The beleaguered music venue/restaurant The Carleton is finally seeing the light of the everlasting tunnel. The Argyle Street rejuvenation project is finally wrapping up, as is the heavy lifting associated with the construction of the Nova Centre. My travels have finally brought me back down this way to catch the exciting triple bill of Iskwé, local chanteuse Arsoniste, and indie-rock duo Rococode. While these may not be household names to many, for those in attendance, this was a stellar lineup. As the beam above the stage was well stocked with upcoming artists/shows, you know things are looking up for one of the best venues in the city.
First on the bill of this chilly Friday night was HAFILAX favourite Arsoniste. It has been roughly a year since I last saw this talented local chanteuse perform in this very room, and while I liked the performance then, it didn’t set my hair on fire. Tonight was certainly different, in the sense that the moment Rachel Sunter (aka Arsoniste) opened her mouth to start the set, I was picking my jaw up off of the floor. So much so that I set my camera aside and watched the magic being performed on stage. The majority of folks in the Carleton were held in rapt attention, aside from a pack of rowdy bros at the bar who were skillfully managed from the stage, as Arsoniste called attention to their disruptive nature, without actually calling them out. Aside from that distraction, the rest of the room was busy falling in love with the lush soaring vocals of the talented singer. In the past year Arsoniste’s skill-set has grown dramatically, and is on the precipice of moving her into a headlining slot of her very own.
Then it was time for the album release celebration for Iskwe’s The Fight Within, an album that at its surface is an energetic and engaging pop album. I imagine that with a full band, the Iskwé live experience is something a little lighter and more energetic, but on this night it was just the singer-songwriter and her keyboardist. In listening to her album since its release, I was curious to see how it translated to the live environment, as some of the vocals seemed to have a sheen of studio polish, but in hearing her sing during the warm-up it was evident that she needed no studio salvage work. The added bonus to paring down the band was that the surface pop veneer of the album was stripped away, much like the lake ice in the warmth of spring, revealing a depth that was long buried. While the set wasn’t as long as it may have been had Iskwé headlined, it was powerfully raw and intense, dripping with the pain and anguish that many indigenous families have experienced for hundreds of years. The pairing of “Will I See” and “Nobody Knows” illustrated this tortured history in a chilling and passionate display, the latter showcasing those aforementioned vocal skills. These songs may be crafted in pop but they are far deeper and darker than you may initially recognize. While I walked in expecting a lighter set, I walked out wowed by an artist who is taking her platform and sharing an immediate and important message about the plight of her people. Hopefully next time this talented singer-songwriter comes to town, it’s a bit warmer.
As it was the end of the work week, my carriage was soon to return to its Pumpkin status. Only a couple of songs into Rococode’s set I bid the Carleton adieu, headed out into the chilly November evening, and enjoyed a stroll down the reopened Argyle street and took in the sights. I have a feeling that the businesses that toughed out the past few challenging years will soon begin to reap some serious rewards, as the street seems re-energized. And if the city opted to close these blocks to vehicular traffic during the weekend evening hours, it could easily become the entertainment hub of the city. It’s about time that the Carleton gets to shine as one of the best venues in town.