Review by Laura Wiebe, Live photos by Adam Wills
Katatonia, the Swedish kings of melodic gloom, are enjoying a couple of anniversaries in 2011 (as you may already know – see Katatonia: Twenty Years Down the Road). To celebrate, the band is playing a little more than a handful of headlining shows on the nights when current tour mates (and fellow Swedes) Opeth have decided to take some time off. Hellbounders Adam Wills and Laura Wiebe caught the fourth of seven such gigs scheduled in North America, crossing the border into New York State to see how our southerly neighbours would welcome one of our favourite bands.
After a delicious dinner at The Owl House and a little downtime we wandered out into downtown Rochester to find The Montage. Turning onto a couple of mostly deserted side streets, it was reassuring to see the neon glow of the venue’s vintage marquee and a small mass of black-shirted bodies coagulating around the lit doorway. Getting ourselves and our equipment inside was not nearly as smooth as we’d hoped, but we had everything settled just in time for Katatonia to walk out and play the opening chords of “Dispossession.” While Adam squeezed his way a few steps toward the front with his camera (it was a small room and a small crowd so we were already close), I moved to a more central location, seeking the best angle for listening and viewing combined.
It was Katatonia’s first time in Rochester and they seemed genuinely pleased to be there, if not in the city specifically, then at least on the small riser before us. They greeted their fans warmly, and frontman Jonas Renkse took a moment or two between every few songs (often during a guitar exchange) to address us, and even joke a little. “Isn’t that rock and roll?” he asked, after explaining the band’s decision to not to take any nights off. On the whole, the melancholy atmosphere the band’s music tends to evoke gave way to something more light-hearted, lit through with a sense of ease and enjoyment. To put it plainly, most people seemed to be having a helluva lot of fun both on and in front of the stage.
We were treated to one solid set roughly two hours long: 2001’s Last Fair Deal Gone Down played straight through plus album tracks or B-sides from every other major marker in Katatonia’s official musical history. The performances were pretty faithful all around to the original spirit of each release, though in some cases (like “For My Demons”) the arrangements were slightly adapted for live delivery. The intro to “Don’t Tell a Soul” featured an unexpected jazzy swing, but beyond that, changes were mostly slight shifts in tone or attitude – Anders Nyström’s leads sounding a little more “heavy metal” than usual, or Renkse’s voice sounding more penetrating and clear (youthful?). The heavy metal vibe was echoed and extended by second guitarist Per Eriksson, who, along with bassist Niklas Sandin, would interact with the crowd and even headbang at times. And Renkse, uncharacteristically, spent a fair bit of time away from his mic stand, including a few minutes singing beside a guitar-playing Nyström for a while.
There was no encore. Highlights scattered throughout the set took the place of end-of-the-night treats. Songs like “Teargas” and “Clean Today” had me singing, but a chorus of Kata-lovers sang along to nearly every track. The few moments we spent with Tonight’s Decision were among my favourites (I had never heard “For My Demons” live before), but two tracks where Nyström and Renkse switched places were a close second, with Anders’ growls taking us back to Dance of December Souls and Brave Murder Day. Oddly, to me at least, it was “July” off The Great Cold Distance that finally drove a small horde into a frenzy, inspiring a short-lived mosh pit and a couple of violent flailers who looked poised to hurt someone (I was hoping, I admit, that they’d quickly knock each other out).
For their final song, Katatonia brought us back to the band they are now, playing “Forsaker” off 2010’s Night is the New Day. But even then they remained slightly tongue-in-cheek and amusingly nostalgic, sneaking in a short homage to Entombed’s “Demon” before striking their closing chords. The band members shook extended hands and, with linked arms, gave us a bow, reminding us that it’s all performance but performance impossible without and only a few steps away from the crowd.
As the lights came on, Adam asked me if I was happy (I had loudly expressed some dissatisfaction after Katatonia’s last Toronto show). I sheepishly remarked that I would’ve liked to hear more from Viva Emptiness, but it was a reluctant, not even half-hearted complaint, a tiny regretful note from a picky fan. After two hours of amazingness – set list and delivery both – I had no grounds for complaint. It’s just that I would have willingly listened long into the night.