Review: Reuben and the Dark swap out huge soundscape for rock vibe at Starlite Room

Reuben Bullock, frontman for Calgary-based Reuben and the Dark, played the Starlite Room Wednesday. Supplied

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The Calgary indie band Reuben and the Dark, so long one of Alberta’s better-kept secrets, have come a long way since Reuben Bullock was doing open mic sessions in Calgary and busking in the street.

They played the Winspear last fall, and on Wednesday night (Feb. 26) they were at Edmonton’s Starlite room for a stop on a Canadian tour featuring their third album.

Bullock himself, on his first two solo albums, started very much as a folk singer-songwriter, albeit one with a distinctive voice. His breakthrough came when Mairead Nash, manager of the U.K. indie rock band Florence and the Machine, by chance heard his second album in a coffee shop in Mexico.

That led to signing with the Arts & Crafts label (home of Feist, among many other Canadian progressive musicians), and the first album of the band that had formed around him. That 2014 debut, Funeral Sky, was produced by Christopher Hayden, the former drummer of Florence and the Machine.

It introduced a wider public to the hallmarks of the band. There was Bullock’s distinctive, edgy, powerful voice, always seeming to be singing to some spirit in the music, not just to the ears of an audience. There was the pulsing, organic drumming of his brother Distance, harking right back through the great rock drumming bands to the ’60s. There were the moments of a huge soundscape wrapping around the more intimate centre.

Then there was the poetry. No love songs here, no ballads, but enigmatic snatches of images and ideas, a kind of philosophical mysticism, with central phrases repeated often. The landscape of Alberta is invoked again and again — wild winds, rivers, mountains, the stars — in one of the album’s most memorable songs, Bow and Arrow. Marionette is a kind of call and response field song, full of religion and anguish, the dark night of the soul.

That element of the spiritual, of Bullock as a singer-preacher figure, is even stronger in the band’s second album, Arms of a Dream, which took four years to make.

Some of the band’s personnel had changed, but the basic sound of Funeral Sky remained the same. The production qualities had developed, much to the music’s advantage, with the soundscape being both bigger and more detailed.

There is a regular pattern of opening with repeated failing phrases, letting changing harmonies create momentum, and then soaring up high, with the band chorus joining in, in a kind of musical ecstasy. Indeed, there is something hymn-like about the best of Bullock’s songs, especially with the repeated choruses. The musical structures unfold so logically, but always contain surprises, so that you have the sense that you have always known this music, but it’s completely new — just like the poetry.

The album contains some classics: Hurricane, for example, or the anthem-like Heart in Two. I suspect the real home of Reuben and the Dark in this mood is some great open-air festival, like Glastonbury, with the audience joining in on all those choruses.

Then last year Reuben and the Dark had a more international breakthrough, with the song Black Water being used for the trailer for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which went viral on YouTube. Their cover of What a Wonderful World is used in the soundtrack for this year’s Dolittle movie.

Their third album, un|love, released last fall, was written after Bullock separated from his wife and holed up in a cabin in Mexico to get some personal space. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the songs have a more direct poetry, and some of that wider soundscape has been scaled back, with more obvious passages of acoustic guitar.

It is more introverted, and if there are some beautiful moments (Inner River, for example) and Outrun the Rain is infectiously catchy, the album doesn’t sound as original as Arms of a Dream.

My reservations, though, were partly blown away by Reuben and the Dark’s performance in a buzzing, excited Starlite Room.

For here was a new side to the band, a five-piece out-and-out rock group, three electric guitars, amplified analogue drums, and Bullock on vocals and occasionally acoustic guitar. Songs from the first two albums took on a different life, guitars and Bullock’s voice soaring, all to the drums’ pulsating beat. No synthesizer here, no creation of a huge soundscape, just something in a way wonderfully old-fashioned: a classic rock band.

Songs like Broken Arrow took on a new guise, as if they had been re-clothed, and the surprise was how well their best-known songs worked with this much heavier sound. Even more effective was the recloaking of songs from the third album, where the rock feel suited the more self-contained nature of the songs, as did the complete opposite: Bullock singing solo to his own acoustic guitar.

I suspect Bullock is most at home in venues like this, more intimate, without the anonymous depersonalization of a huge hall, and the group’s sound suited the scale of the Starlite Room.

It also allowed Bullock to be closer to the audience, getting them to join in on the choruses. When he finally jumped into the standing audience, wireless mic in hand, and that audience parted like the parting of the waters for Moses and Israelites, here was the preacher-singer among his rapt listeners.

It was a powerful evening, one that left you completely satisfied and uplifted by the end, as if indeed one had been to a musical revivalist meeting. In their combination of something that feels both old-fashioned and yet completely new, Reuben and the Dark are one of the most remarkable groups coming out of Canada today.

Their next album may indicate the direction they will now go. I do hope that they go on developing the soundscape and anthemic songwriting of Arms of a Dream, because it is their unique sound. But if they continue the live rock path, I’ll be first in the queue for tickets to their next Edmonton show.



Reuben and the Dark

When: Wednesday, Feb. 26

Where: Starlite Room