You’ll have to excuse Dan Mangan for the kinks. It’s admittedly early days for the Canadian musician, gearing up for a tour in support of 2015’s Club Meds. It’s also the start of a new chapter for him and his music. Gone is the relative innocence showcased on Nice, Nice, Very Nice, his 2009 Arts & Crafts debut. Instead, him and his Blacksmith backing-band have opted for more jilted, in-your-face guitar lines and hefty, jarring notes meant to thrill rather than comfort.
Playing an intimate show at Toronto’s Mod Club as part of Virgin Mobile’s RE*Generation initiative – a project aimed at helping at-risk and homeless youth get jobs – it seemed like perhaps Mangan had jumped the gun on putting on a live show. To put it bluntly: most of the material debuted just wasn’t ready for an audience yet. Mangan was plagued with problems instrumentally, timing wise, and when it came to singing in tune. His greatest challenge was undoubtedly the pairing between his voice and guitarist Gordon Grdina – particularly noticeable during a mid-set performance of “Row of Houses”.
Grdina was joined on stage earlier in the night by drummer Kenton Loewen – the pair putting on a much more complete sounding opening set with their Peregrine Falls project. Their band is the type that can only come about from an intimate awareness of one another’s abilities: the duo making noisy bouts of punk rock complete with bowed guitars and cymbals. As it turns out, Peregrine Falls could be your new favourite post-rock outfit.
Loud, abrasive moments were punishing and well delivered and – touring their new Two Fish EP – they certainly know how to make a lot of noise. Watching Grdina and Loewen work together is like watching a jazz set: difficult to predict where it’s going, but so obviously orchestrated, calculated, and meticulously planned. They’re comfortable with each other, which proved important – helping to draw the audience through moments of cacophony and into big, melodic payoffs that likely shocked a lot of Mangan fans expecting a more folk-orientated opening act.
This level of comfort was something Mangan and company were unfortunately missing. While he and his three-piece backing band (rounded out by bassist John Walsh) have toured together for years, it seems the re-working of older material and the introduction of new songs was a bit too much for them to handle all at once. Rather than come across as a cohesive, working outfit, the band members seemed to be in direct competition with one another.
Showcasing a lot of his new material throughout the set, Dan Mangan started heavy with “Offred”, the opening track of the upcoming album. It was heavy on guitar and pedals.
Unlike the instrumental make-up of Peregrine Falls, Mangan’s reliance on his melodic voice allows the musical output to be more commercial and approachable – but it was also something he struggled to control throughout the night.
“Mouthpiece”, for instance, was a lesson in confusion, the band unable to find footing throughout the song’s duration. “Wants” was equally as difficult, Mangan moving to keys and sounding unsure in his delivery of the slower ballad. I can appreciate experimentation, but it was ultimately a meandering song that was far from convincing.
To Mangan’s credit, he remained ever the affable host, talking about the holidays and the politics of the word “Christmas”. More familiar material from 2011’s Oh Fortune, such as “Post-War Blues”, offered temporary respite. It was by no means clean, but the audience’s eagerness helped lift the song along – even saving Mangan part-way through, when he slipped up on lyrics. “You would think that after writing a song and playing it live 500 fucking times you would know the words to it,” he laughed as it came to an end. “That was weird.”
Mangan ended his set well with “Vessel”, shoring up the fact that when he and Blacksmith are familiar and accustomed to the material, it does work. They clearly have a level of comfort with the Club Meds single, and it showed. They’ve also spent time re-working Nice, Nice, Very Nice’s “Sold” – the only track from the album to make an appearance at his Mod Club set. Before starting the sole encore song, drummer Loewen explained: “It’s a song that you know, but we’re not going to play it the way that you know it.” It was a reworking that actually – surprise – worked, and the crowd was happy to jump in for vocal accompaniment.
I’m not arguing that Club Meds is a write-off, by any means. New song “Forgetery”, for instance, shows promise. What it does need is a lot of work before it’s truly ready for stages and crowds. Hopefully Mangan will take the time before his February return to Toronto – next scheduled to play a sold-out Massey Hall – to figure out the relationship between him and his band and to make the proper adjustments as he attempts to move toward heftier terrain. It’ll be worth it in the long run… let’s just consider the Mod Club preview to be Mangan’s pubescent era.