he was also joined on stage by two other instrumentalists, helping to flesh out much of the recorded sound. His delivery was primarily gentle and at-ease – a cover of Boy’s achingly beautiful “Boris” putting his serene side on display.
When things worked, they mostly worked. Nothing was completely grand and spectacular, but there were also times that fell comparatively flat. Instrumentally, “Animal Urges” did well. It swelled as percussion and synths swooped overtop of Hemerlein’s pizzicato violin playing. Ultimately, however, it suffered from a lack of vocal conviction, making Hemerlein seem more like a sheep in a wolf’s clothing – all bark and no bite.
The audience was also treated to an experimental interlude, where Hemerlein attempted to translate something that had been kicking around all day in his head. As far as improvisations go, it was nice to see him take the risk and get creative – but it also came off as fairly amateur, again destroying whatever mystique he might have built up by that point in the set.
“Blue Film” was surprisingly muted, though thankfully its follow-up – and, as Hemerlein explained in the Q&A, his favourite to play live – “#88” was not, the latter largely benefiting from its use of samples. Juxtaposing it with “When We’re Fire” was a smart move, Hemerlein proving it wasn’t just the instrumental frills that made the set. He propped up his cello on a chair and played it like a double bass, his backing band leaving the stage to allow him to showcase his voice.
Reception from the crowd was mostly tepid – songs were greeted with slices of silence before the half-full audience jumped to applause. As he ended his set with the bizarrely sexual choice of Ginuwine’s “Pony” (really, I get his appreciation of R&B, but it was weird,) the audience politely clapped – just not enthusiastically enough to bring him back for the encore. People genuinely seemed confused, like they were trying to make sense of his talent and his personality; trying to figure out which side of pretension or accessibility Hemerlein/Lo-Fang falls on.
It seems he’s still trying to figure that out for himself and that Lo-Fang is all still very much a work in progress. He’s ambitious, but there’s much work to be done on translating that into a show worth seeing.
Which brings me back to the odd decision to start the set with a Q&A – because that’s a bit like showing up naked to a first date. It might make for an interesting story, but it doesn’t leave much to the imagination. For Lo-Fang, he could probably bank on brooding and mysterious a bit more. The pop culture stereotypes perpetuated by Twilight (and I say Twilight because Hemerlein’s obviously part of the Robert Pattinson bedhead club) are true – ladies do, apparently, enjoy that… and it might make the whole “let me end the set with a sexual R&B song” a bit more convincing and a lot less forced.