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Mar 29, 2010

Sweet homecoming for Billy Talent

It was like Ben Kowalewicz was relishing his hometown arena-sized Billy, er, bully pulpit.

As lead singer for Toronto band Billy Talent, the energy and crazed-eye intensity he possesses was in full force Sunday night at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. And it was that verve which had the near-capacity, teen-dominated crowd in the group’s hand for most of their 90-minute set.

Marking the final stop on an extensive Canadian tour supporting their latest album Billy Talent III, the “four idiots from Mississauga” (their words, not mine) began the rather evenly paced performance with “Devil In A Midnight Mass”.

“Home sweet f—— home!” Kowalewicz shouted before “This Suffering” and the first screamo-rock highlight in “Line & Sinker” fuelled by guitarist Ian D’Sa.

The band also was determined to emphasize the fact they are indeed Canadian, whether with the “Welcome Home Boys” written on a large Canadian flag, a smaller flag on bassist’s John Gallant’s amp, a maple leaf on D’Sa’s guitar or a Team Canada t-shirt with Crosby and 87 on the back. “Best goal ever!” Kowalewicz said holding up the t-shirt prior to delving into the slower but beefy “Rusted From The Rain”.

A lot of the new songs didn’t seem to have as much oomph as the early material, but the encore-opening “Devil On My Shoulder”, the hard-driving “Diamond On A Landmine” (which saw a bra tossed onstage) and “Turn Your Back” held their own. “Turn Your Back” also featured a guest appearance by Tom Gabel, lead singer of support act Against Me!

After showing a 2007 photo from a show at the same venue, Billy Talent asked fans to light up the arena with lighters, cell phones or anything else they could find for the slower, somewhat tender “Nothing To Lose”. It was the last moment of calm before a bruising storm of “The Ex” and an extended “Try Honesty” wrapped up the main set.

Kowaleciwz had a few more foot-stomping moments onstage for “Fallen Leaves” and “Red Flag”, but by then it was apparent arenas are beginning to suit them.

Prior to Billy Talent, Alexisonfire ran through a 40-minute set mixing the older, shrieking nuggets like “No Transitory” and “Boiled Frogs” with more adventurous recent material from their new album Old Crows/Young Cardinals. About to perform a cover of Rush’s Tom Sawyer across town at the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame ceremony, the band led by Dallas Green and George Pettit shone on “Young Cardinals” and especially the slower, groovier “The Northern”.

Toronto’s Cancer Bats opened up the four-band gig early but it was punk rock band Against Me! which nearly stole the show. Playing almost seamlessly – and with a style in the vein of Social Distortion and The Gaslight Anthem — songs like “Don’t Lose Touch”, “Stop!”, “Thrash Unreal” and “I Was a Teenage Anarchist” are instant party starters. As well, Against Me!’s “Gabel” brought out Billy Talent’s Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk for one song, dubbing the new super group Against Talent.

Jason MacNeil
Toronto Sun
March 29, 2010

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Mar 29, 2010

Billy Talent, Alexisonfire Succeed In Different Arenas

Punk rock is not a spectator sport. It’s a communion. And it’s pretty fucking hard to pull off in a venue that fits 18,000. (Green Day can do it, but that’s another review.)

And it was the challenge facing Alexisonfire last night as their Canadian tour with Billy Talent, Cancer Bats and Against Me! came to a close in a sold-out, hometown show.

AOF are road warriors with honed live skills. There’s no question they can blow the roof off clubs and rock open air festival crowds.

But the Air Canada Centre is a cavern requiring grand gestures and clichés, something in which the five-man band don’t exactly specialize. The few hundred kids (and I do mean kids here — I was wearing boots older than some of the young ‘uns in attendance) closest to the stage could be seen experiencing a connection with the band.

But when you’re screamo (deal with it, “post-hardcore” revisionists), how can you really expect to have a successful call/response when thousands of non-fans can’t make out the words? Even those who did simply mouthed along from the safety of their seats, all the band’s fury fizzling into the air.

At least by the end of the short set, AOF’s “blues spiritual” track “The Northern” bleeding into “Young Cardinals” lifted the otherwise wall of fast-paced fuzz well into the rafters, offering a crescendo of emotion to swell the hearts and hormones so clearly about to burst.

Billy Talent, on the other hand, were made for this shit. From the very first note of “Devil In A Midnight Mass” that came throbbing out of Ian D’Sa’s guitar, they took command of the massive crowd. These “four idiots from Mississauga” acted like the biggest rock stars in the world.

I’ve taken to describing Billy Talent, not disparagingly, as the new Loverboy. You know, a Canadian rock band that write one radio hit after another, not exactly breaking new musical ground but having established their sound before most of the copycats get on it and manage to remain cool as they get better and bigger. Like, matter how popular they get, they will never embarrass the nation in the same way as, say, Simple Plan.

How much you enjoy Billy Talent live, of course, will depend on how much you like Ben Kowalewicz yelling at you. In between screeches, he’s got charisma up the butt. He swears a lot. He banters about hockey. He knows what to do when a bra is thrown on stage.

Very little of this is punk rock. (Which might explain the rather wimpy mosh pit that sort of got going.) So what? What this was, in an age of irony, indie and nostalgia, was an authentic arena rock experience, jam-packed with huge hits (“Rusted From The Rain,” “Surrender” “Nothing To Lose,” “Try Honesty”), metal-worthy guitar riffs and cheezeball stunts.

This was just like when they prodded the audience to recreate a moment from their last ACC show in 2007 by lighting the place up with lighters/cell phones. It worked. Yet for all the choreographed jumbotrons and singalongs, there is real genuine sentiment at work here — sincerity super-sized. And so here’s a cliché of my own: it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of guys.

Liisa Ladouceur
March 29, 2010

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Mar 28, 2010

Toronto trusts its (Billy) Talent

You know you have a powerful song when people are willing to eternally etch your lyrics into their skin.

In the case of Mississauga’s Billy Talent, it’s not the obvious anthems like “Try Honesty,” “Devil in a Midnight Mass” or the 2010 Juno-nominated Single of the Year “Rusted From the Rain” that are prompting people to permanently puncture their flesh; it’s “White Sparrows,” a ballad of lament and longing from the band’s latest album, Billy Talent III, that’s doing the trick.

“I’ve actually met five or six people where that song means so much to them that they have the lyrics tattooed on them,” claims singer Ben Kowalewicz, speaking on behalf of guitarist Ian D’Sa, bass player Jonathan Gallant and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. The band headlines a sold-out 18,000-seat Air Canada Centre tonight with an invigorating punk-powered package that includes St. Catharines’ Alexisonfire, Against Me, from Gainesville, Fla., and our own Cancer Bats.

“It’s nice to be part of people’s lives forever, I guess.”

Kowalewicz — whose act is up for four Juno Awards (Group of the Year, Album and Rock Album of the Year for III and single for “Rusted From the Rain”) on April 18 — says “White Sparrows” stemmed from the loss of a close relative.

He views it as a new pinnacle in the band’s melodically intricate slice-of-life repertoire.

“I was really hoping to use this song as a vessel to tell that story,” he recalled from a recent Winnipeg stop. “I had just lost someone very close to me, but Ian had been through a breakup at the time, and he really wanted to write it from that perspective.

“So the first part of the song sounds like this guy’s all sad because he broke up with his girlfriend. But then you realize that he’s sad because she actually passed away, and he’s asking God why, more or less.

“Ian came up with this beautiful melody, and the song was this perfect storm in how it worked together. Playing it in concert is pretty moving.”

The song — and a spate of losses involving “a bunch of friends and a whole bunch of friends’ parents over the last couple years” — also triggered a change in Kowalewicz’s own perspective.

“I’m just trying to enjoy my life right now,” he admits. “I’m no longer banking on that philosophy of ‘save up and then retire.’

“You’re not guaranteed anything. So enjoy what you’ve got right now, and if you want to do something — and if you’re excited about it — then do it, because you’re not promised that golden carrot at the end of the race.”

Of course, 17 years of unity — first as a screamo punk act Pezz, before the band changed its name to the Hardcore Logo-inspired Billy Talent — has enabled the band to gather a few carrots leading up to tonight’s hometown bash.

The five-time Juno winners have collectively sold more than a million albums here and abroad; spent the last nine months crisscrossing the globe steadily building audiences in Europe, Australia, Japan and Russia; and more tellingly, snagged ubiquitous hotshot producer Brendan O’Brien (Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, AC/DC) to helm the boards for III.

To say they’re in a good place may be a bit of an understatement, but Kowalewicz and his pals haven’t forgotten the struggle it’s taken to get there.

“It’s a dream come true for us,” he agrees.

“To have put forth a decade of blood, sweat and tears before anything ever happened, and now, to have our wildest dreams blown out of the water and fulfilled to a certain extent, we know how hard it took to get here and we’re not going to let anybody take it away from us,” he vows.

The fact that they’ve played so many gigs around the world puts them in a good position to realize many of their dreams, but Kowalewicz, 34, says moving out of the city isn’t one of them.

“I would never move out of Toronto — ever,” he adds for emphasis.

“I don’t think any of us would ever move out of Toronto, to be honest with you. Having had the chance to have seen a lot of great places in the world, and go to a whole bunch of different cities, Toronto is the best city there is.

“I love it. I absolutely love it. I love the people. I love the way it’s developing. Yes, we have problems, but every major city has problems. But I’m the biggest fan of our city, so I can’t see me leaving … pending some kind of global catastrophe.”

While there’s no foreseeable catastrophe on the horizon for Billy Talent; there is a new album the band plans to begin writing in the fall, following spring dates in the Pacific Rim and summer festival appearances in Europe and Canada.

Also looming: the Juno Awards in St. John’s, where they’ll perform live — although Kowalewicz says it really isn’t about the hardware, but the invitation to the party.

“It’s a drinking party, is what it is,” chuckles Kowalewicz. “A drinking competition, especially in Newfoundland, oh my goodness.

“Some great performers and great bands are going to be there, and we’re just happy to have our named tossed in with the gang.”

Nick Krewen
The Toronto Star
March 28, 2010

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Mar 26, 2010

Billy Talent and openers show punk scene is solid

There was a time, around the initial success of bands like Sum 41 and Simple Plan, that mainstream Canadian punk seemed about to fully descend into emo whinging and the brattier melodies of Avril Lavigne.

But in front of more than 10,200 fans at the Bell Centre, Mississauga’s Billy Talent showed why all was not lost to bubblegum pop run through a distortion pedal. With St. Catharines’s Alexisonfire and Toronto’s Cancer Bats, Wednesday’s concert presented a look Canada’s punk scene from various angles, with a solid performance from Florida’s Against Me! thrown in for good measure.

Initially called Pezz, Billy Talent formed in 1993, releasing the album Watoosh! under their original name in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2003’s eponymous album – and its breakout single “Try Honesty” – that the band found mainstream success with their unique brand of alt-punk, going multi-platinum with that record and 2006’s Billy Talent II. Their latest album, 2009’s Billy Talent III, continues to showcase their unique modern sound, which balances catchy but angular melodies with an inventive musicality that avoids the math-nerd complexities of post-hardcore.

Starting the show with the fuzzed-out intro to “Devil in a Midnight Mass”, the band came out with enough energy to match the frenzied crowd. Initially, the guitar tone seemed worryingly processed and buzzing, like a Nintendo rocking out through a broken bass amp. But thankfully, the mix cleaned up by the second song, “This Suffering”. The sound was near-flawless after that, allowing vocalist Ben Kowalewicz to cleanly deliver infectious choruses with his trademark nasal urgency; effective, despite occasionally evoking Fran Drescher calling for help.

Next, bassist Jonathan Gallant and guitarist Ian D’Sa traded off notes in a doomy, menacing intro before launching into “Line & Sinker”, from their 2003 album. Then, new song “Rusted from the Rain” and recent single “Saint Veronika”. An early highlight came when 2004’s “River Below” kicked off with its antagonistic, catchy guitar riff.

That song perhaps best encapsulates Billy Talent’s appeal. Mixing menace with pathos, Kowalewicz’s lyrics perfectly blend with the mid-paced aggression of D’Sa, Gallant, and drummer Aaron Solowoniuk. The result is less the self-absorbed moaning of teenage angst than it is the soundtrack to a tortured neurotic wringing his hands and pacing. Full of pent-up emotion, songs like “Nothing To Lose” and “The Ex” clearly struck a chord with the crowd, as did “Surrender” and “Turn Your Back”, which featured guest vocals by Alexisonfire’s Dallas Green and Tom Gabel from Against Me!, respectively.

Grimacing while spitting background vocals, guitarist D’Sa, with a vertical pillar of hair resembling either a Dick Tracy villain or startled cartoon character, maintained a strong presence, even as Kowalewicz prowled the stage. Anchored by Solowoniuk, Gallant laid down a solid low end, rumbling the crowd in darker songs like “Tears into Wine”. By the time impossibly catchy single “Devil on My Shoulder” kicked off the encore, the band had the crowd entranced, and fully believing in the future of Canadian punk.

Starting off the show was Toronto’s Cancer Bats. Their crushing performance of crusty, metal-influenced punk bruised from brawling with New Orleans sludge bands cemented their status as one of the best Canadian punk bands to crawl from the underground in the past few years. They were followed by Florida’s Against Me! and their catchy, straight-forward pop punk, and Alexisonfire’s complex, layered, and warmly received post-hardcore spasming.

Al Kratina
The Montreal Gazette
March 26, 2010

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Mar 4, 2010

Concert Review: Billy Talent with Alexisonfire, Against Me!, and Cancer Bats

What: Billy Talent with Alexisonfire, Against Me!, and Cancer Bats

When: Wednesday

Where: Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre

Rating: 4 (out of five)

The high value-for-dollar quotient of last night’s Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre concert might have had more to do with the current economic climate — Olympics, anyone? — than the acts on stage.

The opening night of Billy Talent’s 19-date tour of Canada featured an extremely solid lineup, with enough visibility to warrant its arena-sized ambition. A quartet of rock and punk acts spread over four and and a half hours, all for the price (in the late going, at least) of a case of beer — hard to argue with that in a depressed economy.

The headliner had all sorts of time on stage, double that of Alexisonfire or Against Me! and triple the time alotted to Cancer Bats. Not surprisingly, theirs was the best-received set of the night. But if there’s a downside to a full night of Billy Talent material, it’s the sound of Ben Kowalewicz’s shrieking voice. Songs like “White Sparrows” and “Rusted From the Rain” fared best early on, as they give Kowalewicz the ability to sing rather than scream, the only tool in his shed that still needs work in the live setting.

His endless energy and easy appeal needs no such tinkering. After “Line and Sinker”, the frontman donned a Sidney Crosby T-shirt to a roar from the crowd of 4,500, which skewed younger but was by no means pre-pubescent (his 81 year-old grandmother, who lives in Parksville, was attending her first Billy Talent concert last night.)

“Let them have football,” he said, proudly sporting the red and white tee. “Hockey is f—ing ours.”

On the heels of the first two opening acts — one solid, one so-so — it took Alexisonfire all of two minutes to exert a similar influence. And once it had the audience in its grip, the punk powderkeg was combustible.

With three frontmen (singers Dallas Green and Wade MacNeil and screamer George Pettit) the band’s energy level was spectacular to watch. “We are not the kids we used to be,” singer-guitarist MacNeil sang on “Old Crows”, as his bandmates flailed about.

All those yesterdays ago, Alexisonfire was a different entity. Pettit, for one, would have been covered in blood and/or half-bare at some point in the show; last night, the closest Pettit got to being naked was during the band’s power ballad, “The Northern”, during which he sang and played keyboards. There were occasional blotches on the pavement — be it the slight crack in Dallas Green’s voice or the set’s overall hurried feel — but Alexisonfire has no shame in its game.

Against Me! opened its hard-charging set with a few tinklings of piano courtesy of Victoria’s Tyson Yerex (on loan from local band Acres of Lions) which quickly segued into “Because of the Shame” from the band’s upcoming album, White Crosses. The three-minute barrage was an eventful beginning to a 35-minute set that seemed to breeze by, like most on this night, in a flash.

Frontman and founder Tom Gabel rides a delicate balance between pop songsmith and protest singer. He was at his best during “White People For Peace” and “Stop!”, both crisp-sounding tenets from Against Me!’s classic full-length from 2007, New Wave. Their set was a highlight.

The night opened with a thunderclap in the form of “Hail Destroyer”, the title track from the Cancer Bats’ 2008 release. Liam Cormier’s vocals were somewhat indistinguishable from the punk-metal sturm and drang. Cormier’s vocal clarity didn’t improve much during the remainder of the Cancer Bats’ set.

By the night’s end, everyone was spent, especially Billy Talent. No wonder why. Not only did they close with a quartet of huge hits (“Try Honesty”, “Devil on My Shoulder”, “Fallen Leaves”, and “Red Flag”) they carried the crowd on their back, Crosby-style, for what seemed like an eternity. Theirs was a gold-medal performance.

Mike Devlin
Times Colonist
March 4, 2010

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