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October 27, 2008

Feist plays in the shadows, mesmerizing her audience

From: Ottawa Citizen, Canada - Oct 27, 2008

Lynn Saxberg
The Ottawa Citizen

Monday, October 27, 2008

One thing we can say about Feist is that she's never boring. Saturday's soldout concert at the National Arts Centre was the third in a little more than a year that Leslie Feist has performed in Ottawa, but it was a completely different experience, far more polished and evocative than previous outings at Bronson Centre and Bluesfest.

While she's still touring behind her hit 2007 album, The Reminder, and many of the songs in the set were the same, the queen of Canadian indie rock has added some new personnel to the crew: a troupe of puppet artists. On Saturday, they were based at a light table on stage, working alongside the musicians, to create a whimsical montage of images, shapes, shadows, colours and video footage projected on the backdrop.

The homemade quality of these creative atmospherics, and the sense that they were being created along with the music, reminded me of a high school AV geek playing with a projector in his parents' rec room. It lent a human touch that you just don't get from a computerized display of laser lights.

Although the quirky shadow show was fascinating to watch, the main attraction, of course, was Feist's voice, a delicate-sounding instrument with a haunting, vulnerable quality. When she hits a certain note, it sends a chill down your spine.

Silouhetted against a paper screen, she hit that note in the opening piece, creating a vocal motif that was then looped back through the loudspeakers. Last summer's concert at Bluesfest opened in a similar fashion, but wasn't nearly as effective in front of a vast festival audience as it was in the dark stillness of the packed NAC's Southam Hall.

"It's amazing what we can do with hockey rinks these days," Feist said as she emerged to greet the audience, casting a look around the well-appointed theatre. "In here at 6 a.m. nailing up all these beautiful velvet things."

It seems the Juno winner has been playing arenas on this tour of Canada, and was delighted to mount her spectacle in a warmer, more intimate venue. Instead of playing to 4,000 people in a cold arena, there were about 2,000 people thanking their lucky stars they managed to get a ticket. The NAC concert had been a quick sellout.

It was a mesmerizing performance, and the crowd realized early they were seeing something special. After just a couple of songs, the moving So Sorry and the joyously catchy Mushaboom, the band went into I Feel It All and audience members suddenly rose to their feet, singing and clapping. Hey, it wasn't time for an encore; this seemed to be a spontaneous display of digging the music.

In a black, sparkly, cap-sleeved dress, her long brown hair perfectly straight and shiny, Feist sang like a wounded bird, and showed a sure hand on guitar. Her band members did their part to weave a tapestry of sound, each of the three Baird brothers (Bryden on keyboards and trumpet, Jay on bass, and Jesse on drums) displaying brilliant, subtle musicianship, while guitarist-piano man Afie Jurvanen was a bit of a showoff, at one point climbing atop the piano to play guitar.

The musicians and puppet artists helped Feist transport us to another dimension. Through The Limit to Your Love, Gatekeeper, When I Was a Young Girl and Honey Honey, the mood was otherworldly, the music mournful but the playing joyous, and the puppetry supplied a fresh element for the veteran concertgoer.

Two new, apparently unrecorded songs made it to the setlist. Performed solo, the folky, acoustic Sunset carried Feist's trademark sense of longing, while the electric Eye on the Prize was a quiet love song with a dark side.

With the puppet cam fixed on the insides of Jurvanen's piano, Feist entered the homestretch with a swaggering version of My Moon My Man, followed by a rocking Past In Present. After toning it down for a gorgeous rendition of How My Heart Behaves, the chanteuse unleashed her biggest hit, 1234, prompting a mass singalong. A handful of dancing, clapping fans made it on stage for the rousing Sealion, the closing song of the main set.

But Feist isn't one to indulge in a celebration for long. Her specialty is slow, sad songs, and that's what she presented when she finally came back for an encore. The Eastern Shore (The Water) was lush and riveting, Ron Sexsmith's Secret Heart was laden with electric guitars and Let it Die was so poignant the heartache seemed to fill the room.

Toronto singer-songwriter Hayden provided a warm-up set that was surprisingly engaging. The curly haired troubadour seems to struggle with shyness, his stage fright often showing in the way he mumbles between songs and stares at his feet while singing.

Though his eyes were fixed downward while singing, on Saturday Hayden made a genuine effort to interact with the audience between songs. This newfound confidence, plus great songs like Where and When, Dynamite Walls and Lonely Security Guard, and the accompaniment of Cuff the Duke as his backing band, added up to a landmark performance for a fine musician.

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See a Photo Gallery of Feist from Saturday night's concert at the NAC. Look for it under Best in Pictures.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008