boringvsfunny

Which side of me will win?

Devin Townsend, Plovdiv – review

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20 years ago, I saw Devin Townsend perform live for the first time. He was headlining the Highbury Garage in London with his main band of the time, Strapping Young Lad. That tour, as far as I know, was the first – but certainly not the last – on which Devin was his own support act. So, before the main SYL event, he played a short set of songs taken from the then recently released Ocean Machine album.

I remember when I was stumbling sweaty, breathless and dazed out of the Garage at the end of that night, some guy turned to me and said,

“So mate, what did you think of that?”

“I was just thinking that was the best thing I have ever seen.”

“Yeah, I was thinking the same thing.”

I had a new favourite band in Strapping Young  Lad, but I loved Ocean Machine too. A half-hour set of selected tracks was great to see, but it wasn’t enough. Neither was the scattering of Ocean Machine tracks included in the various subsequent shows I went to. Of all the albums I own, it’s the one that most demands to be listened to start to finish. What I really wanted was to hear the whole thing live.

I had to wait 20 years, but finally I got what I wanted.

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Yes, 2 days ago I saw Devin Townsend perform live for the 10th time (13th if shows where he supported himself count double). He was doing a very special one-off show at the Ancient Roman Theatre in Plovdiv, Bulgaria. Again, he was performing two sets. The first was a selection of fan-requested tracks from his back catalogue (excluding SYL and Ocean Machine), and for this set he and his band were accompanied by the orchestra of the Plovdiv State Opera. And the second set was the entire Ocean Machine album from start to finish.

The Roman Theatre is an amphitheatre cut deep into the top of a hill in the centre of Plovdiv. The sides are very steep, and some of the steps very worn. In fact, I almost had to catch a woman who slipped on the steps. She regained her footing just as I reached out to catch her. She was okay, she said, but she’d nearly had a heart attack.

Safety issues aside, it is an incredible place to see a show. Not only is it architecturally beautiful, but it also manages to somehow feel both vast and intimate at the same time. The band is face-to-face not just with the front row, but with the entire crowd at once. I have never been to a show with an atmosphere quite like this, and I’m sure the unique venue has a lot to do with it. We were in the cheap seats to one side, but our view of the stage was still pretty good, and we had a great view of the rest of the crowd. Seeing my own joy reflected in the faces of a few thousand fellow Devin-loving misfits was something really special. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it.

I’m also smiling at the unique memory of seeing a whole crowd headbanging as one in neatly arranged rows.

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The “by request” set is awesome, with a real “gathering of weirdos” party atmosphere to it. The only minor gripe is that the orchestra is barely audible. They’re definitely adding a new depth and richness to the sound, but any additional subtlety or complexity is completely buried under the sound of the band. Which sounds immense, by the way, so it’s not a major problem. It just seems a bit of a shame given how much effort must have gone into preparing the orchestral parts.

Following the short, but extremely loud, firework display that marks the end of the first set, Devin quips, “And we’re just the support act…”

This joke highlights just how weird it is to go from a spectacular, climactic, high-energy party show to Ocean Machine, which is by far the most serious of Devin’s many projects. And indeed, at first the Ocean Machine set does feel just a little awkward. The stage seems so very barren without the orchestra, and crowd and band alike need time to adjust. Devin is still chatting and joking between songs and, for the first few tracks his vocals are failing to anywhere near match the soaring heights he managed in the studio two decades ago. He’s in tune and everything, but he doesn’t seem 100% committed.

Don’t get me wrong, I was still great and I was still getting goosebumps aplenty. But I couldn’t help feeling like it could be better. Maybe he can’t sing like that any more. Maybe it’s unrealistic to expect such a gruelling vocal performance to be replicated live. Maybe his voice is tired from the first set.

Or maybe he really can do better.

I love it when I’m right.

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As the Ocean Machine set progresses, the party vibe is gradually shaken off, the mood becomes more focused, and Devin himself… transforms. He stops chatting between songs and gets serious, seemingly channelling the spirit of the manic young man who put himself through hell just to produce this album in the first place. With each track, he seems to gain in confidence and his voice finds new levels of power. It just keeps getting better and better until by the time The Death Of Music comes around, he’s delivering each line with a desperate lunge at the mic, then recoiling back, clutching his head as if he fears it might burst.

As mentioned above, I’ve seen Devin perform many times. But I have never seen him like this. Much as I love the guy’s awkward sense of humour, stripping it away like this really allows the magnificent power of his music to shine through. I’m leaning forward in my seat, unblinking, literally slack-jawed in awe of what I’m seeing and hearing.

They finish with bonus track Things Beyond Things (complete with agonising scream), and Devin drops to his knees, head slumped forward, physically and emotionally drained. After a few seconds, he composes himself enough to greet a huge standing ovation that just goes on and on and on and on.

It’s 2 days later and I’m still applauding. And I think I’ll still be applauding 20 years from now.

(Images shamelessly stolen from Devin Townsend, Jack Reigns and Ben Tapp)

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