Published May 28, 2019The last time Chromatics played Toronto, singer Ruth Radelet was not yet a member, synthesizers were secondary to guitar noise, and their label Italians Do It Better existed only in the mind of guitarist Johnny Jewel. That was in 2006.
Finally returning 13 years later, Chromatics are now a completely different band, in almost every sense. Gone are the jarring no wave fits, replaced by modish, Lagerfeld-approved synth-pop designed for nocturnal lifestyles. And as one of the flagship acts for IDIB, they have helped their label create a universe that consists only of artists handpicked and nurtured by co-founder Jewel and label president Megan Louise (who also sings in Desire).
Italians Do It Better have thrived by being in complete control of everything single thing they do. Jewel is the visionary executive and careful curator who oversees quality control, to the point where some releases are delayed years and years (see Glass Candy's Body Work and Chromatics' Dear Tommy), until he feels they are ready for public consumption.
The label has built an aesthetic, a sound, a vibe and a community that has risen from a feverish cult following to an unlikely mainstream phenomena where the likes of Nicholas Refn (Drive), Ryan Gosling (Lost River) and David Lynch (the recent season of Twin Peaks) have all asked for collaborations.
For the Double Exposure Tour — Chromatics' first tour in five years — the evening consisted of all things IDIB: from the warehouse-clearing merch table to various tracks from the catalogue setting the mood in between acts to a four-band bill — three of which were Canadian — showcasing its talent. And as expected, everything ran like clockwork.
Montreal's Tess Roby had only a small fraction of spectators when she walked out at 7:15 p.m. with her brother, guitarist Eliot. But it took her very little time to establish a connection; her intimate ethereal pop fit the bill, as did her Balearic visuals on the screen. Playing selections from her 2018 debut, Beacon, Roby brought a more tranquil vibe to the night, but she couldn't contain her excitement to play the venue: "These are our old stomping grounds. We grew up just down the street from here," she explained in her soothing voice.
This was the Toronto debut for In Mirrors, a trio from the "downtown east side" of Vancouver. Led by vocalist Jesse Taylor, they were easily the most theatrical of the four bands. Playing most of their 2017 Jewel-produced album, Escape From Berlin, as well as recent single "Human," the music was given added dimension through the neon shapes floating behind the band. But it was the silver-faced Taylor who was the focal point, moving to his undulating songs through either eccentric dancing or twiddling his modular synths.
Pulling double duty on the night, both Jewel and Chromatics drummer Nat Walker came out to play with Desire (who had previously played one Toronto gig at Wrongbar back in 2009 with Glass Candy). However, from the moment she walked out, the stage belonged entirely to Megan Louise. Dressed in full PVC, she was full glam, commanding the stage from beginning to end and endlessly striking poses.
Desire's six-song set was almost entirely lifted from 2009's II album, the highlight being "Don't Call," where on one knee Jewel presented Louise with a cherry red rotary phone, which she held and dialled while singing. They introduced a cover of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" with some timidity, but it was a fun, pulsating homage. "Who here has been so madly in love that it crushed their heart?" Louise asked, as they closed the set with the hypnotic "Under Your Spell." To no one's surprise, virtually everyone raised a hand.
Jewel, Walker and Chromatics founder/guitarist Adam Miller came out and warmed the crowd up with the instrumental "Tick of the Clock," before Ruth Radelet eventually joined them for the cool, breezy "Lady." She acknowledged the years-long wait and on numerous occasions thanked the crowd for the love.
Live, Chromatics instil more life into their sad, introspective songs. Walker's drums hit a lot harder, Jewel's bubbling synths are boosted in the mix, and the guitars of both Miller and Radelet ring louder. At times, it even felt like this was a club night: Kill For Love's "These Streets Will Never Look the Same," featuring Miller on vocoder, was transformed into a 4/4 banger.
Of course, with Chromatics the visual element is almost as important as the music itself. On the screen, they projected 35mm montages of soft-focus IDIB imagery (mostly of Radelet) that corresponded to the cinematic style of the music.
As calm and cool as Radelet was, Jewel provided the set's emotional moments. When a fan screamed out "Johnny!" he unexpectedly grabbed the mic, and with a smile replied, "What?!" And then when they were beginning "Blue Girl," he stopped and took responsibility for "fucking it up": "I'm really sorry about that. I'm gonna sit this one out." (He didn't though.)
The set ended with the dreamy "Cherry" and "Into the Black," their interpretation of Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My," which understandably got a rousing cheer.
Radelet came back out for the encore with her guitar and gave a haunting performance of Bruce Springsteen's "I'm On Fire" solo, with only the image of flickering candles behind her. The rapturous response to the song made her cry, Jewel announced. Then came "Shadow," a song that, according to Jewel, "David Lynch likes." He then thanked his Montreal-heavy crew (Jewel lived there a decade ago for four years) and they closed with Kate Bush's "Running Up That Hill."
It's tough to say if this night was their way of making up for lost time or just how Italians Do It Better simply put on a show, but Johnny Jewel and his gang went to great lengths to make it a night nobody would forget. Let's hope next time they come it'll be sooner than that, and in support of the much-delayed Dear Tommy.