Live Review: Noah & The Whale

Live Review: Noah & The Whale

The Mob Club, Toronto, March 24th

The lights dim, the crowd screams and the first notes of [b]‘Bohemian Rhapsody’[/b] signal what should be the start of an evening spent watching teens hurl themselves at the stage and fight for fleeting glances from lead singers. After all, wherever the Queen goes, clichés should follow, especially in a Commonwealth country in a royal wedding year. The sight of five polite and well brought-up young men in three-piece suits isn’t quite the bombastic and monarchical entrance we’re expecting. That is, unless you’ve actually read your ticket stub.

But if their opening music’s a little incongruous, when frontman Charlie Fink announces “We are Noah & The Whale,” we get our hysterical rush to the stage – but only a slight hysterical rush. This is Toronto, after all. This show marks the end of a short North American venture that’s taken the Twickenham band from Los Angeles, Austin and New York to the snowy landscape of Canada’s south. Opening with [b]‘Blue Skies’[/b] and the fitting [b]‘Tonight’s The Kind Of Night’[/b], they aim to shake the previous day’s snowstorm from their Ontarian audience and embrace those elusive first days of spring.

“One thing I love about Canada is how much people love being from Canada,” gushes Fink. The Canada-loving crowd swoons. Clad in well-tailored, dapper-looking ensembles, the band take to their instruments with terrifying enthusiasm, and if Canadians love Canada, they’re also more than willing to over-romanticise the Union Jack. [a]Noah & The Whale[/a]’s victory over the cruel Atlantic is driven less by Anglophilia and more by sheer maniacal momentum, as witnessed in violinist Tom Hobden’s zealous commitment to setting the song soaring.

“We’ve never had this many crowd-rousing songs in our set,” Hobden claims later, sitting in the venue’s tiny dressing room and offering NME a drink. Water, soft drinks, a couple of beers – no wonder the gig seems defined by a unique sense of professionalism. “We’re not quite sure,” he adds. “I think it’s going well.” Indeed it is, Tom. Even in the lulls of the slower tracks, the notoriously passive Toronto crowd adjusts its attitude and embraces Fink’s every word, whether heartbroken or triumphant, as songs from second album [b]‘The First Days Of Spring’[/b] edge their way into the [b]‘Last Night On Earth’[/b]-heavy set. But despite the precipice between albums – both in sound and in content – each track is lapped up with an unquenchable thirst. Toronto wants more, and the band wants to give it.

“It’s funny because we haven’t been to North America for a year and a half to play,” Fink reflects post-gig, fedora on head. “And when we came back, the first show we did was The Troubadour, and it was totally insane – it was amazing. Relative to touring the last album, this time feels much more exciting.” “It’s felt natural to us,” Hobden says. “We pride ourselves on our live shows, and we feel we can meld the sounds of the albums together. Old songs get a makeover to make room for new ones.” “Which I think suits them quite well,” concludes Fink. “It makes you want to go back and re-record them.”

The group’s ambition to keep pushing forward is obvious, especially in a live setting. [b]‘Love Of An Orchestra’[/b] precedes a relative downtime for the likes of [b]‘I Have Nothing’ and ‘Stranger’[/b], but a spirited take on oldie [b]‘Shape Of My Heart’[/b] stays true to the boys’ determination to adapt their old material for 2011.

The 2000s are over, and they’re not the same band any more – just ask the pop music gurus who’ve clung to their new record (despite mediocre reviews from some of the more highbrow US critics) with a passion similar to that of the girl in the front row who keeps reaching for Tom’s legs. Casually removing his suit coat and slowly rolling up his sleeves, Fink then announces that it’s time to “lose one layer of clothing for the fun part of the night”, as the young ladies delight at the thought of such intimacy. As Matt [b]‘Urby Whale’[/b] Owens rips on guitar, Fred Abbott quietly rotates between instruments with seamless perfection, and [b]‘Waiting For My Chance To Come’[/b] and [b]‘First Days Of Spring’[/b] erupt before the set come to a close.

But they won’t be allowed to bow out that easy. With drinks raised and allegiance declared, this audience worships at the throne of Noah & The Whale and they need more time to genuflect. The lads graciously return and lead us through favourites [b]‘Old Joy’[/b] [b]‘LIFEGOESON’[/b] and [b]‘5 Years Time’[/b] before they finally make their exit. “Rock’n’roll,” Fink laughs backstage. “It was a beautiful show tonight – beautiful crowd. I love playing Canada.” And Canada loves them, seemingly even more than it loves being Canada. “We gave them a glimpse of the majesty” Hobden reflects. Fink smiles: “No-one knows what that means, but it means something to Tom.”

And to their subjects, no doubt. God save [a]Noah & The Whale[/a], indeed.

Anne T Donahue