Devin Townsend performs special Casualties Of Cool show
Time to come clean: despite the fact that my love affair with Devin Townsend‘s music dates back to a time when he had (almost) a full head of hair, I have to admit that I’ve had a harder time connecting with Casualties of Cool than I have with any of his releases since Physicist. The fact that there were still tickets available on the morning of this special, almost one-off performance from the project in London’s loveliest venue – the Union Chapel in Islington – suggests that I am not alone.
London is without question the best place on the planet for Devin’s fans to live. I’ve been lucky enough to be at every single one of the special performances he has treated us to over the last few years, so I wasn’t about to break that clean sweep now. My main hope going into the show was that seeing it performed in front of me would help me find that hitherto elusive connection.
Arriving at the venue, Messenger are already on stage thanks to earlier than expected show times and a 10:30 curfew. They play a set of gentle prog rock with some ambient interludes that is clearly competently executed, but not especially enthralling. Their set does, however, showcase the tastefully understated lighting and the truly sumptuous acoustics of this still-working church. The particulars of the venue’s license mean that the consumption of alcohol is forbidden in the chapel itself, so we retreat to the bar to beat the rush.
Devin and his band, comprising a number of familiar faces, ultimately file out a little behind schedule. Devin’s relaxed and easy going manner masks the fact that as the rest of the band settle into place around him, his rig isn’t actually working. Asking everyone to talk amongst themselves for a minute, he turns round to fiddle with it and shortly afterwards it bursts into life, to a combination of delight and relief.
Devin introduces the backing band one by one, and the biggest round of applause is reserved for his long-term right-hand man Dave Young, who tonight is sat behind a keyboard at the back of the stage. But obviously the most important relationship of the evening is that between Devin and Che Aimee Dorval, as the primary collaborator on the album. Devin informs us that they have agreed between them to talk as little as possible between songs, save for an occasional ‘thank you’ – but Devin initially has a hard time turning off his onstage banter, so the first words out of his mouth after asking for the lights to be brought down are “It’s a bit dark.” Ever the comedian.
The band slip into”Daddy“, the opening track from the album, and it is quickly apparent this is the ideal venue for this performance. Having previously witnessed Devin playing Ghost in its entirety on this stage, I had taken a spot high in the balcony. The sound fills the beautiful space with a practically unrivalled richness and clarity.
As the second track “The Code” begins, I have a minor crisis of confidence. Only two songs into the set, and they are my favourite pair from the album – so I am momentarily concerned that the show will run out of steam for me fairly early on, but as the set progresses, something unexpected happens: I realise that far more of the album had seeped into my consciousness than I had previously been aware of and I find myself enjoying each and every song. This is a most pleasant surprise.
The live sound naturally gives the tracks more low-end heft, and the seven piece band allows for the faithful recreation of the sound of the album, as well as the occaisional embellishment. What really sets the performance alight is the working relationship between Devin and Che, and especially the way their voices work together. Watching the pair onstage shows how Casualties Of Cool is very much an equal partnership between them, with Che handling a little over half the lead vocals with her breathy, bluesy and thoroughly captivating tones.
The lighting tonight is almost entirely provided by a row of four spots along the back of the stage, which slowly move and change colour. This simplicity is incredibly effective, complementing equally the slightly haunting music and the surroundings. As with the performance of Ghost a couple of years ago, the audience is largely quiet and respectful. A chap seemingly incapable of watching the show without providing a running commentary to the guy sat next to him, a couple of rows in front of me, is told in no uncertain terms to shut the hell up by those closer to him.
The first forty minutes of the set pass remarkably quickly, but after that the near constant, shuffling drum beat that characterises the album starts to become just a little wearing, which is compounded by the distinct absence of any comfort being afforded by the hard wooden church pews. I find myself starting to get just a little restless. However, Devin can’t get through a show with at least a little bit of shredding, and just after this restlessness sets in, he leads the band in a more open, jammed section which sees him soloing at length. This brings a much needed change of pace before the final songs of the set.
The setlist is drawn almost exclusively from the main album, with a single selection – “Gone Is Gone” – from the accompanying bonus disc. Considering this is only the second show this particular configuration of Devin’s extended family of musicians has played together, it is a remarkably assured and tight performance. The absence of any banter between songs, replaced instead with the ambient guitar tones that link the tracks on the album, together with the setting really help to carve Casualties out as being an entirely separate beast to Devin’s regular and more raucous Project shows.
As the set comes to a typically encore-less close, just a few minutes short of the curfew, the crowd rises to give the band a warm and extended standing ovation. The rest of the band leave the stage, but Devin lingers for a while to manage the first wave of autograph and photo hunters, leaving with a promise to make another appearance in the bar just a little later.
A subsequent listen to the album has proved that my hopes for the show came to fruition. I do now feel a closer connection to what must be Devin’s most intimate and personal project to date. The evening was infused with a genuine sense of occasion, and one quite different from the gigantic spectacle of The Retinal Circus.
There has just been a short window of opportunity for Devin and Che to bring Casualties of Cool to the stage. After one more show in Finland, Devin returns to DTP tours of Australia and North America before the end of the year. After that, we presume he will be preparing in earnest for yet another landmark London performance, bringing Ziltoid to the prestigious Royal Albert Hall in April 2015. It is probably reasonable to assume that almost everybody in the Union Chapel this evening was in front of their computers at ten the following morning to grab their tickets for that show. Devin fans are like that.
We know that following the Albert Hall show, Devin will be taking a long-overdue break. When he returns to music – which he will almost certainly do sooner than he really should, I can’t help but now hope that he makes space in his schedule for more Casualties of Cool. I wouldn’t necessarily have said that before the show tonight, so I guess that makes it an unqualified success.