Xavier Rudd’s Spirit Bird Fills the Ballroom

photo by Kane Hibberd

Music and a really good performance, when done right, should reach listeners at a deep level—stirring emotions and memories, and getting a strong response. Of course the term “done right” is subjective and personal. Bells Beach, Australia’s Xavier Rudd’s music does this to a lot of people. His live shows are known to be very moving and powerful, and his approach is rather stripped down but complex at the same time. He is a one-man-band who uses very little effects besides his voice and organic instruments that he either plays at the same time or alternates between. For his sold out Friday (November 16) show at the Commodore – the first of two back-to-back shows – he played an acoustic guitar, slide guitar, drum set, chimes, stomp pedal, harmonica, and three or four didgeridoos. He did add a few samples such as bird calls and Aboriginal vocals in some songs, but these weren’t used as filler.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania opening trio Good Old War got the already excited crowd feeling even more jovial with their special brand of indie folk. Deriving their band name from their last names—Goodwin, Arnold, and Schwartz—the men’s intricate vocal harmonies and acoustic guitar parts lent themselves well to their lighter, uplifting songs. Think Mumford and Sons-style arrangements meeting some Fleet Foxes or The Sadies in happier days. They danced around and looked relaxed. Not knowing anything about them, I thought they were brothers or really old friends. They definitely gel well musically and in terms of attitude. It was nice to see an opening band enjoying themselves in front of a nearly packed floor who were equally having fun. Sometimes crowds (myself included) can be a bit cold and mistrustful when seeing a lesser known band for the first time. I think their genuine pleasantness and positivity was infectious and it will be nice for them to get their more Northern exposure over the next few weeks as they go across Canada with Xavier Rudd.

For this tour in support of his latest album Spirit Bird, Xavier Rudd has invited along some First Nations members of the Ohnia:kara (pronounced “oh-nee-ah’ga-ra”) Singers and the Perpetual Peace Project from the Niagara Region of Ontario and New York. The Ohnia:kara Singers appear on the tracks “Prosper” and “Bow Down” on the Spirit Bird album. On stage there were about six drummers/singers who made up a drum circle, several backup singers and two male dancers who were dressed in Native garments and accessories. It was nice to see a cultural display pay respect to their heritage and the earth. Their steady drumming and tribal chants were particularly strong and filled the Ballroom. The crowd was appreciative and gave a good ovation as the performers bowed after 15 minutes.

I first heard of Xavier Rudd in 2004 when he played my small university pub in the BC Interior. Friends of mine were stoked on the upcoming show and recommended that I get a ticket, but I had ignorantly assumed that he was a usual dime-a-dozen singer-songwriter and that I wouldn’t be missing much. I couldn’t have been more wrong as I found out that people were talking for months afterwards about dancing up on tables and on stage; they were blown away by his liveliness and the party that he brought. After hearing a several tracks off 2004’s Solace and 2005’s Food in the Belly, I decided that the one-man hype was real and promised myself to not dismiss certain types of music and to make sure to see him in the future.

Xavier Rudd came on around 10:30 to wild applause. Shoeless, as he usually performs, he calmly sat down at his drum kit which was set up complete with two didgeridoos and wind chimes. With some recorded black cockatoo calls, so began Spirit Bird’s mesmerizing lead track “Lioness Eye—which has some heavy tribal-type drumming, droning didgeridoos, and his famous soaring vocals. I was at full attention. He then switched over to acoustic guitar for “Fortune Teller”, leaving the middle for a didgeridoo/bagpipe part with Aboriginal vocals. The slide guitar and harmonica in “Solacegot me feeling sentimental, brought couples close and segued into to the mellow reggae sway of “Choices”. Through most of the show, joints were sparked up in the crowd and security personnel made a few rounds.

A loud air-raid siren introduced some more wild rhythmic drumming and primal didgeridoo warbles on “3 Roads” and “GUKU” was brilliantly fit into the middle of “Messages”. Crowd interaction was a big part of the experience with dancing, clapping, lifting hands, stomping feet and singing along—most memorable during the reggae-tinged folk of “Let Me Be” and the “oy, oy, oy” excerpt from Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier”. The social subject matter in the lyrics of Spirit Bird’s “Culture Bleeding” and “Bow Down” was heavy and necessary without getting too preachy and in-your-face.

Midway through the encore’s instantly epic “Spirit Bird”, Xavier Rudd was joined by the Ohnia:kara and Perpetual Peace Project performers whom he had asked to come back to help out with the choir arrangement and expansive mid-to-end part of the song.

Rudd closed the night around 12:30 with an instrument-free earth poem-song where he held up a boomerang and tapped his heart. I’m sure it was a proud moment for the Aussies in the crowd.

It was a powerful experience seeing a performer so passionate about the earth and social causes. Besides his obvious coordination and dexterity, Xavier Rudd has mastered the instruments he plays. He currently doesn’t need anyone else in his band because his sound is already full enough on its own. As previously mentioned, his elicits various emotions—including sadness, anger and most importantly self-reflection, all while simultaneously leaving a listener feeling ecstatic, energized and optimistic. I wonder how many people have been inspired to become more conscious and socially active. Even if you think you don’t have a spiritual bone in your body, do your soul a favour and check out an Xavier Rudd performance.

The only negative part of the night came from the really loud talking that came from a number of people in the audience, especially during the quietest parts. Some had their backs to the stage and were trying to “network” for later. Don’t do that—it’s the equivalent of answering a phone call in a movie theatre or wearing sunglasses indoors. It’s alright if you aren’t into the music or have a short attention span, but please respect the artist(s) and your neighbours around you. Wait until the song is over or leave the floor and go buy your Jägerbombs. Peace.