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Emily Haines: Live July 10, 2004

 
I'll flat out admit I was an Emily Haines fan the moment I first clicked the Metric Combat Baby mp3. Lucky me, with my journalist job, I interviewed her on the phone soon after, and scored guestlist passes to her next show nearby, a solo performance at the piano in San Francisco at the Cafe DuNord.

Haines is an ambassador for a bold new wave of Canadian indie bands, fronting the quartet Metric and contributing to Toronto's Broken Social Scene. Hard working all the way, Haines just finished more than a year solid on tour with Metric and is now spending her brief vacation taking the stage as a solo performer. The only thing indie rock about this experience with Haines was her appearance: overgrown mod bangs, jeans and a faded athletic tshirt.

From the very conception, her event was artfully pretentious, but in a genuine, respectful and endearing way. Days in advance, barrages of professionally generated spams hit multiple internet destinations heralding her imminent arrival to town. Entering the venue, patrons were given a black and white program, faithfully reproduced from smudgy notes and doodles of Emily's own handmade design. Just before she went on, a bundle of string was tied to a leg of the grand piano onstage, and unfurled to the back of the space. To dead silence, she slowly approached the stage from the rear of the place blindfolded, using only the string to guide her through a parted swarm of people to her spot at the piano.

Once seated, Haines began a deadpan, maudlin and languid journey through a collection of difficult material that had the standing room-only dinner crowd rapt in silent adoration. Clearly, this was not the same experience as her rock and roll self; just months ago she was center stage as a sweaty, grinning banshee, stage diving and writhing on the ground in a mini skirt. She stares deep into the innards of the open piano; her fingering on the instrument is a delight; confident and always on. It's hard to imagine another typical pop-oriented indie rock singer currently getting radio airplay holding an audience speechless for more than an hour with only their voice, songwriting skills and an acoustic piano; I doubt the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O, Hot Hot Heat's Steve Bay or Rainer Maria's Caithlin De Marrais could deliver in such a setting. The jaded urbanites are impressed. This lady is a living, breathing Joni Mitchell; a songwriting siren on a lazy stroll through the park at dusk. While known for her sometimes longwinded political rants onstage with Metric- the club played T-Rex "Children of the Revolution" before she came on, and hardcore fans wore paramilitary epaulets- she spoke nothing between songs other than 'are you okay' to the audience twice at the DuNord. Her stage dynamics constantly approach and flirt with the edge of a whisper; the antithesis of Tori Amos' orgasmic, slippery-piano-bench-sliding histrionics. The audience is on the edge of its seat, or on the tip of its toes depending on where they are in the club. Haines' program figured as much in advance, declaring "And those in back cried, 'Forward!' And those in front cried, 'Back!'"

From song to song, her witty lyrical observations of contemporary life sent hushed giggles and chuckles through the otherwise silent crowd. Nearing the end of the 13 song set, the audience is surprised and gasping with delight to a complex effect processor on Haines' vocal mic; she becomes a gated monosynth arpeggiator, comically mouthing a series of vocal tones that drift into the crowd-pleasing melody of "I.O.U.," one of the only references she makes to Metric's current album, Old World Underground, Where Are You Now?

For a performer who's such an avid rock and roller, this plaintive evening constantly recalled John Lennon's early "Imagine"-era solo work, a point not lost on the house DJ, who cued up none other than Mr. Lennon's murkiest piano confessionals to follow her encore-free delivery. Some of her material drifted into "I am the Walrus" territory; post-modern poetics blaring over strange chord changes. This is not easy listening- despite her soft and smooth delivery- your consciousness is required. Not afraid of big words, she repeats the word 'haiku' in song tonite. No wonder: Emily's late dad was famous poet Paul Haines. She also drops 'Billy Joel' as a recursive lyric early on; his first hit "Piano Man" hits my consciousness even before she sings his name: am I seeing some huge star in a small bar just before they hit the cultural omnipresence? Probably. She's an olympic skater to her pre-teen-era idol Sinead O'Conner's wobbly-kneed flash in the pan.

She sits at the piano, playing and singing. From time to time I drift off into hazy visions of a school girl spending hours and hours seated behind sheet music exercises at the piano, echoes of her delicate, breezy arpeggios blending with sunshine through an open window. But we're in an steamy, crowded, 21 and over bar in early summer. After I down some pints of Sierra the show ends, the audience scatters into the city, it's Saturday night.

Terbo Ted

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