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Daniel J. Kushner, traipsing through sounds

Posts Tagged ‘dm stith

Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Penelope: An Album Review

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When the song cycle Penelope is released on Tuesday, October 26, 2010, for many intrepid music lovers it will be an introduction to the work of composer/New Amsterdam Records co-founder Sarah Kirkland Snider. Performed by the chamber ensemble Signal and singer Shara Worden under the direction of Brad Lubman, the album is being released by New Amsterdam.

DM Stith's cover art for Penelope.

My first introduction to Sarah Kirkland Snider and her compositional creations, was also through Penelope, back in late 2009, when I first spoke with the composer about an in-progress song cycle project in collaboration with My Brightest Diamond frontwoman Shara Worden, a classically trained mezzo-soprano/songwriter with a penchant for engrossing art rock songs that can simultaneously capture essences of opera, garage rock, cabaret, soul and the blues.

Ms. Snider told me that Penelope would in effect be a re-imagining of Homer’s Odyssey, told from the perspective of Homer’s wife. This alone sounded like a smart premise, but merely discussing a work that had yet to be released as an album did not prepare me for actually listening to Penelope, the work.  To my recollection, Penelope is the most vivid, mesmerizing psychological nightmare set to music I’ve heard.

Like most of the New Amsterdam composers, Ms. Snider composes music that is perhaps best defined (if any attempt should be made at all) by the “chamber music” settings that serve as the most appropriate environments for experiencing it.  That particular environment is more often than not the “rock concert/nightclub/lounge venue,” in which those who subscribe to the polite diligence of traditional classical concert etiquette and more rowdy attendees are equally at home. Galapagos Art Space, in DUMBO, Brooklyn, where New Amsterdam hosts its monthly Archipelago series, is an excellent example:

Galapagos Art Space, the interior.

Stylistically, Penelope at once possesses an unabashed pop sensibility and a subtle sophistication, as it merges more traditional chamber orchestra instrumentation with the thoughtful incorporation of quintessential rock sonics–electric guitar and drums. The strings do most of the heavy lifting with the melodic and harmonic themes, but the complex textures and confluence of timbres provide the most reward after repeat listens.

The use of electronics is particularly artful here. Unlike other contemporary compositions that place electronic sounds at the forefront of the sonic palette (which is not necessarily a bad thing), Penelope utilizes electronic sounds only so far as they enhance the dreamlike prism through which Penelope views her predicament. Rather than dominating the mix, the electronics often add merely one more texture, imbuing the music with an intangible ambience that suggests the instability of her mental state.

It should be noted here that the production value of the recording is particularly high. Producer Lawson White–whose work is also showcased in William Brittelle’s Mohair Time Warp and the recent release from Missy Mazzoli’s Victoire, entitled Cathedral City–achieves the ideal balance of the instruments, voice, and electronic manipulation. The result is a supremely polished yet genuine and spontaneous-sounding album that bursts with maturity.

The lyrics, written by playwright Ellen McLaughlin, detail the experiences of a comparatively modern Penelope, who quickly finds that her life shares an eery affinity with that of another Wife Penelope from antiquity. A brief synopsis, according to the official Penelope web site, is as follows:

In the work, originally scored for alto/actor and string quartet, a woman’s husband appears at her door after an absence of twenty years, suffering from brain damage. A veteran of an unnamed war, he doesn’t know who he is and she doesn’t know who he’s become. While they wait together for his return to himself, she reads him the Odyssey, and in the journey of that book, she finds a way into her former husband’s memory and the terror and trauma of war.

The remarkable thing about Ms. McLaughlin’s text is that while the basic plot seems intentionally vague and open-ended, the individual emotions expressed, feelings revealed, and images evoked are very specific and loaded with immediacy.

This striking paradox has the effect of making the listener Penelope’s sounding board–as if she has temporarily escaped the house to which her long-lost husband has returned, in order to breathlessly, perhaps deliriously convey her plight to whomever will listen. And so, while we can surmise from the song cycle’s plot that her husband has indeed physically returned, we really can only verify this fact through Penelope’s psychological perception, her memories–however credible.

One could interpret our protagonist’s words to represent her own inner dialogue, an interior conflict between her eager expectations of her connection with her husband and the tragically somber reality of an irreparable chasm that has formed between them.

The listener only hears directly from Penelope herself, and although she appeals to her husband directly, he never voices his own perspective. It’s possible that the wife still awaits her lover’s return, or that he returned long ago, and she is still bound to the bitter memories of their ill-fated reunion.

In order to communicate through music the mental disorientation, the contagion of dizzying desperation that comes with the realization of a life built together now decimated, Ms. Snider gives vocalist Shara Worden beautifully understated step-wise melodies that captivate as they meander, and quickly embed themselves in your consciousness, never to relinquish their spell.  One of many highlights in the song cycle, “The Lotus Eaters” is nearly impossible to banish from your mind once it nestles in and finds its home there.

Sarah Kirkland Snider and Shara Worden; photo by Murat Eyuboglu.

When larger melodic intervals do emerge, their occurrence is all the more dramatic and emotionally rending. The passage of time is suspended, and the hypnotic quality of Ms. Worden’s clear, nearly vibrato-less tone–with a disarming smoky timbre in the lower registers–takes over.

And while the back-and-forth sway of the melodies induces a kind of aural seasickness, Ms. Snider implements precise rhythmic devices that augment the ebb-and-flow of the music with deceptively complex shifts in time signature and an intuitive sense of when one phrase ends and the next begins.

This elusive sense of time is exemplified in the cycle’s opening song, “The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved.” The NPR story linked below contains the complete song:
“The Stranger with the Face of a Man I Loved”

He Left me here/Half a life ago/But this is where he came/A stranger with the face of a man I loved/This house, this house, where the past of our times/I try to remember/And the rest of the time…(I try to forget the times he lied and I lied before)/Before you just left me….just left me here.

As I reflected on the cryptic lyrics above, I remembered that the subject matter– a jilted woman left to choose between being forever mired in her infatuation with his memory or accepting the harsh reality that he will never return–has a very resonant precedent: in the music of Shara Worden and My Brightest Diamond (MBD).

A doppelgänger of the “The Stranger” is “Gone Away,” from MBD’s debut album Bring Me the Workhorse. The link to audio for a live in-studio version of “Gone Away” may be found here:

My Brightest Diamond’s Daytrotter Session, 02/04 07

Far away you’ve gone and left me here/So cold without you, so lonely dear/May, June, July, I come to town/Every minute I go takes the smell of your clothes further away…’Cause you’ve gone away/Where there isn’t a telephone wire/Still I wait by the phone/You don’t even write to say goodbye, say goodbye.

I have saved every piece of paper/Like grocery lists and old cards/To-do lists and race scores/So just in case you change your mind and come back/I’ve kept everything safe.

When the two songs are heard side-by-side,  the listener begins to envision an even more collaborative partnership between Ms. Snider and Ms. Worden, in which the vocalist’s pitch-perfect knack for aching melancholy finds a fortuitous friend in the composer’s engrossing, cinematic soundscapes.

But where the heroine of Ms. Worden’s “Gone Away” seems utterly lost in the wake of her beloved’s absence with no real hope of recovering (similar to Cio-Cio San of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly), Ms. Snider’s Penelope longs to be rid of her persistent apparition, and a seemingly strong resolve may well lift the burden.  But ultimately, Penelope is doomed.. In “Baby Teeth, Bones, and Bullets,” the penultimate song, Ms. Worden sings:

Let a wind come, let a wind come/Blow it all away/ Let a rain storm, let a rain storm/ Let a rain swallow me/Can’t you do that?/can’t you do that?/Can’t you hide me God?…Can’t you save me from you?

But why is Penelope’s struggle to be free of the haunting memories utterly futile? We get the answer in “Home.”

Home is where I’m going but never coming/Home is some place I can’t recall….No, no you can’t go home she says, the world/Where do you think you’re going?/We’re not done with you/The world is never done with you.

The world wants her travelers to stay lost/The world swats their eyes as they run through it/She grasps at them, pulling and tugging/She grasps at them.

DM Stith: Sufjan’s Kindred Spirit

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Yes, Sufjan Stevens performed a headlining show at Toronto’s Massey Hall on Wednesday. But there’s another artist deserving of discerning music fans’ attention, and he had a big hand in the Toronto gig’s success.


Sufjan Stevens and DM Stith.


That artist is David Stith, Sufjan Stevens’s friend and Asthmatic Kitty label mate. Also known as DM Stith, he is both a gifted singer-songwriter and an accomplished visual artist, whose work has been featured in cover art for the albums of fellow musicians such as My Brightest Diamond. On this much-anticipated tour, Stith serves both as the opening act and as a member of Stevens’s 10-piece backing band.

As a member of Stevens’s cohort, Stith is more than a complementary fit.  His voice–while similar in timbre to that of Stevens–has a slightly nasal edge, with the ability to switch effortlessly between chest voice and head voice.  When Stevens goes into his falsetto, it’s more noticeable.  Where Stevens has had a softer vocal lilt that can seeem cooly detached somehow (particularly during theIllinoise era), Stith projects a singular instrument of piercing vulnerability.

As a solo artist, Stith presented himself much more than admirably on Wednesday.  His brief four-song set showcased above all his remarkable voice, and his ability to craft songs with a potent emotional core  that swells and grows vivid before the listener’s ears, but somehow is slightly beyond  our earthly grasp.  His music represents something “other.”

While I generally disapprove of making overt, obvious or heavy-handed comparisons between artists, I’ll take the risk here with the hopes of providing a greater context for where Stith finds himself in the current indie singer-songwriter landscape.  Stith’s guitarwork, melodic choices, and vocal phrasing are all similar to that of Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen.  But Rossen almost always sounds timid, like you’d have to beg him to let the song out.  In stark contrast, Stith possesses a quiet presence, but clearly has something to sing about and needs no coaxing to convince him to let it out.

And as a vocalist, Stith has astonishing control.  In its fullness, his voice is as joyously combustible and melismatic as Dave Longstreth of Dirty Projectors.  Stith’s falsetto is stiff competition for Sigur Ros’ Jon Thor Birgisson in terms of sheer ethereal ecstasy.

Compounded by his use of a looping pedal, Stith amassed a veritable chamber choir by stacking his own voice on top of itself in harmonies that evoked a hallucinatory mix of sorrow and hope.  This effect was perfectly exemplified in his performance of “Thanksgiving Moon”:

It’s interesting, though–as I listen back to that clip, he sounds a lot like Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes. With all those comparisons now floating around out there, Stith still sounds distinctly like himself. I would contend that his “otherness” is quite singular. I’d love to hear others’ thoughts on the matter.

Here at the end of this post, however, I do have a definitive conclusion: Like Sufjan, David Stith is a truly gifted songwriter who channels his artistic savvy into heartfelt and sincere expression.


A kindred duo.


Written by winebrick41

October 15, 2010 at 4:51 am

Sufjan Stevens Live at Massey Hall, Toronto 10/13/10

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Here it is–the Sufjan Stevens concert, in review:
  • A quick disclaimer: Before I begin with my recounting of the Sufjan Stevens concert at Massey Hall last night, I must preface it with a little background on how Stevens and his devoted fans have gotten to this point October 13, 2010–the beginning stage of his first real tour in support of his first “real album” (quotes emphasized) since 2005. Proper context is definitely needed in order to understand the importance/implications of the concert. And as you’ll read later in my review, Stevens seems to think the album and tour need to be contextualized for his audience as well.
  • Very special thanks to Richard Mah, a fellow concertgoer who has kindly contributed his  bird’s-eye view photos of the concert from our seats in the gallery for the purpose of this concert review.
  • Also, I’ll be devoting a separate post to DM Stith’s opening set.


Stevens's 2nd tour stop in support of his first "proper" album in 5 years.



Sufjan Stevens is not who we thought he was. We, the general music public and followers of his artistic career, had by and large pegged him as a gentle singer-songwriter with the hushed melodic voice and penchant for writing chamber pop songs with grand orchestrations to embellish his folk-influenced tunes. He was the musician who leapt into the independent music spotlight during the middle of the last decade, captivating listeners-by with the prospect of the impossibly grand delusion of grandeur commonly known as “The 50-State Project.” His goal–to create one album for each of the 50 states in USA–was simple enough to understand, but in practice, it was surely a painstaking process.

Stevens was the songwriter who, after the release of his second “states” album, Come On and Feel the Illinoise in 2005, and the subsequent b-sides record The Avalanche, temporarily set songwriting aside to complete a symphonic song cycle/film for chamber ensemble called The BQE, which was commissioned by the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Subsequently this same Stevens shocked his fans when he revealed on more than one occasion that The BQE project had effectively drained his desire, and perhaps ability to write songs. One notable, somewhat infamous quote from the man himself during a 2009 interview he conducted with fellow musician Shannon Stephens on the Asthmatic Kitty web site is as follows:

I’m at a point where I no longer have a deep desire to share my music with anyone, having spent many years imparting my songs to the public. Although I have great respect for the social dynamic of music—that it should be shared with others, that it brings people together—I now feel something personal is irrevocably lost in this process. Now, while I refuse to act wholly on this impulse (I refuse to take my audience for granted in spite of my mood), I’m still trying to find the value of the song in private. Having spent ten years in private (not sharing your music), can you offer some wisdom on this matter? Does a song have any meaning even it’s not shared?

By the time an album called Run Rabbit Run by the string quartet named Osso– a re-imagining of Stevens’s 2001 electronic song cycle/ode to the Chinese zodiac Enjoy Your Rabbit–was released in the fall of 2009 on Stevens’s own Asthmatic Kitty record label, the once-prolific musician’s future in songwriting was still in serious doubt. But Run Rabbit Run (a collaborative effort between several musicians, composers, and arrangers, commissioned and curated by Bryce Dessner of The National, and sanctioned by Stevens himself) also signaled that the Michigan native created music that aspired to be more than just a collection of catchy songs.

With the release of the nearly 60-minute “EP” All Delighted People and The Age of Adz (pronounced ODDS), his first “proper full-length album” in five years, Stevens demonstrates that he is actually a contemporary composer (of the indie-classical persuasion, if I have to put a label on it, which I don’t, but will for the sake of basic identification) of high order, who happens to use songs as his principal medium. If I recall correctly, Gustav Mahler also picked song cycles as his compositional poison (just a sidenote of interest).

There are those who have followed Stevens since the 50-States Era who seem somewhat dumbfounded, perhaps perturbed at the prospect of The Age of Adz, an electronics-laden fantasy which has been interpreted by some as a huge departure from the acoustic guitar/banjo-driven songs of much of Stevens’s earlier catalog.

I couldn’t disagree more with this opinion. When placed within the larger context of the songwriter’s entire catalog, The Age of Adz is the perfect amalgamation of Stevens’s focused yet grandiose folk-influenced songs and his quirky electronic bliss-outs. Because this is not an album review per se, I will leave it at that.


Massey Hall, dimly lit.



First order of business is the setlist, which was as follows:

  • All Delighted People
  • Heirloom
  • Too Much
  • Futile Devices
  • Age of Adz
  • I Walked
  • Now That I’m Older
  • Vesuvius
  • Get Real Get Right
  • Enchanting Ghost
  • The Owl and the Tanager
  • Impossible Soul
  • Chicago


  • Concerning the UFO Sighting Near Highland, Illinois (Sufjan solo piano)
  • John Wayne Gacy, Jr. (Sufjan solo acoustic guitar)

*If anyone has any corrections  in regards to the setlist that I may have missed, please let me know.


Stevens and band basking in full light.


Stevens opened the set with “All Delighted People,” a nearly 12-minute epic that officially heralded the songwriter’s return to form when it was released this past summer. Immediately, the chills hit me. From its choral a cappella beginning to the earnest emoting of Stevens’s voice, newly imbued with yelps, cracks, and a front-and-center vulnerability (one central lyric plainly states, “I’m still afraid of letting go of choices I’ve made”), to the bombastic collision of razor-sharp strings, screeching electronic distortions, triumphal brass, and the unabashed pounding of drums–this track shows Stevens at the height of his powers, able to cultivate deeply intimate and personal moments alongside uber-epic textures that make even Stevens’s past work seem small in comparison.

The performance itself was imperfect in its delivery, but that in no way detracted from the power, humanity, and immediacy of the work. At one point, the line “I love you from the top of my heart” escaped from Stevens’s mouth with a poignant croak. Meanwhile, countless suns, planets, stars, comets and other nondescript celestial bodies bounded across the scrim via video projection behind the band.

It was clear from the start that Stevens’s focus had gone cosmic, way beyond the quaint close-ups of U.S. state locales and stories of historical interest.

Second on the set was the acoustic guitar-centered “Heirloom.” “This is to lift up your spirits after all that drama,” explained Stevens. It is here that I would like to note perhaps the one weak characteristic of the set. While Stevens, to his credit, courageously focused almost exclusively on new material, he seemed insistent on alternating the more upbeat electronic tunes or loud, grandiose numbers with the quieter songs, so that by the fourth song, “Futile Devices” the patterning of song sequences became repetitive and predictable. That being said, if that’s the only aspect of the concert to take issue with, then ultimately, there’s nothing about which to complain.

In an abrupt change of moods, the band quickly fell into the groove of “Too Much” with exuberance. Here the audience was treated to a live music video of sorts, as a rapid-fire succession of images depicting Stevens and others dancing and rocking out the hipster-chic cool factor.

Thanks to trendaway for this excellent video footage of Stevens and co. performing “Too Much.”


"There's too much riding on that."


By the end of the song, both music and video have devolved into a kind of trance ritual that felt primal and animalistic. Stevens would later relate that “Too Much” was riding on the prospect of love–what he called “the great theme…the great migration of the human heart.”

Indeed the explanatory between-song talks Stevens had with his audience were frequent and heartfelt, all the while seeming to function as exculpatory evidence that the composer was not in the wrong for taking so long to produce new music on a new, more personal theme for himself-love.

Stevens expounded on the overall concept of The Age of Adz:

“The drama queen that I am…I’ve confused heartache with the end of the world. The apocalypse is the end of the heart. Thankfully, the heart is a very strong muscle.”

Title track “The Age of Adz” felt nothing short of prophetic. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to elaborate on what I mean by that. It will have to wait for another post, in which I’ll point out the correlation of the above song and the album for which it is named to a book by Jacques Attali called Noise: The Political Economy of Music.

I will say that the song “Age of Adz” is indicative of the entire album, in that Stevens has reclaimed his familiar backing choruses and festive chamber-band instrumentation, and transported them to a more immediate, jagged and imposing musical landscape. The song is also emotionally brazen: “When I die I’ll rot/But when I live I’ll give it all I’ve got…Gloria/Victoria.”

The live performance of Stevens and company, like the studio performance, is somehow both existential and cosmic, personal and intimate but also infinitely large and overwhelming. The sonic textures are filled to excess with distortion, an utter cataclysm of sounds.

“Vesuvius” started out quietly but with insistence and later builds as static keyboard riffs pierce the chorus at the song’s climax, where recorders lend a provincial yet empowering sense of the human spirit. “Sufjan, follow your heart,” the song implores.

It should be noted that both the thematic content and visual look of both the new album and the resulting tour owe much to Royal Robertson a 20th century sign painter from Louisiana whose lived a tortured life as he succumbed to his all-consuming artistic obsession with the apocalypse, time travel, and alien creatures. Stevens studied the artist and the twisted reality he made for himself, and created The Age of Adz in part as a tribute to his influence. But as Stevens told the Toronto crowd at Massey Hall, Robertson’s story is also about the potential “disease of the imagination.” He dedicated the song “Get Real Get Right” to the deceased visionary artist.


Imagery from The Age of Adz.


Another highlight of the night was “The Owl and the Tanager,” perhaps the most gorgeous, deeply sorrowful song in the Sufjan Stevens catalog (which is saying a lot)

Near the end of the set, Stevens led the band in 25-MINUTE “song cycle” called “Impossible Soul”. In addition to being a frontrunner for most excessive Sufjan song ever, the live rendition last night gave me the opportunity to witness something I never dreamt I would see, hear, or write about: SUFJAN STEVENS USING AUTOTUNE! (it’s also on the recording) But don’t despair–it was fun, and in the context of the song’s indulgent pop aesthetic, it was perfectly appropriate. It seems almost obligatory these days for every recording artist to do at least one song with AUTOTUNE. Hell, if Justin Vernon of Bon Iver can get away with it, so can Stevens.

Before ending the evening’s set with “Chicago,” the only song representing the Illinoise album up to that point, in a heart-to-heart with the concertgoers, Stevens confessed with sincerity and humbleness, “It’s a great privilege to bring my bizarre vision of song and dance to you.”

In response to a resounding and incessant call for an encore, Stevens returned to the stage alone to perform two more favorites from his 2005 breakthrough record Illinoise. “Please forgive me as I cover my own songs,” he entreated the crowd. And the crowd readily obliged him, as he delivered a touching version of “Concerning the UFO Sighting…”


"Concerning the UFO Sighting..."


Somewhat puzzlingly, Stevens ended the night on a dark note, closing with “John Wayne Gacy Jr.” an utterly macabre but startlingly beautiful song about the infamous serial killer. It surprised me that he would choose to have that song be the last thing his fans heard before they walked out into the rainy Toronto night. Perhaps, it was a reminder to both himself and his audience, that in the end, “I am really just like him/ Look underneath the floorboards/For the secrets I have hid.”

Ultimately, I think it was a subtle ego check, a way to put things in perspective. Illinoise and the charming acoustic albums that immediately preceded it seemed to cause an organic response among Stevens’s fans to indulge in the myth of Stevens as the consummate, epic songwriter who could do no wrong and would always continue writing, until each and every U.S. state had an album devoted in its honor. Perhaps we projected unreasonable expectations on the artist, we pegged him as a savior of sorts for indie music, the de facto leader of grandiose, no-stone-unturned pop songs that were exhaustively researched and impeccably written.

Now having rediscovered his compositional voice, Sufjan Stevens seems to be taking personal ownership of his craft, and not hiding behind gimmicky 50-state concept albums (the artist’s own opinion) or third-person accounts. No, this is Stevens, the composer of  beautifully complex, meaningful songs and master of his own creative destiny.


Sufjan Stevens during the encore.


Written by winebrick41

October 14, 2010 at 10:49 am

Toronto Roadtrip/Sufjan Stevens

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The only activity I enjoy more than going to live concerts is taking a roadtrip to see and hear live music out-of-town.  Much time has passed since I’ve done both, so I was totally due for a last-minute, mini-roadtrip.  Tonight, Sufjan Stevens will play the magnificent Massey Hall and Toronto, with singer-songwriter/visual artist DM Stith opening.

Image from Wikipedia user Nephron.

My grandfather used to say that “it’s all in the anticipation.”  That’s only 90% true.  The 10% comprising what actually happens, and how that does or does not live up to said anticipation–well, that’s pretty important too.  I’ve attended a show at Massey Hall before (the incomparable Sigur Ros), but I’ve never seen an official  Stevens show.  I’m pretty sure a screening of The BQE hosted by Stevens himself doesn’t count, I don’t think.

Anyway, a review is definitely forthcoming.  I’m looking forward to it, and I hope you are too.  I won’t go into the details of Stevens’s career or why the gig is special right now, but I’ll hash it out in the upcoming post.

As a really intriguing sidenote, Osso’s 2009 debut release Run Rabbit Run–a collaborative reworking of Stevens’s electronic cycle Enjoy Your Rabbit for string quartet–has become ballet music.  Specifically, the New York City Choreographic Institute (co-founded by New York City Ballet’s Peter Martins) will present a new Justin Peck Ballet at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre in November.  That’s remarkable news, and I just might have to find my way down there for that.  Further proof that great art is great art, no matter what label, genre, or time period it which it finds itself encased.  The glass will be broken sooner or later, and there’s no telling what will happen once the priceless piece gets into the hands of the public at large (metaphorically of course-no actual theft is being advocated here).

Once again, Pitchfork has proven itself to be an excellent source for independent music news, even if I don’t always agree with their reviewers.

Also, I wrote a feature story for The Brooklyn Rail last year about Osso’s album Run Rabbit Run and what the whole creation process was like. You can find that article, “Rabbit REDUX: The Music of Sufjan Stevens for String Quartet” here.

Catch you all after the Toronto gig.

Arcade Fire performing at Toronto's Massey Hall.

Written by winebrick41

October 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm


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