Upon entering Rialto Theatre, dissonant synth growls thundered through the foundations. Markus Floats, the first opener, was backlit by a screen of ominous and fittingly hellish orange light. Afterwards, Helena Deland took the stage, her first song foresting the venue with dense, ambient chords and haunting vocals. Weyes Blood (real name Natalie Mering) then appeared in her de facto tour uniform, a white faux-Nudie suit, “on lend from a much more powerful fashionista than I,” and launched into “A Lot’s Gonna Change”, the first track from her record released in April, Titanic Rising.
Change can evoke both hope and horror, but it’s “high time you learned to get by”. That’s the gist of the opener, a song that’s both lament and consolation, a reflection on nostalgia itself. Plenty of her lyrics land on the spectrum of loss, from the withered romance of “Used to Be” to the gentle mourning of “Picture Me Better,” her tribute to a friend who commited suicide when she was recording this album. The latter track is a lush elegy that captures the other side of grief: the hard-won gratitude for having known someone at all. The live version ditches the old-timey Disney soundtrack string arrangements to focus on Mering’s gliding vocals, reminiscent of Judy Garland.
The rest of her set consisted almost entirely of the album’s other tracks, interspersed with a few songs from 2016’s Front Row Seat to Earth, and during the encore, a rendition of Procol Harum’s 1967 hit “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” An addition that makes a lot of cosmic sense–of course she’d cover that tune, with its poetic meanderings through mild sepia-tone debauchery and its Hammond organ uh… hamminess.
There was also some customary light banter between songs: whether the moon landing was faked, the climate march earlier that day, how she was “feeling major haunted vibes” from the theatre before conceding that it might just be the band. As she perched her fingers back on the keys for the next number, she slid in a glib remark: “Back to the sad songs.”
“Humour is a part of the great cosmic question,” Mering once said in a Pitchfork interview. But she doesn’t distance herself from the absurd tragedies of life – she’s right there with you.
When she sings “it’s a wild time to be alive” to a crowd of hundreds, many of whom had been marching around Mont-Royal a handful of hours ago, some holding eloquent signs that say “DESTROY MY PUSSY, NOT MY PLANET”, you know that she means it’s a wild time to be alive. Mering knows sarcasm alone won’t save us. On stage, with humor and grace, Mering toes that line between hope and horror, between the gorgeous gloom of her instrumentation and her steadfast belief in humanity.
The venue itself was originally a movie theatre from the ‘20s, “an amalgam of all sorts of styles” as co-owner Ezio Carosielli once said. Gorgeus stained glass windows, cherubs painted on the panels. Something about the architectural anachronism of this place and its history of preservation was fitting–this secondhand nostalgia for something we’ve never felt, the ornate seriousness of that gilded past where going to see a talkie was a big deal, when venues were venerated almost as much as the artists that graced them. We deal so much with digital spaces now that we can forget how charged, even foolishly romantic physical ones can be.
As Mering started the last song of her set, “Movies,” the stage lighting turned to an aquamarine wobble. She did a silly deep-sea-diver dance before she delivered the first few lines. “This is how it feels to be in love / This is life from above.” Indeed, as the synth sequences came down like a digitized waterfall, the theatre’s interior felt like an above-ground version of Titanic Rising’s album cover. If the “bedroom [Mering] never had” is meant to be the messy shelter of the subconscious, her performance felt as if the room had been cleaned for visitors to peruse, a brief yet intimate glance into where the mind really lives. Amidst the debris of this doomed century, Mering reminds us that there’s always something to believe, beyond just nihilism and nostalgia.
Written by ATSUSHI IKEDA