Half an hour before the show and the room glowed red. People trickled in in twos and threes, shedding layers from the cold, lining up to lose quarters to old school pinball machines and congregating at the tables skirting the walls. Bartenders drummed their fingers and wiped already clean counters. Those who arrived alone glued eyes to their phones, trapped in direction-giving and time-of-arrival-estimating. It would be another half hour before openers Lief Hall and Francesca Belcourt began playing, and 90 minutes more until headliners TOPS took the stage. The Montreal natives hit up the Biltmore Cabaret for a frigid Saturday night stop on their tour in support of 2014’s Picture You Staring. Known for their characteristic brand of lo-fi soft rock, TOPS is helmed by vocalist and keyboardist Jane Penny, joined by guitarist David Carriere, drummer Riley Fleck, and the recent addition of Alana DeVito on bass.
Against the white-noise roar of the growing crowd grew the humming, distorted voice of Lief Hall. The Emily Carr graduate creates self-described “dark electronic pop,” that is as haunting as it is beautiful, fittingly having supported Grimes in 2012 as one half of MYTHS. Undercut by cyclical, animalistic beats, Hall layers simple melodies that grow in intensity and ominousness throughout her songs, cut with industrial, glass-like creaks and clicks. Light caught her rings and interrupted the dim, blue fog with silver flashes.
By the time Francesca Belcourt began playing, the floor had filled from stage to sound booth. Her live set is in its infancy – and the audience was brought along on the occasionally cringe-worthy experience of working out its kinks. Belcourt’s songs stand up, as does her vocal talent, but nerves and an apparent lack of a sound-check had us flip-flopping between buried vocals and inaudible backing tracks. It wasn’t for lack of trying – her set was energetic, and the anticipatory excitement of the crowd made them want to dance. Sitting out of sightline on the floor, Belcourt reprimanded the audience for being too loud as she sang a rendition of Justin Bieber’s “I’ll Show You”. We were ready for the headliners.
TOPS’ members took their places, moving snares, reviewing riffs, and checking sound levels – the indie band equivalent to the hum of an orchestral warm up. The lights dimmed as Penny adjusted her microphone, and the crowd quieted, tucking away phones and compressing towards the stage.
While individual songs may not vary widely, the four-piece knows how to ebb and how to flow within their setlist, varying tempo between successive songs. TOPS’ effectiveness lies in their embodiment of such a specific feeling, tapping into nostalgia for the 80s and the light-hearted jangle pop sound shared by contemporaries like Real Estate and fellow Canadian Mac DeMarco (who also happens to be a personal friend of the band). They’ve found their niche – and they are incredibly good at satisfying it. You can feel it in the audience’s reverence and the crush towards the stage; TOPS’ magnetism creates fans that know lyrics and crave physical closeness to the band.
An unnamed new song was a highlight of the set, as the band’s excitement was contagious, the dancing frenetic. Grins were flashed across the stage as Carriere picked a delicate guitar melody and Penny swung her arms in wide circles. The audience calmed to sway to “Sleepwalker”, which was followed by the moody “Anything,” reminiscent of the Twin Peaks soundtrack and released this past September. The crowd was a unified mass of bobbing heads singing along to “Way to be Loved,” outstretched hands catching disco ball beams of peach light. One ‘last’ song, an encore, a cover of Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong”, and a last last song – and it was over.
By 10:50 pm people were spilling into the street, lighting cigarettes and flipping collars against the wind. The tangled crowd dispersed as quickly as it had assembled. TOPS may not have surprised us, but did they really need to? Granted, variety is exciting, uniformity arguably predictable, but the band enchants and lives up to expectations nonetheless. The tempo rode waves from slow dance smoothness to jump-up-and-down pep, and we, the audience, were more than willing to follow along.