In an almost sold-out theatre on Nov. 12., Matt Mays walked out on the Playhouse Theatre stage dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and sat down at the piano, opening the evening with an acoustic rendition of “Howl at the Night.” Setting the stage with a calm demeanour is not the norm for this rock band, but for this tour, it was the plan.
The stage was set up in a songwriters’ circle fashion, something that’s uncommon to see at a rock performance. It immediately had me intrigued as to what was to follow.
A single spotlight shone down on Mays at the piano. Through the smoke-filled blacked-out stage, he enchanted the audience with this stripped-down acoustic-piano version of the rock song.
“I encourage the howl,” Mays said into the microphone after he sang the first words “howl at the night.”
The audience howled back, some hooted or hollered, some sounded like wolves. It echoed across the theatre; it was loud.
“Oh, it’s going to be one of those nights,” Mays said in response to the audience’s participation.
The Howl at the Night tour toured across Canada with rock/punk band Skye Wallace from Oct. 21 to Nov. 16. But this tour was different because the band only booked shows in theatres.
The eight-piece band arranged their set to start out mellow and end loud. They began with songs that are usually played with a full band, and stripped them down to the raw components of lyrics and melodies.
One by one, Mays invited band members up on stage, each time adding in a new instrument. After his solo performance, he invited up violin player and singer Melissa Payne.
Payne’s harmonies and violin accompanying the acoustic song “Drive On” seemed to swell from the sky – the bridge introduced a heart-wrenching violin solo that sent shivers down my spine.
At the end of each song, a new band member entered to play the piano, pedal steel, drums, bass, electric guitar and keytar.
Mays dedicated the next song to the person who designed his album cover, Ola Volo. The song, “Ola Volo,” had Mays on ukulele accompanied by Payne’s melodies and drummer Damien Moynihan on the shaker. The lights swelled, and Serge Samson came in with the bass.
When the drums kicked in, the lights switched on and flooded the stage in purple. Ryan Stanley immediately started playing crisp riffs (Mays called Stanley “Switch Blade” because he plays left-handed and “his riffs will cut you”).
One of the highlights of the night was when keys player Leith Fleming-Smith came onto stage and ripped a keytar solo.
Towards the end of the concert, Mays encouraged the audience to get out of their seats and dance. About 10 to 15 people in the theatre stood up (myself included – I couldn’t help but groove). By the end of the show the whole audience was standing.
The rock show came to a close with the song “Cocaine Cowgirl” – a jam that brought a flashy light show and a killer fiddle solo.
The band came back for a two-song encore. The first song was a folky rendition of the song “Travellin’,” and ended with the song “On the Hood.”
During the encore, Mays jumped off of the stage and into the crowd, running into the aisles and singing with people before running outside of the venue to get up into the balcony.
When he returned to the stage, the lyrics “until the end” brought him to a close. The band built up the song, leaving the last chord hanging. Mays conducted the crowd asking them to sing at the end of the song – everyone in the audience came together for a two-note, two-word phrase, “the end.”
Mays jumped into the air with a passionate finish, smashing his arms down in perfect time with the bands’ final notes.
I go to a lot of concerts, but it’s been a while since I’ve seen a rock show of this caliber. Keeping people’s attention (at least mine) in a theatre where you have to sit down for a whole concert is difficult. The concert was good, but it being a good performance with a captivating light show and a cohesive set-list structure that started quiet and built to a loud, exciting finish, made it worth it.
As an artist myself, I definitely took a few notes.