Langham Court Theatre


Funnner and the Chantrelles: Robots Versus Ray Charles

The hidden upside to going to little local shows is being steered towards other little local shows. I met the component members of Funnner picking up stage time at Swamp Music 3 and they gave me their business card – that is to say they gave me a mutilated hockey card with FUNNNER scrawled on the back, along with a dismembered doll arm. Invitation or threat? Doesn’t matter, since I respond to both.

Thursday night rolled around and I waltzed into the Phoenix Bar & Grill on Quadra street. After grabbing a pint and a seat a paunchy bald guy leaned over to ask, “Do you know these guys?” Jon Dowdall was, at this point, adjusting the drum machine and taking off his wooden robot costume. I said I sort of did. “They’re kind of weird,” said my interlocutor, who then returned to hockey highlights.

Fair enough. Funnner doesn’t exactly play to the bar scene. They don’t play music so much as they play with music, and they’ve got the skills to play intelligently. Jon, together with Screechin’ Cleetus – going tonight by “Greg Wolfe” – and Aaron Bates from Swamp Music 3 stage, traded seats and instruments from song to song. Overdriven synth squeals harmonized with harmonica? Yes please. Drum machines duelling with drum kits? Double yes please. They even threw together some ad hoc blues rock for my perplexed companion’s sake. Funnner’s set culminated in a sparse snare and bass driven poem about hipsters fleeing from parking garage security. For the sonic gourmands: think sixtoo meets Shellac.

But the real treat? “It was all improvised. All of it.” says Jon. “We had no time to practice!” When I went home I put my Nihilist Spasm Band albums on repeat and went to bed satisfied that the noise music faith was being kept. That said, what Funnner’s set lacked was a show – the sheer diversity of styles and sounds made things feel very much like a gallery or a toybox. The talent of the band aside, I’m still not quite sure what Funnner is. If you’re a novelty-addicted art weirdo like me, though, then this doesn’t matter and you’ll be hard pressed to find bettter than Funnner. Except possibly Hundytaou, with whom Funnner might share a stage with at the Ministry of Casual Living in a few weeks.

If it’s a capital-S Show that you want, however, then look no further than the Chantrelles. They formed in September as four Victoria Conservatory students with a shared love of motown. Thursday night was only their second “official” show – house parties don’t quite count in the eyes of the group’s mastermind, Erin Dwire – though you’d never have guessed given their bow ties, sequined dresses and undeniable charisma.  They were par for the 8-piece mo-town course, but whenever you see a saxophonist (Jake Jenne in this case) use his half-full pint glass as a mute then you know you’re watching a band that knows showmanship like its scales.

The Chantrelles played all of motown’s best: “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Heard it Through the Grapevine”… drummer Adam Gyllenhall even stepped out from behind the kit to prove to us all that he was a soul man with, well, James Brown’s “Soul Man”. After a few songs the bar got the hint and crowded the floor to dance. All that was missing was a few decibels of guitar, already in the back of motown but swamped for the first half of the Chantrelles set, and a piano. The Contours and Ray Charles lose just a little something when the rounder, fatter tones of synth fill in for the punch of real strings. Alias Powell’s bass, which he describes as “the diesel engine of motown,” filled in as the star instrument of the night and Shanna Dance’s gospel-calibre voice led both band and bar until the last swoop of piano rang out. 50- and 20-somethings alike cheered for encores. Not bad for show number three.

Two more different acts could not have shared a stage. Between Funnner’s shyly maniacal newness and the Chantrelles classy, confident hit parade there’s not much common ground other than a love of music, plenty of friends and a shortage of fans. Let’s do something about that! There’s the aforementioned but speculative Funnner show, of course, and The Chantrelles are booked at Felicitas at UVic for March 26th. I’m definitely planning to peek in on both, but these are two acts who are better off being heard, not read about. See you there?

– CF