Joel Plaskett & the Emergency @ Surrey Fusion Festival, 7/18/09

It was probably bad planning on the part of the Surrey Fusion Festival to hold the event on the same weekend as the Vancouver Folk Festival. Then again, maybe not, since the festival was packed regardless. (The fact that it was free probably didn’t hurt.) The focus of the event was cultural diversity as opposed to high-profile acts, but that didn’t stop the organizers from scoring Halifax singer-songwriter Joel Plaskett as the headliner.

Plaskett, along with his backing band the Emergency, played a variety of cuts from his 15-year back catalogue, drawing most heavily on Three, his triple disc opus released earlier this year. While the album featured ornate arrangements including horns, fiddles, and plenty of backup vocalists, the Emergency performed as a four piece, meaning that the tunes were stripped down to their basic parts. “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’” was reinvented as an intimate acoustic duet with guitarist/keyboardist Peter Elkas. On the other end of the spectrum, “Extraordinary” featured noisy hard rock accompaniment for Plaskett’s bluesy guitar workouts.

But even better than the musicianship was Plaskett himself, as he charmed the crowd with witty banter and his magnetic stage presence. Many of the highlights of the show were non-musical—watching the band perform “Through & Through & Through,” for example, when Plaskett cracked up as he Elkas affected squeaky falsettos and attempted to recreate the female-sung harmonies of the studio version. During “Work Out Fine,” Plaskett’s spoken intro morphed into a surprisingly convincing rap about his cat White Fang; this effortlessly segued into the song’s hopeful, glass-half-full message.

The show finished with a goofy, synth-heavy take on the 2007 single “Fashionable People.” Plaskett sung the song from behind the kit, joking that his bandmates sounded like computers during the song’s robotic refrain. He wrapped up the song with a thundering drum solo, emphasizing what was already clear: as well as a virtuosic musician, Plaskett is, hands down, the coolest person in Canadian indie rock. Even if you don’t like his albums, be sure to check out his live show and witness one of the most charismatic performers around.

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