OhGr keeps the theatrics to a minimum in Vancouver
At the Rickshaw Theatre on Sunday, December 4
It’s a safe bet that no one came to Sunday night’s ohGr concert expecting to witness any moments that could be described, with no trace of irony, as “sweet”, but such a moment took place in any case. Shortly after the band’s singer and sort-of namesake Nivek Ogre and his three backing musicians returned to the stage for an encore, another group of people, including members of opening acts Violet Tremors and Left Spine Down, also emerged from backstage, bearing a cake with a single lit birthday candle. Ogre, who was turning 49, received an enthusiastic chorus of “Happy Birthday to You” from the entire room.
The singer, who was born in Calgary and now lives in Los Angeles, made his name as one of the electro-industrial pioneers in the Vancouver-spawned Skinny Puppy. After thanking the hometown crowd and explaining that his younger self hadn’t expected to live past 25, he announced that ohGr was about to play an acoustic set, and that he needed a moment to grab his guitar. Instead, he grabbed a bullhorn, and he and tore into the caustic “Shhh”, which is about as far from MTV Unplugged territory as it’s possible to get.
But this was a night that was all about defying expectations. Anyone hoping for full-on Puppy-scaled spectacle from ohGr went home disappointed. Actually, scratch that. It’s hard to imagine that anyone at all went home disappointed. Ogre’s arrival on the Rickshaw’s stage in a grey suit and police-issue riot helmet while the Michael Jackson 911 call was piped through the PA was about as theatrical as things got, but the show didn’t suffer as a result. Ogre has a hypnotic enough presence that even when he’s standing still, it’s hard to take your eyes off him.
With guitarist William Morrison, drummer Justin Bennett, and keyboardist Jeff Smith backing the frontman up, ohGr has something more of straightforward rock sound in a live setting than on albums like the recent unDeveloped. This doesn’t always work in Ogre’s favour, as it exposes his melodic limitations as a singer. But it also makes for a raw, visceral sound that’s easier to grasp than much of his recorded output, particularly the often dense and chaotic work of Skinny Puppy.
The set drew on all four ohGr LPs, which allowed the musicians to display their proficiency with a number of styles, from the weirdo industrial cabaret of “Timebomb” to the buzzing machine pop of “craCKer”. Yeah, I just used the word pop. For all its hard edges, this isn’t music that’s entirely devoid of hooks; “maJiK”, too, is catchy as hell, for a song that sounds as if it’s trying to drive a dental drill into your ear. And there’s beauty here, as well. When Morrison stepped to the microphone to join Ogre on the searing chorus of “tragek”, it was downright shiver-inducing.
Left Spine Down didn’t have any such emotional peaks in its set, but it did have plenty of heft to its punkish take on industrial music. The Vancouver band leans far enough in the rock direction, and does it well enough, to warrant the mainstream attention that has mostly eluded it so far. Visually, LSD hit all the machine-rock marks, from the bullhorn wielded by singer Kaine Delay to the CAUTION tape that covered the keyboard stand and guitar amplifiers.
And it takes some balls to cover Joy Division, especially in front of a roomful of black-clad punters who were doubtless intimately familiar with the original version of “She's Lost Control”. Left Spine Down sold it through sheer energy, even if the animated Delay sometimes seemed more into it than the crowd—a fact he noted aloud when he beseeched the audience to mosh like it was 1994 all over again.
A few took him up on it, including Keith Flint and Al Jourgensen. Okay, so it wasn't really those guys, just one dude who took his style cues from the “Firestarter” video, and another rocking the bewildering cowboy-hat-and-industrial-goggles combo. Make up your mind, man! Are you a ranch hand or are you a welder?