A large part of what makes Chad VanGaalen’s albums so captivating is his wide sonic range—he constructs diverse arrangements through endless overdubbing of home-made drum machines, glitchy keyboards, and countless other instruments. But for his February 27th show at the Commodore, he was joined onstage by only a bassist and drummer, forcing him to strip the songs down to their bare essentials. Without any frills to distract the ear, these simplified arrangements emphasized the quality of his songwriting, and showed why VanGaalen is quickly becoming regarded as one of the greatest talents in Canadian indie music.
The show opened with 15 minutes of ambient, experimental noodling, while animated videos (drawn by VanGaalen) played on two large screens on either side of the stage. Anyone who has seen his music videos will have a pretty good idea of what it looked like, featuring plenty of gruesome cartoon characters with stretching eyeballs and exploding heads.
Playing a bizarrely small electric guitar with no headstock, VanGaalen led his band through a set of songs drawn largely from 2008’s Soft Airplane. His dirty guitar tone gave a gritty edge to even the softest songs, while the already upbeat “Bare Feet on Wet Griptape” was transformed into a full-fledged punk rocker. But the highlight came when he set aside the guitar for a banjo on “Willow Tree,” the song recently voted by CBC Radio 3 listeners as the “future classic” of 2008.
Unfortunately, VanGaalen’s quirky songwriting may have been a bit too weird for this particular audience, most of whom were chatty throughout. Despite the vocal support of a few diehards, most in attendance were clearly just passing time until the headline act, Hawksley Workman, took the stage. The show was arranged by the Cultural Olympiad, and the organizers would have done better to book VanGaalen as a headliner in a smaller venue, where he would have benefited from the receptive audience he deserves.