On Nov. 19, the doors opened at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco at 7:30 p.m. Eager fans, however, were greeted by an empty venue as Broken Social Scene was still nowhere to be found.
GAMH staffers paced anxiously out front, looking up and down the street and measuring the time remaining until the scheduled 8:30 p.m. show time. At a few minutes to 8 p.m., a white van towing a trailer of gear ran over the curb and came to an awkward stop out in front of the main doors. As a flock of laughing musicians piled out of the van, sighs of relief were followed by a whirlwind of activity as the equipment was set up for the show.
Were it a typical show, the headliner arriving a half hour before the first band’s curtain time would hardly matter, as they’d still be at least two hours from show time. But a performance by Toronto’s Broken Social Scene is not your typical show. Not so much a band as a traveling troupe of musicians, Broken Social Scene was providing all of the entertainment for the evening.
Though the marquee advertised fellow Canadians Jason Collett and Stars as opening bands, those titles only served to differentiate the vocalists; the combined group of fourteen performers wandered in and out of each other’s sets throughout the night, jumping in to provide a trombone here or an extra guitar there.
Save a couple stragglers, all three sets were performed by those in the truant van.
Playing and traveling with a massive entourage “keeps it interesting,” says Broken Social Scene’s primary bassist Brendan Canning. “You’ve got lots of different personalities in the mix. I like the big band, the cavalcade that we have here. I’ve played in a trio where, I mean, there are good things in that too; it can be a really intimate thing. At the same time, the jokes get tired quicker since the same material is going around and there are only three of you,” he said.
Of course, dinner is a much bigger pain. “Last night we went out and had to find a table for sixteen. And it seems like every time we have to go through the routine of ‘We’re $80 short, someone didn’t put in enough.’ “
But everyone antes up when it comes time to play. The recorded versions of tracks from fall 2002’s You Forgot It In People, the group’s sophomore effort released on Arts and Crafts, were revealed as mere snapshots of the vitality contained within those songs. The live experience was nothing short of religious for music junkies like myself.
Their set moved inevitably towards the climax: Amy Millan of Stars providing vocals on “Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl.” Millan’s innocently sexy voice melted the crowd, and when she chanted the last “Park that car / Drop that phone / Sleep on the floor/ Dream about me,” the crowd responds with love-struck applause and at least one discernable “I Love You!” From the nuclear propulsion of “Stars and Sons” to the breezy “Pacific Theme,” Broken Social Scene proved they are worthy of the praise that has been heaped upon them over the past year.
Their ascension to the top of the indie rock heap has had one noticeable thread: every review references Dinosaur Jr., every article cites Jeff Buckley. Canning dismisses the notion of any frustration regarding the comparisons.
“For Kevin [Drew], as a vocalist, those are two of his biggest influences. I spent a lot of time with those records, too. Others in the band, maybe not so much. But that’s fair. As long as people buy our records, come out to shows, you know,” Canning says, shrugging.
That kind of attention hasn’t been a problem for the band. They’ve taken home a Juno Award (Canada’s version of the Grammy) for Alternative Album of the Year and even knocked Celine Dion from the top spot of HMV.ca’s online sales earlier this year.
The international press has embraced Broken Social Scene as well, yet another indication that our neighbors to the north are finally getting some respect for their burgeoning music industry. From Hot Hot Heat to the Constantines to Manitoba, Canada has plenty to rave about in the music department these days.
Canning attributes the slew of attention to Canada’s music scene to the fact that “there’s half a dozen acts coming out of a city that are making international attention, causing enough commotion to make a scene or whatever. It just took all these bands to put out decent recordings and be viable rock ‘n’ roll acts or what have you.”
“It’s been good for us; people say we’re kind of spearheading it or something,” he says. “But it’s hard to take that crown without paying due respect to the other bands.”
Canning tries to keep the band’s success in perspective. “Well, it’s good as far as an indie level goes,” he says in what is quickly becoming his typical self-effacing fashion. “We’ve sold close to 20,000 records in America and close to 15,000 in Canada. When you look at it in those terms, it’s not really … ” He trails off, and looks at the stage, looks around at the people filing into the main ballroom.
“I mean, but it’s good, we’re doing well,” Canning says. “The fact that we’re doing two nights [at the Great American Music Hall] is a bit strange. It’s a big club [450-person capacity]; I hope we do okay.
“If we do well both nights here, that will be something,” he says. “I’ll just say, ‘Wow.’ “
After all the “wows” that Broken Social Scene dispensed in San Francisco over its two nights here, I only hope that they enjoyed a few of their own before they headed out of town.