Austra kicked off their fall tour Friday night at the Crofoot in Pontiac with just the level of fanfare you would expect from the Canadian electro band. Frontwoman and powerhouse vocalist Katie Stelmanis was joined by bassist Dorian Wolf, drummer Maya Postepski and keyboardist Ryan Wonsiak and the group was met by a receptive and energetic crowd, one clearly well-versed in their two-album discography and ready for whatever Austra had in mind.
That, as it turned out, was an awe-inspiring vocal performance, a dance party and a light show all in one. The latter came courtesy of a friend of the band and a collection of paper umbrella-style lights placed around the stage. About three songs in, Stelmanis asked the Crofoot to cut the main stage lights to draw more attention to the display and while the lights were certainly an added bonus, they came at the expense of the band's, particularly Stelmanis', visibility. Luckily, most of the show kept the group well-lit - with the addition of some dramatic blackouts timed to the drops in their music - and the intimate size of the venue meant that the mesmerizing and infectious performance reached everyone.
Austra's brand of electronic music is not that of dubstep raves or Washed Out-style chillwave, but rather an electronic reminiscent of classical music and harmony-centric, almost operatic vocal attention. There is an orchestral element to the way Stemanis vocals - she's classically trained and makes excellent use of that range - combine with the drum, keys and bass lines. Live, Stelmanis moves her hand - the one not holding her mic - like a conductor, waving and directing both the band and the crowd to dance and sway as part of the performance. Inter-song banter was kept to a minimum (profuse thanks and an anecdote about a show four years earlier notwithstanding) but such chatter was hardly necessary with the adorable excitement in each introduction and the obvious enjoyment Austra take in performing. Surrounded by Wolf, Postepski and Wonsiak, Stelmanis is very much deserving of a larger space as she led all angles of the show with her physicality, dictating energy and action from center stage. The crowd, for its part, was receptive and willing to be led, as shown in their hushed but attentive stance during the songs (this is music made for the hipster-sway) and wildly enthusiastic cheering after.
Most of the set drew from Olympia, the band's June release and sophomore effort, but the pinnacle of the show was "Lose It." The breakout single from their debut, Stelmanis invited former bandmate (and part of opening act DIANA) Carmen Elle onstage ("she's probably drinking whisky somewhere") and the two led the crowd singing, dancing, jumping and all else along with the hoo-hoo-ing (all live, all real) chorus, turning the steady recorded track into a full-on live anthem. (It should be said that only Austra could make a chorus out of a borderline hoot.) Other highlights came early on with recognizable singles "Painful Like" and "Home" and with closer "The Beat & The Pulse."
Austra's live show is impressive in how they so remarkably reproduce their recorded work - the accuracy and yes-that's-actually-her-range moments are many - but also in how they are able to use the live settings and instruments to up the energy of certain tracks and add new elements. The drums added a lot to the show - particularly on "The Choke" - and "Reconcile" featured a far more prominent can-popping sound than on the record, clarifying for the audience just what beat to groove to. Unsurprisingly, Stelmanis' presence, both vocal and physical, was the engaging focal point of the live show and we can only imagine what she could do with a bigger stage.
"What We Done" "Painful Like" "Forgive Me" "The Choke" "The Villain" "Home" "Reconcile" "Annie (Oh Muse)" "Lost It" "The Beat & The Pulse"
Encore: "We Become" "Hurt Me Now"