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Guelph 2014: Pugs & Crows didn't live up to its talent (review)

Meredith Bates played propulsive violin at the Pugs & Crows concert at the Guelph Jazz Festival ©Brett Delmage, 2014

Pugs & Crows
Guelph Jazz Festival
Macdonald Stewart Art Centre
Thursday, September 4, 2014 – 5 p.m.

View photos of this performance

Pugs & Crows is a Vancouver-based instrumental group which creates “dramatic cinematic music” blending indie rock and modern jazz. Their most recent album, Fantastic Pictures, won the 2013 Juno Award for Instrumental Album of the Year.

They played an hour-long late afternoon show at the Guelph Jazz Festival, to an enthusiastic and packed crowd. Performing with lots of energy and tight arrangements, they went through a good selection of numbers from both their albums, plus a few new pieces.

The group has an unusual lineup, with piano (Cat Toren) and violin (Meredith Bates) joining electric guitar (Cole Schmidt) as lead instruments, together with double bass (Russell Sholberg) and drums (Ben Brown). For this show, their music was accented by guest Tony Wilson on electric guitar and slide guitar, adding fluid lines and strong emotional touches.

Stylistically, they were all over the place: their opening piece started out with classical piano, followed by light folky electric guitar, and then added strong melodic violin lines adding to the multi-layered feel. But the song rapidly got much louder, sounding almost like prog rock – and then it turned into a lovely entwined violin/slide guitar duet.

I was most impressed with “Seven”, which began with a resonant bass solo accented by light brushes on drums, and then moved to a haunting and beautiful theme on violin. Toren came in with strongly punctuated piano riffs, which then modulated to a Bill Evans-style thoughtful exploration. Bates joined in again with her violin echoing the piano's theme, and Brown let cymbals sing in the background, before the song faded out.

The next piece, “We Must Befriend the Ice Queen”, was also memorable: a bright, fast, and loud collaboration featuring pizzicato violin and strong guitar riffs, which got very wild before it ended abruptly.

Listening to Pugs & Crows, it was clear they were all good musicians and a tight band. And yet, overall, their music didn't work for me. The rock elements smeared out the more delicate jazz touches. Too many musical ideas were thrown into each song, which had the odd effect of making the songs all sound alike. And the songs didn't resolve well: they either faded out or ended abruptly, but there was no clear closure or referring back to the opening idea.

Their music was like a dish composed of delicious individual ingredients, which don't necessarily taste good together. With more down-to-earth recipes and less seasoning, the results might be more scrumptious.

    – Alayne McGregor

Full disclosure: The Guelph Jazz Festival assisted Alayne McGregor and Brett Delmage in finding a family who very generously billeted us in Guelph, so we could afford to report on the festival.

Read more about the 2014 Guelph Jazz Festival:

All photos ©2014 Brett Delmage