The El Mocambo, which sits in the heart of downtown Toronto, is probably best known for hosting the Rolling Stones back in ’77 for two shows, the material of which was later used on their Love You Live album. It’s a venue steeped in rock and roll tradition; the dive bar atmosphere and glowing, neon palm tree sign that marks its place along the Chinatown strip add the necessary amount of kitsch, making this a good place to see young, heavy bands. Waiting outside, while snow was coming down in heavy sheets, I was perfectly expecting a night of unabashedly gleeful indie pop. It wasn’t until I was inside the club – standing so close to the stage that I could have caressed a Dum Dum Girl if such things were considered appropriate – that I realized I was in for a night propelled by a seductive and compelling sexual energy.
Alex Zhang Hungtai, the one man looping show behind Dirty Beaches, started off the evening with a bang. With everything already set up on the small, slightly elevated stage, Hungtai, wearing skin tight black jeans and an open shirt, ran on stage, grabbed his mic and started screaming, “100 highways,” over and over, contorting and distorting his voice like a mad man. “But only one leads to you,” he gently stated before hitting a pedal, which cued the percussive and rhythm elements of his show, then delivering a stellar version of “Speedway King,” a track off his upcoming Badlands. Ripping through most of Badlands with an energetic urgency and raw sexual energy, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. When he dedicated his signature version of Johnny Cash’s “The Singer” to the late Trish Keenan, everyone was focused on Hungtai as he combed his greased hair back and totally embodied the persona of the man in black.
After a brief pause, Brooklyn band Minks brought their shoegaze-inspired debut, By The Hedge, to the stage. They seemed reserved as their set began, but as they continued, they seemed to gain confidence and hit a nice groove. In a live setting, the band was able to portray a personality that was only hinted at on their record. With an eclectic mix of cliché and wardrobe – as one guy standing behind me remarked, they looked like a band pulled straight from a John Hughes film – it was easy to get wrapped up in the vulnerability of the lyricism and the nostalgia of their ’80s lo-fi sound.
Originally a duo composed of Shaun Kilfoyle and Amalie Bruun, Minks is a totally different beast live. Touting six members that looked like they belonged in Bon Iver, the Smiths or Blondie, as well as a bassist that would have felt right at home as part of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World’s Sex Bob-Omb, they blazed through half of their set with what felt like jaded disconnection – or maybe just nerves. They seemed distant from their material, but once they fucked up the beginning of a song in the middle of their set and had to start over, prompting the audience to hoot and holler in support, they loosened up and delivered a lively set punctuated by an inspired take on album standout “Funeral Song.” There may not have been a lot of people there to see Minks, but it’s easily to believe many of them left with a new-found interest in a band still looking to make a name for themselves.
Even with the compelling performances from the two opening acts, it only took the Dum Dum Girls a few notes of the Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire” to remind the audience that this was their show and it was going to be about rock ‘n’ roll. After strutting on stage in short skirts and skin-tight black leggings, front woman Dee Dee drew the audience in immediately, playing seductive femme fatale all night long while shimmying, shaking and providing driving, fuzzy power chords. Debbie Harry and Joan Jett came to mind as Dee Dee belted out each song with a mix of sincerity and a constructed persona. After nailing “He Gets Me High” and “Bhang Bhang, I’m A Burnout,” the Dum Dum Girls had everyone on the floor dancing. The generally passive crowd was able to let loose and just jam along with the band. It helped that Dee Dee was consistently swigging a bottle of Jack Daniels, much to the everyone’s delight. “I can’t believe how many of you are here,” she remarked as she looked across the sea of sweaty hipsters. Opening with the Stones and closing with a gritty version of the Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” Dum Dum Girls made sure that in between the nods to their influences, they carved out their own corner of music history at this small, historic venue.
Intimate, sexy, loud, fuzzy and danceable, the three-band lineup of Dum Dum Girls, Minks and Dirty Beaches brought down the El Mocambo with relative ease. Like the venue itself, the sets were loose, dirty, a tad worse for wear, but not without certain undeniable charms. There was an energy that ran from the stage through to the audience, which resulted in a truly compelling, three-hour communal experience. Not bad for a snowy February evening in Toronto.
(Photos: Shawn Parker)