The Jesus and Mary Chain have been on my bucket list of bands to see for many years, but even after the Brothers Reid unexpectedly reunited five years ago, I never thought they would come somewhere I could actually see them. So, clearly Laura and I had to fly to Toronto this past Friday to see them when they played their sold-out gig at the Phoenix Concert Theatre. With their songs of darkness and depression, sugar and suffering, rain and razors, equal parts Velvet Underground and Spector girl group, they ran a fascinating gamut between squalling feedback, grinding dirge, shuffling baggy, and pumping motorway melodies that capture the sensation of hanging your head out of the car window, and in the process, they came up with their own sound. There’s something appropriate about the fact that many of their songs, especially post-Darklands, sounded like runaway trains. The songs are bound to get away from them as they bash along towards twisted wreckage. They are always on the verge of falling apart, and in my opinion, that’s one of their most charming characteristics.
Opening band Nightbox was a laughably incongruent choice, as most opening bands seem to be, and played pale imitations of synthpop of the Van She/Cut Copy variety. And the lead singer reminded me too much of Jack Whitehall, but sporting Kings of Leon long hair and a vest fashioned from sweatshirt fabric, which was both humorous and deeply disturbing. Taking a glance around the venue, most of the other punters seemed to feel as underwhelmed as I did. Besides two girls at the front next to me, who were trying very hard to appear as though they were having the time of their lives whilst also trying very hard to push me away from the centre of the stage, no one was dancing, nor even smiling. Ironically, the irritating girls to my left seemed to be more excited and active during Nightbox’s set than The Jesus and Mary Chain’s. Perhaps my trusty, pointy elbow and the fact I wasn’t about to shift over had something to do with it.
Once Jim Reid sneered the opening line of “Snakedriver” with that utterly disinterested expression on his face and casual lean on the mic stand, I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed. There were several of us who just couldn’t help singing and stabbing our fingers along with those highly recognizable guitar solos by William Reid, whose lofty hair was constantly edged with a backlit glow. As I suspected from looking at setlists from their US tour dates this past June, the song selection and order were nearly identical. Not that I’m complaining (okay, maybe I would have added “April Skies”). Despite the blistering opening salvo featuring the melodic drive of Automatic and Honey’s Dead, I knew I wouldn’t feel satisfied until there was a proper screw-up, preferably one that involved Jim yelling at his brother or other bandmates. I didn’t have to wait terribly long—they made it through at least half of their latest new single “All Things Must Pass” before having to start all over again to hit the correct key. Though William wore his signature sunglasses through the entire show, I felt like he was usually wearing a rather knowing, smug expression, turning the conflict between him and his brother into a hilarious pantomime; Jim would shake his head, throw up his hands, and blow frustrated sighs as if to say “see what I’m working with here,” whilst William would just go on shredding as though hitting all the strings would eventually produce what was needed. Phil King, John Moore, and Brian Young took backseat to the sibling antics, but that’s to be expected, and they did an admirable job minding the brothers and anchoring them just enough to avoid total implosion. Rather than walking catatonically into the mic stand as he used to, Jim was more apt to drop the microphone altogether and then swear. I reveled in the fact that Jim’s smiles were always painful grimaces—he looked like he was half-heartedly attempting to look gracious when the crowd went nuts in the face of all of their errors and general shambolic performance. His grins weren’t the only things under strain. For the last half of the show, Jim had his fingers stopping his ears in order to hear himself, but why would The Jesus and Mary Chain bother with ear monitors? That would be like asking them to soundcheck.
They then returned to their early material with “Some Candy Talking,” full of furious clang and laconic delivery. I was even more excited by the insistent drumbeat of the outro because, according to earlier sets, I knew what was likely to follow it: “Happy When It Rains,” possibly my favourite song by The Jesus and Mary Chain. Even with some bum notes and lyrical flails which had Jim reversing in more ways than one, I felt a shiver race up the length of my spine. Electric cool, indeed.
For “Just Like Honey,” they were joined onstage by a woman who looked like she had stumbled out of a corporate cocktail party. I later discovered that she is actress Jessica Paré. This fact still gives me no idea of who she is, nor why she would be an optimal choice to sing with The Jesus and Mary Chain. I find it a bit unnecessary to have anyone come onstage for the backing vocal, but due to the imbalance in levels, I couldn’t really hear her anyway. Paré made herself more useful for the next song, “Sometimes Always,” which was originally a duet with Hope Sandoval. This song was also the only unexpected bonus that we got, prefaced by Jim saying they usually never play it. It did end up breaking apart in the opening bars, but went forward after a quick regroup between William, King, and Moore. Thankfully, Paré then departed after an awkward half-embrace with Jim. The set proper ended with an extended, mind-atomizing version of “Reverence” complete with frantic strobing. I remember thinking that this just may be the perfect overload of my senses and perhaps the most joyous onset of epilepsy.
The encore was the expected Psychocandy triumvirate: “The Hardest Walk,” “Taste of Cindy,” and “Never Understand.” Since the stage at the Phoenix is exceptionally high, I felt like I was teetering just as much on the edge as the band was, hanging on by my elbows and craning my neck into a hyperextended tilt. By this point, I was a sweaty, battered mess, but euphorically unaware of how much my legs wanted to give out. Of course “Never Understand” accelerated into chaos, including a false start, but it was a brilliant, concluding collapse. Or so we thought.
Just as one of the roadies had unplugged William’s guitar, the house music went down again with the lights, and the band came trudging back out. Jim muttered about forgetting to play one of the songs before they launched into the sludgy “Sidewalking.” I couldn’t have wished for a better, more appropriate finale. For this second coming of The Jesus and Mary Chain, the centre cannot, and should not, hold.