Mad scientists

The mad scientists of indie music, Part 1: Chad Valley, James Vincent McMorrow, Active Child and Royal Wood

Mad scientists

Photo by crowolf

They all have something really unique about their style, like they’ve pulled together obscure pieces of the past and invented something new. Why did I pick these four? Well, I saw all of them perform in the span of a week recently, and the whole time I felt like I was on a freakish ride through the minds of some of the most fascinating men in music today.

This is my debut article for The Burning Ear as their new concert reviewer for Vancouver, so I thought I’d do something a little different and pull all these artists together into one big article.

James Vincent McMorrow at The Media Club

This is where my week began, with James Vincent McMorrow, arguably the most refined voice in the whole lot. In the minutes before he took the stage, I was catching up on his intriguing bio. He wrote and recorded his debut album alone in a beach house in Ireland, with nothing but one mic, and this was after literally taking three years off to focus on perfecting his singing voice. A light sparked and a few of his songs ran through my head in an instant and I thought, “Ah, it all makes sense now. OMG I CAN’T WAIT FOR THIS!”

He began with a teasingly mellow start to “Sparrow and the Wolf”. The banjo built up to the chorus as a huge cheer rose from the crowd, and instantly I knew that James Vincent McMorrow was going to shatter any expectations I had preconceived. How do I even describe this to someone who may not have heard him before? Here, if you don’t already know this song, please put this article on pause and watch the following video.

A few songs into his set, he still seemed like he was in his own world up there on the stage. Was he just shy, or was he just letting the music speak for itself as he waited for the crowd to join him in the calm, pastoral world that his music seems to create? It didn’t take long.

By the fourth song, soundly titled “Hear the Noise That Moves So Soft and Low”, the crowd was so quiet and intimate. By halfway through the set, he’d had a few drinks and was comfortable enough with the crowd to begin a bit of banter, joking with the crowd about Alicia Keys and outtakes from Bitches Brew.

You know that song “Higher Love”? Steve Winwood and Chaka Khan? McMorrow recorded a cover of it that went crazy on the blog scene a few weeks ago. I hadn’t heard it yet, so it was fantastic to see him do it live. James doesn’t play piano at all, but he sat down and sang while he tapped the piano, chord by chord.

As his set came to a close, I witnessed one of the most unusual things I’ve ever seen happen at a concert. He played “We Don’t Eat”, a fan favourite, followed by a traditional-sounding acapella version of “If I Had a Boat”. His voice was raspy and cracking as he powered through the song, and I was thinking to myself, “Wow, it’s like we don’t even need an encore. He’s played everything and the whole crowd seems fully sated.” Then he finished with a cover of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and the lights dimmed.

Royal Wood at The Electric Owl

A well-kept Canadian secret, Royal Wood is a clean-cut classical pop singer-songwriter with charming looks and a killer arsenal of jazzy pop songs. He’s not quite traditional jazz enough to take a run at Michael Buble, but if they ever played an arena together, I’m not sure who would sweep the bigger collection of women’s undergarments off the stage.

He introduced his set as the Sneak Peek Tour, where he would play a setlist of new songs that aren’t from his previous album. I thought that was a little funny, since even I only knew a couple of his songs and I don’t think many of the crowd knew more than one or two yet. They were fantastic though, as he bounced back and forth between the guitar and the piano.

A few songs in, he introduced the next few songs as the obligatory “hits” part of the set, which began with “Do You Recall”, and a slow but awesome cover of Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks”. Then he got to “On Top of Your Love”, hilariously telling us how he picked the song (which is obviously about sex) to sing on a Canadian children’s TV show, changing the lyrics “Wanna get on top of your love” to “It’s so great to get a hug!”

The idea of playing new songs that nobody knows yet is risky, but Royal Wood pulled it off well. Towards the end of the set, he jokingly mentioned that after the last couple songs, he would have to go stand off to the side of the stage and wait for the crowd to scream and cheer so he could act shocked and grateful for the opportunity to play a few more songs, while in reality, it was all planned that way and he actually had a list right there of which songs he was going to play for his encore. One girl at the front who obviously adored him squealed, “Is ‘Off My Sleeve’ on that list? I’ve been coming to your shows for awhile and you never play it!”. “It is now!” he said to her charmingly, adding “Aww, that was a nice little exchange, wasn’t it?” And he did actually play it for the encore.

Chad Valley at The Electric Owl

Hugo Manuel, aka Chad Valley, was one hell of a surprise. He appeared onstage and my first thought was, “He looks like his grandmum just dropped him off here after playing D&D with his friends at the comic shop.” One song later, he was dripping sweat like he’d just duelled with a plastic lightsabre, but my only thoughts were, “Holy shit, his VOICE! Where is that coming from? He’s like a treble Tay Zonday!” And the beats, the beats! Some dance musicians make dance music, while others make beats so smashingly heavy that they exist in a whole other dimension of sound. Chad Valley does the latter.

Active Child at The Electric Owl

I first heard Active Child when he opened for School of Seven Bells at the Biltmore in 2010. Since then, he’s tightened up his band (which has several new members), refined his sound, and come up with a slew of ethereal new chamber pop songs. What else can I say? He has a second album under his belt now and he’s doing what he does, even better than before. He’s one of those artists who is equally awesome onstage as he is on record.


2 replies
  1. Dave O'Connor
    Dave O'Connor says:

    Saw JVM at The Hideout in Chicago a month or two ago. I’d echo your sentiments on his performance exactly. Though I’d add that the the “Higher Love” cover literally crushed the audience. His brief and gleaming creshendos were haunting and optimistic at the same time. Pretty wild. And his piano playing was the perfect case of less is more. (

Comments are closed.