Stars – The Independent – June 20 2010

Cassie took me to see Montreal-based popular beat combo Stars at The Independent last night. She knows the band well, having known singer Amy Millan for a long time, and seeing them in London and LA. We went to see Amy and her band play a small show at Cafe du Nord a few months ago, so I got to meet her then. Cassie plays Stars a lot in the car, so I’ve got to know some of the songs pretty well. Cassie describes them as “baroque pop”, and I’d say that covers it. They have some rocking stuff, ballads, groovy little dance numbers, all sorts. It’s a six-piece, or at least there were six people on stage, so there’s lots of room for different sounds and atmospherics.

Because Cassie knows the band, we were on the guest list, and were able to go up to the VIP balcony, which is a balcony. No hookers’n’blow or hot tub, sadly, but a great view of the stage. From our vantage point I was peering closely at the equipment – apart from the guitars and drums, the keyboardist had some fancy workstation and piano, the singer had a little synth on a crosstand, and the bass player had a Little Phatty which he used instead of his 4-string on some songs. The venue is great – it’s part owned by one of the executives at Cassie’s company, and they had done quite a lot of renovation, which seemed to be mostly about stripping back fripperies (a bar in the center of the auditorium? Maybe it was a club beforehand.) to make it a straightforward venue with good access, great bar, and a spacious yet compact feel. Nice.

When we went in, Torq the singer was sitting on stage with a laptop, playing songs, asking trivia questions about them, and throwing copies of the new CD to those who got the answer right. He played Human by the Human League, and asked what biographical detail he and the League had in common. I thought to myself, “Sheffield?”, which turned out to be right. Then he played an old Cath Carroll song I hadn’t heard in years, which pleased me no end. In between tracks he was blowing bubbles into the audience as well, which is cute.

The band proper started by playing the new album (released today) start-to finish, then came back to play audience favorites as voted by the fans on their website. I recognized many of the songs because the new album has been streaming on NPR recently. I remember NPR talked about their last album in 2007 too – NPR clearly like Stars a lot.

Most of the songs revolve around Torq and Amy singing, with the songs mostly being about relationships and all that follows. They also do solo numbers, and the songs cover all sorts of genres. They’re been doing this for over 10 years, and Cassie said their earlier stuff was rockier, with more gentle themes coming through more recently.

The audience was into it. At first they were a little quiet, probably because the new album isn’t released until today (although what does that mean? It’s been streaming online, and I’m sure it’s available through the naughty channels already). The band make a big deal of communicating with the audience, and the gratitude was a little cheesy in places, but it seemed sincere and heartfelt, so fair enough.

After a short break they came back on and did a full set of requested songs from their back catalogue, which the audience lapped up. They were dancing and singing along, and the band was enjoying themselves, and it was all good. The encore was another half-set, which pleased the crowd no end, and a final encore was Torq and the keyboard player Chris Seligman, with a lovely piano piece.

After the show, we went backstage and met Amy, and Cassie introduced me to the rest of the band, who were all very nice. Torq was pleased that I’d recognized the Cath Carroll song in the opening set, and Amy was really happy to see Cassie. There was lots of activity backstage, because the tour is ongoing, but we were able to have a drink and chat with the band, in between them getting changed, and the manager and local promoter making plans for a fan-only gig later in the year (you heard it here first!).

When it was time to go – to bed for Cassie and I, and to get food and/or go to the hotel for the band – we walked them out, to find a group of fans waiting for autographs and to give gifts. They’d been waiting in the cold for ages! As Cassie said, it felt good, and a bit bad, to be able to kiss Amy goodbye in front of them, and say, “See you soon!”.