Canada came to the Berklee College of Music last Wednesday night, and it came bearing presents for music lovers of all stripes.
Indie rock group The New Pornographers drew devoted fans from around the city and genre-bending hip-hop artist k-os performed to a crowd of enthusiasts that leapt out of the theater-style seats in the Berklee Performance Center, after Bill King’s Saturday Nite Fish Fry blasted out a rousing set of blues and gospel spirituals to open the evening.
King and his band put on a display of musical prowess befitting a performance for an audience comprised predominantly of music students, with King himself taking the lead on a spirited piano solo during their first piece, a soulful rendition of “Lord Have Mercy on Me.”
After an up-tempo performance of Bob Dylan’s “Dirt Road Blues,” featuring a blistering solo by young Toronto native and gospel bass guitarist Andrew Stewart, King closed out the set with the observation that Dylan, whom King called “the best thing ever,” represented the roots of American music.
This comment earned a reaction from several members of the audience, including Norfolk resident Dave Werlich, who asked, “What about Canadian music?”
Werlich, who had taken advantage of the concert’s alcohol-free location to bring his two teenage sons to the show, said that he found Canadian indie music artists especially notable.
“You’ve got Feist, Broken Social Scene, Destroyer, Arcade Fire, the New Pornographers … I like indie music and there’s a lot of good indie music coming out of Canada right now,” he said
Feist — an upcoming indie singer who earned four 2007 Grammy nominations and is best known stateside for her song “1, 2, 3, 4,” featured in a recent iPod commercial —was also included in King’s recap of well-known Canadian songstresses, including such names as jazz singers Diana Krall and Norah Jones, country pop star Shania Twain, and alternative rocker Alanis Morrissette.
In tribute to their success and to draw attention to songs that the audience may not have known were Canadian in origin, four Berklee students, all from Canada themselves, took to the stage in turn, demonstrating impressive range and confidence in their powerful renditions of Canadian stand-bys such as Morrissette’s “You Learn” and Neil Young’s “Old Man.”
k-os followed, striding on stage in a jean jacket and a brown fedora. As he alternately beat-boxed, played guitar, rapped and sang, k-os flaunted the eclectic nature of his music and threw in the occasional round of freestyle. These improvised verses featured both his city of origin — “This is k-os, coming from Toronto / That’s what y’all don’t know” — and the state in which he was performing — “Come on Massachusetts, you can’t do this!”
In a performance replete with musical experimentation that featured both regular drums and a pair of Indian drums known as tablas on stage, k-os picked up an acoustic guitar, then traded it for an electric one, and strummed his way through the second half of his set.
Also showcasing their technical versatility, The New Pornographers opened their set with an earnest performance of “All the Things that Go To Make Heaven and Earth,” while a rendition of the band’s well-known single, “Sing Me Spanish Techno,” had pianist Kathryn Calder switching to an accordion and drummer Todd Fancey to an acoustic guitar.
Lead singer A.C. Newman also sent a nod to the music students in the crowd when he brought proceedings to a halt as he tuned his guitar.
“We’re at Berklee, we gotta be in tune,” he said, before asking students why Berklee is spelled with a double “E,” (it was named for Lee Berk, the son of the school’s founder, Lawrence Berk, came the response) and adding that “L-E-E sounds made up to me.”
Despite Newman’s occasionally barbed banter, the band’s stage presence proved not only mesmerizing, but even uplifting to many fans. Norfolk parent Werlich and his sons had waited, uncomplaining and immobile, through the rest of the performances, but they came to life, singing and head-bopping contentedly along to The New Pornographers’ half-hour set.
The concert, organized by Canadian businessman Gary Slaight and broadcast live over a Canadian channel on Sirius Satellite Radio, drew an audience of about 500, all of whom waited patiently for their cues to cheer vociferously as the show returned from breaks.
Slaight, whose daughter Alison is a student at Berklee and who sang the evening’s Neil Young tribute, said the concert was meant as a cultural showcase of sorts.
“We have great music in Canada and it’s nice to bring this music here,” he said, adding that he hoped to create another showcase of its kind in the spring. Keeping the specifics under wraps, Slaight nevertheless promised that the line-up would include another group of “great Canadian performers.”