Published Jun 10, 2015The meeting between saxophonist Colin Stetson and violinist Sarah Neufeld at Toronto's Great Hall last night (June 9) felt like an overdue duel between woodwinds and strings, especially when the duo faced each other, rocking back and forth with sheer intensity on their faces. The two instrumentalists had clear chemistry together, having previously collaborated in Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre and an improv trio with Shahzad Ismaily — not to mention being partners in life — and their stage presence was fascinating to watch as they juxtaposed the melodic (Neufeld) and guttural (Stetson) into a series of compositions from their debut collaborative album, Never were the way she was.
The songs from the record fully demonstrate the two's atmospheric stylings, given that they use minimal instrumentation with no overdubs, and stacking the two on top of each other created sound that filled the venue. A battle is the best way to describe their performance, given the tonal juxtaposition of Stetson's harsh saxophone and Neufeld's sprightly violin, and the two worked together to recapture the studio magic of the arrangements live.
Opening with Never were the way she was opener "The sun roars into view," the duo set the tone with clever compositional interplay on a song that, true to its name, was simultaneously jaunty and ferocious. The jaunt wasn't solely from Neufeld, though, nor the ferocity only from Stetson; both effortlessly weaved between the two moods, sometimes in synchronicity, other times in opposition. What they do onstage demands a lot from the audience, and from themselves; mid-set, the duo traded off for solo performances to allow the other to rest.
Both Stetson and Neufeld have released solo material in years previous and, through them, have developed their own sonic signatures, many of which were present in their set. Of note, both utilize seemingly unorthodox percussive elements; Neufeld stomps the ground rhythmically, while Stetson positions a microphone under his hand so, as he plays the sax, his smacking the keys provides a powerful, percussive thwack. Both these methods provide rhythmic grounding, allowing the violin and saxophone — and, occasionally, Neufeld's voice —to soar without remaining too untethered.
The success of the percussive elements was most apparent in set standout "The rest of us," which found them firing on all cylinders: sax, violin, percussion and Neufeld's wordless vocals. Cycling through moods at a rapid pace, the song was a testament to the way that both musicians are constantly pushing the barriers of music, experimenting with how to convey emotion without following the signifiers of vocals or adding additional elements in the climax.
The set ended after a brief encore designed to lull the excited crowd to sleep which, given the other tunes' emotive textures, was a good move. Stetson and Neufeld consistently demonstrated how ambience and instrumental textures can be used to tell a story just as effectively as words, and used their individual strengths in tandem for a great show.