Protomartyr compensate with humour at their Canadian debut

Photo by Zak Bratto
Photo by Zak Bratto

Detroit’s Protomartyr made their Canadian debut with a technically underwhelming performance at Fortune Sound Club last Tuesday. But what they lacked musically they made up for with humour and genial spirit.

First openers TV Ugly showed off their versatility as three-quarters of the local trash-pop quartet swapped instruments throughout their set. Gal Av-Gay, who also sings and plays guitar in rising group Dumb, was particularly dexterous, hopping from guitar to bass & lead vocals and then switching spots with the drummer during their final song.

Unlike most Pacific Northwestern bands, Seattle’s Chastity Belt channeled Sonic Youth not through any noisy or artsy punk proclivities but through subtly wilting guitar and smoky, ghostly vocals that blew over tumbling drums and sweet, airy melodies. Think fellow Seattleites Seapony covering Sonic Nurse.

Headliners Protomartyr were chunkier and clunkier. Few of their songs matched the force of the recorded counterparts; “Boyce or Boice” had none of its tailspinning power. “What the Wall Said” suffered worse – perhaps even worst. Its dramatic tonal shift was almost undetectable.

Chief amongst the issues was that singer Joe Casey could not sustain his voice live. On songs like “The Devil in His Youth”, his deep boom came off strained, like a dry-throated squeal. Slower songs including “Violent” and “Pontiac 87” served his voice well, however.

Despite these deficiencies, Protomartyr pulled themselves together periodically. The bass pummeled away behind cutting guitar as Casey recited the lyrics to “Blues Festival” with fiery confidence.

Another highlight was Casey’s humour, an unexpected character trait for those who weren’t familiar with the band outside of their music. As Protomartyr revved up for “Come & See”, Casey bulged and crossed his eyes,  twisted his lips, cracked open another beer, and visibly burped off-mic.

Casey noted that the show was Protomartyr’s first time playing in Canada, “which is kind of strange because Detroit is north of Canada. Fun fact.” He also expressed their sadness that it was their final show with Chastity Belt.

Surprisingly, the crowd barely budged during Protomartyr’s set. Only “Dope Cloud” and “The Hermit” – which weren’t even Protomartyr’s most rousing songs of the night – incensed the audience enough to move. But the fans still called for an encore. “Okay, we’re going to play two of our shittiest songs then leave. I’m not kidding: these are not good songs,” Casey ceded before finishing with “Ain’t So Simple” and “Jumbo'”.

It was unfortunate that a band as forceful and consuming as Protomartyr wasn’t in top form at their Canadian debut. But with their sense of humour, at least they were probably able to laugh it off.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu