Niagara Takes Toronto: An Evening at Bar Orwell
Four Niagara-based bands took to Toronto’s Bar Orwell on November 26th for an evening that showcased their local scene. The event was organized by Routine Exploits, an arts and culture label based in St. Catharines, and staked their claim on the whole affair with a branded stamp. The lineup featured a variety of groups from the surrounding area, including Turtle Pleasure, The Moonlight Circus, Lady Marge and Sunshine Express. This eclectic blend of styles made for a night full of pleasant surprises and great tunes.
Turtle Pleasure kicked things off in a much more mellow way than expected. From the very beginning, they asked the crowd to reflect on their lives and relationships, and even invited them to close their eyes before starting to create a meditative soundscape. Having arrived early and watched some of the soundcheck, I kept waiting for them to launch into something noisier. Though this did not happen, I wasn't disappointed and quickly became transfixed. Supported by ethereal guitars and vocal samples that were recorded live, their set was immediately transcendent. Their seamless flow was only interrupted by the ongoing chatter of patrons and entrance of latecomers in their winter coats—which, by no fault of the band, detracted from the ambience they were creating. I got the sense that what they were playing was organic, and went in whichever direction it wanted to, almost like ambient jazz. As they continued, there was a steady addition of new sounds, keeping things consistently engaging. After a while, the first “song” faded out and something slightly more jarring was introduced. After finding a steady boom clap rhythm, there was an undercurrent of something adjacent to subway rattle, birdsong, and ominous horror movie-esque sounds. While it seems strange on paper, Turtle Pleasure's ability to blend this variety of sounds in a way that made sense was impressive. They were quiet but mighty.
The Moonlight Circus made an impact the moment they stepped on stage. From the flowers hung haphazardly off the end of the bass guitar to the glitter and eyeliner that donned their faces. In stark contrast to the previous band, they were immediately loud and full of distortion, taking up space and demanding people be quiet and pay attention. With catchy melodies and forceful riffs accompanied by snappy drums, they instantly had the crowd invested. Interestingly, each member was given a chance to sing throughout the set, allowing everyone a moment in the limelight.
While each song had their merits, my favourite was “Flamingo Park”, which was bright and stayed stuck in my head even after the night had ended. I think the biggest highlight was their cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” during which they invited a random person from the crowd to play bass. After quickly teaching the stranger the chords, they launched into the song with a lot of fervor and not a lot of room onstage to express any of it. While the song started as something recognizable, it quickly dissolved into a violent mess of chords and distortion, with the crowd clapping and egging them on to keep going. In a strange way, this humanized the band, and broke the albeit small barrier between them and the crowd. Their melodies were infectious and their presence was abundant, bringing liveliness and energy that would cement itself in the mind of everyone crammed into the small room.
If I had to pick a favourite, Lady Marge would be it. The mostly shaggy-haired quartet was clearly popular with the crowd, their presence causing a fanclub to seemingly materialize and appear in the front row for their set. This was cemented with the call and response “When I say Lady, you say Marge,” which got even the most bored looking of patrons excited and curious about what was to come. While I’m not entirely sure what to describe them as, they certainly had a little bit of a country twang to them that I really enjoyed.
From the first note, everyone was hooked on their infectious sound. It was immediately clear that they were having the time of their lives on stage, with a smile somehow being audible in the vocals. During the set, the floor shook several times because of people dancing and jumping. This was combined with heartbreaking slower songs that had everyone halfway through dialling their respective exes. Their clear prowess as musicians shone as they combined jaw dropping guitar solos with drums that made me regret ever quitting the instrument. This was made clear when, due to time constraints, they flawlessly combined the end of “Get What You Need” into the middle of “Mercy” , creating a brand new experience without even having rehearsed it first. If you see me appearing alongside their horde of adoring fans, don’t be surprised.
Last but certainly not least was Sunshine Express, who’s alien-adjacent sound was an interesting way to end the night. Though the crowd had thinned and the chatter had started up again at this point, I was glad to have stayed for this final act. Though they were short on time due to curfew, their mix of autotune, acoustic guitar and synths was fascinating and incredibly clever.
This, in combination with neon makeup, glitter and flashing light created an otherworldly ambience that I really enjoyed. Though they were without a drummer for this performance, I think the quieter version of their set worked in their favour, as well as allowed them to play after the cutoff. Despite this, they still performed with admirable intensity, emphasizing their seniority and underscoring their strong lyricism. I was surprised by their ability to create something that felt simultaneously otherworldly and very modern, and left me wondering how they could have come up with this unique style in the first place. Though it was not what I expected when I first saw their name as a part of the lineup, I was pleasantly surprised and found myself getting wrapped up in everything that they were doing. If I had to pick a soundtrack to be abducted by extraterrestrials to, the name Sunshine Express would absolutely be number one on that list.
Overall, I really enjoyed getting to hear these bands live so close to home. Each group brought something exciting to the lineup, and created a really great vibe for the evening. Though I went in not knowing what to expect in the slightest, I emerged a fan of all of these bands. The intimate venue made it easy and comfortable to enjoy every moment and really get lost in the music. My only qualm is that I wish they'd play nearby more often!