October 26, 2009
Gonzales, aka Chilly Gonzales, aka Jason Charles Beck, visited the Mod Club earlier last month wearing white gloves and a dark polyester bathrobe. By the end of the night, his carefully-coiffed pompadour was drenched, dripping all over the doting fans leaning on the stage as he beatboxed and sprayed droplets of spit on their upturned faces. He resembles a mad scientist and rants endlessly like your grandfather and mine. It’s hard to pinpoint the artist’s forte during performances—is it in his piano prowess, his Adam Horowitz-like bratty freestyle rap or in his storytelling skills? In this case, it is completely accurate for him to have named a past album The Entertainist, as he has acquired a reputation for often absurd, interactive shows.
On this prematurely cold September night, he was equal parts performer, storyteller, rapper and pianist. He performed mostly from 2004’s Solo Piano. Solo Piano is not a classical expedition, but is rather fairytale-like in consistency, fluttery and whimsical. A lot of Gonzales’ music sounds like it should be placed along the soundtrack of a black and white film or something set in the 1950s, while other tracks take on a distinct blues drawl. As a producer, he’s dabbled with ABBA-esque and disco-tinged rhythms, having worked with some major acts including Peaches and Jane Birkin. Gonzales was also heavily involved in the production and songwriting of Feist’s two chart-topping albums, Let it die and The Reminder. A deluxe edition of Solo Piano was recently released alongside his DVD From Major to Minor. If you haven’t seen Gonzales live, watching these jam sessions featuring the likes of Jamie Lidell, Mocky and Feist will give you an introduction to the theatric spectacle some of us are privy to at his concerts.
One would wonder if he suffers from an insecurity derived from the success of his collaborative partners a la Feist and Peaches. At one point during the show, he asked his audience if they could even hum or recognize the songs from his Solo Piano album, daring us to admit or confess that we came for a short glimpse at Feist—who did show up for a couple of songs early in the night. He regaled us with anecdotes of attempts to land shows in Toronto and made several sweeping statements, betraying his own struggles in the music industry which propelled him to settle in Europe, otherwise touching on the strength and tough skin he has built from years of constructing his international identity. The times when he used lyrics also expressed his complexes with more than a few lines saying things like, “Why can’t anybody like me?” and “I want to be loved and hated in equal amounts.” He makes you wonder if he received much affection as a child or if he is just a tad bitter against Torontonians.
Gonzales played with the fervor, concentration and staccato extremes I love to see in a pianist, face scrunched and intent on his keys. He would begin heavy and foreboding, admitting to an affinity for minor chords since major chords are “oppressive” and meant to “indoctrinate our youth.” A lot of his songs do, however, end or begin with the delicate, fairydust sound one might hear as a character drifts into a dream or fantasy in a movie. He fluctuates between compositions from his own albums and classic piano covers like the Eagles “Hotel California,” but with a minor take, of course. In a live environment, he has been known to pull out a series of tricks from his sleeve, on this occasion choosing a melodica and the stomping bass of his foot to replace traditional percussion. Though he is known for being experimental and even too eclectic for some tastes, the one thing that’s always reliable is the high energy and focus steeped in every song. I would go so far as to say this self-proclaimed “ingenie musical” (musical genius, en Francais) was consistently “on” throughout the night, never letting his audience get bored.
Feist’s not-so-surprising cameo was received happily by the audience. She playfully came onstage behind Gonzales, letting him play the music as she sat atop the piano serenading him. There was a friendly romance between them, and I could swear Gonzales grew bashful under the gaze of Feist’s batting eyelashes while crooning a Nina Simone and Nat King Cole favourite, “Where Can I Go Without You?” They went on with a jazzy cover of the booty-shaking hip hop song “Oops” by Tweet, Fabolous and Missy Elliot. The two have excellent onstage chemistry, joking around about the possibility of Gonzales moving back to Toronto from Berlin and becoming an apologetic musician like so many other Canadian songwriters.
Gonzales was as much there for the music as he was for the sake of wooing his crowd with offhanded banter, so if you’re looking for a calm piano bar show, you’ll need to go elsewhere. The gloves have left me baffled. I wonder, are they a super-absorbent addition for the sake of perspiring hands or is it just another aspect of his super villain persona?