A Most Welcome Return

Opener Lou Canon is an elementary school teacher and singer-songwriter from Toronto that happens to be Hayden’s sister-in-law. He pulled her name for a family Christmas gift exchange and decided to help record a couple of songs for her; the sessions turned into a full-length10-song album that was released in spring 2011.

At the Rio Theatre, she entered the stage silent and alone in a black sequined dress, and it wasn’t until after her third song that she said anything to the audience. Most of her music is pretty basic; indie-pop keyboards over pre-programmed drumbeats. Her vocals reminded me at times of Feist or Emily Haines from Metric. They’re both from Toronto too, right? I must say it was at times awkward with dead silence between songs while Lou adjusted pedals and programmed settings by way of notes written on a piece of paper. It wasn’t that she looked uncomfortable performing in front of the audience, just likely shy. While most of her songs didn’t vary much, for one she used looping effects with synth tones and a vocal delivery similar to that of Emily Wells. Late in her set she managed to pull off a spirited cover of The Cure’s “Close To Me”, complete with an electronic xylophone device that I had never seen before.

Paul Hayden Desser, who hails from Thornhill, Ontario (a suburb of Toronto), has always been a reclusive, private guy. Since his cassette debut in ’94 he’s put out seven full-length albums and a few EPs, touring sporadically and often staying out of the public eye for long periods of time. His 2009 album The Place Where We Lived didn’t really have any promotion by way of his own label and he didn’t tour. In 2010, his Wikipedia page and several websites listed him as deceased which supposedly gave him a bit of a kick-in-the-ass to get things happening while writing his latest album, Us Alone. He wrote and recorded almost all the parts on the album at home. Over the last few years, he has been busy doing the family thing, happy to take his time recording and performing around his domestic duties since he and his wife became parents in 2009. His latest album, which came out February 5 on Arts & Crafts, was a move from Hardwood Records which he owns and operates, and through which he has released most of his music. Lou Canon, as well as a few other Canadian indie artists, have also released material via Hardwood.

Quietly coming on The Rio’s stage at 9:00 along with his two multi-instrumentalist band members, Hayden turned a yellow neon-lit sign that read ‘US ALONE’. After some sound issues during opener “Motel”, he introduced the new song “Almost Everything” as “a song for you, about you”.

Hayden has a witty, self-deprecating sense of humour which audiences appreciate. His lyrics can be brutally honest and emotional without the sappiness factor; his Leonard Cohen and Neil Young influences are pretty apparent. Although there’s a lot of feeling, like a true introvert, he doesn’t show much outward expression in terms of excitement.

Hayden is comfortable telling often lengthy stories between songs such as the one he told about having to do some PR event the previous month with Lou Canon in New York where they sang some songs in an office to an audience of about three people, only to find out afterwards that the next room was full of uninterested office workers clicking away on their computers. I’m not sure how popular Hayden is outside of Canada – he was invited to this year’s SXSW festival in Austin – but it will be interesting to see if being on the independent Arts & Crafts label will increase his exposure or lead to a sudden break somewhere. Hopefully it doesn’t have to be posthumously…

Jay McCarrol and Taylor Knox make up a very competent backing band. They don’t mind swapping guitars, bass, piano and drums between songs, often while providing backing vocals and harmonies. Even though “Just Give Me a Name is a mellow song, Knox somehow played both drum beats and bass guitar parts at the same time. During the same, it looked like McCarrol played two separate keyboard/pianos (set up in a “V” formation) simultaneously. Hayden switched between piano, guitar and played harmonica on several.

Like the stories he told, Hayden was just as entertaining with his crowd interaction. About the Rio: “This place smells of sports equipment and popcorn!” He also teasingly commented on how loud the drink server lady opened cans, and that 2009’s The Place Where We Lived had been an admittedly “soft release”.

Bad as They Seem,” his first and probably best-known song, was written about the frustrations that most young men in their early twenties face. Lately when he sings it live, he appropriately changes the age of the girl of his dreams from 16 to 23.

There was a touching solo song that showed his love for Thornhill and his family/friends called Oh Memory, which he introduced to the crowd by explaining how he had recorded fireworks going off one summer night down by the lake in his neighbourhood where families and friends gather. Pulling out his smartphone and setting it under a mic on the drums, the crowd was treated to another stroke of lo-fi genius as the fireworks provided for a surprisingly effective backdrop to his piano and voice.

Lou Canon returned to play piano and sing on the duet “Blurry Nights”- her sweet vocals working well with Hayden’s baritone. Hayden introduced “Don’t Get Downas the song that is a running joke within the band as his “only optimistic one”; then he said “but I’m not really joking”. It looked like the band played the song fully unplugged and without microphones or everything turned way down, which complemented its contrasting happy/sad retro feel.

The set ended on a strong note with rockers Trees Lounge”, the new instant-classic “Rainy Saturday”, and “Dynamite Walls, in which the audience was happy to oblige to his suggestion to stand. Tongue-in-cheek humour returned when he said “we could have used you [several nights earlier] in Denver” to an exuberantly obnoxious and intoxicated fan rocking out in the space between the front row and the stage.

After a few minutes break, Hayden returned solo for the encore of the quirky piano “Bass Song”, and was then joined by the band for the unrestrained post-grunge of “In September.”

Overall, this was another strong and personal performance by one of Canada’s – and the world’s – truly great independent singer-songwriters, whether or not you believe he’s past his prime. Sure, Hayden has been absent and out of the spotlight in recent years, but that’s something he’s always done. He’s not dead. He’s merely getting his priorities straight and letting the music speak for itself.