Anyone could be forgiven for not noticing Latino bar and restaurant Rancho Relaxo on College Street in Toronto, with its unassuming exterior tucked discreetly into the terraced surroundings. And forgive ourselves we had to because, despite actively looking for it, we still managed to stroll right past it. But the prospects of a night of live music with a meagre $2 cover charge and $3 drinks compelled us to retrace our steps. We couldn’t have missed it could we? Well, a few minutes labouring backwards and sure enough, there it was, shying away from us into the submerging shadows of the street. Merrily we tossed our toonies (2 dollar coins) into the coin tray at the top of the stairs and homed in on the bar.
Our first disappointment was a minor one. $4 drinks, not 3. Seems our reliable source wasn’t that reliable! A minor quibble of course. We moved on to pitchers soon enough anyway…
The venue itself was cosier than a caravan in a rainstorm. It had a small stage at the front near the entrance and stretched narrowly back through the building to the bar. Softly lit in shades of warm maroon, it created a snug, welcoming vibe for us hopeful spectators.
Around 10pm the first act, Amnesiac Jack, took to the stage. One guy, one guitar, one gentle but barely audible set. Who knows, maybe his lyrics were brilliant, but we could only make out a few choice words here or there. He went on strumming his acoustic guitar gamely from one basic chord number to the next, despite little audience concentration, but when you can only make out two or three phrases per song (I definitely heard something about a tree…I think) you know you’re not getting the full experience. It might have been the acoustics of the venue but then there didn’t seem much of a problem with the acts that followed. So, thank you Amnesiac Jack, for providing some light backing for our initial beverages, but unfortunately your name is more apt than you realise… too easily forgettable.
Easily forgettable is not a phrase you could apply to the next band, whether you dig their thing or not. Phil Allister stormed the stage, a three-piece band made up of drummer, bassist and one guy wearing awesome rave specs who bopped gleefully between hammering hysterically on his guitar one minute and churning quirky sounds out of his keyboard the next, thus inducing the crowd to abandon their seats and shake it to their wacky beats. It was a bizarre set to say the least, but immensely entertaining and unpredictable to the last. Their colourful attire, which made them look like Daft Punk’s long lost children, widened a few eyes from the off and once the jaunty basslines and manic flails of instrumentalism had begun few could tear those widened eyes away. They were hugely impressive, especially for a ‘middle of the line-up’ band playing in such a modest venue.
Defining their sound is somewhat more of a baffling exercise; I’m not sure regular vocabulary is well equipped to pull it off properly. There was certainly some very ska riffs going on in there, and these moments brought the most movement out of the crowd. Yet at other times they seemed to go all Datarock on us, with some kooky electronics splattered over funky basslines, before suddenly switching to thrashing guitar riffs more akin to Mars Volta’s back catalogue. On their MySpace page they’ve invented a whole new name for their music, “Skcrunk in the Jungle”, a fusion of rock, funk, dance, ska, calypso, hiphopboptrop and reggae, so for wont of a better description I shall settle for calling Phil Allister the best band of hardcore skcrunkers this blogger’s ever had the privilege to see. Please check them out.
With adrenaline and drunkenness levels in the crowd now soaring it was time for hip-hopper Paul C, the last in our trio of acts, to pump them up even more. And considering that two of his musicians couldn’t make it, resulting in it being just him, a shy guitarist and a laptop that provided the beats, he did a very good job of it. This was entirely down to the charisma and quick-fire rapping of Paul C himself. Now, I confess, I’m not exactly a hip-hop aficionado. It’s not really my thing. But I can recognise talent when I hear it and Paul’s lightning fast rap had me hooked from beginning to end. He certainly looked the part, adorned in a slick white marching band style jacket, delicately positioned rude-boy cap and big sunglasses that he made look cool despite seeming like the ones you buy with a bucket and spade at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. After a few explosions of rapid rapping, however, he ditched these so he could parade his old skool afro that had been hiding away up to that point.
The rap tracks themselves were each a meticulously crafted narrative, which he conveyed clearly even when hurling out the words at such a breakneck speed that it was a wonder where he was getting his breath from. Because his mouth was way too busy for those type of formalities. Midway through he thanked the organisers for inviting him to perform his first ever paid show, and this knowledge only impressed me further. With more lively, infectious performances like this one, plus the complete backing from his missing band members, Paul C might well become a popular name in hip-hop circles. But then, what do I know? I don’t even like hip-hop.