The Lad Mags, Crystal Eyes, Forever @ Broken City (Calgary, AB) 9/2/2015

As I bounced along the highway in the direction of Calgary a biting cold wind howled its way down from the north. From the direction of Edmonton. A bad omen? Perhaps it was, given that I was headed to Broken City to witness the final performance of an RTT favourite, The Lad Mags.

Broken City is one of those bars that it is stretched thin from front to back. The stage is located, not at one end or the other, but rather in the middle, off to one side. There is a central open area, but to call it a dancefloor would be a tad generous. As awkward as that sounds, the odd configuration somehow added to the evening’s ambiance. The joint was full and the buzz in the air was one of excitement. Despite the sadness of the circumstance, this crowd was in the mood to celebrate.

Everyone rose to the occasion, including the opening act, the enigmatic Forever (I say that because they have zero internet presence). Consisting of members of former local acts (Modern Aquatics, Seahorse, The Slabs) these guys were poised and well-polished. Javier Palomino assumed centre stage (quite literally), taking on both lead guitar and vocal duties. Their shoegaze was suitably haunting and augmented by some psychedelic guitar wandering by Palomino and the occasional keyboard flourish from Joleen Toner. Unfortunately, rumour has it that this band is about to split up. So much for their band name.

Crystal Eyes demonstrated just how versatile they are. Based on their recorded dream pop material, I expected a low-key navel-gazing affair. Gloomy even. But the band was, in fact, high-spirited and energetic, thanks to the performance of front woman Erin Jenkins, who is quite the compact dynamo. Her voice is pretty and well-suited to the dreamier side of their music, but it is also strong, giving backbone to the band’s more forceful moments. Jenkins even got down to some guitar shredding during flights of pysch-rock fancy. Also notable (although not particularly noticeable) was the presence of new member Samantha Savage Smith, who has to be commended for maintaining a low profile despite the fact that she is a star in her own right.

(On a side note, there was a fair amount of feedback in the sound system. I thought it was perhaps just the opening act’s equipment but it wasn’t. The noise was persistent throughout the entire evening. It didn’t mar the event, but it sure was annoying.)

The Lad Mags hit the stage with confidence. This is a fully matured band, at the peak of its game. It may have been their swan song, but what better time to capture the vitality of this group, really? You probably need to know them a little bit to realize that this is essentially Amelia Aspen’s baby, as that fact isn’t in evidence on stage, where things are quite democratic. All members sing back-up (except the drummer, I believe) and the lead vocals are shared between Aspen, Ashley Hollands (guitar) and Dara Humniski (keys). These three also played musical chairs throughout the evening, rotating through the two centre spots and stage left (the keyboard). Lost in the shadows to the right (unfortunately) was the all-important bassist, Candice Kelly. Her throbbing rhythms played high in the mix, and so they should given the garage/surf/psych nature of the music.

The Lad Mags repertoire is well-known to fans (“Hypnotized”, “You Don’t Love Me”, “Dig My Grave”, etc.) and these songs were performed with exactly the right blend of polish and live ‘grit’. We were also treated to a new track (“Shame”) from a split with Betrayers that hasn’t been released yet.

Technically, not everything went according to plan. Aside from the aforementioned feedback, some of the vocals were too low in the mix and got lost, particularly Hollands’. There was also a problem with Hollands’ guitar (don’t know what it was) and she had to borrow a replacement from Crystal Eyes (not sure whether it was Jenkins’ or Smith’s). Overall, it all still sounded like heaven to this listener’s ears. Apparently I wasn’t alone in this opinion as the crowd insisted on an encore, even after Aspen protested that they had played everything they knew. Gracious to the end, The Lad Mags dug out a tune that they had been practicing together.

And so I retreated back out to the streets of downtown Calgary with mixed feelings. Thrilled, of course, to have heard such a great band in their prime, but saddened by the fact that I’d probably never see them perform again.