In concert: British Sea Power (Toronto; March 24, 2011)

Brighton, England’s British Sea Power have been at this for a decade now, settling into second-division status sadly at odds with both its super repertoire and rousing live shows, another in the endless stream of underappreciated acts ringing down through the years. Now at some remove from silver certifications and a flirtation with the U.K. top ten, second-phase BSP is a vet band with solid cred but little momentum.

Thursday’s (March 24) Toronto show was at Lee’s Palace, the kind of small venue upstart bands pass through on their way up the food chain. Lee’s has been BSP’s ceiling since 2005’s Open Season, and this continuity might’ve afforded a few glimpses into the band’s mindset: in comparing pictures from prior shows, one notices the band that took the stage this night was dressed in sombre, earthen shades of brown and grey, hadn’t any set backdrops, and most tellingly, neglected to drape its trad flora and fauna over the mike stands and speaker cabinets. Gee, I’d hate to think the light’s gone out of BSP’s eyes. (Lee’s muted yellow stage lighting sort of enforced the issue. What colour is ennui?)

Thankfully, BSP was prepared to work, although it’d have to be done on a bum leg. Second vocalist Hamilton was mit out sound (head cold), thus placing the emphasis squarely on his brother Yan. They announced this four songs in (“should we give them the bad news now, or later?”), which immediately conjured a mental list of the songs we wouldn’t be hearing (“Blackout,” “The Land Beyond,” “No Lucifer,” “Mongk II”), even as it raised the curious spectre of a Yan-only experience. Yan might be the nominal, preferred, lead singer, but Hamilton’s lighter, more melodic tones are appreciated as much for the variety they impart on the setlist as much as the burninshing effect he has on the backing vocals sprinkled throughout Yan’s tunes.

With longtime associate Kayvon Zahedi  – a local Brit expat micro-celeb who sort of functions as BSP’s Toronto envoy  – emceeing the event, BSP tore into its set with typical enthusiasm: the opening pair from the current Valhalla Dancehall LP, the brawny classic “Remember Me” and the twinkling, measured “Oh Larsen B.”

It was here when Yan announced Hamilton’s voxless state  – and not without humour, asking whether anyone in the crowd had the words to “No Lucifer” and the stones to sing them onstage – but Hamilton, dressed like Ian Curtis in dark business casual fashions, didn’t do anyone any favours, casting a forlorn image, head canting to the right, gazing wordlessly upon the stage floor. Coupled with the unwise decision to pile on four middling newer songs the crowd was clearly unfamiliar with, the “bad news” drained the spark from the club.

But things got better.

“Atom” suffered from obvious holes in its backing vocal before Hamilton manfully added a few yelps, but the noisily brown climax was a game-changer, and a pair of sprawling redoubtables (“The Spirit Of St. Louis” and “Lights Out For Darker Skies”) produced the kind of ruckus that makes BSP such an engaging concert band. Although the expanded lineup (including Phil Sumner on cornet, keys and guitar, and Abi Fry on viola and vox) sometimes overdetails earlier singles, these guys really get you somewhere when they’re in full flight. Some of this stuff’s truly transportive.

Encoring with “Waving Flags” – drummer Wood‘s declarative roll announcing one of the great song intros of the past decade – accomplished more of the same. In fact, from this point on it was all gravy: the instrumental “Great Skua” showcased lead guitarist Noble‘s inventive delay effects, and “Carrion” provided the kind of sturdy, Pixies-laced thrust that brought people to BSP’s records in the first place.

By the time the Zahedi-enabled second encore shuddered to a close, Yan and Noble had stage-dived into the crowd and BSP had reached the kind of berserk peak it’s been capable of since day one. Mission accomplished. But the misgivings I have about slightly diminished returns on record remain: BSP is locked in a sort of creative stasis, which probably cinches a future of small venues and loyal, but fringe, fan support. You hope it’s enough to keep the home fires burning. In concert though, British Sea Power is crafty, consistent and charismatic, three good reasons to wave the flag if your town’s on the tour itinerary. Hell, you’ll even find a t-shirt at the merch table to say it for you: I’m a big fan.

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