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Wednesday, November 26, 2014 
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Hayden
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Live At Convocation Hall
Hardwood
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The formula for the perfect Live Double Album is a tricky one to crack. One standout is Ani DiFranco's Living in Clip, which combines the best moments off one of her tours, and makes apparent the fundamental energy exchange between crowd and performer. Hayden's latest offers a more inverted relationship, where the exchange of energy isn't quite as linear and where the listener has to pay attention real hard to understand the singer/songwriter's interactions with his audience.

For someone who knows and loves Hayden, this album is only icing on the multi-layered cake of his back catalog. Those unfamiliar with the Toronto songwriter's sound may be intrigued, but ultimately confused, by this recording, which juxtaposes an overtly enthusiastic audience (one man even shouts "marry me Hayden!") with a serene, almost completely acoustic and pared-down set. An outsider would wonder if they've missed some inside secret in listening to the crowd go crazy over such an understated performance. As Hayden carefully strips down nearly all of his third album, 2001's Skyscraper National Park, along with a smattering of old favorites and unreleased new songs, he reveals the bare bones, the most intimate breaths that make his music so good.

The setlist of this performance, recorded at the University of Toronto's Convocation Hall in March 2002, reads like an incomplete greatest-hits package, with some of the finest moments from his first two albums, 1996's Everything I Long For and 1998's The Closer I Get, including "Bad As They Seem," "I'm to Blame" and "The Hazards of Sitting Beneath Palm Trees." There are also some fine unreleased numbers, including "I Don't Think We Should Ever Meet," which sounds like an outtake off Tom Waits' debut, 1973's Closing Time.

Since his debut in 1996 Hayden has been moving from his once-trademarked growly sensitivity to a softer, more intimate sound, all the while never losing the feeling and attention to detail that make his lyrics beautiful. So while the songs performed here remain more or less consistently low-key (he admits, after playing "All in One Move" "that's so bizarre, it's like the one part of my show where I work up a sweat"), Hayden manages to hold the listener in a relatively fixed state of attention without showing off or drawing attention to himself. He's got his own formula working for him, a perfect combination of storytelling (both in his lyrics and his endearing between-song banter), musicianship and a gentle onstage awkwardness.

There are no real shocks or surprises on this album; instead a number of more understated delights come through. A sweet cover of Neil Young's "Tell Me Why," with background vocals by Julie Doiron and Howie Beck, flows pleasantly and seamlessly between Hayden's own compositions, though his closing remarks ("fucking Crosby never returned my call anyway") hint at the sly humor that underlies his songs.

The humor reveals itself further with the new song "Woody," which Hayden precedes with a self-admittedly long-winded story about his troublemaking cat of the same name. Without explanation, the song could be interpreted as a ditty sung to a quirky girlfriend, but the preamble lets us know of the glint in Hayden's eye. "Pots and Pans," off 1997's Moving Careful EP, is delivered with such subtle emotion that the listener doesn't know whether to quietly laugh or sigh at "there's a couple up the stairs making noise all the time/ Late at night they bang their pots and their pans/ Oh yeah they're so loud/ Oh well, they're allowed."

Hayden's lyrics usually convey a multifaceted story, with frequently bittersweet, often slightly humorous images, such as the singer teaching a bedridden friend to play guitar ("Between Us to Hold"), or the new song "Holster," where he quietly proclaims to a loved one "If he gets any closer, I'll put on my holster/ Have a showdown with him on your street." The imagery is simultaneously innocent and intense, something more or less unique to Hayden's songwriting.

The pared-down arrangements (with the exception of horns and strings on a couple of numbers) make the performance extremely personal, and the fact that Hayden can make such a passionate audience hang on his every breath is evidence of his power.

This album is a snapshot of Hayden at a point in his career where he easily balances audience intimacy with his burgeoning popularity. His songwriting continues to develop, as do his performing skills. You'll be jealous of those folks who actually caught the show (as I was of my good friends), but if you listen to Live at Convocation Hall with the right attitude, you'll look forward to seeing Hayden in the future (while gaining a fresh perspective on some of his "oldies but goodies").


by Vanessa Meadu




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