Bear in Heaven at the Biltmore – Live Music Review

Early shows are a funny thing. Just about none of the cool kids will show up when the doors open at a geriatric 8 p.m., but a “hard curfew” of 11 means that all the music has to be compressed into an economical two-and-a-half hours. It also means that the openers, the bands most in need of an audience, usually get a fairly short shift on the time front and nearly no one on the dance floor. Just a bit of an observation from a not-quite hard-bitten young rock critic, who tries to show up as early as she can but is somewhat allergic to punctuality in general (I’ve lived in Vancouver for a few years now, and I know I’m not the only one).

Luckily, your erstwhile reporter managed to just arrive at Saturday’s Bear in Heaven show at the Biltmore in time to see opening quartet Blouse take the stage. They were allotted around 20 minutes and made as good use of it as they possibly could, with little banter (other than several keyboard-related requests directed toward the sound booth) and at least a dozen tunes. They turned out to be a good warm-up for Bear in Heaven. As if by magic, the crowd on the dance floor multiplied from a paltry ten or so languid head-bobbers to a veritable teeming mass, flailing somnolently and punctuating each song with appreciative cheers.

Blouse songs seem to use a fairly basic rubric as their guide. It goes something like this: Add lead singer and guitarist’s Charlie Hilton’s ethereal voice to catchy-but-simple ’80s-tinged synthesizer riffs; pour over a rock-solid rhythm section; bake until warm, gooey and sweet. That’s not to say that the band is repetitive or dull.

The formula produces a variety of effects, from the energetic “Videotapes” to the more leisurely “Into Black” – all enjoyable. A stand-out track was the retro and singularly weird “Time Travel”, which appealed to the sci-fi obsessed nerd who lives deep within my soul and is stirred by lines like “I was in the future yesterday.” In short: brilliant, chronology defying and weirdly reminiscent of Blondie.

After a short but utterly enchanting set, Blouse stepped down and a black curtain was drawn around all sides of the stage. Many dancers absconded quickly to the bar for fresh libations, but a cluster of around twenty people stayed close to the stage, ensuring prime viewing locations for the main event. These, as any frequent concertgoer knows, are the real fans, those who have been listening to the latest record obsessively and would probably lose their minds even if the band took the stage, gave us all the finger and walked off. Actually, that would be pretty rock and roll, but you get the idea.

Luckily, Bear in Heaven is a band worthy of some serious mind-losing. Ever since I was handed the illustrious mantle of music writer, I have seen an obscene number of shows, but rarely have I seen a performer so excited by his own performance as Jon Philpot, the frontman for Bear in Heaven.

From the very first, tentative “Hello” and the opening bars of “Idle Heart” (off the recently-released I Love You, It’s Cool), it became clear that Philpot gets almost physically high from performance. This high, in turn, becomes absolutely mesmerizing.

It probably helps that his setup – a small keyboard and an electronic panel or two with buttons that do incredible musical and lighting related things that I cannot begin to comprehend- leaves him relatively unencumbered to shimmy, shake, dip and twirl gleefully around the stage (he does trade places with guitarist Adam Wills at times, though I think a guitar hardly counts as an “encumbrance” in this instance).

But let’s face it: Even standing still, Philpot projects the kind of charisma that has had young ladies throwing their lingerie at the stage for decades. It’s probably sheer Canadian propriety that prevented it from happening at the Biltmore.

The band, as a trio, was as tight as Lycra but much more appealing. Drummer Joe Stickney was often semi-obscured by the fog swirling around the stage, but his racing syncopations were right at home with Wills’ aggressive guitar lines and Philpot’s delirious vocal stylings. Surprisingly (given Bear in Heaven’s heavy reliance on electronic effects), the songs generally sounded very much like those on the album, but on a beat poet-sized dose of stimulants and with a thick varnish of untamed animal magnetism.

As with any really, really good show, the crowd and band fed off of each other. They cheered and danced relentlessly to new tracks, and appreciative “whoop” went up for anything old and recognizable (“Lovesick Teenagers” off of 2010’s Beast Rest Forth Mouth was a notable instance). Wills and Stickney seemed content to let Philpot take on the majority of crowd-pleasing banter, wild dancing and general mayhem, but Bear in Heaven is, as a whole, so tight that credit is due to the entire trio for making it happen. As Philpot let us all know at the end of the show, he has “faith” that his Vancouver shows will always be an unqualified success.

Can I thank you guys,” he queried into the mic at the end of the night, “for being so fucking awesome?”

Yes, Jon, yes you can. And, from us to you: likewise.

Photo by Nick Helderman