Show Reviews

Television play triumphant set for Canadian Music Week


by Eric Smale | photos by Eric Cairns

It’s probably no secret by now that Television’s debut album Marquee Moon (1977), that classic of angular, poetic guitar rock, has had a profound – if downplayed – influence on the trajectory of modern guitar music. So it goes without saying that anticipation was high when the seminal NYC post-punk band walked on stage at the Pheonix and Tom Verlaine immediately began to conjure those first, tentative notes, as if reaching for something immaterial.

And when the band (all original members, minus Verlaine’s guitarist counterpoint, Richard Lloyd) finally came together and settled on a groove – “1880 or So”, the opening track from their last record, Television (1992) – any doubts that the band had lost any of their vigor over the years vanished entirely. It was a subtle, nuanced performance, with those signature gnarled guitars skating over a perfectly assured beat – like something early-2000s Sonic Youth might have done, only cleaned up and pared down to its minimalist essence.

The crowd was rapt from the first song, but things quickly escalated when the band then broke into “Prove It”, the first of six songs played from Marquee Moon. Its jittery, ‘50s verses and raucous stop-start refrain sounded as fresh and vital as they must have almost 40 years ago. With this and ‘Elevation’ back to back, it was also clear that, not only is long-time Verlaine collaborator, Jimmy Rip, more than up for the task of filling Lloyd’s shoes as Verlaine’s foil, he’s also a guitarist with a uniquely jagged musical personality of his own. Whenever the two trade the stabbing, jigsaw riffs and expressive, beaming notes that comprise Television’s most distinctive character, it’s hard to ignore that there’s a timeless quality to the band’s chemistry.

As for Verlaine, with the exception of a few words here and there, and an amusing retort to a heckler, he was content to let the music speak; his voice has aged well, sounding jubilant and cracked and, really, not all that different from the way it sounded in the ’70s. And anyway, his vocals in Television have always leaned towards the impressionistic side of things, translating the band’s instrumental passages into vignettes of urban existentialism.

While the rest of the set was equally impressive, with a few curveballs thrown in (including early B-sides like the abstract funk of “Little Johnny Jewel” and a tantalizing new song from an unreleased album recorded in 2007), the highlights of the set were definitely those songs culled from the bands most famous album. Where “See No Evil”-esque surf-y, cyclical riffs and the loping, yearning bounce of “Venus” reminded one of Television’s pop sensibility, the truly transcendent moment of the set came at its close in the form of the majestic, stately epic “Marquee Moon”. The song is a post-punk monolith, with its interlocking shards of guitar and moments of fleeting beauty. It captures the inner city anxiety and romance that the entire record spins around, the fragments and freeform tangents, all of which are anchored to the rise and fall of that wounded, elegant melody.

But the best part of the performance was that it didn’t ever feel overly polished or phoned in, there were moments of imperfection here and there, scraggly, rough edges that the band still hasn’t bothered to smoothen out over all these years. And if they can still pull off a set like this, why mess with perfection?

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