The narrow hall of Divan Orange may not seem a likely place for a religious revelation, but that’s a pretty good description of the experience had by those fortunate few souls who braved the blustery elements on Friday, May 23rd. It wasn’t your usual big tent, white robe, speaking-in-tongues type of religious revelation of course, but one that most of you can probably sympathize with: a musical one.
All of this happened during a rare Montreal performance by cult-classic, ‘Gothic Americana’ country group Slim Cessna’s Auto Club (SCAC) on the tail end of their Spring Tour in support of the recently released 20-year retrospective, SCAC 102: An Introduction For Young And Old Europe.
For those amongst you who are not familiar, Slim Cessna’s Auto Club is an institution. Not simply described by any musical genre, they combine elements of rock, gospel, country, spaghetti western, rockabilly, and evangelism into a virtuoso performance that defies simple categorization. Yet above all, SCAC is about storytelling. The songs contain narratives that are at times humorous, at times foreboding, but always captivating. Formed in 1992, SCAC appeals to fans from all sides. If you like Woven Hand and or Stompin’ Tom Connors, you’ll probably love SCAC. Regardless of your usual tastes, if you haven’t listened yet, bend an ear; I swear you’ll be converted.
The dim lights and close quarters of Divan Orange created an intimate setting for the opening act, Montreal-based alternative rock group Kensico. Front woman Gaëlle Bellaunay’s breathlessly-rendered vocals are restrained yet powerful, evoking elements of PJ Harvey and early Patti Smith in the lower registers, yet turning sweetly plaintive and Nina Persson-like when she crescendos. I walked in during “Echo Park,” which built up so gradually it seemed as if they were playing in slow motion. Next was the more rockin’ tune “White Sage,” the title-track off their recent full-length release. The PJ Harvey comparison was confirmed by an excellently-performed cover of “Send His Love to Me,” followed by several other tracks from the White Sage album. The quieter moments of Kensico are appealing, but my favourite parts were when Bellaunay was infusing her voice with power and nearly shouting. As a whole, Kensico features rhythmic under layers superimposed by wandering guitar melodies, combining personal reflection with doses of 60s psych rock, velvet, and Gainsbourg. To find out for yourself, check out their upcoming performance July 13th at The Festival d’Été de Québec.
Slim Cessna’s Auto Club walked on stage to cheers of encouragement from the crowd, and just like that we slowly but surely fell under their spell. They began with the lively tale of “Cranston,” featuring synchronized step dancing from front men Slim Cessna and Jay Munly. After working the crowd into a lather, singing “Come back to Cranston if you dare!”, things began to get serious. The dark and visceral tones of “Jesus Is In My Body / My Body Has Let Me Down” began with a pulpit-worthy soliloquy from Munly which descended into the vocal equivalent of a didgeridoo, punctuated by ululations. Rebecca Vera exorcized the pedal steel with a bow, and the crowd was spellbound. For “32 Mouths Gone Dry,” Slim and Munly navigated the crowd crushed against the stage for a duet performance of the final chorus. Next was the energetic “Children of the Lord,” ended with a great flourish by Lord Dwight Pentacost on his double-neck guitar featuring a portrait of the Virgin Mary, and a backwards kick to the cymbal by Slim.
For the contemptuously toungue-in-cheek “Americadio” (one of my favourites, and heavy as hell), Slim and Munly got the entire crowd to kneel, beginning in hushed tones and with arms uplifted in the semblance of prayer. They led the crowd through the verses of “Submit unto me, submit unto my ways” as if bestowing a blessing, and the crowd ate it up. I wonder if they understood the lyrics? Either way, the drums were spectacular. They followed with other classics from An Introduction for Young and Old Europe, such as “Magalina Hagalina” and “This is How We Do Things in the Country,” and another of my favourites, the soulful “A Smashing Indictment of Character” (which was glorious, despite an apparent problem with the keyboards in the monitors). Their final song “Jesus Christ” was not enough for the audience, who stomped and hollered until SCAC came back out for an encore (Another favourite! The tale of a country transvestite titled “That Fierce Cow is Common-Sense in a Country Dress”) and then a double encore (“My Last Black Scarf.”)
If you weren’t there, you missed out on an opportunity for musical enlightenment that doesn’t come along often. Try to catch the next one; in the meantime, you can console yourself with a copy of SCAC 102: An Introduction for Young and Old Europe, out on their new in-house record imprint, SCAC UnInc, and read an interview with them here.
Written by Kate Erickson